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 13

Karolina Phillips

 

"Y'think maybe you're over-reactin', Jean? It's not like Ah could get within touchin' distance 'fore y'could fry my brain."

"Testy, aren't you? Maybe something on your mind?"

Putting her hands in her jean pockets, Rogue wandered around the bed and kicked a stray glove under it while doing her best to appear collected. Her head throbbed with one of those annoying headaches that she was beginning to think of them as a hallmark of any telepathic session with Jean. Who knows what Jean's been mucking around with while talking to me. I don't believe she put up a full shield for no good reason. Betsy being so overbearing like I'd done something more than take her off guard. The way Storm looked at me when I tried to explain. And the memories were giving me problems earlier when I tried to forget them. Troubled by puzzle pieces that almost fell into place but did not create the picture she expected, Rogue shook off her suspicions and returned her attention to Jean.

"Let me put this in layman's terms. Psychically, your mind looks hurt but doesn't act hurt. A healthy mind is a bright light on the Astral Plane. Your mind is a negative space. Unless a person is a psi in some way, through mutation, magic or latent abilities, their mind doesn't wiggle all over the place. I could hit you psionically, but I think it might reciprocate and I don't think It would let go."

"What's It?" Rogue shook her head, instantly regretting the motion. She rubbed the back of her neck, surprised to feel beads of sweat. Jean did not seem affected by the heat. It's not impossible that I've come down with something, let's just hope it's not Legacy. Wouldn't that be my luck, but at least Betsy would leave me alone.

"Like I said, either a site of trauma or an aspect of your power. It shows as a void on the astral plan but radiates some type of menace. I don't know if that's because I'm a telepath and my own perception is causing that or if it does that to everyone. I'd say you have some psychic damage, except something like that would definitely show in your every day behavior. What I'm beginning to suspect is that this might be a combination of both." She sat up and folded her hands together. "In other words, maybe it is your power, but it's infected in some way that keeps you from controlling it."

If it was that messed up, wouldn't it hurt me in some way whenever I used it? While her power often had inconvenient results, it did not harm her unless she absorbed someone with an extreme mutation or injury. Not only that, but would not the Professor have told her about it? She stepped back, feeling dizzy, to sit on the bed with a squeak of springs.

The shock of cold was so sudden it seemed to burn. She winced. Hate the cold. First it was hot flashes, then chills. She was probably not sick because her alien physiology involved a very aggressive immune system. It was no where near as powerful as Logan's but it was efficient. This was more of a general disorientation like the kind that followed teleportation or a sudden stop in mid flight. Maybe I am sick.

Jean paused in her speech, "Are you all right?"

She fingered her scalp. "Ah'm fine. Y'sure what y'saw was part of me?"

"Positive. The last time I helped, I thought it was alien but its actions paralleled yours too closely. The very fact that you've never seen it supports that it's you."

"Ah can't walk the Plane, 'member? How could Ah see anythin'?" If you don't count visiting my mental version of Genosha. She distinctly recalled the dark city full of malicious ghosts and her own stark presence. Me, some type of psion, right. That's plain silly. Yesterday all she had to worry about was errant memories and Remy's whereabouts. Today, she was supposed to believe she was a maladjusted psi with possible psychological trauma who also had to dance to Mystique's tune. Rogue held her head. The internal nagging increased.

There were many ways to suppress her power, to subvert and escape it. Inhibitors and suppressors were widespread these days. Any telepath could sabotage her power if they tried hard. Everyone but her could control it. Carol had been a member of "everyone". She refused to teach me. Rogue snorted in old contempt. She was also a liar...the one in my head. True to her friends and vicious to her enemies. The team never really figured that I was Carol's enemy. Or maybe they had, but that was not a nice thing to think about her friends.

Not that I'm any different. She thought of Joseph, Magneto, whoever he was. Maybe someday he would revert to his fanatical ways but until then she would have faith in him. Even if he was a goober at times. Trying to fix my power like that. Did he even look at what already existed? There are smaller and more convenient methods than giant psi-chambers. She sat up straighter, mouth falling slack and feeling like a goober herself. Z'Noxx was built as a psionic shield. He could have built in a power damper but then why bother with a cabin sized chamber? It shouldn't be able to block my powers unless part of what Jean says is true.

"Rogue? Are you sure you're okay? You look a bit green in the gills."

"Jean?"

"Yes?"

"What part of my powers would the Z'Noxx be able t'block?"

