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 15

Karolina Phillips

 

People were talking far away, voices carried by a humid wind. Sunlit squares of beige rice paper cast light on her where she lay on a strange bed with linen sheets. The ceiling swept high overhead and wooden engravings decorated the room. She frowned and felt her skull twist in pain so she held still. There was a quality to the voices that should mean something to her but they died away, leaving other sounds: an airplane flying overhead, cars, birds, footsteps pattering inside. We must be at a safe house. I guess the fallout was worse than I thought. If she had caught Suarez on the first pass, they would not be in this mess now.

She tried to swallow, which brought up another few points. She was horribly thirsty and her back was stiff. More importantly, her arm did not work. It was wrapped in a cast that extended from her wrist to her shoulder. It also itched, which meant that she had been here for at least a few days, probably not too long with this climate. Hope Momma lets me borrow her powers and fix it, else it's going to drive me stir crazy.

The voices drifted back and now she was able to identify them as Chinese. For a few minutes, she lay there not thinking anything at all, unable to work up the interest in the hows and whys of being in China. A safe house was one thing, but half the world from home was another. Home's family, not a place. Not thinking about it made her remember the hows and whys.

A fight. Falling. Bone cracking. Clinging to the rope ladder, collapsing when Destiny pulled her into the jet, shoving her down in one of the basket-like seats. The shocking pain-- was a broken bone supposed to hurt that much? A brief moment of chaos and a needle. Why hadn't Mystique let her absorb her shape-shifting ability then? Because she was piloting the jet. I must have broken down like a baby. She bit her lip in consternation. Maybe her Momma leaving her arm broken was a punishment. She hoped not.

She did not know what Irené had shot her up with. Something powerful. Morphine? The last she remembered was the needle being withdrawn. Now, it was morning. It should have worn off, but her head swam with each small movement with dislocation reminiscent of her power. Maybe I'm in shock, or something. A loud sigh escaped as she leaned back into the pillows. Irené would know she was awake and tell Momma to come up.

A stair creaked, and shortly, someone gave the door a perfunctory knock before entering her room.

Handing Rogue a glass of water, Mystique declared cheerfully, "Good morning."

Rogue slurped at the water, in retrospect wondering if it was drugged. That would not be a bad thing, but it would thwart her curiosity.

Her foster-mother sat down on the bed and reached over to brush some hair out of Rogue's face. "You've been asleep for three days. I never thought you would be that sensitive to opiates, although I should have considered it. Most of us have strange intolerances." She smiled, but watched carefully for a response. "Irené realized what would happen halfway through the injection. I guess she decided you needed the sleep."

"Ah feel like Ah'm goin' t'throw up. Where are we?"

"You're not going to vomit. You need to eat. And we're in Hong Kong."

Her stomach turned with a growl of agreement. She rubbed her eyes, trying to disguise her worry. "My arm's broke."

"Why, so it is. In two places, no less." Mystique settled into disapproval with a sigh and quiet voice. "How could you? How could you miss a guard in that close a space? What did you do? Ignore him?" She managed to frown without frowning, meaning she looked liked she'd bitten into an especially sour lemon. "What have I told you about leaving witnesses? You never leave something like that to chance. Never. When are you going to learn that you can't be so...so forgiving?"

She felt sick and her Momma was berating her. It was not fair. She was never good enough, never fast enough, never mean enough. It was always 'do it again', 'fix it', 'make sure it improves'. She sniffled and turned her head away, knowing Mystique would get even more angry at the self-pity. I'm tired. I don't care.

"Oh for God's sake," Mystique bit out in exasperation. "Look at me. And stop crying. I'm not mad at you, I'm just...worried. You gave me quite a scare. Are you listening?"

She rubbed her eyes to get rid of the tears and warping images. "Yeah." She looked at Mystique, who no longer appeared angry and wished she could have a hug. Of course, she could not. There was the cast in the way and she only wore a loose t-shirt under the covers. At least that was a normal hurt.

Mystique caught her hand, pulling it away from her face. "What's wrong with your eyes?"

Rogue squinted and shook her head. "E'rythin' looks funny, like with my power."

"You were almost comatose, if there are any residual effects...."

"Naw, 's'alright. Kinda weird 's'all." That did not begin to describe it. She ducked her head, mumbling about morphine and powers.

