by Ramos

 Rating: PG

Summary: A call for help from the New Orleans Thieves・ Guild takes Cyclops, Storm, Rogue, and Logan to the Big Easy, where things are not as easy as they seem.

Disclaimer: These characters are the property of Marvel and Twentieth Century Fox. I make no profit from their use.

Author's Note 1: Author's note: I have envisioned a brown-haired Christian Kane as Gambit (Lindsey from Angel) and Marc Blucas as Joshua (Riley, from BtVS).

Author・s Note 2: PLEASE READ THIS - I began this story in August, long before the events of September 11th. I never had any idea that real life would find an echo in this story. I can only tell you, honestly, that I really wish it hadn't.

Chapter 1

A young woman picked her way along the rutted dirt road, hopping clumsily over the muddy spots. This late at night, even the crickets were falling silent among the tall pines that clustered thickly in resistance to civilization・s encroachment. So intent was she on negotiating her path over the uneven ground that she gave a startled gasp when the large man stepped out of the trees and into her path.

Flannel clad and smelling of beer, he grinned at her wide-eyed fear. The designer jeans and salon haircut belied his redneck image. "Watcha doin' out here, honey?" he drawled. The faintest hint of white ghosted from his mouth in the cool evening..

"Um, ma car," she stammered, gesturing back down the track to the distant blacktop. "It just up and quit on me, and when I saw all the tire tracks, I figured y'all must be up here huntin' or sumthin'." One small hand flitted nervously at the shotgun in his grip. "I figured maybe one of you boys might give me a ride.・ Her soft southern accent trailed off, and she smiled nervously and shrugged. The big man didn't miss what the shrug did to her cleavage under the tight scoop- necked shirt.

"I think maybe we could help you out." His eyes traveled down the white shirt to the black leather pants and back up to the odd streak of white at her widow's peak. Must be a new fashion statement, he thought. "Honey, the guys are gonna just be thrilled to meet you," he said. A nasty grin revealed the even result of rather expensive orthodontia work. He slung the shotgun in one elbow and reached out for her with the other hand. She stepped back, and his expression turned menacing. "Come on."

The woman turned away from him, and for half a second he thought he might get the fun of chasing her through the woods. He was totally unprepared for her to spin back, and never even saw the boot that slammed into the side of his head. He dropped the shotgun and staggered. Trying to keep his balance, he was completely unable to fend off the hands that grabbed the front of his flannel shirt. A knee flashed into his groin, then his belly. He was already collapsing when the iron grip smashed his head down onto her rising knee.

Rogue, who had long since ceased to think of herself as the helpless southern belle she'd been raised to become, slid the shotgun into the brambles. A man dressed in black leather, just as tall as her victim but runner lean, eased up beside her. One hand held out a jacket, a twin to his own. Under a ruby-lensed visor, a quick grin flashed in appreciation of her economical assault. A beautiful, white-haired, mocha-skinned woman joined them, followed by a younger woman with a merry glint in her Asian eyes, and a tall, sandy-haired young man, all of them in black. In moments, Rogue's white shirt was zipped up in the concealing black leather uniform of her team, and she ghosted after them in a stealthy jog.

In the small clearing further up the dirt track, half a dozen trucks and an occasional battered sedan were parked in a semi-circle under the edges of the trees. A weathered bunkhouse and cabin sat side by side, framing the open area. A handful of men lounged about, talking idly and poking the dying remains of a large fire. Beer bottles and cans littered the trampled grass around them, and occasional their bawdy laughter punctuated the night.

Cyclops paused in the narrow space between the two buildings as he studied the situation. A bulb harsh light over the cabin door threw harsh yellow light towards the grassy alley, but left the shadows all the darker where he stood, his shoulders flat against the weathered wood. He could hear voices coming from the small windows in the bunkhouse wall and he estimated at least five more men were playing cards within. A wooden plaque on the back door read ・Humans Only,・ but he spared it no attention.

He gave a hand signal, and Storm and Jubilee faded back, circling around the perimeter to the far side of the larger building. Rogue stayed several feet away, watching rear guard. Cyclops waited until he picked up a flicker of movement on the edge of the clearing, then gave Bobby a nod. The younger man held out his hands, and a haze of white frost and cold streamed to the old screen door on the back of the cabin. The wood creaked and popped as the intense cold and ice sheeted it, encasing the doorway in a barrier that would require significant effort to breach. Another hand gesture and the two followed their leader, crouching under the light and the windows as they crept to the front edge of the bunkhouse wall. Finally, reaching up, Cyclops made a slight adjustment to his visor.

A mighty beam of red light streaked across the clearing, hitting one of the trucks and causing it to blow up in a ferocious explosion. The men around the fire scrambled to their feet as a second truck exploded, the quiet conversations becoming disconcerted yells and ineffective curses. Streaks of sparkling light and coils of multi-colored plasma from the opposite direction sent the bewildered group running for cover.

A whipping wind sprang from nowhere as more men spilled out of the cabin and the bunkhouse. Fast food wrappers and other debris joined with dust and dried leaves, forcing the few men who had not run to shield their faces. Storm hovered several feet off the ground, arms spread wide, her eyes pure white as a gale- force wind knocked moresome of the men off their feet. A few hardier souls struggled against the elements, but the rest hugged the ground and attempted to crawl away from the onslaught.

Cyclops sent several more blasts into the trees and then one into the fire, the explosive force sending burning debris and hot coals showering down. Bobby the Iceman sprayed snow and cold on several of the larger smoldering chunks, freezing them to the wooden veranda of the bunkhouse. Rogue sprinted for the door of the cabin, with Cyclops right behind. A shocked man in a denim shirt and baseball cap belatedly tried to intercept her, but failed to see her large shadow. Cyclops quickly overwhelmed him with several well placed punches, annoyed and not a little anxious at the delay in backing Rogue up. He entered the cabin in a rush, glancing at the overturned table, scattered cards and chips from the interrupted game. An unconscious man lay on the dirty braided rug. A gangly teenage boy with a bad complexion charged him from the kitchen, only to be twisted around and redirected out the open door and into the yard. A quick check over the kitchen pass-through's counter for more opposition revealed only the accumulated dishes of men who considered ・roughing it・ a license for squalor.

The front door was equipped with an old but serviceable heavy wooden bar that he rammed shut, leaving him the luxury to turn and locate his teammate. A hallway led off the main room, and Rogue emerged from one of the doorways and immediately tried another closed door. This one was locked, but gave way as she dropped back a step and gave it a strategic kick. Several large splinters flew as the door crashed open.

Scott was directly behind Rogue and grabbed the broken doorframe to avoid slamming into her as she paused just inside the doorway. Huddled in the corner of the sparse room was a small form sitting on a bare army surplus cot. The gray fur on his arms blended into the scratchy gray woolen blanket he clutched around him. Huge eyes stared out of a paler gray face. Small, inarticulate sounds came from his throat has he watched the two approach.

"It's O.K., son," Cyclops said appeasingly, holding his hands out. "We're here to help you." The child watched them advance another few steps, then suddenly bolted over the end of the bed, but a heavy chain rattled as it pulled the child up short of the corner. He was chained to the wall.

"Bastards," muttered Scott.

Rogue knelt slowly beside the boy, talking gently, her southern accent more pronounced as she tried to soothe him. "It's alright, honey. We're gonna to take you home. We're gonna take you to your momma."

The child looked up at Rogue, then to Scott, with an expression of slowly dawning hope.

Outside, a lone holdout finally staggered forward in the wind, trying to point a large pistol at Storm. She watched him struggle, then gazed upward. A bolt of lightning struck the ground in front of him, and the force of the discharge tossed him up and out.

The windstorm died, and Jubilee pushed her messy dark hair out of her face. "Stormy, you got style," she commented.

"Thank you, Jubilee," she replied in her measured English tones. Together, the two women crossed the empty yard to join Bobby Drake. The young man assumed a pitcher・s stance, then formed another snowball in his bare hands and lobbed it the burning truck, obviously enjoying the sizzle as the cold orb hit the hot metal.

Inside the cabin, a flash of red severed the chain. The child stared at it in disbelief, then at Scott's outstretched hand. He slowly put his grubby, furry, fully human-shaped hand in the man's and let himself be drawn to stand upright. Cyclops gave him an encouraging smile. The child smiled back. He offered the same small smile to Rogue, then looked beyond the two adults and suddenly shrieked in fear.

Reacting instinctively, Scott grabbed the child and whisked him up off the floor as a large Rottweiler stalked into the room. Its growl rose and fell, then abruptly shifted into a flurry of barking as it lunged at the three of them. Rogue grabbed the edge of the metal framed cot, spinning it on its leg and into the dog's path. Quickly she grabbed the blanket and snapped it in the air. The distraction worked for only seconds. Scott fingered his visor with one hand while trying to keep the boy up high with his other arm, desperately maneuvering for a shot. The dog lunged again, ignoring the flapping fabric and biting Rogue・s forearm. Viciously it shook and tore at her. Its comparable mass jerked her across the floor and forced Scott to hesitate. He called out a warning to her and managed to get a shot, but it merely scorched the wall.

Abruptly, the dog froze. It's eyes locked with Rogue's. Above its white teeth the veins stood boldly against the suddenly gray gums, echoing the condition of Rogue・s face as her features twisted in pain and shock. A gasp came from her, met by a sad whine from low in the dog's chest as its grip loosened. It fell to the ground, twitching heavily for several long moments, then grew deathly still.

"Rogue!" said Scott urgently, reaching out for her arm. He did not touch her, but the movement let her tear her eyes from the corpse and inspect the damage. Her leather sleeve was badly torn, exposing her pale arm and deep bloody wounds seeping heavily. Tearing a piece from the ruined blanket she wrapped it around her arm and followed her team leader out of the silent room. Outside, Storm and the younger team members greeted them with some relief.

・Let・s go,・ Cyclops ordered, still carrying the boy.

Jubilee gave the bloody rag around Rogue・s arm a long look. ・You okay, sweetie?・ she asked.

Rogue・s white strands bobbed as she nodded. ・I・m fine. Don・t worry, I・m not gonna start sniffing anybody・s butt or nothing.・

・How about growling?・ Bobby asked. He ducked from the glares he received on all sides.

・What? We already got one of those.・

"Let's get out of here." urged Scott. They walked away, leaving various fires burning in their wake. Not a single person opposed them.


Tendrils of heavy smoke swirled lazily around the afternoon patrons of a small corner bar. The occasional ・chuck・ sound of balls hitting each other came from the pool tables in the back room. The inevitable TV was barely audible, and a newscaster read the news without enthusiasm.

"Three days after being kidnapped from his family home, nine-year-old mutant Tommy Robertson is back with his family. Details of his return remain sketchy. The boy・s mother will only say that "friends" helped him escape from his captors. She does say she plans to send the boy to a place where he'll be safe, but refuses further comment.

The group accused of kidnapping the mutant, a local chapter of Humanity・s Champions, claim they were attacked by agents of the National Security Agency using rocket launchers and explosives. A spokesman for the NSA called this claim ludicrous.

The spokesman for Humanity・s Champions insists that the local chapter exceeded its authority, reiterating that the organization is dedicated to non-violent changes. The head of the organization, Franklin Pierce, was unavailable for comment. Local members could face charges of kidnapping and civil rights violations."

A man wearing a battered leather jacket sat at the bar, dashing what was left of a large cigar into the ashtray in front of him. Almost as if it were against his will, a slow, feral grin grew from one corner of his mouth to the other. Reaching into his pocket, he stood up and threw a bill on the ring-stained counter.

"Headin' home?" inquired the barkeeper.

The man paused for only a moment. "Yup."

Chapter 2

 Thin streaks of light played through the tall pines, highlighting wisps of fog and crystal dew on the devastated clearing. The damp grass showed dark footsteps behind two men as they walked between the hulking remains of burnt out pickup trucks. The first man was just above medium height, lean framed, with a full shock of unruly hair gone white with age. His eyes burned with anger and with the fervor of an old time religious leader, bringing to mind preachers like John Brown. His clean-shaven lips curled in distaste as he entered the cabin and viewed the remains of the scattered poker game and other debris. The other man, taller and broader, younger, followed silently as a shadow behind him.

At the last room on the right down the hall, the older man stalked towards the abbreviated chain hanging from a hasp in the wall. His eagle-sharp gaze noted the melted remnants of the last link. Slowly, methodically, he took in the overturned army cot, the scorched wall, and the fallen guard dog. The torn blanket on the floor caught his attention, and he poked at it with the toe of his boot.

・Come,・ he snapped. Crouching with his hand reaching down to stroke the dog・s soft black ear, the shadow froze, then rose to his feet and followed his leader as faithfully as the hound lying dead on the floor might have.


Logan gunned the motorcycle up the winding country road. Overhanging trees on either side speckled the narrow two-lane blacktop with sunshine and shadows. The wind whipped his hair into its preferred shape, and his fierce grin simply begged for a large bug to hit it at full speed.

Last year he'd finally relinquished Scott・s beloved motorcycle and bought a vintage Harley with the salary Xavier insisted on paying him. The black monstrosity got him around and then got him to work. It was also a hell of a lot of fun to ride, but a special place remained in his affections for the little red nitrous oxide button on Cyke's machine. Uneasy feelings still cropped up about holding a steady job, but being an X-man was hardly a nine-to-five proposition and it was certainly more interesting than beating up truckers and red necks.

He noted the white stone pillars flanking the turn off ahead. Reluctantly he geared down, putting his cigar in his mouth to free his hand. Braking and turning smoothly, the bike stopped in front of the security intercom system, its engine idling loudly. Black metal bars on the gate in front of him striped the view of the white gravel drive. He preferred this side entrance; it was almost hidden, compared to the delivery entrance, and lacked the ostentatious grandeur of the front drive.

・I・m sorry,・ said a familiar voice, just a few fifths higher than neuter. ・This is a private educational facility. All deliveries・・

Logan took the cigar from his mouth and dry spit a fragment of tobacco off his lip. ・Codename: Wolverine,・ he interrupted.

The voice cut off. ・Password?・

・Beer chaser.・

・That password has now expired. Please choose another password.・

He growled at the intercom, irritated.

・Please choose another password.・ Cerebro ran the security system, among many other things, and had far more patience than he did.

・Cats suck.・

・Password accepted. Welcome home.・ The gates opened automatically, then closed behind him as the motorcycle roared up the gravel drive to Xavier・s School for the Gifted.

The huge Georgian style mansion gleamed white in the sunlight, the pattern in the circular paddock showing starkly next to the cool shade of the open garage doors. Logan heaved the Harley onto its kickstand and dismounted, stretching his back with a satisfying accompaniment of cracks and pops.

The side door opened, and he smiled at the gorgeous redhead coming out of the house. ・Welcome home, Logan.・ She greeted him with a kiss on the cheek, the flowing white of her loose cotton sundress brushing his leg.

・Hey, Jeannie.・ Logan hoisted his duffel and gave her a one-armed squeeze, only slightly awkward as he maintained a respectful distance. A smirk crossed his face. ・Hey, lookit, somebody got fat!・

Jean Grey-Summers rolled her eyes. ・Why do men seem to think that・s so damn funny?・ she asked, rubbing a self-conscious hand over her gently curved belly.

・You look beautiful, Jean. Really, I mean it.・ Logan・s voice was sincere.

・Thank you.・ Jean could only smile the same proud, happy way pregnant women always had.

She tucked her hand around his arm and they walked around to the front of the mansion. The cigar was unceremoniously stubbed out in the sand-filled concrete urn by the door.

・How did your trip go?・

He shrugged one shoulder. ・Fine. Ran into an old friend.・ The sarcasm in his voice would have tipped her off, even if she hadn・t picked up the thought from the surface of his mind.

・Sabretooth?・ she asked. ・And?・

・Same as always. We kicked the snot out of each other, then took off to lick our wounds.・ He looked around at the empty grounds and silent basketball court. ・Where・re all the kids?・

"Those who have ties are still home for the summer. Most of the rest have gone camping with Scott and Ororo."

"How's the Prof?"

"He's fine."

"Good." He paused only slightly. "Rogue home?"

"Yes. I made her go outside and get some sun. No one else is around, so it should be safe." Together they went up the sweeping stairs to the second floor, his hand automatically under her elbow in a gesture from another century as she climbed the steps with her unaccustomed weight.

・We opened your room when you called yesterday. Everything should be just as you left it.・

Jean held the door for him, let him enter and place his bag on the bed. She tilted her head to one side, watching him circle the space the same as he had the first night she・d shown him to his room. A mixture of amusement and affection warmed her smile. ・I have some things to finish up. Call me if you need anything.・ She left the door open behind her.

・Thanks, Jeannie,・ he called after her.

Logan hung his jacket in the closet, the empty hangers jingling beside it. The only clothes in the spacious recess were a few pairs of pants, something in a dry-cleaners・ bag, and a heavy robe. The duffel was dumped unceremoniously down the laundry chute, bag and all, save for a few items. A handful of change and his keys went in the dish on his dresser. The seldom-used shaving kit was slapped down beside the sink.

Fishing a new bar of soap from the cabinet, he stripped off the sleeveless undershirt and threw it at the floor, where it landed under the previously used chute. He needed a shower and shave in the worst way. The top dresser drawer held a few clean shirts. Grabbing one, he shut the drawer again.

Movement through the softly blowing curtains caught his attention, and he pulled the gauzy fabric out of his way to peer out the window. The young woman on the terrace below was going through kickboxing katas, her movements swift and focused. Perspiration gleamed on her pale skin, already starting to redden with unaccustomed exposure. The bicycle shorts and sports bra were utilitarian but revealed long, well-defined muscles, and did nothing to disguise a figure that was barely short of breathtaking. Her dark brown hair, the pure white streak startling in contrast, was fastened back in a thick tail and swung wildly with her aggressive movements.

Logan・s face was impassive as he watched, completely lost in thought. Finally, he stirred, blinking. He glanced down at the clean shirt in his hands as though wondering how it had gotten there, took one last look out the window, then turned back to the bathroom.


Two hours drive northwest of Xavier・s School lay a small mountain, one of many in the area. It・s youth far behind it, geologically speaking, the rolling landscape had once been a resort for city people to escape the heat of summer. Never as popular as the Catskills, the resort was now an accumulation of ramshackle cabins, the painted walls peeling and drafty, the roofs falling down after years of neglect.

Surrounded by acres of forest and the occasional small farm, the old resort was an ideal place to take a dozen mutant kids camping. One need never explain to the guy in the next campsite over why one of your kids was green, another had cat-like eyes, and two of them had tails. And if the property never showed up on Charles Xavier・s personal property list on April 15th, well, neither did the sleek black jet in the hanger under his house.

A small accumulation of twigs and dry grass sat on a bare circle of earth scraped into the remains of campfires burned earlier. The small adolescent stared at it intently, hunched over her knees, then took a deep breath and tried again. Scott Summers was aware of the handful of other kids gathered in a circle around them, but his attention was on the child as she concentrated on the tinder piled in front of her. At last, a small tendril of smoke rose from the grass, delicately wafting in the breeze. One of the older kids gave a whoop, unfortunately breaking the creator・s concentration.

・That was great, Casey!・ Scott encouraged, before she realized the smoke had died. ・You・re getting much better.・ Ororo clapped, and a few of the others joined in. The girl looked sheepish from the praise, but pleased.

・Lemme try again,・ she demanded, but Scott brushed her sweaty bangs off her face and shook his head.

・No, not today. You・re putting too much of a drain on your powers. You need to give it a break.・

・You light it, Mr. Summers!・ The kids were entirely enthusiastic, and Ororo Munroe joined in, acting just as obnoxious as the kids half her age.

・All right, all right!・ He lifted his hands in surrender. ・Back up, everyone.・ The kids retreated to a safer distance under their other teacher・s urgings. Scott checked that everyone was far enough back, then dialed his visor・s control and let loose a mild beam to the squared stack of firewood waiting in the pit. Within seconds, it was engulfed in flames, whooshing high in the waning sun. The kids cheered with appreciation.

・Showoff,・ Ororo accused him, grinning. He could only shrug in mock humility. ・Okay, go find a stick for your hotdogs and marshmallows!・ she ordered, then had to step lively to avoid the rushing horde of teenagers. ・I want everyone back here before it gets dark!・

Scott noticed Casey staring at the leaping flames, and put his hand on her shoulder, kneeling beside her. ・What・s the matter?・

・I couldn・t do it. How come I could burn down my own house, but I can・t light a tiny little campfire?・ The frustration and anxiety in her voice was to be expected. She・d been at Xavier・s School for only a short time, and was having a difficult adjustment period.

・Casey, you・re very young still. You・re ten, right?・ The girl nodded. ・My powers didn・t even manifest until I was a teenager. You・ve got some growing to do, and so do your powers. Give yourself some time, okay?・

The police report on Casey・s first manifestation, the complete destruction of her home, had originally been attributed to a fight between her parents. The couple had a history of violent confrontations, and the outburst that night had been over the top. The insurance investigator had been thorough enough to track down the real cause, but of course the policy had not covered destruction due to mutant powers.