Taken aback by the swift change in topic, Jean raised her eyebrows. "The one in the basement?"

"Not anymore."

"Ah, well," she shrugged in thought, "probably the mental absorption. I don't see any reason why it would block the physical absorption. Why do you want to know?"

"Is there a way to adjust it to block that too?"

"Not unless you add an inhibiting field of some type but if you're going to do that-"

"Yeah." Rogue's nod was more of a catatonic bob. "Y'know, Ah'd be lyin' if Ah said Ah didn' un'erstand what you're hinting' at but Ah don't believe it. If Ah was a psi, don' you think someone would have mentioned it by now? Startin with Mystique and Irene, the Prof, any number of 'paths we've fought, someone, anyone."

"I'm not saying you are. I'm saying that part of your power probably operates on a psionic level." She leaned forward to gesture in excitement. "Some part of your power has to be devoted to the absorption and domination of another mind. A whole mind, not information. A human mind is more than genetics and bioelectric waves. And your mind is the proverbial fly-trap for the soul. Now can you understand why Elisabeth was so worried? Why we all are?"

"Souls?" Rogue sent Jean a dry look.

"You don't believe in souls?"

Rogue gave a single laugh and waved her hand in assent. The truth was, she did not know what a soul was. Was it that sense of identity she gained when she touched another person? That solid real sense created by the entire combination of elements she absorbed? Or was that all rubbish? Was a person nothing more than exploitable resources for her power? "Assumin' what y'say is true, Ah can't control it."

Jean regarded her obtusely.

"You don' un'erstan'. Hell, maybe y'do. You're a 'path."

"Yes. People can be ugly inside. The nicest people...."

"Sometimes they're nice on the outside 'cause they keep it all tucked inside."

"Like Onslaught?"

"Ah guess. Ah can't help myself. Used t'be Ah could choose what Ah absorbed. Not anymore. Sometimes Ah jus' wan' it too badly an' tryin' t'fool myself into not wanting t'see or feel somethin' doesn' work," she whispered.

"Desire's a powerful thing. Especially when you don't know it's on the loose."

"Maybe. Ah control that all the time." She hunched in crushed acquiescence. It's my fault after all. But how? How can I want something like that? "Y'know, people want the damnedest things," she muttered. "Ah learned the hard way to control what I wanted, to control my power."

Maybe.

"The profile on you specifically says that you're unable to control your power with the implication that this is a previously existing state."

How the heck did 'I can't control my power' turn into 'I've never been able to control it'? I was making lots of headway until I screwed up. Then again, the Professor's idea of control was restraint, not expansion and adaptation. By his book, I was losing control for years by trying to increase my capabilities without first learning to suppress my power.

"Huh." To hide the way her hands were shaking, she wrapped them around the back of her neck, hunching over slightly. "Couldn' control 'em like you control yours, but Ah could direct 'em and hold 'em off for a minute or two. Ah was gettin' there, 'til Carol screwed everythin' up."

"So...she, or that copy of her in your mind, may have sabotaged your developing control as an act of revenge? Or are you just blaming her for your own actions?" When it was apparent that Rogue was not about to comment on that, Jean warned, "If you curl up into a fetal ball I'm calling Hank."

"Ah'm fine," she answered too quickly. "Ah'm jus' a bit queasy. What else did the Prof write?" The chamber couldn't have blocked my powers if they were purely physical. She did not know if this was a good thing or a bad thing. But if Jean's right, and my emotions are controlling my power like Storm's do hers, and I can't even feel or see anything like she can then I might really hurt someone. She thought of Remy and the gamut of emotions he brought out in her. I could hurt him. Hell, I might've already hurt him...but I don't want to wear an inhibitor.

Or maybe....

"The Professor also theorized that your abilities work through tactile contact due to negative association that developed after your kiss with Cody; that they're constantly active as a defensive mechanism."

She chortled humorlessly. "Not hardly, sugar. If Ah don' like bein' touched, it's for reasons that go back further'n' that." He could've at least told me what he thought. Might've helped me. Shrinks and their snobby notions that folks can't handle the truth. People aren't that fragile. Most people just deal with their problems, accept them and get on with their lives. The furnace came on with a rattle and she sighed with relief.

Jean accepted that information with perfect equanimity. "How can you know that?"

