The Bauers, Isabel Mendez, Emilio Suarez, I-Ping Soong and Tham Kriengchayapruk belong to me. Jason Auspach technically belongs to Marvel, but I supplied the surname. All other characters belong to Marvel. I'm not profiting by this.

Some language, graphic violence and mature topics in various places.

Comments go to ja_glinka@yahoo.com Flames will be blithely ignored.


Minute Change

Part 10

Karolina Phillips

10/11/98

 

Mystique hummed along with the car radio. A situation had developed that she could handle quite nicely on her own, now that she was rid of X-Factor, if she felt like it. Certainly Victoria is expecting me to walk neatly into her trap. The outdated operative had pulled five names out of a magical hat. All five were part of Mystique's network as well as members of the Underground. What a coincidence. Turning on your own just to blackmail me? I don't think so. The utter gall of the duplicity amused her. I thought I made the consequences of such maneuvering abundantly clear. My stint with the government must have clouded her mind. She scanned the horizon for a welcoming wagon, then shrugged when no one appeared.

There was a second, more compelling reason for not confronting Victoria directly. While it would be relatively simple to ensure unfortunate accidents for all involved, this situation would make an excellent test for Rogue. Times were changing quickly, mutant and human relations reaching a breaking point, yet the girl had yet to make good on her promise to master her power and return home, if only briefly. She respected Rogue's wishes to fight for Xavier's cause, she truly did, but Mystique was also her foster mother and mentor. Sometimes a mentor had to do what was best for their student. Graydon is dead. Kurt is lost to me. I have one child left. I will not squander my opportunities. Very soon, I might not have the chance to train another. She uncurled her fingers from the steering wheel. Nor will I watch my daughter go down in flaming glory because she refuses to acknowledge the consequences of her past actions. Victoria was a mole that had leaked information to, what was technically, her own side. And there's only one time she had first hand access to data consisting of names. As an excuse, it will do.

Her car stopped and levitated. Mystique sighed deeply. Well, it's about time. The gates of Xavier's Mansion gleamed a good quarter mile in front of her. She craned around the driver's seat searching for her levitator. "Jean Grey? Is that you?"

"No. It is not," announced a resonant voice.

Mystique raised an eyebrow. A handsome young man floated into view. Waist length white hair whipped around a square jaw raised in pride but the effect was marred by the yellow and blue costume he wore. He's much better off in red and purple. Mystique sent him a brilliant smile. "Good afternoon, Magnus. Long time no see."

"My name," he said patiently, "is Joseph."

"Whatever you say." On second glance, he did look rather young to be Magneto, not that de-aging was out of the question or even improbable, but his presence here would contradict the rumors that Magneto had reemerged in the Middle East. I imagine someone will explain this to me later. Joseph crossed his arms, frowning at her. He looked at something down below and she rolled down the side window to poke her head out. Logan scowled up at her.

"Ya can put her down."

Joseph hovered uncertainly glancing towards the mansion. When there was no sign of activity from there, he raised his brows doubtfully but her car drifted down. "Shouldn't we summon the others?"

Logan chewed on something and crossed his arms. "Nah. She's drivin' a car an' wearin' her own skin."

"Why, how gracious of you." Mystique grinned at him, then winked. "You sure about this peaceful welcome thing? I never feel quite comfortable until I've had a tussle and blown a few things up."

"Shut yer trap." He leaned in mock-casualness against the side of her "borrowed" car and placed one hand on the window edge. His face was caught in a grimace. "Any smart moves and Joseph here squishes ya like a bug and we send the pieces back to Forge."

She eyed the fist pointed at her chest. "Oh, honestly, there's absolutely no need to threaten me. I'm here on a perfectly innocent and friendly familial visit."

Wolverine snorted at her. His unkempt hair quivered distastefully. "Yeah? Ya got X-Factor's sanction on that?"

He's almost as unappealing as Creed. She curled her lip and pushed his hand off the door frame. "Of course not. What type of idiotic question is that? Whether you approve or not, last I heard, our truce stood." She let her smile die. "Or have 'things changed'?"

"They have," he growled and added a beat later, "Truce is good."

It's a shame he keeps grudges. "Then I can continue on my way? Or would you like to explain to Rogue why you chased me off?"

Joseph dropped to the ground in front of her car. "What business do you have with Rogue?"

"I'm her mother."

His chin and brows went down, lines forming at the bridge of his nose. Other than that, he did not move. "You're called Mystique, then?"