・How come you wouldn・t let me keep trying?・

Scott put both hands on her shoulders, giving her a small shake. ・It・s not because I don・t think you can do it. I just don・t want you overextending yourself. Do you feel shaky, like you・re going to throw up?・ (Please, not on me, he thought.) The girl nodded. ・You can use your energy reserves up too fast, especially at this early age. It・s called ・burning out.・ I・ve done it, and I was really sick for a while. It・s not any fun, I'm telling you.・

Casey thought about it for a moment. ・What about Miss Rogue? I mean, she sucks energy in, right? So she couldn・t ever burn out, could she? And what about Mr. Drake? Would he be able to catch a cold from all that ice?・ Fully diverted from her own failure, the questions kept tumbling out.

Scott threw a pleading look at Ororo, who simply crossed her arms and waited for an answer, enjoying his predicament.

・I don・t know, Casey.・ Scott finally got a word in. ・There are a lot of things about being a mutant that we don・t know. That・s why we・re all here, right? To learn?・ She nodded, staring up at him with her big blue eyes full of speculation, then skipped off to find a stick on which to cook her dinner.

Scott groaned as he got to his feet. ・You・re a cruel woman, ・Ro.・

The white haired woman only chuckled. ・Think of it as practice, 'Daddy.'・


Hours later, Logan rolled to a sitting position on his bed and scruffed his fingers through his hair. After a shower and a change of clothes, he・d stretched out on the bed for just a moment, and it was a telling sign that he・d crashed and slept for hours. Usually his healing factor would let him stay awake for days on end, but eventually even it gave up and let him sleep like a dead man.

The window was now black with night, and the clock on his nightstand told him it was almost ten in the evening. His bedroom door was shut, meaning someone had come and checked on him. That his door had been closed without waking him was another good indication of his fatigue; normally, the sound of anyone even breathing outside his door was enough to bring him out of a sound sleep.

He made his way through the luxuriant halls of the mansion, his ambling gait a far cry from his first panicked reconnoiter. He paused outside the professor・s office, hesitating when he heard several more voices than he expected. After a moment, he realized the Japanese accents were coming from a phone line. Sliding against the doorframe for a quick glimpse, he saw the large computer monitor displaying a group of somber-suited gentlemen and women grouped at a table. The Professor and Jean were in the midst of a video conference call with people who were just starting their workday.

Logan continued down the grand hallway, casually inspecting the artwork and photographs hung on the fine wooden paneling. Here and there he recognized his teammates in the photos. In one, a young Scott Summers was accepting a trophy of some kind from a geek in a lab coat. Another had Xavier shaking hands with an obvious political bigwig. A formal looking document lay on the table behind Xavier・s shoulder, and each man held a pen in his left hand.

Moving on, Logan paused at two more. The first had been added since the last time he left. In it, Charles Xavier sat smiling proudly in his wheelchair. Crouched on either side of him were Rogue and a young woman Logan recognized as Rogue・s roommate, Jubilee. Both were wearing black commencement gowns. While Rogue wore her usual self-composed smile, Jubilee・s classic Chinese features did nothing to mitigate the pure mischief in her eyes as she reached behind the Professor・s head to flip Rogue・s mortarboard. As she fended off her friend, only the word ・University・ showed on the black diploma folder in Rogue・s hand. Her fingers were covered in a glove of some sheer white material. It had to have been a recent photo; six months ago she・d still been in college.

Next to that photo was a larger one. While the clothing was exquisitely formal, the attitude certainly wasn・t. It had been taken at the end of the first dance after Scott and Jean・s wedding just over a year ago. Scott had dug up a brother from somewhere to be his best man, but Logan had been unaccountably and gruffly touched when Scott had asked him to stand with him as well. The bridal party was not so much formally grouped as it was a group hug. Ororo had been the maid of honor, and Alex Summers had a casual arm around both his brother and his dance partner, and all three had wide, happy grins. On the other side of the joyful bride, Logan had been caught in mid-laugh with his arm around Rogue, pulling her in against his chest as they all squished together for the photo. Logan recalled he・d pulled her off balance and she・d caught her heel in the hem of her deep blue gown. In the photo, he could just see her satin-gloved hand clutching at his encircling arm for balance. Undiluted happiness shone from her eyes.

It was one of the best memories he had, despite the fact that it put an end to any extraneous possibilities between himself and the redheaded doctor. A corner of his mouth curved up in remembrance. So intent was he on the photo that the sudden pounding of feet caused him to react instinctively. He grabbed the blur that burst through the doorway and pulled it off the ground by its shirtfront.

・It・ was short teenage boy who let out a squeak and froze, wide eyes blinking behind the lenses of his glasses. A freshly popped bag of popcorn slipped out of his grasp and fell to the floor. Logan looked him over once, then lowered the boy until his feet were on the floor again.

・Slow it down, kid.・

・Y-yes, Mr. Logan,・ the kid stammered. He remained frozen in place until Logan turned and walked away, then grabbed his popcorn bag and scurried ・slower this time ・towards the television room.

Logan found himself wandering, down past the school・s territory and into the restricted areas that admitted only those recognized as members of the team. The warm wooden hallways gave way to the sterile tiled halls of the X-men・s domain. Everything here was still and quiet, as though waiting for the next crisis to erupt. His footsteps echoed down the corridors as he made his way past Cerebro・s lair and the passage to the Blackbird・s hangar. The Ready Room was just as it always was, the lockers with clear doors revealing the black leather uniforms. His own locker contained exactly what he・d left; two uniforms, one rather used, the other relatively new. His boots were there, and one eyebrow raised as he spied a stray sock he・d forgotten. He pocketed it and turned to leave, but paused when he realized Rogue・s locker door was ajar.

Curious, he poked it open a bit further. Hooked over the door from the inside was a hanger with a brand new jacket, still in the gossamer plastic. Behind it, on another hanger, was another jacket. He touched it idly, then noted the damaged sleeve. The bottom third was shredded and hung in tatters. His fingers told him the same thing his nose did ・it was stiff with dried blood, and underneath was Rogue・s own scent, interlaced with that of an animal.

An unusual whirring sound intrigued Logan as he returned to the main floor of the school, and he followed it down yet another hall to a large door that proclaimed it the Art Room. The whirring sound stopped just as he pushed the door open, and the potter・s wheel slowly ground to a halt as Rogue glanced up at him. She wore a tank top and an apron, her bare and slightly red arms speckled with clay. A large bandage encircled one forearm.


・Hi there,・ she replied with a smile, her concentration on the clay form in her hands. ・Jean said you were back, but I could hear you snoring. I just let you sleep.・ The southern accent was almost completely gone, and he frowned at its absence as much as at her words.

・I don・t snore,・ he protested.

・You do when you・re really beat.・ Logan frowned ferociously at her, but she wasn・t paying attention. He DIDN・T snore.

He wandered around, looking and poking. Behind her was a metal utility rack, the shelves labeled with various students・ names he vaguely recognized. The shelf with her name on it held a few objects. On was a simple yet graceful vase, sitting beside a set of huge coffee cups. He smirked as he read the ・POPCORN・ legend on a large bowl. Behind the utilitarian pieces were two dusty objects all but buried at the back. One was a slab of bas relief, somehow perfectly capturing a pair of birds taking flight. The other was a larger than life man・s hand, palm to palm with a woman・s.

Logan watched Rogue wipe her hands briefly then release the current piece, carefully placing it on a sheet of brown butcher paper. An escaped strand of white hair swung gently with her movements.

・These are good,・ he said finally.

She smiled without looking up. ・They・re okay. I・d never make a livin・ at it, but・ it feels nice.・ He watched her bare hands caress the new vase, pinching it gently to mold the edge into a pouring lip. An old fashioned pitcher began to materialize under her hands.

An odd rumbling groan reached his ears, and after a second he realized it came from Rogue. Specifically, from her stomach.

"You hungry?"

"Not enough to cook anything."

・I・ll cook ・I・m starving.・ He hadn・t realized it until he・d said it. And don・t gimme that look,・ he added.

She raises her clay covered hands in surrender, grinning. ・Okay, you cook. Be there in a bit.・


・You・ve got to be kidding.・

At the sound of her voice, Logan looked up at her questioningly. Rogue stood in the kitchen doorway, her oversized, long-sleeved shirt hanging open over the tank top. Her gloves were slung casually over her shoulder.

・What, never had breakfast in the middle of the night?・ He cracked a sixth egg into the large skillet, then fished out the errant bit of shell. The eggs and last pieces of bacon were all but submerged in bacon grease. A large raft of cooked bacon lay draining into paper towels on a plate on the counter.

・Some people don・t have to worry about clogging their arteries,・ she replied. ・Whatcha need me to do?・

・Juice.・ He indicated a bowl of oranges with his spatula, heedless of the drips it left on the counter.

Rogue opened a drawer and retrieved a knife, and pulled a juicer bowl from a cabinet. They worked in companionable silence for several minutes. Logan drained the rest of the bacon and pulled two plates from the cabinet.

・Drove past your parents・ place last month,・ he said finally.

Rogue hesitated, but did not look up from her juicer. ・I thought you were just gonna mail that letter for me.・

・Yeah, well. I was in Mississippi anyway,・ he replied.

・And ・ how are they?・ she asked.

・They looked fine.・

・Good,・ she replied shortly, and he left it at that.

The eggs were just about perfect. Just inside his peripheral vision, he saw her snag another orange, caught the flicker of steel as she sliced it quickly and suddenly flinched.

・Damn,・ she said softly, dropping the knife with a clatter and reaching for a paper towel.

・Lemme see.・ He reached for her hand, but Rogue shied violently, backing away from his reach.

Logan snagged a towel off the counter with a wordless growl and reached for her again. Using it as insulation, he reached for her again, and she allowed him to turn her thumb to the light. A small cut oozed a single drop of crimson.

・I・ll live,・ she said dryly.

・Yeah, well, don・t bleed in the juice,・ he replied, rescuing the eggs.

Rogue favored him with a lopsided smile and bunched the paper towel and injured digit in her fist. Her free hand grabbed one of the orange halves and mashed it thoroughly.

・Saw your uniform downstairs,・ he commented. ・What happened?・ He nodded to the bandage wrapped around her upper wrist.

・Rottweiler. Big one.・


She topped off the juice glass and shrugged one shoulder, a gesture she had picked up from him. ・Jean stitched it up for me. Thanks,・ she added, carefully taking the far side of the loaded plate he offered. She pushed one of the glasses of juice his direction. Neither of them bothered to move to the table, but stood companionably leaning against the counter, separated by less than 24 inches.

"Oh, by the way. Here." She pulled the chain out from under her hair and dangled the dog tag into his palm, dropping the last few inches of chain before her bare fingers could come close to his. The metal was still warm from her body. ・Welcome home.・

"Thanks," he said gruffly, weighing it in his hand. It was their little ritual. Every time he left, he gave her his tags. Every time he came back, she returned them. Every time. He shoved it in his pocket and felt something in his chest slowly uncurling. The tension that had sent him wandering began to leak away, and he finally identified the sensation that replaced it. He was home.

・It・s funny,・ she said, nibbling on a piece of bacon. ・That poor dog was so afraid of us... he was just protecting, but I could feel how scared he was, even after his heart stopped beating.・ She swallowed the bacon hard. ・Never been in anyone・s head before, when they died.・

She picked up another crisp of bacon, but didn・t eat it. ・His name was Bosco,・ she added softly, then raised her embarrassed eyes to meet his gaze. Even without words, she could feel his silent sympathy.

・So, how ・bout you?・ she asked, trying to change the subject. ・Find out anything on this trip?・

A disgusted grimace flickered across his face, but he continued to rapidly demolish the food on his plate. ・Nah. Dead end.・

・Maybe that place in Alberta・・ The phone jangled loudly, interrupting her. Logan wiped his fingers on his clean shirt and snagged it off the wall.

・Yeah,・ he offered into the receiver, talking around a mouthful of egg. Rogue watched his expression change, trying to guess who would be calling. He chewed for a moment, then grew still. His eyes met hers, a frown growing by the second. ・How・d you get this number?・ he asked finally.


By ten the next morning, Storm and Cyclops had the kids home and straggling noisily up the stairs. Scott caught his wife in a hug from behind as she entered the Professor・s study, her hand fending off his three-day beard while they both grinned like teenagers.

Logan, standing by the window, watched the couple indulgently as Scott kissed his wife and brushed a gentle, protective hand over her belly. His eyes dropped to Rogue and noticed the several different emotions that flickered across her face as she also watched the couple - envy, sadness, and a rueful fondness, before she crossed her feet in front of her chair and focused her attention on Xavier.

'Ro pushed the couple further into the room, and they all grouped themselves around the Professor's desk while he laid out the contents of his phone call the night before.

"They call themselves a Guild, and from what I've been able to gather, they've become something of a haven for mutants in the New Orleans and Mississippi Delta area. Unfortunately, a large number of that population has been disappearing. More than a dozen Guild individuals have vanished in the last two months."

・This is the first you・ve heard of it?・ queried Logan in a slightly skeptical voice.

Xavier favored him with a patient smile. ・Contrary to the belief among the students that I know all and see all, my information network is appallingly thin. In too many instances, I am forced to rely on the media to inform me of trouble, such as the young boy retrieved a few days ago.・

"And they're sure these people aren't just leaving?" Ororo asked.

"Yes. In this most recent case, a body was found. Or, should I say, the majority of a body. The mutant had been born with wings; his body was found with those wings removed."

・Surgically removed?・ Jean asked.

・No,・ the Professor replied flatly. The X-men digested that unsavory thought silently. The mood in the room became much darker. ・Law enforcement has been completely ineffective. On the few instances they have filed a missing persons report, only the most basic of investigations was instituted.・ Xavier rolled his chair to another angle and reached for a stack of papers on his desk.

"Unfortunately, I must be in Washington next week. I want Cyclops, Storm, Rogue, and Wolverine to go and investigate. Jean and I will use Cerebro to see if we can find any unusual concentrations of mutants, perhaps held against their will, somewhere in the region. We'll expand our search, as time permits. I・ll want regular reports.

Additionally, the Guild member who contacted us last night made it clear that the existence of the X-Men was not widely known to his people, and he'd like to keep it that way. He would also appreciate the same courtesy."

"He won't dig in our back yard if we don't dig in his," Logan clarified.

Xavier nodded. "Exactly." Uncharacteristically, he took a hesitant breath and addressed the youngest member of the team. A slightly pained expression joined the sympathy in his eyes. "Rogue, I empathize with your reluctance to use your abilities offensively. However, without a psychic on hand, you may find it necessary・"

"I understand." She cut him off.

"What's in Washington?" Logan asked, breaking the awkward silence.

The Professor hesitated. "Another proposed piece of legislation regarding mutants has suddenly surfaced. It seems to be unusually popular. I'm going to see what I can do to help squelch it."

"Mutant registration again?" Scott voiced, echoing all their thoughts.

"Not this time. I'm not sure that wouldn't be easier. There's a movement towards creating a special branch of federal law enforcement strictly to police the infractions of mutants. It・s being called the Sentinal Program, but the implications of a mutant-only police force, with separate jurisdictions and holding facilities, are dire."

"Concentration camps." Rogue's voice was soft, but Xavier nodded gravely.

"Take the Blackbird. Your host has a private airfield. You will be met by one of his people, a man named LeBeau. He will be your liaison officer with the Guild to help you with this investigation.

"Good luck."


・There・s our hanger,・ Rogue said softly from the right seat of the Blackbird. A single light over the hanger door did not begin to chase away the impenetrable darkness of the Louisiana night. The Blackbird・s infrared scanner, however, showed surrounding buildings with perfect clarity. Scott taxied the custom hover jet into the waiting maw of the hanger with a minimum of fuss and set it down as delicately as a fragile vase.

・Damn, Cyclops. It・s about time you actually learned how to fly this thing.・ Logan could not resist needling the younger man. He rolled his shoulders as he unstrapped and settled his old leather jacket over his civilian clothing.

・Had to.・ Scott replied. ・I was getting too much competition. Between Rogue and St. John, it's worse than when they got their drivers・ licenses.・

Business-like as she shut down the systems, including the telemetry showing a man's figure in outline near a large blocky vehicle, Rogue did not acknowledge his comment. ・I still show only one person at the end of the runway. Looks like they・re keeping to the plan.・

Outside, Logan and Scott pushed the huge hanger doors shut. Rogue attached a padlock to the handles. It appeared to be an ordinary stock item, but on the bottom a tiny red light turned green as she snapped it shut.

・This won・t keep out anyone real insistent, but the Blackbird・s not completely defenseless,・ Scott said. He handed Rogue her duffel bag. Logan frowned at the sports utility vehicle standing alone a dozen yards away.

・Now, y・all wouldn・t be worryin・ ・bout trustin・ us, would ya?・ came a Cajun- accented voice from just outside the circle of light thrown by the overhead lamp, startling each of them to varying degrees. A tall man in a brown leather duster lit a cigarette and looked pleased with himself for sneaking up on them.

・You must be Cyclops.・ He held his hand out. There was no lighter in his hands.

Scott took it with only a moment・s hesitation. ・I am. This is Storm. Wolverine, ・ he indicated each, and the man gave each of them a nod. ・This is・・

・An angel,・ interrupted the man as he brushed by Logan. ・This must surely be an angel.・ He smiled at Rogue with the confidence of a man who knows he・s charming. She noted his pupils were a striking scarlet, ringed with black.

・Rogue,・ she corrected evenly, holding out her hand. He brought her hand to his lips instead, kissing the leather-clad fingers.

・Remy LeBeau. The man of your dreams.・

・I・m sure you are,・ she agreed pleasantly.

Logan did not bother to stifle a snort, but it only made Lebeau smile wider. ・My friends call me Gambit. My employer is anxious to meet you all. If you・ll follow me?・ He indicated the waiting vehicle with a courtly flourish, but turned and strode rapidly towards it rather than wait for their assent.

Storm led the way as they followed the would-be gallant, disapproval radiating from her in waves. ・The Professor dug up quite a bit of dirt on these people. They・re involved in just about every criminal profession in three states. The only thing they don・t seem to be in on is heavy narcotics.・

・Such a nasty business, chere,・ interjected LeBeau reprovingly, appearing again to open the door for her. ・Entirely the wrong kind of people. Always in such a hurry to turn a profit, but no sense of tradition, no style.・

・Storm,・ said Cyclops, warningly.

The white-haired woman opened her mouth, but Rogue cut her off. ・We all remember what it・s like to be hungry. Not everyone caught the breaks we did.・ Her statement was matter of fact, but no less challenging.

She・s got a point, Logan conceded to himself. He remembered the cold, wintry day he・d met Rogue, when he・d watched her wolf down old beef jerky as if it were the first time she・d eaten in days.

・We・re here to find answers.・ Scott・s tone made it clear there would be no further discussion. Fuming, Storm got in the truck without further comment.

The streets in the French Quarter gleamed wetly under the streetlights as the SUV pulled up in front of a tavern. A green neon rat in the window blinked off and on as it proclaimed ・The River Rat.・ Logan slid out of the back seat and quickly scanned the street, taking in the damp night air with short sniffs. Rogue's shorter legs had to clamber out of the vehicle but she pushed her hair back and did the same, although with less sniffing and more appreciation of the wrought iron railing wrapped around the upper balconies of the buildings facing them.

"They're very pretty," she murmured.

Logan gave a non-committal grunt. ・Good place to hide snipers."

Rogue let the comment pass. She turned towards the tavern, only to be brought up short by LeBeau's chest as he blocked her path.

"Most of N'Orleans is pretty, chere," he told her in a low voice. A lazy, suggestive smile showed her he had a very nice teeth. "Remy can show you the best parts."

The unusual sensation of being flirted with startled Rogue, but in that instant, a coquettish streak surfaced. An answering smile curved her lips, and she tilted her head to one side. "Can you, now?" she asked. Behind her, Logan frowned as her spine curved, her weight going to one hip and her voice sliding into a lower register. "Can you show me・ all of it?"

LeBeau's grin grew wider, much to Logan's disgust. ・C・mon Gumbo,・ he growled, and grabbed Rogue's elbow, pulling her after him. Used to Logan's hands-on lack of tact, Rogue gave LeBeau a single backwards glance under lowered eyelashes before she pulled her arm free but followed him anyway.

"That's Gambit," LeBeau protested, bringing up the rear.


Inside the bar, the late hour was apparent. A teenage boy was putting the chairs upside down on the tables, while a woman in a white apron swept bits of broken beer bottle into a dustpan in the corner. Storm and Cyclops halted before the large wooden bar, out of the way of the cleanup crew. Storm gave her fellow X-woman a curious look, and with a simple tilt of their eyebrows they exchanged the non-verbal communication women have when men are around to torment.

"I'll have a beer," Logan commented to the bartender, who was restocking the shelf under the bar with large bottles of amber liquid, the pedigree of which would not have withstood a great deal of scrutiny. The beefy man shrugged and lifted a relatively clean mug from the rack, filled it with a smooth pull from the spigot and slid it in front of him.

・Are you physically incapable of going into a bar without ordering a beer?・ Cyclops asked with disbelief.