"Y'don' need t'be a head-shrinker t'know y'own past." Nor did she need to look in Jean's direction to know that the other woman had come to sharp attention. No. What good would it do to tell her I had violent nightmares when I first went to live with Mystique and Irené? She'd read lord knows what into that. She had enough practice suppressing her memories that she did not put stock in subconscious repression. My powers would have dredged up anything weird, so would've Mystique for that matter. If there was one thing Momma always made sure of it was my mental health.

"Fine." Jean pressed her lips into a reproaching line, then turned her head to look at nothing for a moment. "I won't say anything, but as far as I can tell, he was at least partially right. You've disassociated yourself from your power so that it only acts subconsciously. Probably a combination of what you won't talk about and the unusual experience with Carol. If we could find how the two relate we may be able to create a means of turning your power on and off."

Rogue glanced up sharply, perturbed. "Is that your idea of control? On an' off?" That's right, nothing about learning how to use them. "Is that how you control your powers?"

"Right now the priority is on and off. After that we can work on fine tuning. I don't want to alarm you, but everything you just told me confirms some ideas I have. Now, I can help you discover the problem and deal with it and life can go on , or you can be stubborn and Scott will tell you to leave."

Threats. This must be more serious than she's telling me. Shaking her head incredulously, she calmed herself. "You really don' un'erstand. You really think Ah can learn t'control what Ah want? D'ya realize what you've done in the past few minutes? You jus' tol' me that all my work controllin' my power might be for nothin' because the part of my brain responsible for regulatin' it ain' cerebral or that maybe my problem ain' mental at all. Thank you very much for the pick me up." She slid across the bed to face Jean. "Did it ever occur t'ya that Ah know what's wrong an' it don' help?"

Or maybe I learned....

Jean look more affronted than anything else. "Then please tell me because I'm at a loss. I'm offering to teach you how to be aware that you're about to act on some whim or desire, a feeling. I don't understand what your objection is."

"The problem? Ah don' care t'feel anything that doesn' belong t'me unless Ah choose to. Ah don' like t'be confused like that," she bit out. So why do I keep doing it? "Find a differen' answer! Ah don' wan' be feelin' my power twenty-four seven. Ah couldn' deal with it! Ah ain' like you, Jean. Ah can't jus' put up a mental wall."

Jean remained infuriatingly calm. "I know. I know what it's like to hear and see things you don't want to, but believe me, it's better to know than to be afraid of the unknown or hurt someone through ignorance. Not many people would fully admit to losing self-control, but whatever your power feels like, I have no doubt you have the strength to handle it."

"Oh, yeah, Jean. Ah can handle it. Don' y'get it? Ah love it, but Ah hate it. Ah hate it." Rogue crossed her arms and looked out the window. She did not want to see the pity on Jean's face, or worse, that superior forgiving countenance that people often erected to show false wisdom.

"This isn't very productive."

"Nope. We done?" It's like she ignored me.

"No, will you give me permission to help you, to enter your mind?"

"Now? Ah have to.... No, y'can't. Look, y'tol' me that my powers been attackin' you an' Ah don' want you in my head right now. Nothin' personal, but sometimes Ah don' like 'paths." She was sweating. Rogue rolled a shoulder in discomfort.

Jean rubbed a hand over her face. "I'm starting to feel like a game show host. First, let me tell you I share your reservations about investigating your mind but why don't you like telepaths?"

"They have a bad habit of stayin' conscious after Ah absorb them. Bad 'nough havin' a body in my head without them know everythin' there is t'know 'bout me." When the other woman opened her mouth to retort, she cut her off. "An' yes, Ah realize that's a bit hypocritical of me but that's the way the cookie crumbles."

"Well, I don't have a solution for that. All I can promise is that I won't look and I can keep a secret." Her eyes slid away as she dug in her pocket. "I brought an inhibitor. Will you wear this and allow me to help you?"

Her attention riveted on the small, metal device. It was different from the one in her top drawer. This one was smaller in the shape of a half moon. The sunlight from the window reflected off it in warped patterns. She squeezed her eyes shut and looked away. "Why'd y'come here?"

Jean adjusted her posture. "To help you control the erratic behavior of either your mind or power before Scott gives you an ultimatum."

"Uh huh. So y'wan' t'keep me on the team."

"Of course I want to keep you on the team."

"Yeah, Ah reckon Ah'm pretty valuable t'y'all. As valuable as Ah was t'Mystique."