She made a mental note to keep an eye on this 'Joseph'. Without even knowing her outside a portfolio, he regarded her with hostility. He feels protective of Rogue. A friend? A lover? Curious. According to what I heard, she's paired with LeBeau. The corner of her mouth twitched in amusement. Maybe she's involved with both of them.

Logan glared at her, then sent a silent order towards Joseph. "She is. We made a deal with her a while back. We take care of Rogue, she doesn't harm any of us." His eyes seemed to glow as he returned his attention to her. "Anything, anything at all and-"

"Yes, yes, I know. You're the best at what you do and the X-Men take care of their own. I've heard the spiel. The last thing I would do is hurt my own daughter."

"Yeah? Her idea an' your idea of hurtin' are two different things. Mind explaining why yer here?"

"Not at all. I need to discuss some business matters with her."

His expression grew belligerent. "Yer gonna discuss stock-market options with her?"

"Long term investments," she retorted. "I'm not going to force her to do anything she doesn't want to do, if that's your concern. I understand she's worked hard at turning her life around and I won't take that away from her. But," and she paused to appreciate the advantages of being a pathological liar, "she has left some tasks unfinished. Of course, I could turn around and leave, with no one the wiser."

He held her gaze, still as stone, understanding perfectly. He could deny her access but if he did, he would be indirectly responsible for any harm that came to Rogue. If he considered her enough of a threat, he could chase her off and warn the girl something was up. On the other hand, Mystique could give specifics and forewarned was forearmed.

His face lost its contention and he leaned into the window to demand, "What's yer gain?"

He was close enough to kiss. But he knows when to keep his mouth shut. "I am tired of protecting her without acknowledgment." Mystique slouched back in the car seat and slit her eyes. "As my daughter likes to say, she's a grown woman and can take care of herself. I thought I'd give her polite notice beforehand."

Logan grunted and stepped away from the driver's side. He pulled his mouth into a disapproving line, then swung away from her. He turned to Joseph. "Let her go."

"Should I escort her?"

Mystique smirked, ready to make a crack about escorts, but decided Logan was not in a receptive mood. As for the young man who claimed not to be Magnus, she tried to avoid identity issues on general principle.

"Nah. She ain't exactly trustworthy, but her word's good. She won't cause any trouble. Will ya, Raven?"

"I wouldn't dream of it, darling." She blew a kiss at him, waggled her fingers at Joseph, and started the engine.


Mystique, aka Logan at the moment, pushed the kitchen door open. She stood in the doorway looking at the slightly bedraggled couple at the dining table. Her daughter leaned blearily on the table across from a unsanitary young man Raven quickly identified as LeBeau. Both froze and eyed her warily, falling silent. Two peas in a pod. Wonderful. She looked away from them to the refrigerator. I must have interrupted an interesting conversation. I could be polite and leave.

Offhand comments from her associates and overheard communications had alerted her to a relationship between Rogue and LeBeau, but still.... Don't drop a note or anything. This could be a hindrance. It was not that she objected to relationships in general, although she found them unwise, it was the who that bothered her. Professionals were a tricky bunch, intelligent to get where they were and possessing allies or, in this case, family, who would take exception to any misfortune that befell them. If he insists on involving himself and is injured.... Bother. Well, I suppose it depends on whether the two children are serious about each other or he's the flavor of the day. Two years was a rather long day, though.

Perhaps all was not well as it seemed between them. That was a heartening thought. She opened the refrigerator door, made an aborted pass at an unknown tin foil package, then pushed aside a half full milk jug. The Stetson on her head bumped against a wire rack and slipped over her eyes so that she had to shove it back. What do they eat here? Beer? She felt eyes on the back of her neck.

Carrying an opaque Tupperware container with a pink lid, she sniffed disdainfully at the cold eggs and orange potatoes they were feasting on. That doesn't look like something Rogue would cook. With her, it's either peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or a seven course dinner--but only on pain of death. Mystique snuck a look at the Cajun, who appeared to be patently ignoring her. Well, he can cook. Brownie points for him.

Her daughter cleared her throat and asked, "Hey, ya free for double tag later on this afternoon?"

"Sure, darling," she assented distractedly. Darlin', drop the G. That's right, I don't shape shift for a few months and look what happens.

"Why don' ya wan' play wit' me?"

She coughed. Is he asking me? She glanced up quickly but he was looking at Rogue. Of course, silly me. Let's see how my daughter deals with that. Who's dignity will you offend first. Mentally, she hummed the tune to Jeopardy.

