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 16

Karolina Phillips

8/18/00

 

He gave them life, though at this moment, he was waiting. He gave them life beyond simple humanity. He brought forth their gifts or gave them control. They were not mutants to him for those genetic accidents were meant to happen and happened in the thousands every day, they were his products. It was the success and survival of a fraction of that number that set all mutants apart from common humanity, as they should be. With his help, mutants would reach past destiny.

Each and every mutant was a miracle worth studying, if not preserving. Millions of mutations occurred among mammalian species every day, including the human race. The majority were benign and unnoticeable. Those that were malignant generally resulted in fetal deformity or spontaneous miscarriage. In more recent years, the likelihood of these children surviving birth had been increased by scientific means. As a result, humans with latent mutations and cells with high carcinogenic content were more common. He smiled faintly at that self-destructive irony.

Despite this, for a mutated organism to survive the embryonic and fetal stages, birth, infancy and puberty to reach an adult reproductive state was a miracle. The qualifier was whether the mutation was successful. It must not cause harm to its host organism. Secondly, it must contribute in some way to that organisms short term or long term survival. It could do so directly, such as a healing factor or immunity, or indirectly by generating positive survival behaviors linked to a double-tiered feedback system.

For instance, the sensation of hunger. When the biological systems required certain nutrients, they sent a message to the hypothalamus which in turn relayed signals through the thalamus and limbic system that induced a feeling of hunger. This in turn caused the organism to engage in a certain set of instinctual and learned food-gathering behaviors. When those behaviors were completed and the biological need had been met, another signal would be sent by the body to the mind. The brain then instructed the release of certain amino acids and hormones to induce a state of "comfort" or "pleasure".

Nature was truly fiendish in its ingenuity. How could any intelligent person not desire to study and dissect such phenomena? How could any sane person not desire to understand, to know, to hold power, over such built-in wiring and programming? It was insanity not to study life itself. Sinister rested his hands on the edge of the examination table, listening to the atmospheric hum of electronics in his climate controlled laboratory. How can a group of mutants claim to be preserving humanity when they do not understand their own humanity? How can they have that arrogance? That lack of control will be the death of them.

While his benefactor believed that only the fit would survive, Sinister preferred to produce fitness itself. Sometimes, when times were difficult, it was this fervent belief that sustained him. If it also fit into his benefactor's master plan, then good as well, but En Sabah Nur was not truly his master regardless of how much the self-dubbed pharaoh would will it so. In the end, when it came, he would not allow his dream to be sullied. In the end, he would make science take that last half step and achieve what nature could not, dared not. In the end, science would prevail over nature.

The neural neutralizer should be wearing off his subject soon. He turned his back to her, more interested in the computer screens and his own thoughts. The monitor told him his guest was awake long before his ears did. He waited until she finished screeching. He waited until she subsided into gasps that could never get enough oxygen. He waited until she realized that her strength and energy were gone. That was the humor of it. With her part alien metabolism suppressed, her own caloric needs defeated her. Nature had a sense of humor, he would give it that.

"Good morning. I trust you rested well?"

"Sinister!"

Why did people insist on shouting out his name? Did they think he was not aware of his own title? Were they quaintly suspicious and believed that saying it aloud would alter his state of existence? He sighed as her metabolic output increased dramatically and then depressed.

"Yes." He turned to face here. "Now, would you be so kind as to settle down? Hysterics will do you absolutely no good. I have suppressed your metabolic levels so that if you continue to waste energy and struggle, you will most likely go into toxic shock. It's rather like jaundice, and we wouldn't want that, now would we?"

Over the fittings of a gas mask, dilated eyes, heightened to a catlike yellow green, stared at him. She continued to press against the restraints.

This would require a certain amount of showmanship and psychological methodology. He did not want her to overexert herself just yet. Sinister smiled, and predictably, as was instinctually ingrained in almost all humans, Rogue shrank away from that smile. It was too alien, too insectoid against the white skin and red eyes, too predatory with its serrated edge. It was all the things that repulsed any survival-oriented mammal that had evolved to fear its reptilian ancestry.

She blinked, glassy-eyed and swallowed. Her head fell back against the padding. Her fingers curled and uncurled. That was a completely unconscious reaction harking back to clutching at a safe person or location; it was a fear response.

"Ah'm goin' t'kill you." The whispered threat was garbled through the gas mask on her face.

So was that.