"Don't even try and put me on a guilt trip, Rogue. It won't work." Jean stood, moving away from the chair. "I won't deny that you're an asset to this team, every one of us is, but we're also your family. We owe it to you to help you get through this rough spot and you owe it to use to let us try."

Maybe I learned....

She glumly stared at the wall. In many ways, her situation with the X-Men was absolutely no different than her one with the Brotherhood. She gave her abilities in exchange for a surrogate family. They all did. "Why's Cyke so hung up on this?"

Jean leaned against the wall, facing her again. "We're his family, Scott wants us to live together in peace and harmony. That's not an unreasonable expectation. It wouldn't hurt to try instead of letting someone get hurt."

Which was exactly the problem. She had a job to do and could not afford to be embroiled in the petty politics of family. Whatever was wrong with her power, whatever was ailing her, giving her these headaches, hot and cold flashes, took the back seat. Granted, physical maladies tended to occur during absorption as her body adapted to the influx of genetic information, not after the fact, but it was probably nothing her physiology could not handle. If she stayed here and put on that inhibitor, she could not do her job, and that was all there was to the matter. I need time to think about this.

"Y'know what's funny 'bout Cyke? If somethin' don' go the way he figures it should, he calls it bad 'cause if it ain' predictable, he can't use it. Ah figured he'd learned the first time."

"Do I want to know or have you devolved to baiting?"

"Sure y'do. Shortly after Ah joined, Dark Phoenix was runnin' amuck and the Prof was down so Scott used my power to...revive him." She hooked her thumbs through the belt loops of her jeans. "Made tactical sense but common sense? He did it while Ah was unconscious. No permission. No by your leave. He used my power. He used me. In that moment, he was as selfish an' narrow-minded as the next person so forgive me if Ah don' trust his judgment call in this pa'ticular matter."

"But you admit that it was the logical thing to do."

"So's executin' y'enemy. We don' do that, do we? He might a well have raped me, sugar. Y'un'erstan'? Until he convinces me he knows shit 'bout my power -- my power -- he can shove it."

"If I tell him that, you'll be off the team."

"Ah know." I guess.... I guess it's only fair. I can't stay. I have an obligation to those poor folks that Clive will be after. She ignored the pain in her chest. What about Remy? He'd follow me, he'd throw away his chance to do good. She swore softly, momentarily hating Jean for not understanding, hating Scott for being single-minded in his concern. Why does he have to care, anyway?

Jean reached out, as if she would lay a comforting hand on her shoulder. Rogue jerked back at the unexpected motion but, more than that, the eerie sensation of being burned by acid. She shook her arm sharply, fully aware that there was nothing on it. "Leave me alone! An' while y'at it, did y'find out what y'wanted?" She tapped her temple for reference. "Don' bother lyin' t'me, neither."

The telepath froze, a flash of guilt crossing her face. Then she stepped back, "To make it official, I'm breaking contact now-"

It was too late and too much. It was not Jean's right to do what she was doing. The scene before Rogue liquefied fleetingly, lines bending, colors glowing luminescently. A static tingle skipped through her causing a shudder. Her palm landed on the carpet, synthetic fibers scraping against her skin. She blinked and shook her head. Her head swam the same way it did when she was knocked too quickly out of high speed flight.

And the cold. An icy chill to her bones, tearing right through her.

...to ignore it.

"Shit." The air shimmered around Jean as she strengthened her defenses. "Shit. This is not good."

The carpet tickled a millimeter from her nose. Polyester fibers refracted light in microscopic glimmers. She could see dust bunnies inches to her right, cowering beneath the overhanging bedspread. Her hair dragged over her fingers buried in the shag. She began to shake. The electric current, imagined or real, was intensifying with magnetic fury. It sped through her body, releasing a surge of adrenaline that sped her heartbeat. Hyperventilating, she meticulously rose to her feet, reciting every lesson Mystique had taught her about maintaining control over her fear and temper.

"Rogue? Can you hear me? Focus on my voice, stay calm, describe what you're feeling."

She strained her sight, frantically trying to see what was causing her disorientation. With frustration, she realized she could not see anything real. Her ears buzzed, a high pitched whining sound that made her temples throb. It hurt. She closed her eyes and the world changed. Without the other stimuli, she felt the cold surrounding her, inside her. She doubled over, feeling ill. Why am I so cold?

"Are you all right?"