Mystique's lips twitched with suppressed laughter. "I see," she drawled. "Remind me never to let you shoot heroin. You might decide it feels too good to wake up and I'd be out an operative."

"Quit laughin'. An' anyway, it ain' that kinda feelin'."

"If you say so. Although...." She gave a crooked smile.

"What ?"

"Normally," she pointed, "I would make you figure it out for yourself, but since your brain is addled.... You've told me a dozen times how your power feels, why you're troubled by it, but I never understood. But, I do know what an opium high feels like." She opened her mouth and took a deep breath.

Oh no, not a lecture on responsibility. Rogue did not care if Mystique saw her visibly cringe and shrug away.

"Stop trying to ignore me. I firmly believe that mutant should use their abilities, but from now on, I want you to be careful. Even more careful. The last thing either of us wants is for you to become addicted to your power."

"It ain' like a drug. It's okay," she tried to reassure. "Most times, Ah don' feel nothin'." Except when she did, when she actively thought about crushing her victims mind, subjugating their will until they were nothing, a pathetic, mewling worm. When she did that, she could feel the person collapse under her will, like solid mud turned into flowing silt by a rushing river. And it was a rush, better than any drug or sex, although she was not supposed to know that. It was kind of hard not to know those things when her power was absorbing minds. All those dirty things and beautiful things folks do to each other.... Some bit of common sense, the same bit that warned her that people did not want to know their own secrets, warned her not to mention this to her Momma.

"That's not the point."

"Ah know, Ah know. Jus' sayin' 's'all."

Mystique lifted Rogue into a steeper sitting position and hooked a sling around her cast. "In that case, I want you awake and dressed. We have a guest in our new home. I want you to watch and learn. Do a good job and we'll take care of that arm. After that, homework. Now," she motioned towards the open door at an oriental man lounging on the jamb. "That's I-Ping. Or rather, that's what you're supposed to call him. Since I will be traveling a great deal in the next few months, he'll be your body-guard. And I'm serious. Don't run off without him."

Rogue, unwisely, rolled her eyes.

Her foster-mother cuffed the air in front of her face. "I'm dead serious. Get ready. I'll be downstairs. He'll show you the way."

Practice kept her face expressionless, but that did not stop the pain she felt inside at the leverage her Momma was using. Whatever the guest was all about, she would not like it. Instead, she eyed the stranger in the house. As soon as Mystique was out of sight, he gave her a brief smirk and Rogue wondered why Irené had not mentioned to someone that he was a grade-A creep. Perv. You just wait 'til I get better. I'll show you the meaning of the word.


Every few minutes, the wind would moan hollowly through naked trees and blowing snow into banks and piles. Ice encrusted branches tapped against each other. Otherwise, a peaceful silence reigned over the two story house. Windows were liquid dark, shadowed by curtains. One car sat in the driveway behind which a pair of tire tracks ran away in an arc. Rogue crouched against a pine tree, half-dozing, but alert. Once upon a time, she would have brimmed with excitement, a drug-like buzz invading her senses until all she could think about was hunting down the threat. This wait would have become an obsession to the point where the who and why were irrelevant. Today, closest she felt to excitement was anxiety.

Tori had taken Clive out to dinner, in her own car. The sentence alone meant little unless the listener was one who built their life around terror. She could still think that way. The house was empty, his car was in the driveway. She had a large window of opportunity to set a trap. What would be easiest? A timer triggered by the car battery, set to go off in fifteen minutes. She laughed nervously, pulling her thoughts back from that avenue. Five years ago, I might have done exactly that. Tori's obviously not kept track of me. She found out, what, a couple of days ago and suddenly it's blow him to kingdom come? She had not stopped to think about that until Mystique had asked if she was sure Tori was on their side. To her embarrassment, she had been fully prepared to trust Victoria.

If Tori had that kind of agenda, she would've turned me in by now. At least, that was what made sense. But what if she was setting up a sting? Then who's watching me? Victoria would have safely assumed that she did not need to earn her trust. So let's assume that she's in with Clive and they're both setting me up. He went to meet someone and came back talking about mutants. He hates mutants. He wants to catch Mystique through me. The disk's the bait. Sentinels? FoH? S.H.I.E.L.D.? It could not be Nick Fury and his gang. We've encountered each other a few times now. Nick knows and he's too good a badge to let things go without a good reason. Bastion would do this; recruit someone to his cause. Pressing a shoulder to the tree trunk, she chewed on her lip trying to figure out what Victoria's angle was. Hell, if she's been caught that means those folks are already in jeopardy. She gave it up with a rueful smile. Sinister plots had never been her forté.