Rogue valiantly dodged, snubbing Gambit, and turned to her. "Are you all right?"

She waved a dismissive hand at them and stuffed her face with neon macaroni and cheese, mostly to keep from laughing. "Yep, dandy. Don't mind me. Keep talking."

LeBeau stuck his tongue in the side of his cheek and leered. He proceeded to back Rogue into a corner with overt sexual innuendo, suggestions and mindless prattle. Never once did he lean forward aggressively or stare for longer than three seconds. As for as she could tell, he was doing nothing more than flirting. Yet, Rogue was floundering. He winked in her own direction.

Hm. Unless he's carrying on with Logan behind her back, I'd be interested in knowing how he identified me. She tipped the brim of her hat. In which case, the act has officially begun. So impress me already.

"Don't," Rogue warned complete with narrowed eyes and hunched shoulders.

Oh ho, so you do know it's me. Don't what? Don't insist on a mother's right to examine her daughter's prospective mate? Don't who? Cope. Mystique was not about to leave after the initial bout of interest shown by LeBeau. There was no chance in hell Rogue would allow her to corner him in a room for an official conversation and examination. She liked what she was seeing, Rogue's tolerance combined with her nervous reaction. People are only nervous when they're honest or lying and she's not lying. She's getting defensive. That was encouraging, so long as LeBeau was not toying with her.

This boy seemed rather loose, seem being the operative word. He flitted from woman to woman at his convenience but according to her sources he was as devoted as he appeared to be to both Xavier and Rogue. Conversely, it should be blatantly clear to him that Rogue was anything but convenient. Perhaps that is what he wants, a woman on a pedestal. Aware that she was staring at him malevolently, she tipped the brim of her hat lower. In light of this, she needed to consider that LeBeau and that Joseph fellow would interfere with her lesson plan. I can't have them doing that. I need her to handle the Bauer family herself. Poorly, no doubt.

Distraction was not a good thing, either. Mystique looked at the clock and told herself to be patient. It was early in the afternoon; there was no need to rush. There was no reason to be irritated that Rogue was flirting with LeBeau rather than planning out her strategy. Raven pulled out a cigar for the express purpose of mashing it. Why do some people insist on learning the hard way? Why? Because I encouraged her to be difficult and overly confident of herself when raising her. I probably overcompensated for her childhood.

Remy apparently came to a decision and made an elaborate show of looking bewildered. "I love a challenge. Powers or no?"

Mystique's ears perked up. A dare. Whatever it is, she doesn't stand a chance.

"Ain' a match with 'em. Ah'll wear an inhibitor if you will." Rogue settled for blatantly ignoring present company while Mystique merrily watched her unconsciously crush the handle of her fork.

"You know 'bout inhibitors?"

"No, Remy, Ah'm deaf and stupid."

He put up his hands to ward her off. "Hey, no need t'get ya hackles up. So ya know 'bout inhibitors." He was grinning like a Cheshire cat. "Ya really t'ink you can win?"

Mystique rested back into her chair in consideration. What the devil does he want her to do? I should have been listening, not philosophizing.

"Your over-confidence'll do y'in. Who knows. Ah've had some pretty hard task masters even if y'are the world's greatest assassin-fightin' thief. Least-ways it'll be fun." Shrugging she added, "What're the stakes?"

And you arrogance will do you in girl, as it always has. She still walks into ambushes, from what I hear. If Mystique did not know her so well, she would not waste her energy testing her survival skills. No, somewhere in that deluded little head of hers is everything I spent years teaching her. She cocked her head when her daughter...leered, outright forgetting present company. I definitely missed something.

"What stakes?"

"Don' play dumb, with you, there's always stakes."

His gaze fell to their guest for a fraction of a second. "Hm. Okay. You win, I dance for ya."

Rogue bit her lip but a smile crept up anyway. She met his eyes. "Dance? C'mon, y'can do better than that."

"Non, non, I mean-"

"Oh." Her flirtatious attitude stumbled to a halt as she bit her lip.

"Yup. New t'ya?"

Raven gave Rogue a sanguine smile. I'm not moving, darling, so you just say what it is you want to say with me here. I'm not about to spare your precious sensibilities.

"'Kay, what ain' ya tellin' me? C'mon, out wit' it."

"...All right... Y'see, Irené an' Mystique were very good parents, but they had some interestin' morals and values. When Ah was fourteen, they tol' me Ah could go to a club with them an' bein' un'erage an' all, Ah was kind of excited." She hacked some eggs on her plate in half and cleared her throat. "They neglected t'tell me it was famous for its strippers."