A source of heat moved closer and she realized it was Jean's telekinetic shield. She opened her eyes attempting to minimize the buzzing in her ears that made rational thought complicated. "Get away. Ah can feel your shield." Muscles trembling, she clenched the outstretched hand into a fist withdrawing it. "Ah'm cold. Shield's warm. Back away. Please."

Jean was already doing so. "Take it easy. I'm not the one holding on. Just take deep breaths and relax. Think of something that makes you feel comfortable. If you can calm down a bit I can-"

Talk, talk, talk.

"Get out of here!" Her control hung on a thread and she made the error of looking in Jean's direction. Something was there and she could not see it. Something occupied the same space as Jean, or nearly so and it was driving her crazy. She knew what it was. She knew, but she could not name it. She raised her hand, palm forward and swung it in a slow arc. It was like passing her hand through an intangible object. Her skin crawled. Whatever it was, it was bad. She needed to stay away from it. She was not supposed to try and steal it.

Or maybe I learned to ignore it.

But it was warm.

So real.


Scott saw Mystique throw the door open before he was halfway down the hall and arrived in time to watch her deliver a graceful jump kick to Rogue's head. Jean was flattened against the wall but holding her own against Rogue, who seemed to be choking but kept trying to push through a telekinetic shield. Mystique rolled in rebound and he, without a second thought, let loose a concentrated blast powerful enough to knock Rogue into the far wall.

She fell with a snarl preparing for a lunge, took a step forward and stumbled to a halt. He watched her go swiftly from enraged to comically confused. Her expression was baffled as she studied her hands ignoring everyone in the room. Moving over to Jean, who struggled up and batted him away, he let red fill his vision.

It was cathartic to imagine yelling at Rogue, and Jean for that matter, that but it would not be professional nor earn respect. Jean was acting under my orders and she warned me there could be unexpected consequences. Truthfully, he had no urge to display anger after his mind shifted to a combative mind set. The more strain and competition he was under, the more lucid he became. It was one of those things that made him different from most people, more so than being a mutant. Rogue was staggering in a circle, holding her head. It took him some time to identify the rapid clicking sound as chattering teeth. He touched the side of his visor and braced his feet against the tension oozing through the room.

"Back down, boy, or I'll kick you in the head next." Mystique blocked his view and smiled sweetly. "Believe me, all she wants right now is a blanket."

He assimilated her threat rationally, analyzed and dismissed it in less time than it took him to survey the other occupants of the room.

Psylocke appeared behind the bed with a raised her psi-blade stating immediately, "Jean asked me to keep a watch over this and it involves a bit more than a blanket." She edged closer until she was three feet from Rogue. Her psi-blade flickered like a candle, stretching forward. She pulled her arm back. "See what I mean?"

Mystique walked towards Elisabeth and Rogue without concern. "Too strong for you?" she taunted.

"No. Too weak and out of control would be more accurate." Elisabeth smiled dryly and stood straight, extinguishing her blade.

He narrowed his eyes, cataloguing all the little details; noting the way Elisabeth's psi-blade wavered near Rogue, Mystique's nonchalant attitude -- she who might have inside information -- , Jean's weakness and refusal to take an aggressive defense and Rogue's confused behavior. There were too many people in too small a space and too much conflict present to accomplish anything other than an explosion. He needed to clear out the room before dealing with this situation.

Jean had her head between her knees and hands over the back of her neck. She looked up. "Scott, she isn't aware-"

A gloved hand tapped his shoulder and Scott briefly turned to meet warning eyes as red as his own. The muscle in Scott's temple ticked and the subtle challenge to his authority.

Jean instantly stepped between them. "Gambit, stay out of this. Scott, he's right. I was doing exactly what Betsy said I shouldn't have been doing."

"A voice of reason. Remarkable." Mystique folded her hands in grave amusement.

"Quiet," he ordered mildly but implacably.

The metamorph sniffed at Jean and strolled to hang over his shoulder. "This has been quite entertaining, but all the fuss is rather silly. Be a dear and tell ninja girl to crawl back under her rock, or wherever she came from. I think it may have been that shadow right behind the cobwebs. Rogue, you really should clean your room more often."

Psylocke sent her an offended look but did indeed disappear at Scott's affirming nod. Insulting her was better than adding to the tension in the room. He reassessed the situation. Rogue had ceased any attack as soon as contact had been broken. I'll need to talk with Jean and ask what triggered this response. It occurred to him, that with Jean's telekinetic abilities, Rogue could have more easily been killed than his wife, but that did not alleviate his worries.