・Yes,・ answered Logan and Rogue at the same time. Rogue grabbed a large pretzel fragment from the bowl and dipped it in the beer, blithely disregarding Logan・s scowl and ・hey・ of protest. She munched it and turned to look for their guide. LeBeau stood across the room, talking to another man. Fair haired and handsome, the other looked up at her and continued eye contact for several seconds before returning his attention to LeBeau.

・This just keeps getting better and better,・ Rogue murmured to Storm, who had to agree. She'd also noticed the tall newcomer, and if he was a bit young for her, he was absolutely perfect for Rogue. Logan, however, frowned at the younger woman again and turned his closer attention to the man following LeBeau to their side of the room.

・Mes amis, this is Joshua. He is a member of our Guild, and a trusted friend. He will be assisting us in this matter.・

Logan took in Joshua・s stance, his feet apart, hands clasped loosely behind him. ・You military?・

・I was.・


Broad shoulders shifted slightly in discomfort. ・・Don・t ask, don・t tell・ doesn・t apply to mutants.・

Cyclops nodded once in acknowledgement. "I'd like to start out with an investigation of each disappearance. Talk to neighbors, friends, all the things a good police investigation would have done. If you agree to it, Wolverine can go over your procedures from a security standpoint. He might be able to pinpoint any problems or weak spots, in light of those mutants who went missing while working for your.. organization." His brief hesitation brought another flash of Gambit's grin. "He has experience with less than above board activities, and maybe he can give you some advice on how to keep any more of your people from disappearing."

"Unfortunately our chief has been called away on urgent business this evening. I regret he will be unable to meet you all tonight, but he will undoubtedly be delighted to make your acquaintance at a later time." For some reason LeBeau's flowery delivery didn't sound stupid, even when he continued, focusing in on Rogue. "Very delighted, I'm sure."

"Urgent business? In Washington, by any chance?" queried Rogue, giving him an innocent look when he froze for a split instant.

His suave demeanor immediately heated up again, but he smiled widely again rather than answer her question. "Immensely delighted."

The bartender was possibly the only person in the room who did not pick up the innuendo in LeBeau's voice, with varying degrees of amusement or annoyance. Joshua moved his elbow minutely, but the small gesture sent LeBeau staggering a full step sideways. The younger man was apparently much stronger than he should be.

"We have a safe house across the street,・ the tall blond told them. ・It's not very big, but at least you won't be sleeping on the floor. You can rest there for a few hours, and we can start first thing." He took the opportunity to smile down at Rogue while ignoring LeBeau, clearly establishing a rivalry which seemed to be a continuation of an ongoing situation.

"Good," interjected Cyclops, before LeBeau said anything. "I'd like to start by checking out the one mutant we know was killed - Falcon - where he lived, and where he died. We'll split into two teams. Give us・" he checked his watch briefly. "Five hours."

Chapter 3

 "This sucks," commented Jubilee for the fourth or possibly fifth time, nudging her carry-on bag further up the line. Beside her, Bobby Drake grunted in a manner quite possibly adopted from Wolverine as he regarded the long line of people between them and the check-in counter. He pretended to watch another plane take off, staring out through the large glass window as they waited to catch their flight. The board above the gate announced their connecting flight from Atlanta to Orlando was on time.

"How come Rogue gets to go off and do all the cool stuff, and we get to go play fetch?"

"Maybe it's your sparkling personality," he commented blandly, rolling up a large tan envelope and stowing it in the inside pocket of his satin Yankees jacket.

"I'll give you sparkling," she huffed, the light on her fingertips sparking his earlobe before he grabbed her hands with the reflexes of long practice and yanking them down.

"Would you knock that off!" he hissed, glancing around to see if anyone had noticed. She blew a large pink bubble at him, grinning unrepentantly. "Rogue gets to go because she acts like a grown-up, not a three-year-old," Bobby continued pointedly.

"Well, that does leave us both out, doesn't it?" Jubilee drawled.

Bobby pinched her behind.

She retaliated, poking his ribs and tickling him until he wrapped both arms around her. They became a single struggling entity, much to the amusement of the businessman standing before them in line. A security guard left the wall beside the gate and approached them, causing them to straighten up.

"Is there a problem here?" he asked, giving them both a stern glare that still came nowhere near what they were used to from Cyclops, Jean, Logan, or anyone else at the Mansion.

"No, no problem. We're just in love," gushed Bobby, draping one arm around Jubilee's neck. Manfully, he did not wince as her elbow jabbed his stomach.

"You dropped this," said the guard, handing him the large envelope. His thumb was over the single name - TOMMY - typed on the edge.

"Thanks," muttered Jubilee, nipping it from his fingers.

The guard gave them the accustomed 'behave yourself' stare before heading down the concourse to another gate, where he made a short comment to the attendant there. The woman laughed, and he continued on his way.

Jubilee watched him disappear from view, her expression thoughtful.

"What?" Bobby asked.

"Don't know." She turned the same thoughtful expression on her partner. "Bad vibes."

He glanced around the area, Wolverine and Cyclops' training suddenly apparent. "We'll be careful," he said in a low voice, the goofy demeanor on the two dropping back into the professionalism of two well-trained operatives. Only the closest of observers would have noticed the haze of condensation wafting from his fingertips.


At precisely 8:00 am, LeBeau offered Wolverine and Rogue beignets and coffee as they drove to their first assignment. Logan, seated in back but hanging onto the back of the passenger seat behind Rogue, disregarded the pastry but gulped half of his coffee while it was still steaming hot. Rogue sipped hers gingerly. She didn't have a healing factor to deal with a scorched tongue. Working off one satin glove as the men talked, she carefully picked up one of the powdered squares. She・d deliberately chose a moment when Gambit had both hands on the wheel.

He glanced at her bare hand for a moment, noting the long fingers with neatly painted oval nails. "You have lovely hands, chere. Why don't you leave those gloves off?" His charming manner was still in high gear.

Rogue sipped her coffee again. "Because I like the people I'm around to stay alive," she replied.

Gambit gave her a longer look, still trying to keep an eye on the road as he turned into a warehouse district. "Falcon's body was found here, 'bout ten days ago. He disappeared 'bout a week before that." Slowing down and turning neatly into the loading area behind one of the buildings, he threw the vehicle into park.

Logan peered up and down the rows of buildings as he got out of the vehicle. "You people got anything out here, any reason for him to be in this area?"

"No, and s'far as we know, he didn't have any personal reasons, either."

"So, he was running," mused Rogue, as she got out and surveyed the depressing parking lot and stunted weeds. Lingering over all was the smell of fish and dirty water from the Mississippi and the nearby Gulf. She sniffed the air experimentally, but a keen sense of smell was one aspect she'd never absorbed, even temporarily, from Logan. "Can you pick up anything?" she asked him.

"Nah. Been too long. Where was the body?" Logan asked, business-like.

Gambit pointed to a set of stairs near a loading bay at the back of the nearest building. The metal steps led to a door marked ・Delivery.・ The opening underneath the steps was filled with torn cardboard and other trash.

"Workers found him when they came out for a smoke, round 'bout mid-morning. Called the police." He pronounced it like a Southerner, with the emphasis on the first syllable. "We figured he'd run from up there," and his hand pointed to the slight uphill incline towards the east, then swung back in an arc to indicate straight into the stairwell the mutant had died in, "and just couldn't go no further. We searched almost all the warehouses up there, pretty much."

"Find anything?"

Gambit smirked. "We found plenty of inter'stin' things. But nothing like what we were looking for."

"Was Falcon a true feral mutation?" asked Wolverine, crouching by the hole and peering into the dark recess. The tattered bit of faded yellow police tape fluttered in the light breeze. "Were the wings just an add-on, or did he have other avian characteristics?"

Gambit shrugged. If he were surprised to hear the more technical descriptions from a man who seemed less than civilized, he didn't comment. "Falcon had talons, not fingers or toes. Reg・lar shoes didn't fit him. Had real good eyes, too."

Rogue and Logan looked at each other.

"Maybe you were looking in the wrong direction," Rogue offered, to Gambit's obvious skepticism. "Mutants with feral mutations tend to react instinctively under stress. A bird of prey would be seeking high ground, not low."

Logan grunted in agreement. "And he wouldn't have run straight into this hole if he were being hunted. If he could see into it, he'd assume the ones chasing him could see it, too." He shifted, to look down the slight slope to another row of warehouses. "C'mon."

Gambit started the SUV and trailed behind them, reflexively scanning the surrounding area before following the pair. Much sooner than he expected, they paused before the burnt ruins of a smaller building. Completely gutted and swathed from the front with new yellow police tape, the broken wooden timbers stabbed skyward in mute accusation. He yanked the brake and joined them, his annoyance turning to something deeper as he surveyed the damage.

"What was the cause of death?" Logan eyed Gambit, then regarded the wrecked building again. "What did Falcon die from?"

Gambit's eyes were hard. "Shock and blood loss, 'cording to the autopsy. 'Course, they're not calling it a homicide. Just saying it's a suspicious death."

"There was no blood trail under the stairs," Logan said, ducking under the tape. "He didn't have anything left. He couldn't have gotten far."

Rogue was right behind, stepping over knee-high drifts of blackened building material. Logan pulled a pair of his own leather gloves from his back pocket and tossed them to his fellow X-Man. Rogue pulled them on over her own, her fingers swimming in the larger cut.

The three of them began to dig through the rubble, none of them with much idea as to what they were looking for. While Logan sifted through the corners, Gambit and Rogue concentrated in the center.

"Help me with this," she eventually called to Logan, and between the three of them they moved a timber that fell over with a crash, sending plumes of ash into the air. She waved at the choking cloud but immediately squatted on her heels and delved beneath the unrecognizable burnt chunks. In a moment her filthy glove came up holding a loop of chain. Tugging, she yanked until it stopped in a loop set in the concrete slab beneath their feet. Her face grave, she pulled the other end, coming up with less than six feet of heavy chain. At the end, a large manacle dangled.

Wordlessly, Logan took it from her and turned it over in his hands. The chain, and the manacle, showed several bright marks against the soot that had turned his fingers black.

"Whoever it was, they panicked. Tried to get any hard evidence out of the building before they torched it, but couldn't get this." He dropped it into the ashes. "We need to see when this building burned, and when." His gaze dropped to the bright, shiny tape around the perimeter. "Can't have been that long ago."

"Why would they leave this," Rogue indicated the chain with a twitch of her blackened fingers, "then suddenly panic and torch the place?"

Logan shook his head. He didn't have an answer. Not yet. He held out a dirty hand, and helped Rogue to her feet. "We won't find anything else here."

Again, Gambit trailed them out of the ashes and back into the alley. "How'd you know that chain was down there, chere?" asked LeBeau. His normally warm tone had gone a few degrees cooler.

"I can.. feel metal, sometimes. Not very often. I can't ever find my car keys, but I can tell you've got a large piece of metal on you. Not a gun・." She paused, frowning at him.

Reassured, a slow grin grew on LeBeau's face. He reached behind his back, below the leather duster he'd worn even though the day was slightly muggy with Mississippi Delta heat. His hand flashed out, twirling a long, narrow cylinder of dark metal.

"That's no asp," commented Logan.

"No. It・s a Bo staff." The twirling abruptly stopped, and the ends shot out until Gambit held a metal staff nearly as long as he was tall. The air whistled as the staff whirled rapidly, his handling expert and deadly. Suddenly it collapsed on itself and disappeared beneath his coat. ・Comes in handy.・

・I・ll bet,・ Logan replied.


Joshua, Storm and Cyclops regarded the stoutly locked door with annoyance. Black letter tape had faded and cracked, leaving the names beside each red intercom button indecipherable. Not a single voice answered as Joshua・s finger pressed each of the switches in turn. Stepping back off the spalled concrete porch, almost to the curb, Storm shaded her eyes and peered up at the top floor of the four-story structure. Decrepit and crumbling, the apartment building matched its neighbors in lack of appeal.

・He had to live on the top floor, didn・t he?・ Scott commented, peering up as well.

・In the back,・ confirmed their guide.

・Fire escape,・ said Storm simply, leading the way around the side of the building.

Weaving through the narrow space between the buildings, which was choked with weeds, garbage, and an abandoned refrigerator, she came out into the back alley and found the fire escape. The ladder hung conveniently low, but that did little good as the first two landings were missing. The third hung from a single bolt on the wall.

・Great,・ said Scott dryly. Expectantly, he turned to Storm. She raised an eyebrow, but lifted her arms and face to the sky. Joshua squinted against the sudden breeze and the accompanying dust. He raised a hand to shield his face.

・What are you doing?・ he protested.

・I・m going to fly up there and go in the window,・ Storm supplied, distracted. Her feet left the ground.

・Geez. Make a production of it, why don・t you?・ Irritated, Joshua bounced lightly on his feet, then sprang into the air. Four stories above the alley's cracked pavement, he hovered in front of one window, inspected the lock through the hazy glass, then moved to the next. An air conditioning unit hung drunkenly from the sill. He placed his hands on either side of the unit, stuck the tips of his fingers under the wooden frame, and pried it gently. The wood buckled and the metal frame of the window unit dented under his thumbs. He caught it as it fell, lifting the window open all the way while the heavy machine dangled absently from his fingers. He pushed it in the window, then settled on the ledge and straddled it.

・I・ll be down in a second,・ he said, then pulled the rest of himself through the window and out of sight. Below, Scott hid a smile behind his hand at Storm・s blank expression.

Inside, the three of them poked around the shabby one room apartment. ・None of the chairs have backs on them,・ commented Storm as she took in the various pieces of furniture.

"Kinda hard to sit with wings." Moving decisively, Joshua opened the freezer and examined the pitiful contents while Cyclops and Storm moved into the apartment, peering at the bookshelves and opening drawers. In the freezer, Joshua found several plastic film canisters, which opened to reveal small rolls of cash.

・Four, five hundred dollars,・ he counted. He pulled a small drawstring bag from his back pocket and placed the money inside. ・For the Guild,・ he clarified. Scott nodded and opened the closet door.

・Nothing here,・ added Storm, as she rummaged beneath the mattress. A large, gray-striped secondary feather, longer than her hand, fell out of the sheets as she peered under the bed. ・Oh, Goddess,・ she exclaimed in an odd voice.

・What is it?・ demanded Scott.

・What does any single man have under his bed?・ she asked, moving a stack of magazines out of her way.

・I wouldn・t know,・ Scott replied from where he was going through the pockets of the garments in the closet, while Joshua cleared his throat ruefully. ・Jean made me throw all those away years ago.・

・Who・s Jean?・ Joshua asked, still going through the cabinets.

・My wife.・

Joshua seems stunned. ・Your wife? Is she a..mutant, too?・ He seemed to have trouble saying the word.

・Yes,・ Cyclops replied. ・Is that a problem or something?・ He smiled to take the sting out of it, but he was actually a little annoyed.

・Well, no ・ I mean, it・s none of my business. I just never thought・・ Joshua trailed off, floundering for words. ・Look, I・m sorry. When I found out I was like this, I thought all my chances at a normal life were just.. gone. I didn・t mean anything by it.・

・It・s okay,・ said Cyclops, his voice sliding from irritation to reassurance. ・Just because we got a little extra roll of the dice in our genetics doesn・t mean we・re not essentially human.・ He stuck his head back in the closet, angling up to see above the doorway from the inside.

Storm snorted delicately. ・It means that men are just as annoying.・

・Right. Funny, I noticed Forge seems to find a need to call up every couple of days." Cyclops・ voice came hollowly from inside the closet.

Storm fought the smile, but could not keep the blush from rising in her cheeks despite the advantage of darker skin. "What are we, in sixth grade now?"

・Found it,・ said Cyclops, in a different tone. His long arms pulled at something above the door-frame, and it came loose with a ripping of duct tape. He held the bundle out; a gun, a wad of cash, and three passports in different sizes all in a large plastic freezer bag. ・Falcon never had a chance to run. He never suspected anything was wrong until he was already gone.・


The crowd varied widely, from middle-aged men in suits to young women in jeans and scanty, midriff baring shirts, older men in white t-shirts and the odd housewife in simple dresses. They filled the auditorium in sweaty drifts, the air conditioning having long since given out.

The man at the podium was giving no such signs of giving out, however. His shock of white hair quivered with his emphasis, the fire in his eye and speech had the rapt attention of almost everyone in the room. They・d been listening, enthralled, for quite some time, and like sharks smelling blood, they sensed it as he wound his way to a climax.

・We may be of different colors. We may be of different races. But we are HUMANS! We will not lie down before our enemy. We will NOT ALLOW this CORRUPTION into our families, our churches, and our schools. We will not allow this CONTAMINATION among our women, our children. We will not expose our people to this FILTH!・

Here and there, heads nodded. A breathless ・amen・ arose from various sources. ・We must be VIGILANT. We must root out these abominations where they hide, in our communities, in our neighborhoods. The unclean must be DRIVEN from us. They must be CLEANSED!・

The outpouring of rage and indignation spilled out into the crowd and set off a wildfire of reaction; the audience surged to their feet, shouting incoherently. The white-haired man gripped the edge of the podium and let the fervent crowd die down. When the uproar settled, he began again.

・We are the Champions of Humanity. We will not be defeated. We will not be silenced. We will be VICTORIOUS!!・

Again, the assemblage was on its feet, shouting stridently. A new figure joined the speaker on the stage. Dressed in an ill-fitting suit, he radiated the quiet presence of a security detail. He leaned into the older man and whispered in his ear. ・Mr. Pierce, there・s a news crew waiting for you in the office.・

Franklin Pierce nodded once, then turned back to the crowd, which was showing signs of devolving into a mob. And he smiled.


On a perfect lawn in a cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood, Tommy Robertson hugged his kneeling mother for the umpteenth time. Despite the short gray fur covering his face, Jubilation Lee and Bobby Drake could read the embarrassment of a nine-year-old boy confronted with an emotional mother.

・I・m sorry, but we really need to be getting on the road,・ Bobby interrupted. ・We・ve got a long drive ahead of us.・ He took the large suitcase and put it in the trunk of their unremarkable rental car. A small bicycle was lifted into the trunk as Tommy・s father helped in the only way he could.

・You・re sure you don・t need any money for the trip?・ he asked as they shut the trunk together.

Bobby pushed Jubilee towards the open passenger door. ・No, everything・s fine. Whatever you worked out with the Professor is between you and him; we・re just along to make sure he gets to school safely.・ He opened the rear door of the car, and Tommy took the chance to break away from his mother. He gave his dad a quick hug and climbed in, buckling his seatbelt as Bobby shut the door for him.

He waved, Jubilee waved, and his parents waved as Bobby went around to the driver・s door and climbed in. Tommy・s father held his wife as she collapsed against his chest, fighting sobs, trying to smile bravely as they drove away.

・Praises be,・ exhaled Jubilee noisily. She turned to the back, climbed to her knees, and fixed Tommy with a stern stare. ・Okay, kid, here・s the rules. No throwing up. No asking ・are we there yet?・ No kicking the back of the seat. No bathroom breaks unless we say. Or, unless there・s something really cool to look at, then all bets are off. You like pizza?・

・Uh, yeah. Sure.・ A little smile grew as Tommy took in Jubilee・s rapid- fire change in subject.

She grinned back, snapping her gum loudly. ・Cool. I・m starving.・

・Seatbelt,・ reminded Bobby patiently as they pulled out of the subdivision.


The green neon rat blinked energetically as Rogue and Storm wearily followed Logan and the other men into the tavern. Now bustling with Friday night patrons, it was loud and crowded. Several musicians were preparing for a show on the small raised dais at the end of the room. The group appropriated a long table to one side of the dance floor and sat down, ignored in the general hubbub. Joshua left them, making his way to the back of the establishment where the doors read ・EMPLOYEES ONLY・ and ・OFFICE・.

Automatically now, a beer appeared in front of Logan. He grunted in appreciation and quickly swept it out of Rogue・s reach as she made a grab for it, and ignored her protest. ・Two shakes,・ said the waitress in a comforting voice, and Rogue nodded, then piled her head on her folded arms.

・I・m beat,・ added Storm, and the white streaks on the tabletop nodded in agreement before Rogue lifted her head and propped herself on her elbows.

・That was it, right?・ Logan asked, after draining half the mug. ・We・ve covered every last one of your people?・

LeBeau nodded.

・And all their security checks out?・ Scott queried to Wolverine.

・Yep. Unless they want to start traveling in packs of four or more, which is real subtle. No real vulnerabilities.・

LeBeau may not have realized the compliment inherent in Wolverine・s words, but he shrugged in acknowledgement. ・We ain・t got enough people to keep up with t・ings now. We・re hurtin・ for reliable help, an・ dat・s a fact.・ On the stage, a musician dropped a piece of equipment with a loud crash.

・Well, if we come across any reliable thieves, we・ll send them your way,・ commented Storm tartly. LeBeau grinned at her unrepentantly, and glanced through the crowd. In the doorway to the office, Joshua stood holding the door open with his shoulder.

・We・re always on the lookout for new talent, chere. Now, if you・ll excuse me,・ he said courteously, and rose from his chair, weaving his way through the patrons towards his cohort.

・Storm,・ said Cyclops, in the same warning voice he・d used on their first night in town.