A genuine smirk touched his lips. "I'm sure you will. But if we are done with the theatrics, you have a purpose to serve."

"Let me go."

"After all those threats?" He chuckled at her audacity. "I think not. I think that you will stay here," he patted her on the head, "for as long as I see fit. What do you think of that, child? and," he leaned over her as she literally tried to wriggle off the table like a specimen, "we shall have such an interesting time. If you are disgruntled over having been captured and collared, you may consider being more careful on your next outing."

She ceased struggling, like a rabbit hoping not to be seen.

He smiled at her cheerfully. "I see we understand each other." Sinister turned away from her again, double-checking the sensor readings from her restraints to ascertain she was not fighting to escape. In front of him were monitors and graphs showing the activity of her peripheral and central nervous system, several lobes of her brain, including her cerebellum and hypothalamus, as well as her metabolic levels. He had an experiment to perform.

"How's my dear friend Hank doing? Come up for a cure for the Legacy yet?"

"No answer. I see. How about LeBeau?"

"He's not goin' t'come after me." She wheezed through the mask. "Ah know how...y'used him...done deal."

"I hardly used him. We had a professional relationship. And of course he won't come chasing after you. He could not penetrate this location without first knowing the location and second, possessing the means and strength. Nor do I believe he would bring your friends to do that for him, being a secretive individual. You and your friends will not be destroying this laboratory like you did my cloning facility. In short, my dear, you are quite stuck."

"Now, please, do keep quiet and still. I'm a very busy man and sometimes my schedule gets a bit tight. The smallest matter can set off my nerves, and well, you can imagine the effect. You wouldn't want to trifle with my nerves, would you?" He turned back, allowing her to see the slim, tubular device in his hand. He compressed a button on the side and a hair thin syringe snapped out.

He rubbed his chin. She was clearly falling asleep. It looks like I underestimated the effects of dampening her metabolic system. No matter.

He stroked the side of her face and she flinched awake. Deliberately leaning over the edge of the table, he placed one hand on either side of her head. He tapped the mask with one finger, in warning. "Don't fall asleep again. It's rude."

She rasped at him through the gas mask and her pulse shot up. Her words were unintelligible, slurred but her mind projected a terror of an animal. Her cardio monitor began to beep warningly.

"Do you hear that? Good, very good. Well, not really. You have two very basic options at your disposal. You can calm down or I can tranquilize you. Do you understand?"

There was a pause before she blinked and swallowed.

Grasping her chin in his left hand, he tilted her head, applying the device to the back of her neck. "Shhhhh. Don't struggle." She spasmed against the pain, what could have been a scream, dying into a wheeze. "This is a simple outpatient procedure."

He held her back the back of the neck until she stopped moving while watching the monitors. The blood temperature in her extremities had dropped by a full degree. Accelerated activity in the motor cortex. He waited until that died down.

"Why'm Ah here?" She stared at the artificial, blue-tinged lighting overhead.

"And here I thought I'd given you enough clues." He stroked her neck with the back of his hand. She never moved but that could not disguise her revulsion. He kept an eye on the monitor and continued the caress, along the collarbone, down the arm and back up again to her breast. She made a strangled noise, but had the sense to hold still. He hummed to himself. "I have decided that you will be my eternal love slave."

She blinked rapidly. The only sound was the hissing of air through her mask and gradually that turned into wheezing laughter with a manic tinge. "Oh lord...been abducted by a perv. Jean...Jean di'n' mention...."

"Look at me," he ordered. When she refused, he wrapped his hand around her ribcage, sorely tempted to squeeze until a bone or two splintered. Gentleness was more unnerving than violence. She looked at him immediately, all trace of humor gone. Let her speculate, though the thought of something as messy as rape repulsed him. Her hands clenched into fists and she glared at him with more hatred that had been created in that single moment.

"Wha'y'wan'...perv?"

He removed his hands. "Good girl. I merely want the usual. If it makes you feel any better, I was going to pluck the information I wanted from your mind. Since you unwittingly made the issue difficult for me, I'm simply making things difficult for you. As a further warning, I am not the only person in this complex he would be delighted to have power over one of Xavier's pets."

She grimaced, keeping silent but her thoughts floated where he could hear them. Thoughts that labeled him a monster and other things that did not have names. Such anger at being helpless. Such fear. Images of a small, concrete room with bars. Uniforms. Their smiles. A smile from the past, quickly forgotten. Delicious.