"Cerebro, get Hank."

The disembodied voice of Hank McCoy came through the intercom. "I must apologize for my absence. I was isolating a sample. Is my presence absolutely necessary?"

"No, it's under control. I'm sending Jean down to the Medlab." He signaled Gambit. "I want you to take her down there. Make sure she stays there until Hank's done."

"I'm fine." Jean scowled at him patiently. That meant she would berate him later for acting so dictatorially, as she put it. That was fine too.

"Maybe. I'd feel better if you let Hank give a checkup." He helped Jean rise, watching curiously as she and Gambit locked in mental conversation that ended with a negative shake of her head.

"She said she's fine, three eyes."

He discreetly sidled away from the shape shifter's intrusive presence. "Cyclops," he corrected and waited silently until Jean shrugged and left with Gambit. He addressed Mystique without turning in her direction. "What do you know about this?"

She bared the tips of her teeth like a cat. "A little bird told me," she quipped without facing him. "Rogue? Have you regained some measure of civility now?"

The woman's disregard for his authority irked him. He needed to gain Rogue's respect now or else she would ignore him. A slight step forward brought him an inch closer and to the front of Mystique who gave him a deliberately polite smile and backed away. Ignoring her, he focused on Rogue again, who slumped more than stood, hands on her knees, taking deep breaths.

"I asked you what happened. What do you know about this?"

Mystique paused, slowly assessing him with narrowed eyes. She put one hand on her hip and hooked a thumb in Rogue's direction. "An old problem. I don't know anything except that Irené said it would resurface. Most old problems do." She turned away from him and towards her foster daughter.

Rogue did not look up but asked, "What happened?"

Mystique piped up from behind him. "If I'm not mistaken, you just tried to rip Jean's head off."

She's so flippant. I wonder what type of home environment she supplied. Who knows how adversely she affected Rogue. He was momentarily distracted by that tangent. His childhood environment was no less lamentable and he kept it from embittering him through the love of his wife and surrogate family. It was unfair to make assumptions. The fact that Rogue repeatedly welcomed Mystique, knowing her past manipulations, in the face of repeated hurts, suggested that there was genuine love and trust between them. It had to come from somewhere.

"No Ah di'n'."

He cut off Mystique before she could continue. "It looked like you were assaulting her."

She frowned, shaking her head in denial. "Ah di'n'...Ah don' think Ah did. Not on purpose. We were jus' talkin' but she was messin' with my head but Ah di'n' know what an' she wouldn' tell me an' then, Ah don' know what happened." She curled her arms protectively around herself, rubbing her hands up and down her arms as if chilled. Mystique took a hesitant step forward but was rebuffed by a glare from Rogue.

Scott stood in a deceptively relaxed stance keeping both hands loosely curled at his sides. "What were you doing then?" He watched as she straightened and rubbed the back of her neck, fidgeting again, before looking at him. Her eyes could not quite pin his behind the visor and after a second, she looked down and started to step forward. "Don't move."

Her expression was surprised and hurt. "Ah was jus' gon' get my gloves. Jean was talkin' t'me, Ah think.... Ah don' know. Ah felt sick. It was hot, then cold an' then," she raised an eyebrow, " you shot me into the wall."

"Don't forget, I kicked you in the head," Mystique gibed.

"You did?"

"Yes. Quite hard. My foot still hurts."

"Oh. Ah didn' feel it."

Which meant that Rogue had lost all sense of outside awareness. He imagined the consequences of that in combat. Her gloves lay between him and the corner bedpost. Bending down, he picked them up and threw them in her general direction. She caught one and had to fetch the other off the floor. Her body language was casual, unconcerned with attack or defense. Then again, my most powerful blast can't hurt her. He motioned to Mystique who smiled back and winked. Hope she leaves and causes no more trouble after this.

"I'm going to talk with Jean and Elisabeth about this and we will get to the bottom of it. As of now, you're on probation. It's nothing personal, but we don't need this, whatever it was, happening on field. We as a team can't afford it." She looked up at him sharply, about to protest and he raised a finger in warning. "Yes, I remember, I have no authority over you, but there are people here who, I believe, can help you and I'd like you to give them a chance. Consider it a request." This was what the Professor would want him to do.

"Yeah? Ah gave him years," she mumbled.