・What?・ she replied, indignant. ・They make no apologies for being what they are. He・s perfectly frank that he・s a thief, and proud of it!・

Surprisingly, Rogue leaned towards her shoulder. ・This isn・t your little band of Cairo pickpockets, ・Ro.・

Storm's fingers began fiddling with each other. "How do you know that?"

The waitress placed a beer at Rogue's elbow, causing her to pause until a small bottle of bourbon and two shot glasses were placed in LeBeau's empty place. She thanked the woman, then continued. "No kids. Look around. No one's using children against their will here."

Storm still looked stubborn, but she was obviously thinking about it.

Logan was thinking too. The beer had nearly slipped out of his fingers when he・d registered Rogue・s comments. How the hell had Rogue known about Storm・s past life with a street gang in her native Cairo, where she'd been forced to steal every bite of food or other necessity ・ Okay, stupid, he thought to himself. Somewhere along the line, Rogue had sucked up some of Storm's memories. For the first time he wondered how many people she had in her head by now.

The two Guild members came back from the back office and settled down on the empty chairs. ・We have more news,・ LeBeau began, uneasily. He opened the small bottle of whiskey and poured himself a shot.

・Another one of your people has come up missing?・ asked Wolverine sharply.

・No,・ Joshua replied. ・But we started doing some checking after you got here. The Guild has always had a reputation for sheltering mutants, but we don't keep tabs on those mutants who didn't apply to us for protection. New Orleans is one of those cities where people come and go all the time, and we got enough trouble keeping track of our own folk.・

Cyclops・ visor glinted as he leaned forward, intent, and Gambit shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "We been doin' some asking 'round. Some of our group, they got friends who're mutants, but don't have anythin' to do with the Guild."

Scott's head rotated slowly, not wanting to hear this. "More disappearances?"

"We've compiled a list," Joshua added. "At least ten more have vanished from the city in the last three months alone."

・Shit. You・re talking another week of chasing our tails, playing two-bit detective,・ Logan bit out, disgusted. Storm reached for the unused shot glass and appropriated the bottle, pouring herself a drink.

・You・re not thinking about quitting, are you?・ asked Joshua, alarmed.

Rogue・s gloved hand flitted over Joshua・s wrist in a butterfly light pat of reassurance. ・Don・t you worry. What Wolverine lacks in patience, he makes up for in stubbornness. But that's almost twenty-five people," she continued with concern. "This definitely rules out a serial killer."

"How can you be sure of that?" Joshua asked her in a low tone. "That's one of the things we've been afraid of." He glanced around the room uneasily, as though merely saying the words would make it come true.

"I'm taking some advance coursework in violent criminal psychology," she said softly. "Disappearing without a trace requires meticulous planning, and that takes time. One person could not have done this in this time frame, not and disposed of the bodies."

"Then maybe we're not dealing with one person," commented Wolverine, interrupting their almost intimate discussion. "Maybe they're being taken by a black ops group. It wouldn't be the first time."

"Jean and Xavier have not been able to detect a concentration of mutants, except here in this immediate area," offered Scott disconsolately.

"Given how Falcon was found, I think they're probably all dead." Rogue's eyes closed briefly as she made this proclamation, but her voice was steady.

"Who do you think did this, then?" asked Joshua.

Remy slid his glass across the table, where Storm filled it with bourbon. "We got Friends of Humanity, Humans First -- half a dozen organizations who hate mutants."

"What about Humanity's Champions?" asked Rogue.

Gambit frowned. "Haven't had a lot o' them 'round here," he said thoughtfully. "They're mostly north of here, in Alabama and such."

"Their bases are north of here," Logan commented. "But that kid was from Florida."

"Maybe they don't want to mess the nest," added Scott.

"There are a lot of larger groups around here," Joshua objected. "Maybe we should start with the biggest and work our way down."

"That chain had all the markings of H.C." Rogue countered.

Scott carefully inched his glasses down and rubbed his closed eyes. The others caught only a glimpse of his pale eyelids as he eased the glasses back into place. "I need a beer."

"Cyke, that's the first thing you've ever said that made sense," agreed Wolverine, waving at the waitress, who immediately headed their way with a laden tray. "We're officially off the clock. We need a night off."

LeBeau threw back his shot and slapped the empty on the table. "Damned straight." He shoved his chair back and stood decisively. "Ma chere, s'il vous plait?" Rogue stared at his extended hand, surprised, then smiled and put her fingers in his. He tugged her to her feet and kissed the tips of her leather gloves.

"I shall return in one short moment, chere," he said with a grin. He made his way to the band and spoke urgently in the ear of the closest musician.

Rogue ran her fingers through her silver locks and shrugged her way out of the light jacket. The fabric pulled the long-sleeved shirt with it, baring one shoulder and revealing the strap of her close-fitting tank top.

"Watch yourself," Wolverine growled from his seat. "I don't trust that guy."

"Excuse me?" Rogue demanded. He glanced up at her, a little surprised at her tone of voice, and her temper visibly flared. "What are you afraid of, Logan? That he's going to try to steal a kiss? Cop a feel?" She grabbed the tails of her shirt, crossing them under her breasts. The neckline pulled tight against her arm in a deliberately provocative pose.

Even Cyclops paused with his beer in mid-air as Rogue stalked towards Logan in a hip-popping swagger that instantly drew the eye of every male in the immediate vicinity, including Joshua. She leaned over Logan, incidentally giving him a view down her cleavage, and said quietly, "Making a pass at me would be just like peeing on a cattle prod, remember? Gambit doesn't seem to be particularly stupid."

She turned away and took Gambit's offered hand as the band struck up a lively zydeco number.

Logan's beer landed on the table with a thump. "What'd I say?"

Scott grinned at his puzzled expression. "She's not seventeen anymore. Give her some space."


"Hey," Rogue said breathlessly as Gambit brought her back to the table. She plopped down in the chair he held for her grabbed someone's glass of water. "Having fun?"

Wolverine gave Rogue・s flushed cheeks a measured glance. Her mercurial temper had apparently subsided, so he took the question at face value and accepted the truce that it represented. ・Mutant misadventures of the teenage variety,・ he grumbled, jerking a thumb towards Cyclops and Storm, who were obviously several drinks into a good time. ・If I hear one more ・remember that time・ story I・m gonna lose my lunch.・

She regarded the pair, who were unsuccessfully suppressing a case of the giggles. ・Remind me to skip that part, when I get old and senile.・

・Hey,・ protested all three senior X-men at the table.

Joshua・s chair scraped as he stood. ・So, are you, uh, all danced out?・

・I think I・ve got one or two left,・ she replied, smiling. Logan looked on as the two younger men maneuvered around Rogue. While they neither one said a word, the friendly rivalry was evident as Gambit eventually relinquished his place and allowed Joshua to have a chance. Instead, the Cajun turned to Storm with his usual flourish and held out his hand, daring her to turn him down. Speculation and wariness flickered across her face before the dark beauty took up the challenge.

The music had changed to a slower beat as the four of them joined the other couples on the floor. After several gingerly steps, their awkwardness evaporated and they moved easily to the steel guitar. Beyond Joshua・s shoulder, Rogue saw Scott leave the table and head for the pool tables at the very end of the establishment, nonchalantly picking a cue from the rack. The leader of the X-Men was a pool shark, and he had apparently just realized he was in a new ocean full of fresh victims.

"Jubilee calls this 'goat roping' music," Rogue offered, attempting to break the ice.


"A friend of mine."

"Ah. Is that another one of your code names?" Joshua's mockery was gentled with a smile.

"Something like that. Like 'Gambit' is a normal nickname."

"Okay," he laughed. "You've got a point. I never use my last name anymore; just 'Joshua.' It's easier that way."

"I know what you mean. So tell me," she began, still chipping at the ice, "how does a smooth-talkin' Midwestern boy end up in the Big Easy?" Her Southern inflections made a sudden appearance as she teased him.

"I do NOT have an accent," he protested with a laugh. "All of you do. How did I get here?" he mused. "Well, once the army kicked me out, I kinda wandered down the East Coast for awhile. I just sorta ended up here."

"Just like that, huh?"

"Pretty much." Neither one of them noticed when the music changed again, they were completely involved in their conversation, their bodies moving on instinct.

"Didn't you think about getting a job, settling down?"

"Oh, I thought about it," he replied expansively. "I'm not・" he paused, as though embarrassed. "I'm not very good, on my own. I've been in military school since I was ten, then I went straight into the army. The lone wolf deal just isn't my thing. What?" he laughed at her expression, not catching her glance to where Logan sat in solitary splendor nursing his beer. "Besides, a dishonorable discharge carries some serious baggage with it. When I have to tell some jerk in a suit why I'm out of the military, it all goes to crap."

・And you couldn・t go back to your family?・

It was a long moment before Joshua answered her question. ・My father is very old fashioned・ You can・t imagine what his reaction was when he found out I was a mutant.・

・Try me,・ commented Rogue quietly, and Joshua seemed to remember she was a mutant as well. He didn't say anything further, but pulled her closer as they mutely shared their pain.


Bobby let himself into the motel room. Instantly, two missiles impacted his chest and arm, splashing him liberally with water as the balloons burst. From their vantage point between the beds, Jubilee and Tommy cheered.

"God dammit, Jubilee!" hissed Bobby, dropping the vending machine snacks on the standard issue dresser and peering back out the door. "We've got trouble."

"What kind?" she scrambled to her feet and joined him as he peered out the door. Only the row of numbered doors greeted her, and cars parked here and there in the gravel lot. Their own rental car was parked several doors down, following Logan's drilled-in instructions to never park in front of your own motel room.

"I had to go to the vending machine near the office - I saw two cars pull in and about seven goons go in there. Two guesses what they're after."

"If someone was watching the kid・s house when we picked him up, they saw our plates. Could our credit card have been traced from the rental?"

"Maybe." Bobby swiftly began pulling all their belongings and dumping them unceremoniously into their duffel bags. "We make a stand here, and take out enough that they don't chase us. Got it?"

"Got it." Jubilee went to the suddenly quiet Tommy and took a gentle hold on his shoulders. "Things are gonna get a little exciting, squirt. I want you to hide, right here," and she steered him back to the space between the beds. "If I tell you to run, you run. If I tell you to get in the car, you get in the car as fast as you can." She gave him a reassuring grin. "I promise I'm not going to let anyone hurt you. Do you believe me?"

His gray face screwed up, but he nodded. Bobby dropped the bags next to the boy, creating a flimsy barricade. Jubilee pushed him down to a crouch.

"You keep an eye on our luggage, 'kay? I paid a fortune for those clothes in there." The feeble joke earned her an equally feeble smile in return, but it was the best she was getting. The phone on the night table between the beds rang, startling her. She picked it up quickly.

"Yeah," she said into the receiver, and listened for a moment. "Thanks. Appreciate the warning." She hung it up and joined Bobby at the door. "They're on their way," she added, unnecessarily.

"Nice of him to warn us. Think he'll call the cops?"

"Think they'd come?" she countered, shaking her hands, then clenching them rapidly into fists. "You gonna ice the ground?"

"I always ice the ground when we're outnumbered," he protested.

"Yeah, and I always fall on my ass," she retorted, peering through the curtains.


The music had changed again to a slow tune. The vocalist gave way to the harmonica and the guitar, giving every couple on the floor and excuse to snuggle even tighter to their partner. Joshua looked down on Rogue・s head, and was caught unaware as she glanced up at his face. Slightly, flustered, he grasped for something else to say.

・So. You ever talk to your parents?・

One shoulder shrugged. ・I send ・em a letter, once or twice a year. Let them know I・m alive, that I・ve found a place to belong. I use a mail service that will forward anything they send to the return address, but so far they・ve never sent anything back.・

・Do you belong ・where you are?・ he asked. At her arch expression, he laughed again. ・I know, I know. Up north. Part of that whole ・code name・ stuff.・

The laughter seeped away from his face, leaving only a trace of pain, and Rogue pulled back further to look at him. ・How about you?・

His mouth twisted. ・The last time I saw my father, he threw a bible at me and told me I was born sinful from the time my mother conceived me.・

・But I shall be cleansed with hyssop, and be whiter than snow,・ Rogue countered with a smile.

Joshua・s double-take was classic. You know it?"

She chuckled slightly. "I grew up down here. Of course I know my Bible. It's from Psalms, right?

Utterly dumbfounded, Joshua stared at her. "Do you believe in God, Rogue? Truly believe?"

Rogue hesitated. "I don't believe the way I used to." Her gloved hands slid down to his biceps as she sensed his turmoil. "I do believe what they used to tell us in Sunday school. God made us the way we are. And if he made me a mutant, then he must have had a reason. Some days, that's all I can hold onto."

He snorted, and she couldn't help but be glad of the lightening of his mood. "You are amazing, you know that?"

Rogue was suddenly aware that they'd stopped moving to the music. Joshua's hands were warm around her waist, and he was pulling her closer. His blue eyes were full of promise, and longing. His mouth dipped in closer.

"Don't!" She abruptly pushed away from him. His head snapped up, confusion fading into anger.

"What? I thought・ I thought you wanted this." His fingers tightened painfully on her hips.

"Joshua, you're hurting me." He released her and her hands slid down to his chest. "I can't touch you, Joshua. I can't. I could kill you." She could feel his heart hammering under her palms. "I can't touch anyone."

"Ever?" He paused, considering. "You're serious, aren't you." His voice was flat.

She nodded. "My mutation is my skin. It absorbs life-energy, and I can・t control it. The last person who touched me almost died."

He continued to stare at her, shock and several other emotions, chiefly revulsion, warred across his face.

"I'm sorry, Joshua." Resigned, Rogue took a single step backwards as the music started up again, another slow tune. She turned away, but his hand reached out and seized hers, keeping her from going. His long, strong fingers ran over her gloved knuckles, then turned it over and opened her palm. He stared at the leather-covered hand, then raised it to his lips and kissed it softly, his eyes glancing up to check her reaction.

Gingerly, he pulled her closer to his body and began moving gently to the music. Just as carefully, Rogue leaned into his strength, until her head came to rest on his broad chest.

At the table, Logan watched the couple dancing, Joshua's hand still cupping hers to his chest, then turned and ordered another beer.


"I know your time is valuable, but we were hoping you could take a minute to answer a few questions for us." Joshua's tone was even and polite, as was his expression, but the burly man he addressed was having trouble forming a coherent answer. This was partly due to the fact that his feet were dangling several inches off the floor as the younger man held him effortlessly in the air.

"He could probably talk better if he could breathe," Rogue said mildly.

The floor was once again under the pudgy man's feet as Joshua set him down. His greasy black hair hung in tangled strings across his white, sweaty forehead as he took in the blond, the brunette with white streaks, and the silent, menacing man behind her. One of his mechanics goggled at them from across the maintenance bay, but didn't move from under Wolverine's stare.

Motorcycles in various stages of repair lay around the garage. 'Bob's Cycles' looked chaotic, but experience told Wolverine that this was a place to consider for future work on his own beloved machine. If they let 'Bob' live, of course.

"What do you want?" Bob demanded asked shakily.

"You had a woman who worked for you, keeping the books, ordering parts," Rogue stated. "What happened to her?"

"I don't know," sneered the man. His feet left the ground again. "Swear to God, I don't know! She was here on a Friday, she didn't show up Monday. Never even came by to get her check. I tried to call her, but didn't get an answer!" His feet touched the ground again.

"I even went by her place, but I never saw her again." He shoved ineffectually at Joshua's hand, still clenched in his Harley Davidson t- shirt and ragged leather vest. "Hey, I liked Monica. She did a good job, came to work on time." His eyes flicked to the skinny young woman behind the glass partition of the garage, who sat with her feet up on the desk, painting her nails. "I'm having a hell of a time replacing her."

"And it didn't bother you that she was a mutant," growled Wolverine.

"Hell, no. At least she wasn't out hugging trees and badgering me about the ozone layer. I can・t tell you how many customers I・ve lost since I hired that one." He grimaced in disgust at the secretary in his office.

The three exchanged looks.

・Well, thanks anyway,・ Logan muttered over his shoulder as they left.

・Yeah, you・re welcome,・ came the snide response, as he tried to brush the creases from his disarrayed clothing. "Hey," he called out. The three paused, and the man shifted uncomfortably. "If you find Monica, tell her she's always got a job here. If she wants it."

"Thank you. We'll tell her, if we find her." Rogue answered.

Chapter 4

Rogue and Joshua walked down the sidewalk in the late afternoon, blending with the tourists and other shoppers in the open-air market. One of the largest in the country, the booths occupied several football fields・ worth of space. Everything and anything could be bought or sold, and often were, from cheap clothing to exquisite jewelry, antiques to the latest knock-offs of designer accessories.

Rogue flapped the open neck of her shirt, long-sleeved as usual, and pulled her hair off her neck. The dark leather jacket slung over her arm made it awkward to juggle the salt encrusted soft pretzel and the bottle of water she carried, until Joshua took it from her.

"Thanks. Does it ever cool off down here?" she demanded in a mock-growl.

Joshua grinned. "Eventually. January and February are fairly nippy.・

・Does the cold bother you? I mean, you・re invulnerable, right?・

・Well, yeah, to bullets and knives and stuff. But I still feel the cold. Not that I・ve tested, to see if I・d freeze to death or anything.・

・Hmm. You probably should. You know, like, in a walk-in freezer. You don・t want to find the limits of your powers the hard way.・

・Is that what you people do? Test yourselves?・

Rogue shrugged one shoulder. ・We do some research, to see how capable we are,・ she answered guardedly. ・It wouldn・t be great for Cyke to be in the middle of a fight and discover he・s only good for a dozen blasts or so.・

・Have you found your limits?・ he asked, curious.

She shook her head. ・Nah. It would be different if I had a useful mutation. My ability is fairly useless. Not to mention dangerous.・

・Right. Like any of our mutations are worth squat.・ The bitter tone in Joshua・s voice surprised Rogue.

・Hey, c・mon. Invulnerable -- and you・re strong. Gotta be a cage out there somewhere with your name on it.・ Joshua looked at her, startled, and she managed to drag her impish expression back into a serious mode. ・Anyway, you can fly, too. That alone has got to be cool.・

Joshua snorted. ・Yeah, me and Falcon. We made great second-story men. And let・s not forget the ability to pick up or drop merchandise anywhere, any time.・

・Well, okay. Actually, I was thinking about aerial reconnaissance.・

・Now you sound like your friend Wolverine,・ he said with a laugh.

Rogue grinned. ・He kinda rubs off on ya. But, come on. Flying has got to be wonderful. No matter what you do with it.・ She flipped the last of her soft pretzel at the pigeons strutting along the street. ・I kinda envy you that.・

・It doesn・t bother you, what I do?・ The odd note in his voice made her look up at him.

His earnest blue-gray eyes were troubled, and she gave the question sincere consideration before she answered. ・No. I may not agree with what you do, but I don・t condemn you, either. I・ve done things I・m not proud of. When I ran away from home, I was on my own for nearly a year. Some of the things I did to survive・ they were wrong.・ He frowned, but let her continue. ・It・s not my place, and it・s not my right to judge you, Joshua. Maybe it・s not your place to judge yourself, either.・

・I could have done a lot of things besides becoming a thief, Rogue.・

・Maybe. Maybe not. In Philadelphia, there・s an enclave of mutants who survive by panhandling. IF I had to make a choice between begging and stealing, I can・t say which I・d choose. I・m just glad I don・t have to.・

He snorted, almost amused.

・Maybe you shouldn・t take yourself so seriously,・ she teased. ・You never know what・s gonna change your life tomorrow.・

・No. You don・t.・ His long fingered hand caught one of the blowing strands of silver, and Rogue held perfectly still as he gingerly tucked it back behind her ear. ・You never know.・

Abruptly he straightened, as though remembering something. ・Look, I・ve got to be getting back. I・ll walk you home, okay?・

Rogue smiled. ・That・s be fine.・


Under the ornate iron balcony railing, the door to the Thieves' Guild safe house was depressingly plain and reassuringly thick. It banged shut behind Wolverine as he entered the small apartment the four of them had been calling home for over two weeks. The building was built along traditional lines for the French Quarter ・wooden floors, tall ceilings, and long, narrow rooms. The main room had a now-defunct fireplace, boarded up with plywood and painted over with the same paint as the walls.

Ororo held up cautioning hand for quiet, her attention on the small black laptop computer that graced the rickety wooden table. Part of the room・s spare furnishings, the wooden surface was barely big enough for two people to sit at either end and eat a meal, but Scott and Ororo huddled together along one edge.

One eyebrow went high on Logan's forehead as Scott started talking to the small screen, until he remembered the latest craze among the computer users in the mansion. He gave Xavier and Jean・s separate grainy images a sparse wave of his hand as he passed.

・Where・s Rogue?・ Storm asked.

・With Joshua,・ he replied shortly, heading into one of the two bedrooms. Jerking the duffel out from under the crisply made bed, Logan stripped off his sweat marked tee-shirt and grabbed a fresh one from the bag. The discarded shirt was stuffed in at one end. Laundry had never been one of Logan's strong points. His movements paused momentarily as his sensitive ears picked up Xavier's voice, oddly tinny over the speaker and phone line.

"Bobby and Jubilee had a very close call on their way home."