"An'? What'd ya do?" he teased.

"What d'y'mean what did Ah do? After the first thirty seconds of bein' mortified, Ah sat down an' watched the show." She coughed. "It was very nice."

"So den I make sure t'put on a good show."

"All right. An' if Ah lose?"

His eyes were twinkling but he kept mum paying more attention to his food than her. Making a show of wiping his lips, he brought the other hand up with a flourish. "We play ball."

Rogue inhaled a potato chunk, choked, went red from lack of oxygen and embarrassment, then coughed. Covering her face with both hands, she pushed her hair back, and looked resentfully at Mystique aka Logan.

What? Don't look at me. Just because I gave them to you doesn't mean you can blame me for leaving them out in the open. Did you think everyone would mistake them for medicine balls? Mystique crossed her arms and chewed on the cigar. You encouraged him. Now you deal with his antics. Granted, she was not impressed with the lack of subtlety, but that had never worked on Rogue. Besides, you know there won't be any censure from me.

The sparkled of reflected light from the two, small, metal spheres drew her gaze. Rogue started giggling from shock and looked off to the other side. She slid down in her seat until she was forced to correct her posture due to the risk of falling under the table. After a few minutes of struggle, she pulled a straight face and asked, with the faintest note of accusation, "Were you diggin' through my drawers?"

"Ayup." With an ever wider grin, he began rolling them in his hand. "Look at it dis way," he placed a hand over his heart, "I had de honor an decency t'bring only dese to de breakfast table. What y'say? Someday when we bot' free we go find ourselves a nice hidey-hole an'-"

"Ah don' use 'em," she squeaked and waved in his general direction. "Those're jus'...souvenirs."

"Sure. I believe ya."

It might be therapeutic...if you can work up the guts, girl. Mystique sniffed and poked at an errant noodle. It slid around the side of the plastic bowl but insisted on staying stuck. You know, I could probably use this as a persuasion technique on a reluctant speaker. Tell me what I want to know, or else, the macaroni!

"Remy-"

"Hey, jus' wonderin'. Dese're real pretty." He held one up, squinted an eye to study it. "Dis gold inlay?"

Raven gave up her pretense in everything but form and leaned on her knuckles. If they were just getting around to the issue of sex.... She shook her head in bemusement.

"Hush," Rogue muttered, motioning towards their listener. "Mystique gave 'em t'me, Ah'm assumin' as a joke, or maybe they're worth somethin'."

"Smart lady. An' she give you de best, non?" he teased. "When?"

Rogue took a fortifying breath, expelling it in relention. She finally took notice of the mangled eating utensil she held and put it down gently. "Ah promise Ah'll talk about this all y'wan' later, happy? But this," she pointed a thumb at Mystique, "is not the time or place."

Mystique shifted into her own form and broke into chortles. "Oh, bravo, bravo. This was more entertaining than I expected. Frankly, I'm of the opinion that this is the perfect time and place but to each his own." Directing her words towards her daughter, she rose. "When you're quite done, I'd like to speak with you."

In her seat, Rogue stiffened in renewed irritation. "If this is your idea of a joke-"

Raven leaned close to whisper in her daughter's ear, "No, but I would have appreciated an introduction. I'll be waiting."

When they both stared sourly at her, she gamely left.


"-ark my word."

Mystique had only gone as far as the hallway. She had not said where she would wait.

She ignored the muffled voices coming through the door, the television a short distance away, the heating system, water pipes, and let her smile fade. If she didn't hate me before, she'll hate me now. While he possessed a crude sort of charm, she resented this interloper, this variable, for coming between Rogue and herself. In her estimation, LeBeau was a poor choice for a long term companion. As a lover, I'll give him his due, but she needs stability, trust. It was discomforting to realize that though Rogue was a grown adult, Mystique continued to feel protective. How do I reconcile this? If I dismiss her relationship, she will accuse me of being selfish. If I ignore him, she will be hurt by my indifference. If I warn her, she will charge me with meddling. Faugh! He has more enemies than common sense. It seemed destiny always conspired against her. Irené had pointed out, in her unassuming way that Rogue was attracted to those who promised impermanence. A polite way of saying commitment shy and yet desperate, to the point of foolishness, for it. I will talk to LeBeau, this man who abandoned his wife, who rejected his clan, who worked for Essex. An angry voice caught her attention.