"Tha's not...usual."

"Do you realize that you speak like a beggar?" He grinned at her frustration. "You thought I would actually tell you?"

It would require more effort to wipe the information from her brain if he told her why he had gone through the trouble of capturing her. He had given her the clues by name. McCoy and LeBeau had destroyed his chief cloning facility. Cloning any individual required significant resources, both raw and immaterial. It required memories to intelligently and obediently function. He had the genetic material of all the X-Men, but the mental and psychological data of only three. Even so, he would not go through the trouble of combining any element of Rogue's genetic matrix with any clone without first knowing it would be worth the effort and within safety margins. Even a kill gene might not work against a highly mutable matrix.

He began conversationally, one hand raised flat over her torso. "Have you ever studied the connections between psychology and biology?" She did not answer.

"Answer the question."

"A bit."

"Mm." The sensors were not showing any unusual brain activity. "I assume you're aware of the various components of touch, since it is your power after all?" He lowered his hand until it was six inches away from her.

"Yes."

"Mm." Still nothing. "Do you know what I'm doing?"

"Yes."

He raised an eyebrow at her and saw that she was watching the monitors as closely as he. "You've managed to surprise me. Has anyone tried this before?"

"No."

"Not even Xavier?"

"No."

"Coward." He gradually lowered his palm until her power bit. There. The screens for the lower and mid brain showed activity. The electromagnetic field then, as an initial trigger at the very least. "Can you feel anything?"

"No."

"Are you certain?"

"Yes."

"Hm. I suppose you tend to avoid being close to people."

"Less risk."

He smiled slowly. "You would like to think that, wouldn't you?" As he maintained his position, her hypothalamus and limbic system lit up with activity. Even factoring in her current emotional responses, there was elevated activity. So then, an instinctual or emotional response to proximity. As closing the distance did nothing except increase that activity.... Her aggregate sensory input had increased though he was providing her nothing to sense. Odd. She's not routing the electromagnetic sensory input properly. "Hmph." He dropped his palm onto her ribcage, doing a quick check for pressure and temperature. Nothing.

She was old enough so her power could mature without damaging her mind but insecure enough so he did not have to worry about losing control. Her mutation was promising. It could be useful, despite her being an inferior specimen. Absently, he rapped a finger on her tenth rib. First, he had to ensure that she would develop her abilities. That required that he find the source of the sensory rerouting. So long as she was unable to directly perceive her power, she could not fully wield it. If she could not control the power, her memories would be equally useless. He had considered conditioning, but judging by how well Xavier's had held, it was not a reliable option. He would have to do something permanent.

Making certain the monitors were recording, he refocused his attention on his actual subject. Her eyes were screwed shut, a sheen of sweat on her face. He planted his feet, stiffening his body, and melted the glove off his right hand. Then, extending his psi-shields around them both, he touched her cheek.

She made a thin whining sound like a wounded animal. He watched her renew her struggles against her bonds, the erratic swings of the monitor readings until they sank. The shock of unwanted intimacy mixed with anger at being manipulated, insecurity over what she perceived to be a sexual reaction, confusion that made her cry. All of it balled up, aimed at him with a promise of revenge.

Really? All that over a simple test? you need to look at the larger picture, he admonished. Don't fight me. You'll only hurt yourself just like you did last time.

When? The question was a mental whisper but sincere.

When? Ah, when. Surely you remember me, such a sweet child you were, so obedient to your mother. Really quite admirable. Mm. Rather rude though.

Lucien?

Who? The memory of a smile again came from her. No, Emilio Suarez.

Suarez? The name hissed and faded like an echo.

Do you always repeat names or is this a temporary affliction? Still, most ironic, don't you agree? He had recognized Mystique and, her associate, Destiny had surely recognized him. That was unduly hasty of them to try and assassinate me. Uncalled for. Of course, you were too young to understand what was happening or even suspect that those two ingrates had ulterior motives. He would have killed all three of them, especially the insignificant child. Insignificant until he reviewed the possibilities of her mutation but there had been more pressing matters to which he had to attend.

Can't be. You didn't know me.

He sighed dramatically, more to entertain himself than anything else. Of course I knew you. I know every mutant born. I simply didn't care. You had no distinguishable value then. Now, you will refrain from blocking entrance to your mind. Get that oil slick out of my way.