He understood what she was saying. He had seen it, watched her wait, never push the issue except with a brief look in the Professor's direction, very much like himself. If she wanted a cure that badly, she could have asked. Besides, the purpose of this team to is strive for a better world, not place the needs of one over the group. And, if a little voice niggled at him for that thought, he ignored it. "The same amount of time he gave you. I don't know what happened for sure. I don't know what Jean was doing, what you were talking about, what Betsy meant by showing me her psi-blade and I don't presume to know but right now, you can't afford to complain." He needed to keep her quiet for the time being. She needed to stay put for no other reason than the team needed to stick together. The last thing he wanted to see was any member of the team face the boiler of the outside world on their own, not under current political conditions.

He looked pensively between the two remaining in the room, waiting until Mystique left at the unsubtle hint. Rogue leaned against the bedpost, crossed her arms and stared at the wall.

He was about to leave rather than deal with that sort of childish behavior when something made him stop. He only had a fraction of a second to discover what it was before Rogue noticed. She was holding stock still except for one hand that twitched revealing barely restrained tension. He face had lost its definitive anger and was settling into a mask he recognized from the mirror. That was it. She was burdened, not raging. And she won't cry until I leave, until she's alone. It was the same with him. Only Jean ever saw him cry.

Why was she hurt? Why would she take temporary suspension so harshly? Scott understood his team members. He knew instantly when they were in conflict with each other, and usually why, but he was not good at offering comfort or advice. He would watch, wait and do damage control. So what did he know about Rogue? She often attacked from behind and could be temperamental but also took great pride in doing a good job. She could follow orders. She was also sensitive to failure. By telling her she had to step down he implied failure on her part, a failure of which she had been unaware.

Scott absently adjusted his visor.

A failure that was also his: to control power. Relying on a crutch was not mastery yet the team accepted him as their field commander. Most of the time, that did not bother him. Sometimes though he became aware of his inability and felt slightly inferior to them as if it was his fault, which it was not.

What if they rejected me? He often thought about that. What would happen if one day they told him that a man who could not control his mutation was unfit to lead? More personally, he wondered how he would deal with a rejection from Jean. What if she told me that I was too cold, too avoidant and that she just couldn't put up with my inability to express emotions like a "normal" human being. It was ironic. He knew perfectly well that many of the team members thought he was unaware of his deficiencies. A leader could not afford that luxury.

He had faith that Jean would not abandon him over something so trivial in the scheme of things even if it was what had gotten him into trouble with Maddy. I couldn't tell the difference between love and a memory of love. He had been too much of a man, or too much the coward, to lie about that and to pretend that he cared, which was the worst kind of lie. He had been so relieved when Madelyne finally raged at him.

He opened his mouth to say all that to Rogue, to tell her he understood, but like usual, somewhere between his brain and his mouth the words fizzled into nothing. He wished that someday he could tell everyone how he honestly felt, that he could make them see that he was just like them. He was simply doing what they wanted him to do.

"I understand."

"Y'un'erstan' what?" Her voice was subdued with pain and her barricade of anger. Every useless emotion she felt was channeled into that just as he channeled his emotions into control and excellence.

She was scared that Gambit would run out of patience and abandon her for someone more convenient. Scott could not lie to her and say that could not happen. It was unethical. But, from experience, he knew that the more time a person committed to another or to a cause the less likely they were to quit or admit they were wrong. Besides, he could not say that without letting her know that her armor was less than perfect. He had his armor like everyone else but if he did not lessen her fear, her emotions would undoubtedly cause more conflict.

So he had to offer support. He had to explain why he understood. Scott took another resolved breath. "I...."

"What?"

"Nothing. Wait for Jean's instructions."

A verbal attack was the last thing he was expecting.

"Yeah, Ah thought so. Expected me to whine an' complain, didn' you? Y'think Ah don' sympathize with your position? Y'think Ah don' know what your job is? Y'think you're the only one who ever had t'stay up all night studying tactics an' strategy t'make someone happy? Or had t'put on a stiff face an' give order t'someone twice y'age?" She laughed sharply and straggled to a stop as suddenly as she began, slouching. She looked in his direction, a bit to his left and swung around in aggravation.

He did not expect to find himself envisioning her in his place. The image was strange and rather...ludicrous. It almost made him smile.

"What?" She seemed impatient over asking that question again. "Look. Ah'm sorry. Ah don' know what happened. That trick won' work on me, anyhow."

"I- What trick? I was trying to figure out if I've ever seen you take command, effectively," he added.