"What don' you un'erstan'? That was jus' a freak accident. Why d'ya take my powers so lightly?"

"'Cause you take dem too serious. Wouldn' hurt t'have some fun."

Fun? I take it she's failed to mention how she got her "kicks". Does he know how avariciously she used her power as a teen? Would he be shocked as, no doubt, Xavier was? Or would he be intelligent enough to see beneath the veneer of greed? His suggestion had been delivered in a such deliberately calm voice that it brought her smile back. Ah, but I am being lulled by my own hopes. I came here to force a decision out of Rogue and here I am debating on whether or not to include this man as part of that decision.

There was quiet, the sound of metal on ceramic, one of them cleared their throat.

More silence. Mystique lit the cigar. Smoke collected under her hat and she morphed the Stetson away.

"Not a joke. Dis be fun not funny."

She crossed her arms, resisting the urge to pace. Again, the boy sounded solemn. Maybe he's not teasing her. Maybe he's trying to push until she pushes back. That might work, if Rogue saw that he was trying to help not hurt. She pensively rolled the cigar between her fingers. In which case I'll have to find a way of keeping him out from underfoot without actively coming between them.

He was apologizing for something.

"Sorry 'bout dat. Dieu, dat soun' stupid. I t'ought, you be mad at me for what I done, di'n' wan' lose ya over somet'in' dead an' buried. I.... 'Kay, hope y'not gon' bite my head off here, but... y'gon' tell de others? I wan' know, dat all."

"No. None of they're business. Purely up to you."

Reflexively, her lip curled in disgust. It did not matter what Rogue was making a concession about. You've gone soft, girl. There were at least a half dozen events she could think of that Rogue might be upset upon discovering. These days she can't even cope with associating with anything "dirty" or "dark" as if it would throw a shadow on her own reputation. She grinned to herself. It sounds like you've become a hypocrite, girl. An insecure self-effacing coward. A.... Stop it, Raven. You're here to help her not express your disgust.

"Why it bother ya so much t'use 'em? I seen de tapes, de records, you di'n' use t'be. Why so jumpy when I get close, beside de obvious?"

She stared at the door. This was something she wanted to know as well. Many things might hinge on it. She needed to know whether it was Xavier's adamant insistence that she be wary of her power, lack of desire, fear of its side-effects or a result of that Danvers woman's meddling. A mutant shouldn't be afraid to use their power. Above all, they shouldn't feel guilty about having that power. She was gifted with her power. I only hope that in her heart she realizes that her mutation is power and not an inconvenience as her actions so often imply.

"Ah'm not a 'path. Ah don' have a choice in what Ah experience, what Ah 'member, so don' treat me like one."

LeBeau gave a startled exclamation and started to ask a question, but stopped.

"After one, two, five, twenty, a hun'red, so many Ah've lost count, Ah can only shut it out an' forget best as Ah can. Comes a certain point, when forgettin' the mem'ries means forgettin' a part o' myself."

Raven's thin smile faded and she looked down the short hallway. Fool. Haven't you heard the old adage? Change is inevitable. She watched her hand ripple from flesh tone to blue and back again. Some of us are meant to be in flux. Loss of identity was familiar to her, but it was not a fear worth respecting. She is not afraid of a change. She is afraid of her own awareness. She has become a coward.


Deceit was eerie coming from Rogue. Despite the significant tension between them, rage even on Rogue's part, she and Mystique had communicated swiftly and effectively. For a second he had seen apathy, but it was gone. Something was preying on her mind, yet she was ignoring it with obsessive determination. Beginning to wonder if she's one of those people who always look guileless. He put his fork down. That's how she survives. She lies to herself. Nearly detached, he studied the face he was accustomed to believing expressive.

"Chere, what I know is dat las' night y'wanted t'know 'bout Sinister so bad dat ya try t'bribe me. An' I know dat when dat di'n' work, ya looked at de mem'ries ya got and drown dem away after ya done." He reached across the table to push her bangs aside. "I couldn' tell. Not in words. I wanted to, ya don' know how bad I wanted to." He laughed softly, "or mebbe ya do. Still can't." If that makes me less in your eyes, I'm sorry. You think I was trying to force you into the role of the aggressor so I could blame you for anything you saw. He wished he could turn his thoughts into words.