At least I know what Clive's agenda is. He's got a friend with muscle, maybe Bastion, at the price of some information on the underground but he won't pay until his new-found buddy fulfills his end. If he already had what he wanted, the others were in danger. If capturing Rogue or Mystique was part of the payment plan, then the list of names had not yet been released. It was a gamble. Either way, if this was a setup, she would not need to kill him. There it was again, that death thought. Only kill in self-defense. Why do I keep coming back to that if? There is no if. I can't kill. Heroes don't kill. Bark scraped across her shoulder as she shifted once again, doing her best to ignore the cold weight of the firearm belted under her bomber jacket.

A chill was creeping along the back of her neck causing a shudder. At first, she thought it was the bizarre side-effect of her power running amuck, but then realized it was her seventh sense. Someone is watching me. She fought off the urge to freeze or turn. If that someone was triggering her sense, then they were a threatening someone. The fact that she had no immediate desire to take flight suggested a passive threat. Shutting her eyes, relaxing, she tried to cut off as much outside stimuli as possible. The sensation became less general and more concentrated to her right and back. Surreptitiously, she removed her gloves, then darted in that direction.

It was gone.

Hovering along the canopy, she searched the ground futilely trying to recover the feeling, but her elusive sense had vanished. Whoever, or whatever, could still be present but no longer a threat. Listening, she heard wind, shattering ice, and the distant whine of a car engine. A faint residue of ozone reached her nose. Strangely, there were no tracks in the snow. Perhaps her guest was a flyer. She removed a mini-cerebro from her belt and swung it in a slow arc. It picked up static directly in front, less on the sides, nothing more.

Rolling in mid air and keeping a low profile, she headed back towards the Bauer's house thinking that Clive would have to be blind not to see her.


Heat waves rose from the hood and metal ticked as it cooled. Inside, a woman smiled at something the man said or did, then turned. Two doors opened in succession, with Clive coming around to stand in front the passenger side before Victoria exited. The doors shut like gunshots. He smiled and motioned at Tori.

Turning on heel, he lifted an oblong black shape. "I want you to come out into the open, hands up." His face was calm. "Do anything, anything at all, and I'll shoot and for your own safety, this is not a projectile weapon."

Rogue mumbled and stepped out onto the lawn in accordance. Gamely, she placed her hands on her head, trying to remember the last time she had been in that position. Cops and robbers with Cody? Or does the time we nearly walked into a sting count? "Hon', am Ah the only one who realizes how stupid this is? C'mon, Clive, you know Ah'm no hotshot terrorist. Heck, Ah'd probably turn myself in if Ah did anything to you. How about we give talkin' a chance?"

He ignored her and added, "Where I can see them."

She raised her hands, palms facing him. That's right, I have a death ray hidden in the back of my head. She watched curiously as Victoria started to get up, seemingly without regard to the apparent danger. They're in this together.

"Tori, stay in the car, behind me." He approached steadily, keeping the gun level. His face, lined with a decade of determination, remained composed with a friendly smile in place. Clear blue eyes, open and guileless, looked at her patiently, missing nothing. "Rogue, Mystique's foster daughter." It was a cataloguing statement. "I'm surprised she'd send an amateur to do her dirty work."

"Ah'm not here to kill you. Unlike my mother, Ah'm not paranoid." Even if Tori thinks I am and she didn't send me. She tried to remember why she hated this man, if she had ever hated him. Had he merely been quarry? A name to hate? He was probably a good man, essentially speaking, but he was an enemy. He'll put me away if he can, for no good reason, for something I can't explain why I did.

Strength and energy still poured through her, but he was a good sixty feet away. There was no telling what would happen when he closed in.

Clive kept walking. He fired.

She was not worried until the energy beam hit her full center. It melted the material of her uniform before she had the sense to move. Looking down at the smoking hole, she cocked her head in familiar amusement. The tension that had gripped her shoulders melted away to be replaced by a strangely disembodied ease. The battle euphoria had set in. She lowered one hand to hold the flaps of cloth together letting them do their magic trick and reseal at the seam. Unstable molecules were great. She grinned, not feeling at all like an X-Man. "Don't Ah have t'do something hostile t'warrant shootin' me?"