"Are they alright?" came Ororo's softer voice.

"They're fine." Jean's voice this time. "They pulled their usual flash and freeze routine. The manager called the police, but the owner of the motel won・t press any charges against the men who attacked and caused the damage. Fortunately, our two were long gone by then."

"And the boy is safe?" confirmed Scott.

"Yes, he's fine," Jean replied. "He's settling in well."

Wolverine zipped the duffel with his usual physical economy and slid it back under the narrow iron bed. Cyclops・ bag lay on own bed, freshly folded clothes laid out in typical orderly Cyclops fashion.

"How's the Sentinal fight coming?" queried Scott.

"Difficult," sighed the Professor. "Every single incident of mutant violence is being paraded in its glory before the committee, not to mention the cost of repairing a certain national monument." The amusement in Xavier's voice was echoed by a twitch in the corner of Wolverine's mouth as he flipped the clean shirt over his shoulder and headed for the small bathroom.

Logan would have laid money that the hardware in the tiny lavatory was original to the building. A huge cast-iron tub dominated one end of the little space. Like the sink, it was equipped with depressingly tarnished iron fixtures which left rust-stains down the porcelain.

"My greatest concern, at this moment, however, is something I've learned just this morning. One of my sources in the Central Intelligence Agency has warned me that a research file has been illegally copied.

"What kind of research?" Storm again.

"Essentially, it's an encyclopedia of release methods for chemical and biological warfare, including aerial and water supply contamination. Their technicians have traced the download and have verified that the information was loaded onto a standard disk, but whoever did it used an anonymous identification to access the network. They're currently investigating all those who had clearance for that information, but unfortunately the list of possible terrorists have mutants at the top and anti-mutants at the bottom."

Scott snorted. "Figures."

"Be alert, and be careful," admonished Jean. "Pyro and Shadowcat will be on standby status.・

In the bathroom, Logan splashed his face quickly and turned off the water, reaching for the threadbare towel. He could hear Cyclops・ voice again, and the cracked mirror threw Logan's ferocious, startled expression back to him as his head came up sharply.

"・ and I think he could be a great addition. You might also talk to Rogue about him, too. She・ seems to be getting to know him.・

・Indeed,・ replied Xavier smoothly, choosing to overlook Scott・s good- natured smirk.

"I'll invite him to come and meet with you, once we're finished down here."

"Very well, then," finished Xavier with a nod, and broke the connection.

Clean-up forgotten, Wolverine strode quickly into the main room as Cyclops closed the laptop. "Talk to Rogue about what?" he demanded suspiciously.

Scott pinned him with a red glare before answering him with a guarded tone. ・Ask her what she thinks about Joshua. I think the Professor would like to know her opinion as well.・

・What the hell for?・ Logan demanded.

Storm answered him, attempting to defuse the sudden tension between Logan and Scott. ・Charles usually likes to meet potential candidates before we make any move to recruit them.・

・Recruit him? For the team?・ Logan shook his head. ・No way. Absolutely not.・

Cyclops stood slowly. ・And what makes you think you・ve got anything to say about it?・

Logan's long arm waved expansively. ・You don・t know this guy ・you don・t know anything about him! How the hell can you consider opening up the operation to someone like...・

・Someone we don・t know -- like you?・ Scott challenged. ・As I recall, you・d graced us with your presence less than a week before you got an invitation! And Joshua・s got a hell of a lot more to offer than you did!・

・You don・t know if that kid can fight his way out of a paper bag! All you see is a Scooter clone who'll take your orders and believe the sun shines out of your ass! Xavier at least had the sense to dig through my head before he tried to talk me into joining up with you. Maybe we outta see if the big boy scout・s got any dirt in his drawers before we give him the keys to the house!・

・I believe that・s what I just suggested, Wolverine. This conversation is over.・ Cool contempt rolled off Scott as he passed Logan, deliberately shouldering him to one side. The emphasis on his code name had been a deliberate reminder of who was in charge.

Logan, seething, let him pass without ripping his arm off. Snot-nosed sonovabitch with his perfect teeth. He noticed Ororo staring at him with disdain.

・What?・ he snapped.

・You are such a bastard.・ 'Ro's careful English accents had turned clipped and short with anger. Logan rolled his eyes. He did not need this right now. Apparently Ororo thought he did. ・You really don・t care about anyone but yourself, do you?・

That got his wary attention. ・What the HELL are you talking about?・

・You・re jealous.・

・Don' be ridiculous!" he sneered.

"Admit it! Rogue had it bad for you when she was seventeen. Well, she's not seventeen any more.・

・Of all the stupid conclusions to jump on, ・Ro, that・s gotta be stretching it!・

・She's got a man who's interested in her. Two, actually, not that she'd take Gambit seriously. And you cannot stomach it!・

・I am not in love with Rogue!・ he shouted.

・No, you・re not! And as far as I・m concerned, that just makes you even more selfish!・ she shouted back. ・You waltz in and out of her life like a damned stray dog, and now that another man has her attention, you can't stand the idea that you're not the center of her universe any more!"

Logan was suddenly clenching his forgotten shirt in his fist, his body bristling with rage. ・You're full of shit, Storm. You always have been, and you still are."

He turned his back and slammed out of the apartment, yanking on the shirt, shower forgotten, and cussing under his breath while he wished for a beer. The tavern beckoned to him and his boots made satisfying thunks as he stomped across the street.

Out of nowhere, a familiar scent caught his attention. Shit. He stopped in the middle of the street. Shit,shit,shit.

"How long have you been standing there?・

"Long enough." Rogue shifted slightly, but did not move from where she stood, leaning against the grimy brick wall, her arms crossed. The late afternoon sun highlighted the pure white strands of hair around her face, making them glow silver. The charcoal colored leather of her jacket blended down into the black of her jeans, and with every other inch of her skin covered, the eye automatically gravitated to her face. Framed by the rich brown and streaks of white, the lack of expression there conveyed as much to him as her normal animated features, and it gave him pause.

Logan wanted to cuss, throw something, or get a beer. Instead he put his hands in his pockets and tried to rein in his temper. "I'm sorry." He'd always had a hard time saying those words, and this time wasn't any easier. "We had no right.."

"It's okay," she interrupted.

He took a step closer to her, swallowing hard and trying to find the words to get through to her. "Storm is right, in a way," he admitted. "Because you saved me, Rogue." Her eyes flickered away, then back to him. Logan took a deep breath. Honestly expressing himself was not something he was good at. "Before I met you, I just didn't care. About anything. I was just kinda existing in a haze of anger." He took another step. "Then I met this kid. And for some reason she got to me. Made me start thinking again.・ He hesitated. ・Living again.

・I told her I'd take care of her, and then did a piss-poor job of it." Rogue stood just outside of arm's reach and he paused again, not sure how to say the rest of it. "And now, she's all grown up and she doesn't need me. I'm not sure she ever did, but she sure doesn't now. And I don・t know where that leaves me."

The silence between them stretched out as she studied his face, looking for something. When she spoke, her voice was so soft even he could barely hear it. "Everyone needs a friend, Logan." The light accent was back, always a sure indicator of her emotions. "Ah'll always need a friend."

Logan held out his hand. Slowly, she put her gloved hand in his, and he squeezed it tight. "Yeah, well. C'mon. I need a beer." She finally smiled at him, and he hauled her off the wall, putting an arm around her shoulders. Her arm went around his waist, and together they crossed the barren street to the tavern.

The place was slowly filling with patrons, but Logan ignored their usual table and found a pair of stools at the bar. He lit a cigar and shoved some cash at the bartender when two glass mugs appeared in front of them.

・Cheers,・ he said, lifting his mug to her and downing half of it gratefully. Rogue took a sip of hers and made a face.

"You know, I never really like beer unless I'm mad about something." Something in the amused tone caught his attention.

"And that's my fault?" he asked, mumbling around a new cigar as he lit it with a silver lighter.

"Yeah. You're still hanging around."

Logan looked at the white streaked top of her head. "Do you still feel me・ in your head?"

Rogue shrugged, and reached out and took the cigar, puffed it a few times, then handed it back.

"It's kinda like a bad habit, you know? Every now and then it just pops out. Wanting a beer, Storm's claustrophobia." She took a drink and snuck a glance at him. "I've had nightmares of watching my mother being dragged to the gas chambers in Poland. I aced European History, thanks to Eric - Magneto," she clarified. "My professor still gave me a B 'cause he was sure I was cheating and couldn't catch me." The amused glint was back in her eye. "And I never had the heart to tell Jean one of the main reasons you hit on her is 'cause you've got an incredible thing for redheads."

Logan groaned and pounded his head on the bar once, then tossed down the rest of the beer.

The bartender replaced it without a word while Rogue chuckled.

Five beers to her two later, he finally got around to asking her. ・So. You and Joshua.・

She quirked an eyebrow at him, another habit she must have picked up from his bad influence.

・There is no ・me and Joshua,・ she explained patiently. ・There・s me, and there・s Joshua.・

・You seemed pretty cozy the other night,・ he muttered into his beer.

・It・s called dancing, Logan. Okay,・ she confessed with a huff, ・I like him. Something about him seems so wonderful・ and he gets points for not totally spazzing on the whole skin issue. But don・t be passing out any cigars or nothin・.・

He quirked his eyebrow right back at her. ・Did I miss something?・ She gave him an exasperated look.

・Yeah, right. Like any man in his right mind is gonna want to keep going out with a girl who can・t touch him.・

・That・s the thing, darlin・. The right gal comes along, and men just lose that objective thought process.・ She snorted at his comic leer and leaned towards him.

・Uh-huh. But when the brain loses all that blood, it goes somewhere else. And that・s where the problem comes up. So to speak.・ Amusement tugged at the corner of her mouth, and he had no doubt what she was talking about.

"C'mon. You're smart. Surely you could get, you know, creative or something." Dammit, his face was getting red. Time for another beer.

Rogue shook her head, then leaned in even closer, whispering in his ear. "Alright, the thing is - with those flimsy silk scarves and heavy breathing? - you can actually inhale those suckers at the wrong moment. Really kills the mood."

"OKAY, this is a conversation I do NOT want to have," Logan interrupted, laughing in embarrassment.

"Hey, you brought it up! How can you be embarrassed? ANYONE who did the bunny hop at Jean and Scott's wedding has no right to・"

"I NEVER did the bunny hop!" he roared, nearly choking on a mouthful of beer.

"Do you have any idea how drunk you got that night?" she challenged.

"No way," he insisted, waving one hand. "I don't care if I got blind staggering pissed, I'd have been catatonic before I'd do anything that stupid."

Rogue eyed him over the rim of her mug, mischief sparkling in her chocolate brown eyes.

"Liar," he accused. She only grinned at him. "Alright, you wanna play that?" He pulled at the last of his cigar, then stubbed it out in the ashtray and grabbed her arm, hauling her towards him. His other found her waist and began digging into her ribs. "Fess up. C'mon, tell the truth! I - never - did - the - bunny - hop. Say it!"

Rogue shrieked and giggled at the same time, twisting to avoid his fingers. "Uncle," she finally gasped. "Alright, I give! It was Jubilee! You wouldn't dance with her, you said you'd rather eat glass than dance the bunny hop! Then I had to take your drink away from you, ・cause you tried it!"

With smug satisfaction, he released her and helped her back on the barstool, ignoring the whack she gave him. "Told ya."

"Yeah, you're so smart," Rogue flipped back. "You know, she thinks you're cute."

"Who?" he asked, completely mystified.

"Jubilee, dummy."

He thought about it for a second. "Jubilee scares me," he replied, honestly. Rogue laughed, to his chagrin. "She's got more energy than any three people deserve. I swear, it's gotta be a part of her powers or something. She could take the ninth fleet on maneuvers and wear them out."

"Combat or sex?" Rogue asked brightly.

Logan paused. "Pick one," he finally replied.

An easy calm settled between them as he commandeered a bowl of pretzels, until she sighed and he noticed her pensive expression. ・What?・

・Logan, do you ever think about God?・ she asked, toying with the rim of her mug. ・About why we're what we are?・

He shrugged uncomfortably. ・Not really. Why?・

Her hair danced as she shook her head. ・Just something we were talking about the other night. About God. Prayer. The whole 'meaning of life' bit."

He was quiet for several long moments, and finally answered her. "I've only ever prayed once, that I know of." He glanced at her. "You lived. So・ I don't really want to press my luck."

Rogue favored him with one of her slow, heartbreaking smiles, knowing he was thinking of the top of the Statue of Liberty.

"We've got trouble," Gambit said shortly, appearing between them at the bar. "Two of my people were moving a shipment. They're overdue."

"Were they mutants?" asked Rogue.

Remy shook his head. "No. But I'm not taking any chances. I want them found."

Without a word, Logan and Rogue slid off their barstools and headed for the door, Gambit leading the way.

"Shouldn't we tell Cyclops・" she began.

"Screw 'im," growled Logan over his shoulder. "We'll call for backup if we need it."


The sun had set fully by the time Gambit drove them to a dockside warehouse. The tall buildings were clad with rusty, corrugated iron over old wooden timbers. The cool breeze blowing in from the Gulf was almost strong enough to cover the stench of dead fish and diesel fuel from the trucks and forklifts that ran during the day.

"Tig and Al received a shipment an hour ago. The supplier swears he left them here with the goods. They checked in when the package arrived, but when I called them back a couple o・ minutes later, Tig didn't answer his phone."

"Wasn't a package of computer CD・s, was it?" Wolverine asked absently as they slipped in through the tall doors. Rows of anonymous wooden and cardboard boxes lined the floor. Stacks of pallets towered above them, creating a landscape of mountains and valleys.

"What?" Rogue and Gambit asked in unison.

"Tell you later." Wolverine's hand came up in a warning gesture, and LeBeau looked on, puzzled, as Logan sniffed the air. "What're you doin', homme?" he asked, only to be shushed by both of them this time. Abruptly Logan dropped beside a large drift of pallets. The other two immediately copied his move.

"Sabretooth," he said simply.

Rogue automatically tuned her head from side to side, checking for any sight of the big mutant, and for possible drafts that might carry scent. The air was relatively still, and she followed Logan・s stealthy advance to the back end of the warehouse.

Crouching behind another series of cartons, they peered around the edge to see Sabretooth ripping open a small wooden box. White packing peanuts cascaded as objects were plucked out, cursorily examined, and tossed to one side.

The contents of other boxes were strewn about in haphazard fashion. In fact, the place looked like an upscale if disorganized tag sale; however, the bargain basement prices were more likely to net a five to ten year prison sentence.

・Oh, no. That was a Benton,・ Rogue breathed as a middling sized painting went sliding across the floor. Gambit and Wolverine gave her identical looks, which she returned with exasperation.

・Wonder what that overgrown cockroach is doing here,・ mused Wolverine, returning to his surveillance. ・Magneto・s still locked up, so he can・t be working for him.・

・You know this chat grande?・

・Oh, yeah. We・ve danced a couple of times. He・s as tough as he is ugly. Whatever you do, stay downwind of him until you make your move.・ Logan lowered his head closer to Gambit. ・You can fight, right?・

The thief・s face was blank, his scarlet eyes flat and dark as he replied. ・I grew up on the streets, monsieur. Remy can handle himself.・ Nimble fingers fished inside his leather jacket. ・And I always got dese.・ A handful of playing cards spread wide under Logan・s puzzled frown, then quickly disappeared back into the pocket in the front of his coat.

Logan grunted, then looked over at Rogue. Her chocolate eyes were wide, and he could see the wary tension in her frame. He knew Sabretooth was one of her least favorite people, if only because he・d been so nearly successful in helping Magneto kill her years before. ・I want you to stay here.・

・Now wait just one minute,・ she protested. ・I can handle...・

・Against any other psychopath, maybe,・ he interrupted her. ・You・re stayin・ put. If things go south, get out and call Cyke.・

・Mebbe we make him into a rug for jus・ you an' me, chere.・ Gambit grinned outrageously, his implication clear.

Logan huffed in exasperation. ・C・mon, Gumbo.・

The two men left in opposite directions, leaving Rogue crouched alone. They scuttled closer, to where they could hear the huge blond mutant muttering to himself as he sorted out his twice-ill-gotten goods. Unfortunately, Victor Creed had senses as good as Wolverine・s, and the big man whirled at the faintest brush of fabric against wood.

・Wolverine,・ he growled as Logan stepped out into view. Creed's stance slid wide as he flexed his talon-tipped fingers. Big enough to hold a basketball and strong enough to puncture it easily, Logan had a healthy respect of Sabretooth's long reach. Unfortunately, he had very little respect for the man himself.

・Here, pussy, pussy, pussy,・ Logan taunted. A rumbling growl greeted his taunt, but their meetings had a ritual to them, and it wasn・t time to attack yet. ・What would Mags say if he knew you were down here killing mutants?・

・What are you talking about, runt?・ Creed snarled. ・I ain・t killed anybody in this town, yet. Hell, even those two are still kickin.・・ A casual wave towards the corner revealed two sets of feet sticking out from a large packing crate, their crumpled owners unconscious or possibly dead. ・Well, kinda,・ he amended, noting their stillness.

・So you haven・t taken any mutants to join your little pansy-ass Brotherhood? A little ・join or die・ action? ・Course, last time it was more of a ・join and die,・ wasn・t it?・

・Five years, little man,・ Creed sneered. ・Get over it.・

Anyone who knew Wolverine would have recognized the signs of his always- tentative hold on his temper giving way. All six claws sprang from between his knuckles with a metallic rasp. ・Just getting started, hairball.・

With identical roars, the two men threw themselves at each other, slashing, kicking, the wooden floor of the old warehouse vibrating as Wolverine was slammed to the ground, only to roll instantly and spring back into Creed・s chest, his teeth clenched in a grimace of rage and determination.

Skirting the battling pair carefully, Gambit slid to the packing crate and checked the pulses of his men. One twitched slightly as he touched his neck, and he breathed a slight sigh of relief. He peered back at the combatants, wincing in sympathy as Logan・s claws missed a swipe and imbedded themselves in a metal support post. In the split second it took to yank them free, Creed hammered him twice in the kidneys. Logan ducked away in the next instant, spinning out of the way, only to spin back in a high kick that caught Creed in the face. Creed kicked back, catching Logan high in the inner thigh from behind and knocking him off balance, sending him tumbling across the floor towards Gambit.

Time to join the game, he thought to himself, rising from his crouch and retrieving his Bo stick from its place. His other hand fished out several cards from the specially sewn pocket.

Creed paused. ・Who the hell are you?・ he demanded.

・Name・s Gambit,・ he said with a nod. ・Wanna play cards?・ The edges of the first card rippled with scarlet light, which abruptly coalesced into the center with a blinding intensity. A flick of his wrist spun the card into Creed・s chest.

With a deafening blast it detonated, knocking Creed stumbling back. Two more followed with quick succession, keeping him off balance. On the floor, Wolverine frowned up in grudging admiration at the concussive force of Gambit・s talent. The Bo stick was abruptly planted in the wooden flooring by his waist as Gambit vaulted over the top of him. Both boots nailed Creed in the face.

Creed snarled ineffectually as he was driven back another step, the confusing whirl of Gambit・s stick leaping out to slam him on one temple, then the other in quick succession. He blocked the next, bringing the whirling to an abrupt halt as he grabbed the weapon. Hauling both it and its owner over his shoulder, he sent them sailing with tremendous force into a stack of cardboard boxes against the wall.

Wolverine stabbed him with his claws, eliciting a roar of pain from Creed. His other set of claws was grabbed in a massive hand as he tried to drive them home. The first set were yanked out, and Wolverine knew instantly it had been a mistake to let Creed get control of both his hands. Creed yanked his arms out, then down, his longer reach giving him the advantage as he drove his knee into Logan・s gut, two, three times.

Logan coughed, breathless, as the air was driven from his lungs. If not for his reinforced bones, his ribcage would have been crushed under the force of Sabretooth・s blows. One huge, meaty hand found its way around his neck, squeezing, and he grabbed the hand with both of his, his own claws jutting up dangerously close to their faces as Sabretooth throttled him. He flailed one set at Creed・s other hand, then stabbed up into the man・s biceps. Creed dropped him with a curse, kicking at him as he rolled clear.

Not clear enough, though. Creed kicked again, catching Logan in the solar plexus and flipping him over once more and sending him skidding several more feet. With a pounce, absurdly quick for such a big man, Creed planted his knee in the small of Logan・s back, one of his big feet crushing Logan's clawed hand into the floor. Logan got his other arm under him, but not before those hands again found their way around his neck and began squeezing.

His one free arm was not strong enough to flip both his and Creed・s weight, and try as he might, he could not pry the fingers loose from around his throat. He looked around desperately for Gambit, but the Cajun was on his back in the crushed boxes, one hand moving feebly as he fought for consciousness.

Logan・s face began to turn dark red, and he rolled his eyes desperately, seeking Rogue・s hiding place. ・Run,・ he tried to mouth, unable to see her. Perhaps she・d already taken off. Then, from the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a tiny scrap of fabric that made his hammering heart freeze.

A single glove lay crumpled on the wooden floor.