Sinister knew what she had learned. He put the memories back, but she remembered, just like she says happens sometimes. The monster could use her awareness as a lever against him. That smile he gave me and the reminder, I'm in his power again. He refused to believe that anything was set in stone. Some things are between a man and himself and not for others to toy with. If I had known about the X-Men's connections to what happened, I wouldn't have stayed with them. Now, I can't tell, because they take care of their own. But maybe she's right. Maybe I should tell because they're family and what affects me affects them. Even more privately, he wondered if they were family but shook off that concern for a later date.

She had regained her composure. "Moot point anyway."

There you go lying again. "Enough dat I promise t'tell de next time y'ask? I know it don' mean much. It easy to take dat back, or ignore dat kin' a vow, but...." He was not sure he would be able to reveal any of his secrets immediately. Most of it was none of her business, but it was clearly important to her. She hated knowing so much yet needed it. She needed that like he needed to keep to himself. And this secret, he needed to keep. Sinister was manipulating him and he did not know if the goal was to hide the secret from the X-Men or reveal it. Either way he'd be using me against them.

"Yeah." She bit her lip and glanced up, almost furtively. "Look, Remy, Ah'm sorry. Ah shouldn't've.... Ah never tol' ya nothin'."

No, you never did tell me anything. I still don't know about your childhood, and I told you about mine. But I didn't tell you about Belle, or the Clan, the Guild, Candra, Sabretooth. Nor had Rogue toyed with the memories. She had not looked until it was past too late. He had wanted to share and now regretted that. And she's not telling me what she honestly thinks about it, either. No, she says it's a moot point, but gets plastered over it. Then again, she's already shown how she feels, hasn't she? Now we're both sorry people. Someone's having themselves a good laugh. And to top that off, you won't talk to me about why you're so angry at your Maman's presence. He did not like worrying at all.

Mystique was bad news. That woman had her fingers in more than a few pies. He wrapped his hands together and leaned face on them. This is no social call, not judging by the way she was toying with us. She let me embarrass Rogue and loved every minute of it. Rogue looked unconcerned. Maybe she doesn't realize, maybe she really is that naive. He recalled the quick passes of moods in her eyes. Naive, no, not that. Rogue could be stubbornly optimistic, desperately so, but he could always see the touch of cynicism. Sometimes he wished he could reach into her heart and fix whatever wounds caused that, but then she would not be Rogue.

Warily, he made the decision to touch her mind. So long as I don't try to push her emotions in one direction or another, her Sense won't tip her off. He merely wanted to know how she was feeling and maybe why, but not yet. Romance was easy. Making her smile, teasing, playing, empty promises were simple. Convincing her to trust him when she had little reason was hard. If she really trusted me, her mind wouldn't be giving me the cold shoulder. "Tell ya what, we gon' play Dare wit'out de Double Dare part, d'accord?"

She pursed her lips.

"We start slow."

"A'right."

He tried to pitch his voice to the correct degree of honest curiosity. "Why ya Maman here?"

"Ah'm not sure actually. There's some stuff goin' on that she might wan' talk 'bout, but she might of come t'meet you. My Momma, she always does what she wants to but never looks like she's doin' it 'til it's too late for you t'stop her."

Stuff going on? The alarm bells started ringing, but he knew better than to poke questions at an intentionally evasive response. "Den I hope I measure up. Your turn."

She wolfed down the remainder of the food before settling down with her cup of coffee. "What you been up to? Where you been these past couple months?"

She was not asking where he went so much as what he did and who he did it with. It infuriated him that she had so little faith in him, yet it was his own doing. That was the image he gave her as he did everyone. If the image worked too well, who was to blame? At the same time, he could not let her be the exception to the charade. He did not want her to see him as Master thief, criminal. He wanted her to be proud of him.

What a funny thing a double life could be.

She wants to know if I screw around. If I meet other women. That's what my image says. He tried to take comfort in the fact that she knew him well enough to question that apparent truth. He assumed it was her familiarity and not mere common sense pointing out that a professional anything would not get drunk and party every night.

"Mostly been keepin' m'ear to de groun' 'bout Bastion an' de Sentinel programs, bot' of dem. Findin' out which hands been greased and lookin' for de Prof. Need t'go into detail 'bout dat?" He did not mention how many of his friends had been swallowed up by Bastion's creations, how many had sided with the apparent victor. Or how some had tried to kill him in mid-conversation when their programming took hold. He said nothing of guilds, either. They had made a tacit deal a while ago. She would not press him because he could not tell her about any guild business, names, exact details. There was no telling how involved she would become. He did not want her hurt because of him. He would not let another of his friends die because of him. "But dat not what ya wan' know, neh?"