"You're a wanted felon." He reholstered his weapon. "Worth a try." None of his hate showed. He readjusted the lapels of his dress jacket.

She shrugged through the wash of old guilt and pain. Those emotions had long since lost the ability to shatter her ability to smile. Her crimes were in the past. "Nah, if Ah was a wanted felon Ah'd be a hunted woman. Can't prove anythin' 'bout that now, can you?" It was a weak ploy to discover if her tracks had been covered. It was not that she did not have faith in Mystique but, rather, healthy suspicion.

"Well?"

"Well, what?"

"Aren't you going to kill me now, little miss X-Man? Maybe shoot me, slit my throat, poison gas, a good old fashioned beating? It's what you do best, isn't it?" His hands hooked in his overcoat pockets and he smiled faintly. "Or is it possible you actually feel remorse, repentance?" His eyes gentled and his smile became concerned. The proffered sympathy reminded her of a preacher. One of those showmen on television. He snapped his fingers. "That's right, you're one of the good guys now. What was I thinking?"

Her armor slipped and guilt returned but only long enough to be banished again. The cliché of knowledge being power was true. She had the power to keep five people alive. Clive did not want to talk or compromise, not judging by his sarcastic attack. Mostly likely, he only meant well, but a mutant in captivity usually did not last long. But, she needed to know if she could take the minimal approach. She would need to use her power on him and hope her energy signature was not traced. "Yeah, Ah've changed. Ah only wan' talk an' make sure no one gets hurt."

He made a sound that could have been assent or disbelief. "It's a free country, for its law-abiding citizens. So should we go inside and have tea and crumpets or would you like to talk to me the same way you talked to Carey?" He paced casually but his smile bared the bottom edges of his teeth. "You remember him don't you?"

"Ah'm sorry, no." Unease made her frown. Neither of them had mentioned the disk yet and he was making small talk. Small talk. He was stalling. Balancing her weight on one hip, she kept an eye out for his backup. He was too confident despite knowing she was nigh invulnerable. That meant he had heavy firepower somewhere. She avoided looking at Tori altogether while everyone maintained the charade for the next act.

"Not even that much respect for the dead? I thought you might at least remember him. He held a most interesting conversation with you, if his remains were any indication. You were there weren't you? Mommy's little girl?"

"Ah don' know what you're talkin' 'bout." He must be referring to the Suarez incident; it was the only one he would know for sure in which she had actively participated. She had killed a straggling witness, but swiftly. Clive's words indicated prolonged violence. Therefore, it could not be the two guards with Suarez, or the esteemed scientist himself. He's bluffing. He suspects something but has no evidence.

Folding his hands behind his back, he closed the distance between them and leaned close. "It involved an electrode and a blade. The box was shipped from Hong Kong. Have I jogged your memory?"

She shuffled through memories, some hers, some that might be and others that were not. After a tense search, she sucked in her breath and looked away from him.


Rogue looked at a gagged man sitting in a chair. Doesn't have much choice being all tied up like that. He looked kind of ill and his blue and gray clothing was torn in several places. She heard Destiny arguing with Momma, really arguing out loud as close to yelling as she ever got.

"Yes, I know, but it's been too long as it is. Three days!"

She switched her attention to Mystique.

"I see you're listening."

"Uh huh."

"Close your mouth. You look like a fish."

She closed her mouth and glanced back at the strange man.

"That is one of the Federal agents who tried to ambush you earlier." Mystique crossed her arms. "Do you remember that?"

"Uh huh."

"Good. I'm going to ask this man questions. All you have to do is pay attention." She removed the man's gag but he did not make a sound. His eyes cursed for him. Mystique ignored that and tugged a white metal box on wheels out beside him. The box was unremarkable except for several dials and a pronged cord leading from it. The man watched as she flipped a switch and picked up the prong.

A piercing whine filled the room. Rogue stepped back and grimaced. The disorientation that followed was nauseating. I should tell her it's getting worse, but I can't interrupt now. The whine cut off with a deep hum. Irené poked her in the back with her cane and pushed her closer. Even though she was within touching distance, the man never took his eyes off Mystique.