"Oh. Ah thought you were tryin' t'stare me down. Mystique does that sort of thing." She kicked at the rug, sighing and rubbed her eyes. "So if y'not here t'jerk me 'round, why y'here?"

"I don't want you to do anything reckless."

"Am Ah reckless?"

"At times."

"Hmph. Y'ever start t'whale into someone an' then realize you shouldn't so y'pull the punch halfway, topplin' y'self off balance an' lookin' like y'didn' know what y'were doin' t'begin with?"

"Mm. Storm told me that there were times when she couldn't figure out what stunt you were trying to pull." He looked up at a print on her wall before returning his attention. "I take it that over time you learned to try the less permanent solution first?"

"Ah guess."

"You sound unhappy."

"Nah. Ah was thinkin'. Is there ever a time when the best idea is t'open your eyes, look straight at y'enemy and fry 'em?"

"Yes. Haven't you seen me?"

"Can you imagine doin' that all the time?"

"I imagine I'd be a very poor man."

"Oh, don't be-"

"I'm not. I'm serious. Some people can. Some can't. But you're saying you did."

"Ah had to. The Brotherhood wasn' an evil version of the X-Men. We weren't partners but we weren't like the Marauders either. They're like a school of sharks. Tear each other apart as soon as us. The Brotherhood.... If you couldn' hack it, they didn' wan' y'around an' y'didn' get your dinner. Mean. Fast. Smart."

"Vicious."

"Yeah. Vicious." For a second he saw a hollow look in her eyes.

He should not pry because her past with the Brotherhood had nothing to do with the recent debacle but it never hurt to accept information when offered. It might come in useful later and the conversation would improve her sense of good will towards him. He injected a casual note into his voice, "It was always a constant a fight with her, wasn't it?"

Though she was sitting still, she managed to fall motionless before responding. "No. Squabblin' wasn' tolerated on the team. Nor was lack of trust. Like Ah said, Ah know why y'doin' what y'doin'. Our work is too dangerous t'have a loose cannon on field. Ah'm jus' mad at myself and Ah wish y'wouldn' assume Ah can't see your point of view."

He came close to smiling in relief that he would not need to rationalize his decision. "It's good to hear that. I hate-" No, his feelings had no place in this discussion. "Do you really have training in field command?"

She smiled wryly at him. "Yeah. Ah never liked it, never had the motivation, but yeah. It was all part of bein' Mystique's protégée."

"Like the Professor."

"Sort of but preten' y'were orderin' someone twice your age and three times your experience while the Professor breathed down y'neck." She smiled tightly, "That enough bones for you?"

Lulled into a sense of ease by her drawling acceptance, the contention was a shock of ice water. Stare her down indeed. He narrowed his eyes preparing to out debate her when she faced him again.

Rogue finally turned back to him with an oddly amused expression he recognized from Mystique.

She uncurled, crossing in front of him to lean on the corner of the bureau. "No offense but Ah came here for the Prof, not you, not the team or the Dream an' over time Ah changed an' Ah believed an' Ah came t'see y'all as family but Ah don' see the Prof an' Ah doubt we'll find him anytime soon. Well, Ah still can't control my power an' Jean says it's gettin' worse. You don' wan' Jean t'help me, fine. Ah'll leave an' Ah'll find help one way or another because Ah don' need precogs tellin' me or X-Cutioner t'kill me t'know my power is dangerous. Ah'm not dumb so ask whatever y'wan' nicely because," she raised the edge of her hand level with her throat, "Ah've had it up t'here."

He was stymied and disgusted. Rogue was young so he expected a certain amount of immaturity from her but not this much. This was not Logan muttering about important business in Madipoor and sneaking off to do it his own way and then returning to the team and expecting absolution for his self-centered behavior. This was not Bobby acting sullen because of his latest break up. Or Storm countering his orders. Or Gambit outright ignoring his field commands after coming home at some ungodly time in the morning. This was Rogue who obeyed order without question and occasionally a bit of overkill.

He smelled a rat named Mystique and he could think of only one person in whom Rogue had invested enough love for her to reconsider her actions. "What about Gambit? Wouldn't you be leaving him behind too?"

The barb went home, taking her off guard. "Ah think our conversation is done, sugar." She remarked mildly.

"That's fine, but consider what I said. With the Professor absent, we can't afford...reckless behavior."

She nodded bleakly. "Ah'm sorry t'hear that."


PART14

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