Heedless of the blood dripping from him as Sabretooth・s talons dug into his neck, he managed to vocalize a choked ・NO!・ Only the fact that his eyes were starting to roll back in his head let him catch the flicker of movement as Rogue charged the short packing crate in front of the embattled pair. She launched herself up and over, her hands outstretched to grab. Her bare hands.

The big mutant rose to catch her, dropping Wolverine automatically as he reacted to this new threat. He caught her around the body, pinning her against his chest. Her body mass knocked Creed backwards, forcing him to stumble to keep his footing. Rogue's hands braced themselves against his face, fending off his open fangs as he roared. One big hand grabbed at her wrist, prying it away from his eye just as her mutation kicked in.

Another roar came from his chest as he staggered, his face going gray. Long blond hair tangled with hers in a parody of a lover・s embrace as he collapsed to his knees. His black eyes, for once open wide in pain and shock, stared into hers as she rode him to the ground, still clasped tightly to his body. A third roar came weakly from his chest, echoed by Rogue・s scream.

Wolverine forced himself to hands and knees as his neck healed and allowed him to draw a rattling breath. He could only watch as Sabretooth slowly collapsed to his back, taking Rogue with him. She straddled his huge chest, her hands finally yanked free and planted on either side of Creed's head. Her hair hung down in a tangled curtain of brown and platinum, shrouding her face. He could hear her gasping breath as her shoulders heaved.

Gambit managed to sit up in time to see Logan make it to his feet and stagger a few steps closer to Rogue and call her name in a thick voice.


The young woman・s back tensed at the sound of Logan・s voice. He glanced down, drawn to the fine-boned hands that flexed against the wooden flooring, almost lost in the loose mane of her victim. It took a split second for the narrow, white talons to register. He watched in horrified shock as they raked against the floor, effortlessly dragging up splinters.

"Oh, SHIT," he muttered.

Slowly, sensually, Rogue rose off Sabretooth・s prone form. Suddenly, she whirled to face him, talons held out and down to her sides. Her pure black eyes narrowed at him, and a contralto growl rose from her throat. The formerly sleek brown hair seemed wilder, fuller, framing her face in an untamed mane. Her head snapped to Gambit as the thief made it to his feet, leaning heavily on his Bo stick.

・Rogue,・ Logan ventured again, questioningly, and she launched herself at him with unbelievable speed. Years spent sparing with her did not prepare him for her additional strength as she kneed him in the side and knocked him backwards.

・Chere!・ protested Gambit, and with lightening speed she turned on him as well, kicking the stick out from under him and shoving him, hard. Gambit went down, sliding across the floor. He crabbed backwards on his elbows as she stalked towards him.

"Why is she so strong?" he shouted at Logan.

"Because fuzz-face is so strong!" Logan replied tersely. The sound of his voice distracted her again, the feminine rumble in her chest rising and falling with the slow heaving of her chest. "Go low!"

Logan charged her from the front, his hands grabbing for her covered arms as Gambit scrambled to his knees and threw himself at her legs. Between them, they knocked her to the ground and struggled for control. Logan levered himself on top, his hands tight around her forearms. Slowly, he forced her arms against her chest as she fought him. A fierce feline scream of rage pierced his eardrums as he gained the upper hand, and her talons arced dangerously close to his face.

He checked Gambit・s position ・the thief had both arms wrapped around Rogue's legs and was hanging on desperately as she tried to kick free. Leaning on her with all his weight, Logan pinned her down and shouted her name.

・Rogue!・ She snarled in frustration as he called her name again and again. "Rogue, can you hear me?・

She blinked at him, panting through clenched teeth. "Yes," she grated.

"Control him!" She snarled and wrenched against his restraint again. "You can do it! You have to!" he urged. She snarled again, then lapsed into dry sobs, shaking her head, her wild hair dancing across her face. "Do it!"

Her fists clenched tightly, drawing her own blood with the nails, creating small wounds that healed immediately. Her brows drew together furiously, and Logan could see her eyes moving beneath her closed lids.

Slowly, Rogue's breathing began to even out. The clenched hands opened and pushed up against his chest. Logan felt her body relax, and moved back slightly, easing his hard grip. Her closed eyelids slid open, revealing the fact that her eyes, although still solid black, were calmer. Logan moved off of her gingerly. As Gambit released his hold on her legs, she rolled over and coughed lightly.

The two men moved back, freezing as she suddenly leapt to her feet in a burst of feline grace. Logan pulled at Gambit・s sleeve, backing them both up another step. She startled at their movement, then took several slinking steps to stand over the unconscious Sabretooth. Another contralto growl slid from her throat.

Logan was dealing with several conflicting emotions at that moment, and was having a hard time regaining his calm. He・d seen Gambit・s interest perk up at Rogue・s sensual glide. Hell, he was having a hard time dealing with it himself. The animal characteristics abruptly manifesting themselves in Rogue were bringing instinctive responses from him, bypassing his brain completely. Desperate for something else to focus on, he cast about and fixed his gaze on the back of a metal shipping container, the doors wide open and inviting. Used for transporting goods all over the world, the walls were made of thick steel and the doors would close with no way to open them from the inside.

・C・mon,・ he ordered, slapping Gambit lightly on the arm. Gambit grunted once and collapsed his Bo stick, stowing it away. Warily, the two men circled the predatory woman and each grabbed one arm of her victim. Rogue watched intently as they dragged Sabretooth into the container.

"Will this hold him?" Gambit asked.

"Dunno." Logan answered with a grunt. "Rather slit his throat, but it'd probably just wake him up."


The old wooden bar was damp, and the shot glass slammed down with a sharp retort. Immediately, the rotund bartender filled it again with a clear golden liquor.

"Clyde, why don't you cut the chere off?" Gambit called from the far end of the bar, where he stood with Logan, Storm, and Cyclops.

"'Cause I want to keep my fingers," the bartender replied. He watched his customer warily as she flexed her gloved fingers, seemingly fascinated by the way her own talons erupted from the fabric tips.

Remy turned back to the others with a light grin. ・So, she'll sleep off le chat along with her hangover, non?・

"No!" Logan kept his voice down, but he all but spit on the smarmy little bastard. "She got me five YEARS ago, and she's still having my nightmares. And right now, Sabretooth's stompin' around inside her head, wearin' his shitkickers and wantin' OUT!"

・Sabretooth is a very powerful Alpha class mutant,・ Storm added. ・His life-force, his personality, could be overwhelming Rogue. Her body is trying to conform to Creed's feral mutation - trying to mimic what he is. Her talons, her eyes..・

"Her pheromones," added Logan succinctly. The others looked at him, but realized he was holding onto his temper and self control by only the slightest margin, and decided to leave it alone.

・If her sense of self collapses, the most dominant personality in her mind could take over. Best case scenario would be Wolverine, and I・m not sure I can take two of you.・ Cyclops・ feeble attempt at humor was ignored by his target, and he shifted into leader mode.

・Xavier・s contacts in the Justice Department claim they・ll be able to hold Creed if we can deliver him. We need to get back over there and make sure he・s contained.・

・Joshua will meet you at the warehouse,・ Gambit added. ・Monsieur Creed has helped himself to our shipments before, but this is the first time we・ve caught him cold. If you don・t get him out of town immediement, the Guild will demand his head.・

・Alright. The Professor will be leaving Washington in a day or two. He wants us to do what we can to keep Rogue quiet until he gets here. Logan, that means you. You・re probably got the best chance of controlling her if she loses it.・

Logan only nodded in recognition of his status as Rogue-keeper. Over Gambit・s shoulder, he could see her at the bar, turning the shot glass over in her fingers. She carefully placed it upside down on the bar and stiffly made her way to the blank wall, sliding down to rest on her haunches under the little sign that pointed a finger towards the restrooms. Her gloved hands laced together behind her head as she hunched over, leaning against the cheaply paneled wall.

・The only good news, according to Jean, is the physical manifestations should fade within twenty-four hours.・ He checked his watch, gauging how long it had been since Sabretooth had been brought down. Logan had been out for hours, but one example was not enough to set a rule on. ・We・ll meet back here as soon as we get Creed locked down.・

Storm and Cyclops took off quickly, leaving Gambit chatting with Clyde. Logan moved to Rogue・s side of the bar and crouched beside her. Her head lifted, eyes closed, but her nose twitched slightly. Realizing she was taking in his scent, he wondered idly if her senses were as acute as his now.

"Decide to go on the wagon?" he asked lightly.

"HE likes tequila. I don't." She raked her fingers through her hair, pulling it out of her face impatiently.

Logan watched her intently, and she turned her face towards him, her head sliding on one plane only, exactly the way Sabretooth moved his head. "How you holdin' up, kid?"

Her eyelids sagged almost shut, then opened up wide. They were still pure black. When she replied, her voice was a husky drawl that sent that did a dance on his hormone center. ・Everything I am is all about controlling myself. He's all about losing control . . . He says it feels so-o-o good." Her voice slid into a seductive whisper. With a start he realized he was leaning towards her, scenting her. He froze, leaning no further, but unable to move away.

"Does it feel good when you loose control, Logan?" Her hand reached out, nails kneading the air by his face. "Do all the voices in your head shut up, when you loose control?"

He thought about it. "Sometimes. They always come back." He paused. "I know this is hard for you. But you're stronger than him, Rogue. You can do this."

A sound, part sob, part laugh, came from her. "He's full of rage, desires. I can't have what I want. But I can give him what he wants・ " her talon- tips lightly traced his jaw, lightly denting the skin of his throat. He was unable to tell if it was the talons or her scent that made him swallow convulsively. "How do I know what I want, and what he wants?"

She snarled suddenly and grabbed the front of his jacket, yanking him to his feet and slamming him against the wall. The leather made little popping noises as her talons dug in. The others in the bar reacted, but held their ground when Wolverine held up a cautioning hand.

Rogue's head cocked to one side, another unnerving Sabretooth mannerism. "Call me kid one more time, I'll tear your heart out and eat it." She pushed him forcefully into the wall and stalked off, the door to the ladies・ room banging harshly against the wall as she slapped it open.

"Gotcha," he muttered.


Clyde was dozing on a chair in the corner of the bar when Gambit returned, his feet on another chair and his head drooping on his portly chest. He carried two large paper cups to the bar and sat down next to Rogue・s hunched form. Her jacket lay discarded beside her, and he pushed it aside to place the cups on the wooden counter. Her long sleeved shirt, made of a gauzy white cotton, looked much the worse for being worn all night, but the wrists had been neatly buttoned over the cuffs of her tattered gloves, and the front buttoned up nearly to the neckline. It was a small attempt to impose control on herself, but even the smallest effort was helpful to her state of mind.

"Feeling better, chere?"

"Gimme that coffee and we'll find out," she growled, and he slid it to her with a chuckle. Logan, smoking a cigar on the far side of the room, watched him.

・Your eyes・r startin・ to come back to normal,・ he noticed.

・Bully for me,・ she replied shortly. Her fingertips were still talons, and skittered across the paper cup as she drank the coffee gratefully.

・Tell me somethin・. You touch Remy, you get my memories, or jus・ this?・ A stained coaster flipped through his fingers like an oversized coin, the edges glowing faintly red. He reabsorbed the energy with a slight popping noise, and she took it from him, frowning with the obvious effort of thought.

・It depends. How long I hold on, how powerful you are. I・ll know what you・re thinking at that exact moment, but long term memories・ ・ her voice trailed off as she shook her head. ・That・s iffy at best. General stuff, yeah. Exact details are a hard to nail down.・

・But it goes away, right?・

・No,・ she said flatly, her voice colder than winter.

Gambit might have said more, but the door opened to let Joshua in, his long form covered in dark clothing, a black leather jacket covering him. More than ever his close-cropped hair and square bearing evoked military reminders from the Wolverine and Magneto in her head.

"Well?" demanded Gambit.

・Nothing,・ Joshua announced, disgusted. ・No sign of him.・

Logan shot off the wall. ・He・s gone?! Shit! Where's Storm and Cyke?"

Joshua jerked a thumb behind him. "They're right・" he broke off in a rough laugh as Rogue threw herself into his jacket, snuffling deeply at his chest. "Okay, good to see you too, honey. The container was empty," he continued, holding out a pair of tranquilizer darts.

・Then maybe he didn・t get away,・ Gambit offered.

・Maybe the people we・ve been chasing took him,・ Logan said grimly. He gave Rogue・s head an exasperated look, at least as much as he could see of it, buried as it was in Joshua・s chest.

"C'mon kid -- Rogue," he corrected himself, taking an arm and pulling her away. "Snap out of it."

"But he smells . . ." she protested, snuffling into Logan・s chest this time, her face scrunched up in concentration. Her hands fisted up beside her head as she struggled for control. "Not me. Bosco.・

"Bosco." Wolverine stared at her, pieces in his head moving. "The dog."

Remy's gaze flickered from the woman clenching her hair in fists to the Joshua, who stood still with a strange, thin smile on his face.

"Who the hell is Bosco?" Gambit demanded.

A violent twitch from Joshua brought Logan's hard stare back to him. "Bosco・s the dog that died when it attacked Rogue at the Humanity's Champions camp.

・Joshua・s dog."

Joshua's eyes gleamed with the strain of meeting Logan's, the tense tableau of a beta wolf challenging an alpha causing the hair to rise on both their necks. In the circle of Logan's arm, Rogue stood perfectly still, shock and recognition moving across her face.

"Where's Cyclops and Storm?" Wolverine demanded in a deadly growl.

Remy took a single step forward, breaking the tension like a gunshot. Joshua's hand shot out and backhanded the Cajun thief, sending him sliding across the floor. Wolverine caught sight of the tiny black microphone in Joshua's collar as he tackled the younger man, his claws shooting out. The metallic rasp was all but lost as chaos broke loose in the bar. The wicked double slash of claws shredded Joshua's leather jacket but left only faint red lines on his shoulder. Joshua shrugged, catapulting Logan into the wall several feet away.

"All units - move in!" shouted Joshua into the collar mike, before a boot slammed across his jaw with enough force to stagger him. The impact of Rogue's boot and fists twisted his head back and forth as she threw successive kicks and punches, but even with Sabretooth・s addition, she was no match for his tremendous strength when he grabbed the flying black heel and heaved her away from him.

Wolverine threw himself on the young man・s back, claws tearing at the leather but ineffectual against the invulnerable skin of his neck. A handful of Logan・s jacket was all Joshua needed to throw Logan headfirst across the room. One of Gambit・s exploding cards caught his back, but the inrushing horde of men from the main door knocked the Cajun over. He rolled on the ground, hauling out his Bo stick and flailing at the men surrounding him, each one of them in the light tan uniform of Humanity・s Champions.

Wading through the crowd of his men, Joshua caught Rogue・s arm as she punched and kicked at the two men who opposed her. He quickly snagged her other glove-covered wrist and added it to the first. The shoulder of his jacket was in tatters, but the long leather sleeve kept him safe as he wrapped his other arm around her neck and pinned her to his chest, whirling to face Wolverine・s next charge.

"Back off or I make a wish!"

Logan froze.

The four parallel lines on his cheek testified that Rogue・s talons had scored, but they only added to the ugly expression on Joshua's face as he pivoted with his hostage. Reluctantly, the action died around him as Clyde the bartender surrendered the baseball bat he kept under the bar. Remy・s staff was jerked away from him by one of the goons.

Chapter 5

Her knees hurt. Her shoulders hurt. Her arms hurt too, but Rogue kept her fingers laced tightly behind her back and her forehead in contact with the wood paneled wall in front of her. Gambit and Logan knelt in similar postures to her right. The Humanity・s Champions squad had brought plenty of handcuffs with them, each set bright and shiny as the day they'd disappeared from some law agency's manifests and found their way into the service of the men around her. The last pair were being brutally applied to poor Clyde, who lay on his round belly, his short arms pulled uncomfortably behind him.

A single guard stood over Rogue. Whether misguided chivalry or the chauvinistic assumption that a chubby middle-aged man was more dangerous than the young woman beside him, Logan could not have said, but he was fiercely glad. Not even Joshua could stand up to Rogue's power. With one touch on the man's skin, and the balance of power could be shifted quickly. Now if only the G.I. Joe wanna-be would make it easy -- and the goon with the M-4 carbine nuzzling Rogue・s cheek didn・t get antsy.

・I can・t believe you, homme,・ Gambit bit out as Joshua dragged Clyde to his feet and shoved him down next to his boss.

・Quiet,・ ordered another of the tan-shirted squad. Joshua yanked at the front of Gambit・s jacket, retrieving the packaged deck and loose playing cards from the pocket and tossing them aside. The Champion who・d taken the Bo stick handed it to Joshua, who tossed across the room. It crashed into the bottles that lined the wall behind the bar, filling the room with the acrid tang of alcohol.

・Remy know you for almost three years, Joshua,・ Gambit continued. A rifle butt slammed into his back, making him twist in pain. ・Can・t believe you turn on us like ・dis!・

・He didn・t turn ・he was sent here,・ growled Wolverine. ・Weren・t you?・ he accused. Joshua gave him a long look, but didn・t answer.

Two more men came into the bar. From the corner of his eye, Logan could see them holding the doors of the establishment open for a third. When he entered, his unhurried pace brought total silence to the men within. The white shock of unruly hair was the first thing to be noticed, then the piercing dark eyes and prominent beak of a nose.

Franklin Piece glanced about approvingly at the men who stood at attention throughout the room. His gaze fell on the four figures under guard.

・Four more unfortunates,・ he mused aloud.

・Only three, Father. Clyde is a human,・ came Joshua・s deferential voice.

Although she made no sound, Logan saw Rogue・s mouth open as though suddenly struck, her eyes drifting shut as the painful truth about her would-be beau slid home.

・A collaborator,・ Pierce commented. ・His soul is in just as much jeopardy.・ The leader of Humanity・s Champions paced behind his captives. ・Only three, then. I am disappointed.・

The words and tone were simple, but the reaction from his son was telling. Logan recognized it ・he classified it as a ・just once say you・re proud of me,・ posture, and his assessment of their predicament went down several more notches.

・It will make no difference, in the end,・ Pierce continued. ・We know where the rest of the abominations can be found, here in the city. We will gather them.・

・I been called a lot of things over the years,・ Logan sneered. ・Gotta say, that・s a new one for me.・

A faint flicker of Pierce・s hand stalled the rifle butt headed for Logan・s head. ・Of course it is. The truth of your affliction has been kept from you by the Liar who created you.・

・So we・re works of the devil, is that it? Then why bother wasting your time on us?・

・The mutation of humanity is an abomination in the sight of God. It must be blotted from his sight,・ Pierce expounded calmly. ・Your souls, if you even have souls, are damned.・ Pacing again, the Reverend warmed to his subject. ・Your salvation is the work God has set before me. Some of you are not beyond redemption. Even my son strives every day towards this goal. Your fellow mutant, for instance, the one with the eye covering・ removing the Devil・s mark might save him.・

The man・s tone was perfectly reasonable. Sickened, Logan realized the man was talking about removing Cyclops・ eyes.

・Is that what you did to Falcon?・ demanded Gambit. ・You chopped off his wings, b・ard! Did that save his soul?・

・Of course not. It simply opened the door to his redemption. The fact that he did not survive the amputation took away his chance to repent.・

He began to pace behind them again. ・You too have a chance to repent, and redeem others. My son tells me you come from a haven for mutants in the north. You will tell me where this is, and I will cleanse this witches・ den.・

・Your ass,・ Logan muttered, furious. ・Torquemada and the Spanish fucking Inquisition.・

・The only alternative is a holy cleansing slaughter of all mutants!・ Pierce thundered. ・I have worked tirelessly to save you all, and on every side I am opposed by the hellspawn I seek to help. You WILL tell me where to find this haven.・

・Or else what?・ demanded Logan. ・You start a war? I got news for you, bub. There・s a load of mutants out there who・ve seen that coming already. It could be a lot more work than you think.・

・I will be upheld by the grace of God,・ insisted Pierce. ・The time will come when all of humanity will rise up in righteous anger against the mutants, and they will no longer pollute the land of God.・

Logan stared at the wall. ・You・re gonna have Joshua start it for them, aren・t ya? Got it all planned out, I bet. How ya gonna do it, Pierce? Gotta be something big and flashy, ・ he continued. ・A little germ warfare, kill a bunch of humans and blame it on the mutants?!・ He paused, as another piece of the puzzle fell into place. ・Shit, I・ll bet you・ve got that set of disks from the CIA, too. Gotta be a lot of good stuff in there on how Joshua can kill a lot of perfectly innocent people!・

"You'd have your son commit murder?!" Gambit demanded. ・Your own son?・

・Enough,・ stated Pierce, loosing interest in the game. ・We will find your den of witches, wherever it is. When the country knows what and where you are, and sees a mutant attacking the nearest city, they will demand action.・

"Come on,・ breathed Rogue, leaning into Logan・s shoulder, speaking barely loud enough for him to hear her. ・Hasn't New York been picked on enough?" The bitter gallows humor lifted his heart more than it should have. Knowing she was still thinking like an X-Man was a relief, however fleeting.

The slight movement brought Pierce・s eagle sharp gaze back to Rogue・s crown of white hair. ・Bring the woman,・ he snapped.