"You recognize this?" She waved it in his face and his eyes narrowed. "They teach you something in Quantico, after all. Shall we begin?"

The man turned so that he stared straight ahead. His hands tightened on the armrests.

"Tell me," she paused, "under whose orders were you acting?" She brought the prong down so that one tine touched the back of his right hand. "You have to the count of five, in seconds."

She's not going to hit him or anything. Rogue tucked some loose strands of hair behind her ear in growing agitation. The man was sweating, and so was she. I could just use my powers and get this over with but she told me to watch and if I don't, she won't fix my arm. But why? It's not fair. She avoided thinking too long about that coercion.

"Five."

The other tine touched on his skin and his entire body leapt. He made a sound preliminary to a scream but moaned instead. His hand was shaking violently, curled up, fingers gnarled. He sucked his cheeks in and a white line appeared around the edge of his upper lip. Mystique lifted the electrode away. He sagged in the chair.

Rogue staggered back in equal shock, her jaw working but no sounds emerging. She shot a glance between Mystique and Destiny, searching for explanation. The man's hand was now a slightly broiled maroon.

Mystique raised an eyebrow, inclining her head at her, then leaned down at the agent with a grin. "You're not going to tell me his name are you?"

The chords of his throat worked and he swallowed. The muscle in his jaw ticked, but he only stared her in the eye.

"Damn," she gibed in mock dismay. "Then we continue."

After the too many unanswered questions, Rogue tried to edge away, gasping raggedly. This was making her sick. It seemed she could feel the man's pain, which was impossible nonsense. Yet, for his every struggle, she imagined an electric sweep across her nerves, jingling like a nervous twitch in a spider web. It made her skin crawl and she shuddered. A frail authoritative hand dropped on her shoulder. She could shake it off with little effort, but she stayed put. The man was screaming now. Bowing her head, she squeezed her eyes shut so hard that spots danced in the darkness.

"Open your eyes, child."

"Ah can't see."

Destiny squeezed her shoulder in support. "I know child, but though Raven's views differ from mine, and perhaps yours, you must do as she says."

She did so, but kept her gaze fixed on the chair legs. "Why can't Ah jus' use my power? It'd be quicker."

"One must not solely rely on their metahuman abilities." Irené let go.

Rogue tried to read an expression behind Destiny's shades and placid words. Don't depend on your powers. Learn to do things the hard way but take pride in being a mutant and use them. We're better than humans. All her lessons put together made no sense. Why could I use my power on Suarez but not on this man? Nothing made sense through the haze. "Ah don' un'erstan'."

"We are not better than humans. We merely possess certain advantages over them. There will come a day when that advantage will no longer be an assurance."

The man had stopped screaming. Thinking he might have died, Rogue looked up. His chest rose and fell in weak, shallow breaths. His head hung, hair matted to forehead, mouth lax. His eyes made a disinterested sweep of the room. He was not dead. He was not capable of screaming, that was all. The visible sites of electrocution were red, purple with twin white spots that marked dead tissue. She had read about this type of injury. Within forty-eight hours, the burnt tissues would slough off the bone. Untreated, they would become gangrenous. He would die from infection, fever and dehydration.

The smell of half-cooked meat permeated the room.

As she catalogued the details, the anger and pain swept through her again with fierce intensity. She staggered and for the first time, she noticed that his eyes were brown and the small detail was overwhelmed by the larger fact that this man would die. It did not matter how and it did no good feeling sorry about it. I wish I could make him stop hurting. She understood the point of this exercise, as her Momma would call it. This is all for show; he doesn't know anything. That thought succeeded in turning her stomach. She hated lessons. How dare she? Damn mutant bitch.

"Stop."

Both Rogue and Mystique faced Irené in askance.

"I was speaking to Rogue."

Mystique nodded but turned off the machine regardless. She looped and tucked the cord against the side of the machine and pushed it away.

Rogue blinked in bewilderment. "Ah di'n' do anythin'."

"You were and would have suffered greatly for it."

The dull sickness in her stomach churned into anger. "He was hurtin' for no good reason." Knowing she was throwing a tantrum and not caring, "This was some type of stupid lesson! Ah could fin' out the answers real quick. Ain' nothin' wrong with that!"

She lunged too quickly and jarred her shoulder. "Fuck, arh...." She suppressed further outcry, holding her elbow to her stomach and tried not to heave on the combined pains and smell. "He don' know nothin'. Ah ain' stupid."