"Nope. Ah got a pretty good idea of what y'do professionally. A body can't absorb a mind without learnin' what they do when they think no one's lookin'."

He nearly passed over that comment, delivered with such blandness. Then he understood what it connoted. "Den ya know everyt'ing. Dis a test to see if I tell, an' I fail 'gain, yeah?"

"No. No...yeah. Ah guess it was. Ah'm sorry. Y'doin' what y'think's best for me. Ah un'erstan' that." She trailed off and looked down guiltily. "Ah really do, but Ah tell y'Remy, Ah'm either a part of y'life or not but don' y'dare expect me t'wait by the fireplace for ya every time y'go galivantin' off."

He saw her hand shaking before she noticed his gaze and swept it under the table. It took more nerve for her to make a demand of him, in her mind, that to risk her life in combat. For that reason, the ultimatum did not bother him as it might have. It made his options easier to weigh. Her opinion of him mattered more than absolute secrecy. He only had to make certain this would be a two way street. Stuff, hah.

He tipped his head in deliberate acknowledgment and saw her sag in relief.

"Anythin' Ah can help with?"

And you just skipped my turn. Before he could stop himself, he chuckled. Rogue was was squeaky clean, no contacts with anything on the shady side recently. He did not intend to offend her, but she was out of her depth. She scowled. Did it again. "Chere, I know dat y'wan' keep an eye on me, but dere's not'ing y'can help wit'. Involves politics, connections dat you don' have."

Her eyelids drooped and she smiled sourly, knowing he was right but intent on worming her way in regardless. "Mr. Senator, Ah'd like to ask a few questions. Y'think y'can spare the time?"

He drew a circle in the air with his fingertip until he caught her attention. "It's my turn."

She sighed at him.

"Besides, dere be penalties for leakin' information 'bout de guilds." She wanted to help. According to guild law, there were only two acceptable results for telling someone anything substantial about the guilds: absorption into them or death. Course, I'm not a part of either anymore, am I? He shifted in his seat. There were ways to kill her.

"Guilds schmilds, most of 'em already hate me on 'count that Ah have a habit of gettin' involved." She flapped her hand at him. "Well, go on, it's your turn," she drawled.

He put his hands together, palm to palm, in front of his face. What did he really want to know? He gleaned most everything from her behavior. He wanted to know why she was so antsy this morning. Was it modesty over waking up with him? He would not put that past her, although he suspected she acted far more coy than honest. Was Mystique here for more reason than to give them the third degree? She hiding something? More than usual, that is. All the questions in the world would not stop her from dissembling.

Rogue was idly rolling the splines of her fork along the edge of the table. She glanced up, but noting his reticence, shrugged and waited. He extended his awareness, searching for the tangle of emotions and intentions that made up an individual. He expected warmth, motion, a soft touch. Instead, he ran into something that sent a shiver down his back. The tingle he expected was a sharp, intense blow to his temples. He jerked back to find his pulse throbbing at his throat.

Rogue twitched and squeezed here eyes shut and blinked a few times. She chuckled. "Lord, remin' me not t'get wasted like that again."

Thank God. I wouldn't want to have something as stupid as curiosity ruin this morning. That reminded him. It was "later". Perhaps it would be idiocy to pursue a sexual relationship with her. She's taken great pains to keep her own wants under control to the point that I thought love was enough. But life was not a fairy tale. Life was reality and reality said this woman had silk sheets on her bed and leather clothing hidden in her closet. Touch and sex were two different things, but strongly interrelated. They connoted the same thing, intimacy. She doesn't want to use an inhibitor, or the Z'Noxx chamber. She doesn't want anyone to be able to touch her without having the power to stop them immediately?

"Tell me what it take for ya t'touch me."

"What the hell kin' a question is that? Ah already tol' ya a hun'red times-"

"Dat ya don' wan' hurt me. Okay. I know dat. I believe ya, but dat don' change de fact dat ya jump me las' night. Don' ya lie."

"Ah am not lyin'!"

"Yes, y'are," he sing-songed and pushed his plate aside to lean over the table. "Ya wan' me t'go into graphic detail 'bout what ya wan'?"

"No!"

He watched her fidget. "So? Ya promised to talk later an' it later."

"Talk 'bout tactless," she muttered. "The only way Ah could touch ya would be through my gloves, or y'clothes. That ain' touch." She grimaced. "Or Ah could wear a gizmo but Ah'd feel like a dumb animal that had t'be tied up an' blindfolded. Guess Ah jus' have too much pride."