・NO!・ yelled Logan. The guard batted his head with the stock of his shotgun.

Joshua seized her by the arm and hauled her up, his vast, pitiless strength keeping the tips of her feet barely brushing the floor. The strain on her shirt ripped the top two buttons, revealing the neckline of the white sports tank she wore beneath.

・I known you a long time, Joshua. I never figured you de kind to pick on girls!" The guard hammered the Cajun in the back with his gun butt again.

・They come from the north. Philadelphia, maybe,・ Joshua offered. His hands held her shoulders, and he was perhaps unconscious of the way he pulled her back against his chest. Rogue eyed Franklin Pierce, an odd, defiant glitter in her eye. She・d begged for her life once, and it did no good. She・d made herself a vow to never beg again.

Pierce gave her a benevolent smile as he leaned down to put his face on the same level as hers. ・Tell me where you came from, and you will not be hurt.・

Rogue smiled back. ・Liar.・

The old man・s hand rose to backhand her, checked when Joshua called out, ・Don・t!・ Under his father・s intense glare, he continued. ・Don・t touch her ・her skin absorbs your energy.・

・Hmm,・ remarked Pierce. He glanced around the tumbled room, to one of the tables that still stood upright. ・Bring her.・ The baseball bat Clyde had used lay discarded on the floor; with deliberate movements Pierce picked it up and weighed it in his hands.

・A woman who drains the life from the men around her, offering temptation that is never fulfilled,・ he mused. ・She is woman, indeed.・

・Great,・ drawled Rogue. ・Misogyny disguised as fundamentalism.・ Pierce shot her a fierce look, but continued to address his son.

・Women are weak, my son. They have no courage, in the end.・ He hefted the baseball bat. ・Free her hands, and take those ridiculous gloves."

・Father・・ Joshua protested.

Anger flashed suddenly under Pierce・s shaggy white brows. ・Has this whore of Satan seduced you?・ he demanded.

・Of course not,・ Joshua replied sternly.

・If you have any hopes of redeeming your immortal soul, my son, then do as I say! Hold her!・

Joshua・s long arms held her from behind in a grotesque reminder of their earlier dance as he unlocked the cuffs and yanked at the fingers of her gloves, stripping them off and dropping them to the floor. The fabric of her sleeve bunched around his fingers, his body behind hers forcing her to bend while his strength easily forced her hands flat on the table in front of his father.

Pierce regarded the small white talons with vague interest. ・Tell me where your den is, witch.・

She shook her head, and the bat fell instantly. She gasped with the instant pain, knowing it would get so much worse very quickly.

Pierce assumed a patient expression. ・Tell me,・ he coaxed.

・No,・ she managed.

Pierce frowned, and the bat fell again, this time on the other hand, and she let out a small scream.

・Tell me!・

・Go to hell!!・ Rogue spat as she coughed and struggled, but Joshua's embrace held her like a vise.

Logan listened to her scream again, his body jerking involuntarily to the sound of the bat falling. He stared at the wall in front of him, feeling the familiar tide of red rage swamping his thoughts. A movement of Gambit・s chin caught his eye for a split second, and he saw the rifle barrel of the closest guard sagging. The man・s whole attention was on the torture being enacted on the far side of the room.

Another sobbing scream abruptly broke the last of Logan・s control. Snarling in rage, he rammed the inattentive guard over Remy with his shoulder, kicked another who never had the chance to bring his weapon to bear.

A sharp explosion behind him made him whirl, but rather than a gunshot, LeBeau had used his mutant ability to charge a link of his handcuffs and make it blow. In one quick, fluid movement he scooped up a handful of coasters from the debris on the floor and let fly.

One hit Joshua square in the back, causing him to drop Rogue from his grip. Pierce scrabbled backwards, shouting, ・Shoot him!・

Another second was all Gambit needed to charge the chain between Logan・s wrists. Hands free at last, claws out, Logan staggered a half step as a bullet hit him in the chest, then waded into the men with a roar, his wound already closing. Gambit dropped to the floor and rolled, coming up with another handful of coasters and some of the scattered cards, charging them with a touch and sending the whining missiles into the chaos, his aim uncannily accurate. The sight of Joshua striding towards him inspired the charge on his next handful, and he sent them all to impact square in the man・s chest, hitting him with tremendous force and staggering him backwards.

Logan was only peripherally aware that three of Pierce・s men had grabbed him and hustled him unceremoniously out the door. Twisting out of the way of a shotgun blast, he kicked the owner and rammed his knee into the man・s gut. Gambit・s missiles were exploding around him, taking out additional men before concentrating on Joshua.

The young man faltered under the onslaught, throwing one hand up to shield his eyes from a blast that came uncomfortably close to his face. Logan had a moment to gather himself, preparing to charge him again, when Gambit let loose with an even larger barrage, all of which hit dead center and blew Joshua back, off his feet and into the wall hard enough to go partially through it. He slid down the wall, and slumped to the floor, unconscious.

Logan dragged the last Champion up to meet a pile-driving punch and dropped the man to scan the wreckage of the room. In the corner, Remy quickly popped the cuffs around Clyde・s wrists and helped the big man to his feet. With a quick slice of his adamantium claws, Logan shed the remains of the cuffs off his wrists.

・Where・s Rogue?・ he demanded. Suddenly he caught sight of her leg behind an overturned table.

Remy reached it at the same time he did, and together they threw it away. Rogue lay curled against the wall, leaning on her elbows, her white-shot hair was a waterfall over her face. Logan carefully pulled it back. When she raised her head and looked back at them, her irises were once again a rich chocolate brown, but glistened with unshed tears.

LeBeau took one look at her hands and looked away, then met her eyes again with murder gleaming in his scarlet orbs. Logan gently put his arm around her and helped her sit up.

・We must be leaving now, mes amis.・

・In a minute,・ Logan growled. He took her wrists in a delicate grip over the torn cuffs of her shirt, fighting to keep his face impassive as he examined the misshapen wrecks that were once graceful fingers.

"Sortez d'ici, maintenant!" Remy shouted to the bartender, who immediately dropped the weapons he・d been gathering and headed out the door. ・Chere needs a doctor, an・ I・m thinking pretty damned quick. And we got no idea how many more guests be coming for this party.・ He eyed Joshua・s still form, lying among the other unconscious or dead HC members.

Logan ignored him. He could feel Rogue・s trembling pain and he took a small breath. Creed had a healing factor, but any residual left in Rogue would never be up to the damage Pierce had inflicted.

・Logan?・ Her voice was thready, questioning but also warning.

He refused to answer her, but carefully slid his hands down her arms. He could feel the edge of the seam on her sleeve, feel the warmth of her skin beneath the thin cotton. She tried to pull away, hissing in pain as her fingers were jostled, but his grip tightened. His fingers inched downward.

・Logan, no. You can・t. Logan!・

His warm grip slid down to her bare wrists.

Remy・s attention snapped back as Logan made a choking noise. The man・s face was gray as granite, but Rogue・s mouth was open like a woman in the throes of passion. The thief watched with disbelief as Rogue・s fingers straightened. The shattered joints and purpling knobs of broken bones knit together, the seeping blood ceasing as the split skin reformed smooth, whole. After only a moment, she wrenched her nearly healed hands away from Logan・s grip.

He fell down to his hands and knees, gasping for air like one on the verge of drowning. Her fingers flexed once, the healing slower now, but complete within moments. Rogue circled his broad shoulders with her perfect hands, whispering something that sounded like ・you idiot・ into his hair.

Across the room, Remy spotted Joshua stirring, and decided that enough was enough. ・He who fights and runs away, mon coeur courageux,・ he muttered. He grabbed Wolverine under the arm and dragged the man to his feet. He was a lot heavier than he looked.

Rogue snatched her discarded gloves from the floor and hauled on the other arm, and between them got Logan moving toward the back of the bar. A tan- shirted Champion came staggering down the corridor from the kitchen and Rogue took him out with a swift kick. She turned to see Logan・s exhausted eyes watching her with an amused glint.

・How are you feeling?・ she asked breathlessly, hauling his bulk forward down the hall.

・Little sore. How ・bout you?・

She gave him a brief grin. ・ A little sore.・

Ahead of them, Remy kicked the Emergency Exit door and looked back impatiently as they hurried towards him. His back was to the cracked parking lot, so he did not see the cars that careened around the corner and screeched to a stop, but he did see the murderous anger in Joshua・s face as he bore down on them. Logan・s claws slid out with a harsh rasp, but his charge towards the men piling out of the vehicles was brought up short as Joshua・s large hand grabbed the back of his jacket and bounced him off the metal door. Adamantium claws flailed uselessly as he was shaken like a rat.

・NO!・ shouted Rogue, struggling with her glove, but Remy grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away, towards the alley. Logan・s body landed with a painful crash on the pavement, rolling to protect himself as he was surrounded by more Champions, who kicked and stomped every available inch as he struggled. With lightning speed Joshua reached out and snagged Rogue・s other arm, pulling her and the thief back towards him.

The menace of a shotgun brought Gambit up short, and his shoulders slumped as he raised his hands. The dog-pile of tan shirts obscured almost all of Wolverine, save his choked, ferocious face, while Rogue dangled from Joshua・s raised arm like a carnival prize.


Logan regained consciousness with a start, lifting his head, then decided against it. He was face down, his arms pulled painfully apart. Slower this time, he rolled his head to the side to survey the dark concrete cell. On that side, LeBeau gave him a tiny lift of his head, welcoming him back to the land of the living. The thief's hands were duct-taped flat to each other in a semblance of prayer, the handcuffs around his wrists further restraining his movement. From the scattered bits of tape and the blood around his mouth, he'd been working on getting the stuff off for a while. Damn fools should have cuffed his hands behind him. Of course, they may very well have, and not realized the thief was as flexible as an eel. A metal collar around his neck chained the thief to the wall.

Struggling to check his own bonds, the Wolverine tried to keep the rage and panic down to a manageable level. A length of steel pipe ran across his back, U-bolts in the drilled ends anchoring the chains that imprisoned his arms and fastened him to the ground. Dark stains and the stench of old blood on the cold floor under his chest told him this room had seen use before.

In front of him, a knee moved. He lifted his head higher, awkward as hell in this position.

With relief, he realized a live and relatively unharmed Cyclops sat across from him, his hands cuffed behind him. The leader of the X-Men looked like he'd taken a lot of punishment before being taken down. The fancy black visor was missing, and in its place, surgical tape and cotton pads crisscrossed his eyes. A similar collar ran around his neck.

"Cyke. You okay?"

The younger man startled at the sound of his voice, then grinned half- heartedly. "Been better." He didn't sound traumatized, and Logan concluded with some relief that Pierce hadn't followed through with the threat to remove his eyes. It might be a hell of a lot of fun to needle his leader without mercy, but in no way did he want the guy permanently maimed.

Logan finally got his head turned around the other way. Rogue sat with one leg curled under the other, leaning one shoulder against the wall. She had been dozing, or perhaps just resting. Her hands were similarly cuffed behind her. The fingernails that peeped through the ragged holes were perfectly normal, and he upped the estimate of how long he'd been out. Her face was calm, but her eyes were portals into a dark world of pain.

"So," he began, conversationally. "What'd I miss?"

"Not much, mon ami. We been sittin' here for hours."

Cyclops shifted on the concrete floor. "Just be glad you missed Old Man Pierce and his nazi son in here telling us he's doing God's work."

Logan shook his sore head, exasperated. "Already had mine. Why do these assholes always try to talk us in to going over to their side? At least Magneto had a good point to make, even if he was a nutball."

"He was trying to convert us," Rogue added softly. "Joshua thinks he's the biblical Joshua, chosen to lead us poor unclean to the Promised Land." The bitter tone of her voice twisted in his gut like poison. "He should have been named Judas."

Logan thought about it for a minute. "That one was a traitor, right?"

It actually got a small laugh from her. "Yeah."

"So. Cyclops. Still wanna recruit him?"

Scott's perfect teeth were still bright in the dim light as he grinned. "Kiss my ass, Logan."

He grunted in acknowledgement, then took a better look at Rogue. Her cheek was striped in three deep red welts, turning purple in the center. He had no doubts who had slapped her with such force. He made a mental vow to gut the bastard. ・How long we been here, and do we have any idea where ・here・ is?・

・I・m thinkin・ mebbe half a day. Sunlight・s startin・ to fade out dere. They plannin・ somethin・, though. Been hearin・ construction sounds, hammers and chainsaws and such.・

・We・re about an hour or so away from New Orleans,・ Scott added. ・We drove, so it・s probably west or north.・

・What happened to you two, anyway?・

・We got to the warehouse, but Creed was already gone. Some goons jumped the three of us, and just about the time I thought we were winning, Joshua nailed me. I told Storm to fly away. He must have tried to follow her, but I did heard a couple of lightning strikes.・ The slight grin flashed again.

・Storm will find your people and coordinate with ours. It・s only a matter of time.・ Rogue seemed confident. Logan knew none of them were. With the attack on the bar, the Guild had to be hiding deep from a traitor who knew all their contingency plans.

・We may not have that luxury,・ Scott said baldly. ・They know Storm escaped. Whatever their original plans, they・ve got to be changing their timetable.・

・You really think your Stormy gal・s gonna get a passle o・ my people together and find us in time?・

・I sure hope so,・ Scott commented, shifting uncomfortably. ・I really have to pee.・

(Author's Note: For those who don't remember, Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt, wandered for 40 years in the desert with them, but died before reaching the Promised Land. Joshua, his second in command, actually led the way to the Promised Land.)


In the underground reaches of a Upper New York mansion, Charles Xavier sat in the hollow heart of Cerebro, eyes closed and brow creased in concentration. Finally, he raised his head and opened his eyes, staring at something that isn't there. "West," he breathed.

In the wood-paneled office above him, Jean Grey-Summers sat in a half- trance, her hand absently caressing the unborn child she carried. Over her brilliant red hair she wore a black phone headset. Dreamily, her eyes still drooping in her trance state, her fingers reached out and pressed a speed-dial button on the phone bank.


Hovering far above Lake Pontchartrain, in the late afternoon sun, Storm pressed the earbug more firmly in her ear. The tiny black wire trailed to the cell phone zipped firmly in the front of her uniform, it's tiny green light blinking under her throat like a beacon as she banked and sped into strong light.


In the driveway where Jean had greeted Logan with a smile, the younger generation of the X-Men waited tensely. St. John and Kitty leaned against the convertible, it・s engine running quietly, while Bobby sat possessively in the driver・s seat. Riding shotgun, Jubilee watched the front door with the same predatory intensity as the rest of her team. A bright yellow jacket topped her outfit, but did not disguise the black leather of her uniform underneath. Next to her, Kitty gnawed on a non-existent hangnail, her other hand thrust in the pocket of her uniform jacket.

・Where・d the Professor get another jet?・ she asked, her voice thin. It wasn・t a real question; it was just a way to pass the moments while they waited for Jean to appear.

・The Guild sent it, I think,・ Jubilee murmured back. Another thought occurred. ・Did you get those crackers like I said?・

・Um, yeah,・ Kitty said. ・Why・dya need ・em?・

・Not me. Jean. I・m not flying with Her Preggerness unless I・m armed.・


The ground rose shortly in the darkness, then sloped down and away from the group of mutants being herded by a crowd of Franklin Pierce・s most fervent believers. Surrounded on all sides by the armed humans, Rogue kept her attention on keeping Cyclops・ faltering steps from tripping them both up. They・d released her hands to allow her to help the blinded and cuffed man, but any thoughts she・d had about touching Scott and absorbing his powers had been circumvented by the duct tape that circled her gloved wrists tightly. Tempting though it was, Cyclops had forbade her to try it unless absolutely necessary.

Behind her, she heard Sabretooth・s roar as he was hauled forward. Trussed as tightly as Logan, he was not taking his captivity well. His arms strained against the chains encircling his wrists, which were bolted to the hefty steel pipe across his back. More chains looped around his shoulders, keeping the pipe close to his body. Wolverine had caused enough trouble that the HC guards had knocked him off his feet and were dragging him over the dry grass.

Craning her neck, Rogue looked around for lights or any signs of civilization, but only marsh flats and twisted trees draped with Spanish moss stretched out beneath the lingering twilight as far as she could see. A fist lashed out of nowhere and cuffed her head, and she glared at the flat, impassive face of the HC guard who・d struck her. This man was Caucasian, but the next tan shirt was a Latino. Whites, blacks, even one who reminded her terribly of Jubilee surrounded her, but all wore similar hard expressions, implacable in their disgust of her and her kind.

At last the group in front of her parted, and the progression of burnt circles and piles of ash took a moment to register. When it did, she inhaled sharply, involuntarily. Five new pyres were waiting for them.

"What is it?" Scott asked. He turned his head into the breeze coming from the Gulf, sniffing in an almost funny imitation of Logan. Remy, standing nearby with his hands once again locked behind him, shook his head at her, but she ignored him.

Her hands tightened on Scott・s arm, warningly. He had a right to know. "They're going to burn us at the stake."

He stiffened, but the shoulders straightened unconsciously. "Well. That's different. Good to see someone keeps up the old traditions."

The tails of her once white shirt flapped against her hip as strong hands ripped her away from Scott・s side, and her throat choked as she realized she・d lost her chance. She could only watch, helpless, as one by one they were forced up a small ladder on the individual pyres. Logan and Sabretooth had the chains of their bonds pulled around to be nailed to the upright timber, once a telephone pole, that thrust through the heart of the stacked wood. The hammering echoed loudly across the landscape.

Franklin Pierce, coming late to his own party, frowned at the crucifixion image the two mutants presented. He waited until Rogue, Gambit, and Cyclops were each tied to their own stake, their handcuffs removed and substituted with harsh sisal rope. The guards who gingerly tied Rogue・s hands behind her had to maneuver carefully on the tiny platform laid loosely at the top of the logs. Glancing down, Rogue could see the log cabin arrangement of wood and the tiny sense of humor she had left laughed at the pattern Scott had taught her on camping trips, years ago.

・Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,・ proclaimed Pierce to his assemblage.

・How original.・ Cyclops・ voice carried just as well over the crowd, and the hisses of ・quiet・ from the people did nothing to intimidate him.

・These mutants are the spawn of Satan, and we shall send them back to their creator in the hellfires from which they came!・ The crowd murmured in approval as Pierce stood on the bottom rung of Cyclops・ ladder. ・That one has the clearest markings of a demon of hell, ・ and Sabretooth growled menacingly at Pierce,・ but all of them are of the devil・s making!・

・And you got all the markings of a psycopath!・ yelled Remy.

・Shut up,・ ordered Joshua, from his place near his father・s side.

・Look around you, Joshua,・ Remy shot back. ・This is wrong, and you know it.・

・Which is blackening your soul more?・ Rogue added, unable to keep the bitter tones of betrayal and hurt out of her voice. ・Being a mutant, or killing people who trusted you?・

Franklin Pierce turned his thoughtful, patriarchal gaze on his son. ・Well, Joshua?" he challenged. "Will you damn your soul forever, and side with these・ things?・

The silence stretched out for interminable moments. ・No, Father,・ Joshua finally answered, softly.

Smiling with just a touch of triumph, Pierce held out his hand. One of the guards handed over a length of smooth wood. The end was wrapped in a swathe of white cotton, perhaps an old shirt, and soaked in paraffin and lighter fluid. A lighter sparked, the flickering light glowing a glorious warm light in the gathering darkness as the sunlight reluctantly faded from the marsh. A cool breeze from the sea caused the flame to gutter for a moment. Then the fire leapt eagerly to the end of the torch, licking up and around the fabric wrappings. He held it out, letting them all see their fate.

Abruptly a sonic boom broke over the group, followed by a scream of jet engines and the harsh sound of retros firing in the darkness.

・Jean!・ shouted Scott, his bandaged face unerringly drawn up and out towards his soul-mate. His dry and bruised mouth moved minutely, his brow creasing in concentration as Jean・s telepathic voice reached him.

Bright white sparks and multi-colored streams of plasma arced in the distance, accompanied by the ominous roll of thunder. The assembled mob of Champions dissolved into chaos. Some ran away into the wilderness, while the majority rallied and charged back towards the main camp. Several commanding voices shouted orders as the group headed back to defend their base. Pierce was immediately surrounded by his handlers; hard-faced men who urged him away.

・They will not stop God・s work!!・ Pierce thundered. ・Joshua!!・ He cast about desperately for his son, and spied him standing exactly where he・d been during their brief conversation. Striding forcefully, he grabbed his son by the front of his shirt. ・Finish this, then join me.・ The spitting torch was thrust into Joshua・s numb hands. ・My work must be completed!・

・Yes, sir,・ Joshua replied, taking the torch. ・I promise.・

Joshua Pierce watched his father and the bodyguards as they disappeared over the rise, then scanned the sky, where the first star of the evening made a pale appearance. He paced towards the closest pyre, and stood motionless, despite the sounds of battle coming through the night, contemplating the torch in his hand.

・Joshua,・ Rogue called out, but stopped as the man shook his head.

"All I ever wanted was to serve God and my country, Rogue." Joshua raised his face to see her, hanging against the stake above the chest-high pile of wood. "Get married, raise a family・" His voice trailed off as he remembered the dreams that had died for him.