"Well, you certainly speak as if you are."

The irrelevance spiked through her temples. "I know how to speak properly," she gritted out, "Ah'm jus' sayin' y'don' have to do this. Ah get the point already so y'don' need to...." She swallowed, and turned away. You don't have to beat me with it.

"I did not refer to punishment. I spoke of suffering." Irené placed her cane between them and sighed. "You sought to remove his pain. You would have succeeded only in harboring it within yourself. It is not wise for you to absorb those in pain or those who would cause you pain by causing great physical change. It would...set your mind against itself."

But I really wasn't doing anything. Perplexed, she frowned and opened her mouth to argue.

"A resolution will come with time." She nodded towards the dying man and Rogue reluctantly returned her attention to her foster-mother.

Mystique presented her with a clone of her lost dagger, handle first. "Go on. Finish him off. End his suffering." She smiled faintly, more like a cat baring the tips of its teeth. "If it bothers you that much."

"Raven," beseeched Irené. "This is not necessary. The child understands."

"Don't, Irené. She may understand intellectually but she needs to cultivate a little less pity for her enemies if she wants to survive." She lifted the knife fractionally.

Rogue eyed it like a cottonmouth.

"Think, girl. You feel sorrow for him now, but this man is a Federal agent. He would gladly and willingly kill you in your place. If you don't, I'll release him and we'll count the hours to your arrest. Believe me, if that's what it takes to make you understand the consequences of misplaced pity, I will do it."

She looked, in shock, between the knife, her Momma and the man. This was different. He was not chasing or trying to kill her. He was helpless. How could she know that this man would seek revenge. How could the Feds reach them here in the safe house? Would she really do such a thing? She was shaking her head, slowly. "Why?"

"Because I gave you an order."

Disobedience would lead to punishment and Mystique could very creative, and very brutal, without lifting a finger. She never hit, but there were so many things worse than a beating. When it came down to it, her Momma and Destiny were more important to her than a nameless government agent. She would do it and that awareness sent a stabbing pain through her chest.

The man, no, the agent -- she had to think of him as an agent, a human -- was staring resolutely ahead his face set in grim lines.

People would grieve for him.

"I understand imprisonment can be an...enlightening experience."

The thought of bars, a small room shared with a hostile stranger, terrified her. And my power. What would they do about it? Destiny was saying that maybe powers can't always protect a mutant. She had the horrible suspicion that hers would not protect her for very long against a determined enemy. I can't go to jail. People get hurt in jail. She reached for the dagger. People get raped in jail.

Her arm hurt so much, a throbbing twisting pain. And they were so loud. Why were they so loud? It was making her head hurt. It was like a dream when sounds echoed in a mental cave. Their words made no sense. She shook her head to clear the cobwebs. This is really annoying.

She wiped her hand across her forehead, skimming her fingers through her hair. Her scalp was plastered with sweat though the room was air conditioned. She looked at the agent through the crook of her elbow. He was watching her watch him with dismissive condemnation. That was okay. It was the same type of look any of her victims gave her: 'How could you? You stole my soul? How could you?' She was used to it. She was used to feeling it first hand.

Too bad I can't really victimize him. She smiled at her turn of thoughts. Here she was, working up the nerve to execute a man, and her mind chose to wander towards sex. It was a safe direction of thought, safe because it was completely unfeasible. Momma would probably think that was funny. Rogue did not. As a normal human, he was unworthy of attention, but still.... Sometimes she got so lonely. Surely Mystique, of all people, would not mind her using him. Granted, the definition of "use" differed.

Somewhat.

Irené rapped her cane on the floor in sharp disapproval.

Rogue gave her a sullen look. "Hypocrite," she muttered.

"Mind your manners, young lady."

And from the recesses, something fragile unraveled. As if a string were pulled, Rogue twitched and through gritted teeth, reminded them, "Ah ain' no youn' lady."

Mystique smiled sweetly. "Would you like me to call you names instead? Variations on 'rogue' perhaps?" She jerked her chin at the maimed man. "I can think of a few apt ones."

Rogue felt the blood drain from her face in shock and hunched her shoulders in learned shame. Her eyes stung but she fought that. "That's not fair," she whispered.