Stretching his arms behind his head, he let his body collapse like a cut tire. "So it all or not'in', eh? Le'me help. So what, ya absorb me a few times. Hank say dere no meaningful long term effects." He caught her attention, taking note of the semi-permanent line between her brows. "Don' push me 'way for m'own good. Unless I do somet'in' ya find repulsive. Deal?"

Her expression mulish, she slowly consented. "A'right. Deal. What do Ah get out of this?"

He grinned widely. "Now dat rather obvious, neh?"

She grunted at him.

"Good t'know ya don' t'ink I be a disgustin' pig."

"Well, now, Ah never said that. A shave wouldn' hurt y'none, an' 'bout that smokin' habit of yours...."

"Nag, nag, nag...."

Pleased with himself, he turned his mind back a few minutes. In the beginning, Rogue's resistance to psychic manipulations had intrigued him until he realized that all the X-Men were trained to ward off mental invasion. Nevertheless, this was different. Does this have something to do with Jeanie and her sessions? He ventured near with his mind again, careful not to make contact as directly as he had before. Perhaps he could catch her attention and hold it, a fairly routine use of his ability. It would require minimal contact, imperceptible to a telepath distracted by his constant chatter. Surely Rogue would not be aware of it, but, no, there was that pins and needles tingle again. He quit and attempted to retreat but something was pulling on him like a magnet dragging a small bit of metal. Wasting no energy on extracting his mind, he cut contact and let her have the piece of his power.

Rogue utterly froze. Her eyes found his and he thought he was in for a confrontation. With a haunted look, she ducked away.

"I-"

"It's my turn."

Pursing his lips, wondering if she was politely forgiving and forgetting, he nodded.

"When did Jean Luc started y'off."

Talk about changing the subject. "When I was a pup."

"Uh huh. When y'think Mystique gave me m'firs' gun?"

"When y'was jus' a pup?" This time he resisted the urge to smile, envisioning a cute kid with a gun. That was not really a funny image, when he stopped to think about it. Who knows, maybe she'll convince me to let her join my missions. That was unlikely. She's a hero now. Her skills were lost. Technology and methods advanced quickly in his world. No, she had given her life to the Dream. Even when angry, when she had threatened to quit, she had returned with Joseph. He would not force her to choose between striving for peace and crime because he knew how difficult it was to do both at the same time.

At his ambiguous answer, her gaze and shoulders dropped. "Y'think Logan would work with me if he couldn' count on me t'back him up in a touch situation? Ah have a past too an' Ah can keep my mouth shut afterwards."

"Bein' a criminal ain' 'nough t'know de guilds. Dey banish me, but dey still...influence my life. Ya get involved wit' my work an' ya be crossin' dem. You a good guy now. I don' wan' be draggin' ya down wit' me." The other part was that she was simply not conniving enough. She tended to think the best of people and that got her in trouble more often than anything else.

Her close-lipped smile was tight. "Yeah. Ah realize y'carry a whole lot o' weight out there an' y'up t'y'neck in it, but step careful." She raised a finger to forestall him. "Ah'll concede that Ah'm completely out of practice an' Ah never got ol' 'nough in the racket t'step out on m'own, but ever since Ah could hol' a gun up, Mystique would drag me 'long on missions. It was kin' of like on the nature channel when y'see the momma tiger teachin' the baby tiger how t'hunt. An' with my powers, Ah know things."

He cocked his head to one side doubtfully and reviewed his research. There had been plenty of time to do background checks on all the team members. What she said about following in the background and mimicking her mentor synched with the reports, though. What troubled and relieved him was that none of the information identified her as a culprit to murder. A lot of those leads went into foreign countries and disappeared. Mystique a real professional.

"What y'could've done in five years as a cub, eh?"

"Still don' believe me? Even though it's why Ah won' tell my name? Remy, if it's a felony, Ah've done it. Ya'll notice Ah'm still alive."

"Ya rape someone?" he asked in mock horror.

"Only mentally."

That wasn't funny and I think she meant it. "No offense or not'in', but ya still 'live an' free 'cause Mystique keep y'rap sheet clean." He raised a brow. "Not dat ya have one t'begin wit'. Leastwise, woman callin' herself Rogue don'." He shrugged politely.

Rolling her eyes, she dodged his unspoken question. "That's beside the point." She curled an arm around her stomach, protectively, supporting the elbow of the other. "All Ah'm sayin' is that if y'need back up, call me an' Ah'll do whatever's necessary."


PART11

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