"And then I found out I was a mutant. God help me, I was one of the things I'd been taught to hate. I tried to hide it. I tried to pretend it didn't exist. I did everything I could think of the keep it from tearing my world apart.・

Logan saw the blond demi-god swallow hard, a single tear track making its way down the man's cheek. ・I was a good son, and a good soldier, and I ended up with NOTHING!" The word tore into the night with the raw anger of a man holding onto sanity by only the barest margin.

・And then you came here. You made me want to believe again, Rogue. You made me want things that I can・t have!・ The torch crackled in the still evening, whooshing softly with the erratic movements of its wielder. ・The military doesn't want me. GOD doesn't want me. And even if you wanted me, you couldn't touch me!" A harsh laugh followed his anguished shout.

"I think I've finally figured it out," he said after a moment. "Finally, it all makes sense." The fire reflected off the tear track on his face. "We're already dead, Rogue. We・re dead, and this is hell."

Joshua slowly approached her waiting pyre. "We're already dead," he repeated softly, then thrust the torch into the gasoline soaked wood. Greedily the fire spread at the base, following all the gasoline. Joshua watched the leaping, eager flames impassively, then looked up at Rogue. Like a stag clearing a fence, his mutant strength carried him in one prodigious leap to the top of the pyre.

Joshua・s hand was almost hot as it cupped her face, pulling her mouth up to his. In contrast to his brutal grip around her waist, his kiss was gentle and passionate, until the familiar undertow hit her. Her torn shirt had slid off her shoulder, and the thin strap of her tank was not wide enough to act as insulation as Joshua・s large hand dropped painfully onto her shoulder. His skin went gray and his mouth on hers gasped open in a rictus of pain, the veins of his face standing out boldly, but he made no effort to break from her. His entire body shaking, he sagged to his knees, buckling slowly like a burning building. His lips dragged their way down her cheek and neck as her talent pulled more and more life from him.

The fire spread quickly to the adjacent pyres, first to Gambit's, then Logan・s. Behind the couple, the leaping, flickering flames began to rise. Joshua held Rogue in an iron grip, his hands circling her bared waist where her tattered shirt had left her exposed, and leaned his cheek against her naked belly like a lover.

Logan could barely hear the raging battle at the camp over the popping of the spreading flames. Despair was a vise in is chest as he could only watch as Rogue absorbed more and more of Joshua. Rogue・s head was thrown back, in either pain or pleasure, her long hair whipping in the breeze. With a start Logan realized they were gasping in unison.

At last, Joshua Pierce dropped away from Rogue and slid down the pyre, dead, sparks flying up in the wake of his rolling body. Under Logan・s horrified witness Rogue・s back arched, then snapped her head forward, shaking in convulsions. Never before had she absorbed so much that her body attempted to reject the grafted energy. A strangled scream came from her as she lost consciousness and sagged limply in her bonds.

His vision hazed with impotent rage, Logan again yanked futily, desperately, against the chains and spikes pinning his arms. He did not consciously consider the mercy that Rogue would be unconscious when she died, only knew he was desperate to get to her. He paused in exhaustion, his abused muscles shaking and blood running freely from his wrists, before beginning again to wrench at the chains.

He did not see when Rogue・s head came up, moving in dreamy leisure. The flames at her feet began to blacken the fabric of her jeans, the sparks flying up around her like an unholy halo. Sluggishly she glanced at the inferno around her, then down to where her arms disappeared around her back. When she gave the tied wrists a twist, the rope parted like rotted thread.

The flicker of movement drew Logan・s stunned attention as Rogue leapt lightly to the ground. A slow turn of her head to see the fires, then she took another effortless bound that placed her beside LeBeau, where her suddenly immense strength had the knots giving way in seconds. She lifted him easily and flew them off the pyre. His hands were still taped together, and the tape tore under her fingertip as easily as a paper envelope.

Relief flooded through Logan like a drug as Rogue turned to him, but turned to apprehension as she continued her dispassionate calm while ripping at the chain holding his wrists. ・Rogue?! Are you still in there?・ He flinched as she pulled the nails out of his chains with her fingertips.

・ROGUE!!・ he shouted in her face. She blinked, but made no response. Scooping him up in her arms, she brought him unceremoniously to the ground near Gambit, where he found his mistreated body did not want to stand upright yet, and immediately left him to free Cyclops. Within seconds, the younger man was sprawled next to him.

・What the hell is going on, Logan?・ he demanded. His fingers hovered by his bandaged eyes, quivering in frustration. Logan glanced at the body of Joshua Pierce, lying backlit by the roaring flames like a Viking prince on his funeral barge.

・Joshua・s dead,・ he said shortly.

・Rogue?・ The shock vied with concern in Scott・s voice. Logan made no response, but watched Rogue as she flew to the enemy that remained trapped atop a raging fire.

Sabretooth grinned with anticipation as Rogue freed him, the chains breaking like children・s toys under her gloves. When his talon-tipped hands came free, he made a lunge for her throat. The snarl of satisfaction changed to a grunt of surprise as she grasped one massive thumb in each hand and pulled, forcing his hands away from the bare skin.

・We always were a slow learner,・ she growled. With a quick leap backward, she pulled the big mutant off the licking flames and sent him tumbling to the flattened earth. He scrambled to his feet to face her, the momentary shock of seeing her hovering several feet off the ground giving her ample time to slug him, a single punch that laid him out like a bad prizefighter.

Logan took a moment to drag Joshua's body further from the raging fire, uneasy with the detached, unconcerned way Rogue watched him. She had not responded to any questions, and he was leery of pushing her while she was still at Joshua's full strength. Sabretooth remained unconscious, and when he considered the effort it would take to truss the man up, dismissed the idea entirely.

An explosion over the hill caught everyone's attention.

"I think we're missing the party, Cyke," Logan commented.

"Then let's go," Scott ordered. He startled when Logan grabbed his arm, but let his teammate pull him upright. LeBeau left off scavenging for small rocks on the ground, stowing the handful of golf ball-sized missiles in the appropriate pocket.

"I've told Jean we're safe," Scott commented as he stumbled over the ground he could not see. "She's told the team where we are."

"Jeannie's stayin' in the Blackbird, right?" Logan queried, not really a question. His attention and wholesale concern remained on the lithe form of the woman in front of him. Rogue's walk was different than usual; but oddly, it seemed to change from moment to moment, from a hunter's stalk to a short-stepping march, then back to easy gait he was accustomed to seeing. She walked up the slope that separated the base camp of Humanity's Champions from their execution field, then paused to wait for the rest of them. He considered the fact that she even acknowledged their existence as some progress.

Rogue had once told him that managing the people in her head was similar to juggling. Surprisingly, that was a skill at which Lensherr was adept, and which she'd demonstrated, laughing when Logan teased her. Now, his gut twisted with the worry that Joshua's absorption could be too much for her to handle.

At the crest of the hill, Rogue surveyed the compound, one corner of which was burning as brightly as the pyres they'd left behind them.

"That's a really bad idea," she commented, the light trace of her accent completely missing. ・The armory・s in that wing.・

Logan gave her a level look, then gave Cyclops' arm a tug. "Better tell Jean they need to get that fire out."

"Gotcha," Scott replied, his attention turning inward. A moment later, a breeze rippled through the grasses, pulling moist air from the south. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

As they approached the buildings they'd been summarily marched out of earlier for their execution, several figures appeared in the smoke and gloom, weirdly lit by the fire behind them. A few stray raindrops pattered down as Jubilee, Iceman, and Shadowcat came closer.

"Pyro's helping Storm control the fire," Jubilee volunteered. She fished in the pocket of her soot-smirched yellow jacket, and came out with a curve of black. "Here," she said, guiding Scott's hands to his visor as he shook off Logan's hand.

"Thank God," he breathed, tucking it under his arm and tearing at the bandages over his eyes. He grimaced but continued to ruthlessly remove the tape until his face was bare. Cyclops' boyish features were still too young for Logan's comfort, but it was something he'd accepted in the years they'd fought side by side. Once the visor was back on, the leader of the X-Men was once again in charge. "Status?"

"Most of the goons are under control. The Guild sent some people along to help," reported Bobby. "They're out searching for the strays now."

"The fire is contained to one building," added Jubilee. Pyro said it will be about five minutes before he gets it out completely."

Scott glanced at Rogue, who stood with her hands clasped lightly behind her back, her feet apart in the at-ease stance of a soldier. "Iceman, see what you can do to help Johnny get it out faster."

"Check," Bobby replied, disappearing into the darkness again.

"Any sign of Pierce?"

"A car tried to run me down when we got here," commented Kitty. "The engine died when I phased through it, but no one was left in the car when we went to check."

"Then he's still around. Kitty, show Wolverine the car. Logan -- find him." The flat finality of Cyclops' voice was without pity. Logan nodded.

"We need to find his little science project, too," he growled. "Those disks the CIA lost? I'm betting they're here in the compound somewhere."

"Great," Cyclops replied dryly. "Jubilee, I want you to get Rogue on the Blackbird and keep her there."

"Uhm, sure," she responded. "Why the house arrest, if ya don't mind my asking?"

The rebellious tones in her voice earned her a possible glare from behind the red visor, but Logan answered the question. "Rogue's had a rough couple days. Take care of her, alright?"

The younger girl shrugged. "Whatever you say, big guy. C'mon, sweetie. It's quittin' time."

"Jubilee," Rogue acknowledged an odd voice, peering down as her as she took Rogue's arm.

Logan and Kitty set off towards the far side of the compound, but had gone no more than a dozen yards before he reached out and stopped her. Cyclops and Gambit saw him freeze, and called out to Jubilee to stop.

A single figure surged out of the grass past Logan and Shadowcat, careening wildly up the path towards the way they'd come. Almost barreling into Jubilee, Franklin Pierce reeled out of the women's way and staggered towards the small rise, only to be confronted by Cyclops and Gambit. The old man recoiled violently and turned to flee, only to see Logan suddenly blocking his way.

His white shock of hair even more unkempt than usual, he swore incoherently as he spun around, searching for an escape, but was thwarted by the mutants who moved to surround him. His eyes glittered in the light of the burning buildings, reflecting a not-quite-sane gleam as he came to bay in the circle of X-Men. A tire iron wavered in his trembling grip.

"Joshua!" he screamed skyward, virulent hate distending the cords of his neck as he raged. "Where are you? Answer me, BOY!!"

"Mr. Pierce," Cyclops called commandingly. Pierce whirled. "Mr. Pierce・ your son is dead." Only his basic decency let the words come out with the smallest particle of regret.

"He cannot be dead. My son is invulnerable!! God's grace protects him to be my instrument!"

"Everyone has their weaknesses," Logan stressed flatly. He'd meant that in a purely military context, but that was not how the words were received.

"No. NO!" He cast about the X-men, the manic glint in his eye growing wilder. "YOU!" he shouted. "Whore of hell, what did you do to him?"

Swinging wildly, Pierce laid into Rogue with the tire iron, despite Logan's abortive attempt to intervene. Rogue took the blows without flinching, in fact, without any visible effect. Jubilee gasped, one of the few times Logan had ever heard the firecracker taken aback.

"Have you lost a tool, or have your lost a son?" Rogue demanded coolly, contempt dripping from the European accent in her voice.

Screaming incoherently, Franklin Pierce swung wildly, a blow that should have split the skull of any human. But a human did not stand before him, and when Rogue's hand shot out and grabbed the length of iron, it was suddenly as immobile as a mountain. With a casual jerk she pulled it from his hands and slung it away in the darkness. Pierce goggled at her, his mouth working without sound, until her other hand rose and backhanded him with an explosive slap. His body landed several feet away.

Rogue stalked up to the man who lay moaning in the dust. Logan seized her shoulders in a hard grip. "Get a handle on this, Rogue. Keep control."

"Piss off, runt," she bit out, before wrenching her arms from his grasp. "I got it," she added in a quieter voice. "I'm all right."

"We don't have much time before the authorities show up," Scott called. Jubilee was trussing the semi-conscious Pierce with a length of dark rope. "I want those disks found and destroyed before we leave." He turned to Jubilee and her prisoner. "Get him to the jet. Jean might be able to dig it out of his conscious thoughts, but I don't want her and the baby out here where someone can take a pot shot at her."

"He doesn't go anywhere near Jeannie," Rogue snarled in a low voice. She stalked towards Jubilee and her prisoner, and Pierce shrank from the young woman who'd so casually beaten him.

"Rogue, don't!" warned Cyclops as tried to stop her, she pushed his chest with her fingertips and sent him staggering backwards. She grabbed the front of the Reverend's shirt and hoisted him up.

"Human," she said, the European lilt back in her voice. Holding up her hand, the tip of her index finger emerged as the other fingers inched down the torn glove-tip. "Where is the information you stole?" The faintest crease of concern went through the old man's face, as he realized he was completely at her mercy, but never realizing the question had been asked to deliberately bring the information to the top of his mind.

"Rogue, STOP!" shouted Logan, shoving forward to grab her arm, just an instant too late. Her fingertip touched Pierce's lined cheek, turning it gray for a moment before Logan yanked her hand away.

She dropped Pierce, shaking her head as she made sense of his mind.

Her posture changed slightly as the balanced yet another personality in her head. "Father," she said in a begging voice, her head twisting as she fought for control.

"Tell Kat the disks and a biohazard container are in the walk-in safe hidden behind the south wall of the basement. There's a framed print of Christ hanging on it. The booby traps are electronic・ phasing through them should take 'em out."

After a moment, she began to laugh, and her own voice came forth. "You・re a fool, Pierce. The 'bio-weapon' you paid so much for... it・s worthless. It・s killed virus, used for inoculations. It・s completely harmless." She dropped the old man, still laughing, then suddenly snarled at him.

Rogue's hand shot out, fingers wide, and the metal tire iron came winging out of the darkness into her palm. Her eyes were black in the firelight. "No -- Stand Down!" she ordered, then tensed, jaw clenched, muscles frozen as different personalities vied for dominance.

Her back arched painfully as she fought the voices in her head, her fingers digging into the disordered tangle of hair. Logan caught her as she collapsed, and she buried her face into his chest as strangled sounds came from her throat, her body still twitching convulsively.

"Shit!" he cursed, trying to turn her over enough, his bare hand reaching for her face, but Cyclops stopped him.

"Her body isn't hurt. You can't help her."


In a misty gray landscape, Rogue walked past a plain concrete wall. Doors hung open all along the avenue, and as she approached one, she peered inside. A teenage boy stood in the center of the cell, his skin oddly gray under the bright white light that made the walls of the room indistinct. He stared at her defiantly until she stepped back.

The door to the boy's cell swung shut of its own accord. Rogue's hesitant steps took her to the next doorway. Inside, Magneto spared her a single glance before returning to his contemplation of a chessboard, the pieces fully engaged in a complex game. That door also closed with a clang, and Lensherr ignored her as he moved his queen. Logan occupied the third cell. Seated in a simple folding chair, his feet were spread wide with his elbows planted on his knees. A cigar dangled from his fingers. The smoke curled through the air as he gave her a slight smirk. A tiny glimmer of fondness curved her mouth, and she left that door partially open. The next half-dozen doors swung shut as she surveyed the row of cells. From the barred window of his cell, Sabretooth snarled viciously at her. She walked down the hall, peering in the little windows. The final door was wide open, but empty, save for a branch of pale purple flowers on the floor. Tentatively, she picked it up.

Suddenly, Charles Xavier was standing at her side, his expression one of calm patience.

・What is it?・ he asked calmly.

・Hyssop flowers,・ Rogue answered. Her fingers caressed the blossoms. ・He isn't here," she said softly. "I can't find him anywhere."

"Rogue," began the Professor, startling backwards as she whirled.

"He's not here!" Rogue shouted.

In the library, Xavier flinched suddenly, pulling his fingers from Rogue's loose hair as her head came off the soft arm of the sofa with a lurch. He moved his wheelchair from beside the sofa to a closer proximity to Rogue, and waited as she swung her feet over the edge and sat up.

"Sorry, Professor," she said, and he gave her a pained smile.

"It's quite all right, Rogue. Your defenses are・ quite formidable. I must say I'm impressed. "How do you feel?"

"Empty," she replied after a moment of reflection, her voice equally empty.

"The personalities you've absorbed are all still there, Rogue. They've simply been put away. You should, with practice, be able to access them when you choose."

"Except Joshua," she added bleakly.

"I'm afraid so. I found no trace of him." Xavier regarded her with fondness, not a little intrigued. "I'm not sure exactly how you received Joshua's abilities without absorbing his personality, and so unfortunately I cannot predict how long you'll be able to utilize them."

"Joshua wanted to die," she said quietly, fiddling with her gloves. "He didn・t want to exist any more. And he doesn・t, not even in me.・

Xavier seemed to be unsure of how to address the sense of loss in her voice, and unable to think of anything else to say. "Well. I suggest you get some rest. You've had a very trying time." He paused, obviously feeling the need to say more.

・Franklin Pierce and his organization were among the strongest supporters of the Sentinal proposal. Exposing his activities of Humanity・s Champions has created a backlash of sympathy for mutants, and without the organization・s political support, the Sentinel bill has been postponed in all congressional hearings." Deliberately, he reached out and pressed his fingers over her clasped, gloved hands. "We・re all very proud of you, Rogue.

She nodded shakily, her white-shot hair slithering loosely over her shoulders. Xavier's silent chair carried him from the room, and she stared at the carpet for a long moment. Moving gingerly, careful of her new strength, Rogue moved to the window. The sheer white curtain hissed against her gloves as she pulled it aside to see the kids playing on the lawn, including Tommy, his furry shoulders covered only by a tank top as the rest of the children wore long sleeves and jackets. They were kicking a ball around, shouting exuberantly, happy.

Suddenly she was aware of Logan, leaning silently against the bookcases. Whether he was there all along, or had silently appeared in his usual way while she was looking out, she could not have said.

Her mouth moved, as though she would say something, but looked out the window again rather than continue to meet his steady gaze. Pushing away from the bookcase, Logan crossed the empty room and stood beside her, looking down on the crown of her head.

"Would you rather be alone?" he asked, his voice gravely.

She shook her head in tiny, jerky movements. Carefully, Logan folded her into his arms and rested his chin on the top of her head. Together, unmoving, they watched the children outside playing on the lawn.

After a bit, Rogue stirred in the circle of his arms. "I think I need some air."

"Okay. Wanna take a ride?"

"Actually・" Rogue started. The quiet tones of her voice rose, and Logan pulled back to look at her. A tiny frown creased her forehead as she thought, then a small smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth. She glanced up at him through her lashes, an arch expression that he'd never yet been able to refuse. "I was kinda thinking about something else."

That got her the eyebrow, but he didn't question her. At least, not until it was far too late.

Franklin Pierce had convinced his only son that the mutant powers he possessed were shameful, something to hide. And while Rogue had never been ashamed, exactly, her energy absorbing talent was hardly something that could be considered enjoyable. Now, despite everything, she had been given an ability that didn't hurt anyone. Several, actually, considering the strength and invulnerability that showed no signs of fading. And if she had nothing else of Joshua, she at least had his gifts. If he had never been able to enjoy them, surely she could enjoy them in his memory.

Several minutes later, Logan followed Rogue down the back steps to the expansive back yard of the mansion, grumbling but inwardly glad at the rallying spirits of the woman in front of him. Across the yard, Tommy gave Rogue a furry wave, and she returned it with a smile.

"I feel stupid in this getup."

"Well, you don't look stupid. You look like a fighter pilot."

"I look like one of Jubilee's S & M music videos." The web strapping hung off of his huge frame like a jet pilot's parachute harness.

"It's either this, or piggyback," she warned.

"Alright, alright," he grumbled, and pulled out the Matrix-style sunglasses Jubilee had given the entire team as a gag Christmas gift. "You sure I need the shades?"

"Definitely. We don't need to find out the hard way if you can regrow an eyeball." Rogue circled him, checking the fit of the harness until he slapped her hands away with a mock growl.

The sight of her brilliant smile as she put on her own sunglasses was worth looking like a dork, even if Scott did see him. "Okay. Let's do this."

"Hang on," she warned from behind him.

"No," he corrected. "YOU hang on. Don't drop me."

He felt her small hands grab the webbing over his shoulder blades, then the gentle tug upwards as she rose off the ground. The straps tightened around his body.

"Ready, sugar?"

Sugar? Where had that come from? "Ready as I'll ever be." With a lurch his feet left the ground, causing him to grab convulsively for the secure harness across his chest. The grass dropped away beneath him and the wind blowing through the points of his hair increased suddenly.

An uncontrollable whoop came from his lungs as she accelerated sharply, pulling them into the air, circling the house and the stately trees wearing their brilliant autumn colors. The sounds of the children pausing in their soccer game to cheer came to Wolverine's ears, and a huge grin spread over his face. He heard Rogue laugh in exhilaration, and glancing up, caught the joy on her face.

His hands reached up, found her gloved hands where they gripped his harness, and took a firm hold. "Punch it."

And she did.



Author・s Note:

Psalm 51, verse 5 ・Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Psalm 51, verse 7 ・Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. (NIV translation)


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