"Oh, that's not fair," Mystique mockingly intoned. "Grow up. Are you going to finish the job or do I have to do it for you?" She tapped her foot. "You take care of this, we'll mend your injuries, and you can off into the city and have as much fun as you like... so long as you're back by two."

"But-" Murder and a party. Party to murder. She realized she was staring at Mystique, a blue and white shape that wavered like a fun house mirror for a second. There was nothing funny about this mirror.

"Stop sniveling."

Rogue balled her fist around the knife, clenching and unclenching her fingers. Her pulse leapt, blood rushing in her ears. A cold fury seized her and she realized she was shaking with rage. She did not want to do this. It was not fair. It was not. This was another stupid test that Momma had started, not her. Not me. It's not my fault. So why do I have to be the one that finishes it?!

Lowering her head, she took a step towards Mystique.

Her foster-mother backed up.

"Both of you! Stop this instant! I will not have discord over trivialities." Irené leaned on her cane, frowning ferociously. Her veined hand squeezed the handle so hard that her knuckles showed white. "You," she pointed, "Raven, are indeed a hypocrite, as am I, in my own ways."

The woman in question appeared as if she had been physically struck.

"But you, my child, you are also in the wrong. First of all, you should not threaten your mother. Second, regardless of my raven's behavior or misbehavior, she acts with my allowance and of her own free will, paradoxical as that may sound. She is correct in charging you with a need for self-control, as tactlessly as it was done, for I fear you are confusing one thing with quite another."

So rarely did Irené lecture that Rogue quietly accepted her words, reminded that it was not her place to question those to whom she was beholden. Of course, none of this made her head spin less or her arm feel better, but now she looked, really looked, at the uniformed agent. There was no way she could kill in cold blood. She never had been able to do that. There needed to be a foundation of rage or fear for her to do that, but there were ways to trick herself into feeling those things.

Under the burns was a handsome face.

She ran a fingertip over the curve of his jawbone and cheek, traced the ridge of his nose. The corner of his eye twitched and he turned his head away slightly. A sneer lifted her lip. Of course he turned away. They never wanted to be close, to touch. Never. She closed her hand tightly on the hilt and cracked her fist across that cheek. Her knuckles hurt. Good. It obliterated the warmth lingering on her fingertip.

Keeping her jaw clenched to prevent her heart from thudding right out, she squeezed her eyes shut and convinced herself. That bastard. He was older than her, but no more than ten years. She could imagine his life. He was handsome. He probably had a girl or a wife. He probably had a house, a car, a life, a family. A real family. His own family. Relations. She rocked on her toes and lifted her fist. That fucking bastard. She couldn't even touch. No one wanted to touch something, someone, they could not have.

The blade struck his face so hard it ricocheted off bone. The force jarred her arm, upset her balance. A thin white line appeared across his cheek, winding to a stop at his nose. Blood welled up. She listened, fascinated as he began to choke, almost like a baby. She had cut his nose in half. He could not breath. She grinned. It was not enough. One cut was not enough, ever. The grin turned into a snarl as she cut him a new mouth. Slashing at any exposed part. Slashing until her arm ached. How dare he?! He would choke to death first. It did not matter. It never mattered. Tomorrow would be the same, again and again and again. None of it mattered

Until hands grabbed, shaking her until the pain from her broken bone caught her attention. She glared with submerged hatred at yellow eyes and ignored the voice telling her to get in control, to channel her anger, to show some common sense, to do as she was told but hating her life more than any of those things.


"Ah'm sorry." So much apologizing I've been doing lately. Doesn't matter. Doesn't make it better and never has.

"You're sorry?! He had a fiancee!" His face snarled up flushing red and causing his eyes too seem all the more blue. They seemed to glow with hatred. "He was twenty-three! He was going to get married and you butchered him! You cut him apart! What? Using your power," he sneered that word, "wasn't good enough? What the hell is wrong with you?!"

Her powers remained active, yet she retreated from his justified fury. His honest questions to which she could not give a satisfactory answer. "Ah di'n'-"

"Didn't what? Didn't know? Didn't do it on purpose? Didn't have a choice? Didn't have as much fun doing it the hard way? It doesn't matter! You," he slashed a finger at her, pointing in accusation, "you did it and it wasn't the first time you murdered in cold blood, was it?" He bared his teeth, "Monster."

"No!" Fun had been the last thing on her mind while listening to that man, Carey, scream. It was the one thing under Mystique's tutelage that had turned her stomach. She had refused to do it again. She swallowed in shock. But not until afterwards. "It wasn' fun," she insisted.

"I don't want to hear excuses. You were there. What you didn't do, you saw and condoned."

"Ah was fifteen. My family was criminals. Ah di'n' have no say in it."

"You were too young to make moral judgments?" A vein pulsed in his forehead. "What about Ong? Tranquada? Kotovsky? Bendt? Oh, that's right, you don't remember who they were. Let me refresh your memory." He seemed to have calmed into ice. "The first two were the escort guards for Suarez. Bendt needed a closed coffin. Kotovsky was a cripple, you executed him!" Clive formed his hand into gun and pointed at the side of his head. "Executed! And that's not counting the poor schmucks in the genetics lab. Who set the bombs? You?"

"No." She had not known how to set up a series that complex. Pyro had taught her that in a later...exercise.

"But you know who did, don't you?"

"Ah don' have t'answer that question," she whispered.

"Murdering bitch." He laughed, softly, to himself. "I'd prosecute, except you're right. I don't have any evidence. And you know that, you lousy fucking piece of shit." He shrugged good-naturedly. "Guess I'll have to find a way around that."

"Why're y'tellin' me that? Ah know y'settin' me up. Ah jus' wanted t'talk to you."

He made scolding noises. "I thought you were one of the good guys. One of those costumed super heroes out to save the world. What are you going to do if this is a sting? Back to killing so soon?"

Guilty panic began to eat at her from the inside but she squelched it swiftly. She was a hero. She had people to save. I guess that's what Momma liked best. I couldn't dwell on guilt. "No."

"Good little hero, huh?" He put a hand to his brow, theatrically waving the other in the air. "I will martyr myself for the cause." Letting his arms drop, he caught her eyes again. "You know what? I don't believe you. People change. They don't change that much. Whatever made you the perfect little pet is still there."

"Ah'm sorry. Ah can't change the past."

"No, but you can pay for it, or kill me first. That's how the rules go, don't they? "

"Ah...." She was going to say she would not kill him, but that promise was not hers to make anymore. Clive was right. Everything he said was right but her capture would not keep her old friends alive.

"Thought so." He stopped talking or moving. A ripple passed across his face and he was calm once more. His smile was relaxed.

She waited but nothing happened. Neither of them moved. Victoria remained in the car, as instructed. The sun was setting, wind picking up speed. The light made Clive's teeth glint pink. His eyes picked up orange highlights, contrasting sharply with their native blue. She curled her hands tighter, still in the air. It was getting cold. The air bit into her lungs in passage. It was cold. Shit.

Not thinking further than that, she dropped and rolled. There was no sound. A spot of mud marked where she had been standing. Field inhibitors. Killer death rays. A compact army. Sentinels. Thank lord my instincts were right. There were only two of them, hovering silently, awaiting commands.

"Amateur."

The gun in her hands was a pea shooter against these monsters. She ran, zigzagging towards the forest, ridiculing her own foolishness. Think! Think! Heat flashed dangerously close to her arm. Don't think! Nothing to hide behind, no cover, no back-up, no powers. She only had her rusty skills to count on and, now that she needed them, she realized they were all but gone.

Lunging to the side, she almost twisted her knee. Drop. Roll. Turn. The gun leapt in her hands. The kick threw her of balance.

The sentinels turned in unison.

She fired again, reflexively. One of them squawked at her but she did not check it out before running again. She did not need anyone to tell her she was depending too much on reflexes and training she had not practiced in years. Mystique would be laughing her head off.

Thirty seconds later, she sucked in her breath and clawed at her back. It was numb with fire. She could feel the heat of the injury. The pain would strike soon. The gun was still in her hand but slipping, the metal sliding off her glove. The cry froze before it began. She tightened her grip on the piece and refused to look back at the Sentinel. Stupid, stupid me. She fell heavily to her knees, collapsing on her side, the rough surface of the grip obstinately pressed into her palm. I wonder if she knew this would happen?

The numbness crawled into her mind and she stopped thinking. She stopped wondering, if maybe she had kept up practice these past years, this might have ended differently. Maybe this was only right. She stopped thinking because it hurt and the last thing she saw was a pair of blue double-booted feet.


PART16

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