Sinister slipped through the webbing of her mind. Walls and strands around him rippled, swaying toward him like cobwebs. He answered with equal threat. The most prized possession of most individuals he encountered, the mind was malleable as putty under his thoughts. A small adjustment here, another there, a tweak of desire or will, and that person would belong to him. Nothing so crude as mind control. This would only take a second.

Outside, in the laboratory, he could hear a cry of rage and pain. It gurgled through the mask. The struggles accompanying it triggered the tranquilizer. Within seconds, the cry had ceased.

Good. Her reactions will be more subdued now.

He passed through memories, pushing them aside, casually treading on fragments of her core psyche. There were only small pieces. He noted, with disinterest, her current quest. Let her hunt. Let her seek useless, unmissed mutants. He walked deeper into his subject's mind. The terrain changed to that of a ruined city, blackened and scarred. The ground beneath his feet was a fractured facade, the buildings were silhouettes of life. This was a false plane, perhaps even the creation of another. It was an impediment that he would need to remove. The edges of the rubble blurred, melting towards him. He laughed now, and waved the childish fumbling of her mutant power away. Already she hunts me. Jean Grey has accomplished something, after all. Her power was parasitic, but his was also and mature at that.

This was no contest. Even that disparaging thought had sent a shockwave of damage through the city. The facade was collapsing and her suppression was weakening. There is little need for my presence here. Nature appears to be taking its course without help for once. Slowly and erratically as usual, though. Very deliberately, he thrust one booted foot through the shaky ground. It broke, fissures running away towards a mountain on one side, a forest on another, and a river past the city. An enclosed populace.

It released a pearlescent liquid that danced with every color, eddying around his feet, washing away the dark rubble in a whirling fury. Then, the liquid reared over the city like an amoebae crushing the structures within, tearing at walls and images, everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Beautiful. This was no tidy, personified avatar. Light. Brilliant white light filled with shifting colors.

But aesthetics had no place in science. While he appreciated the chaos, it would be difficult to work inside. A certain amount of structure was required to eliminate variables. Let's see if we can't give this a more concrete structure. We shall make this a smaller world, more concise. An enclosed populace. Towering forms. The liquid avatar. Light. And a representative image of our subject. For all his control, Sinister understood that it was his subconscious that would perceive and shape this world. His consciousness could only guide it with symbol choices and interpret the results.

The colors and light coalesced into a tree leaning over a river bank, the one remaining structure. It was warm and sunny and he could hear the gurgle of water, birds, wind. There was a girl sitting on a branch, humming off-key. In short, the scene was disgustingly idyllic. Neither was it real. It was only a set of symbols his mind constructed of Rogue's mind. Therein lay the problem. What are my subconscious perceptions?

"Hello."

The girl started, surprised to see him. She wiggled off her perch and swung down to circle him, wide-eyed. "You're not supposed to be here."

"Sulky, aren't you?" He sat cross-legged.

"I am not." She stuck her lip out at him.

Sinister folded his hands together and smiled winningly. "My name's Nathan. What's yours?"

"You're not supposed to be here," she insisted in a worried tone.

"Am I trying to hurt you?"

She fidgeted from foot to foot. "...No, but someone is."

"Well, I'm just going to sit here, like so, and talk to you. I'm not hurting you. It's very nice here. Do you mind talking to me?"

She edged around him and gradually her scowl was replaced by curiosity. "Okay, but don't move."

"I won't. What's your name," he repeated.

"I don't know."

"Do you know who you are?"

She shrugged. "Sometimes. Lotsa times I'm other people. Who are you?"

"I'm a scientist."

"Like Frankenstein?"

"No, like Dolittle."

"Oh. Okay." She cocked her head, frowning at him belligerently for a moment.

Sinister mulled over his new discoveries. She's a bit more vapid than I expected. This core area was brighter than the outer symbols and facades. It was happy, in an ignorant sort of way. Beyond informing him that he should not be here, about which was correct, she accepted his presence without qualm. There were two distinct possibilities. Either she was unaware of his threat or she was fully confident of her ability to oust him. Since she had not been able to control his presence on the previous occasion she had absorbed him, the latter choice was unlikely.

Satisfied with his logic, he scanned for any dark or suspicious area. The core psyche could not be this obnoxiously nice. The overgrown grass did not hide any holes, rocks or tangles of brush. There was the river, but it gleamed an unnaturally bright blue, not the muddy brown he vaguely recalled of the Mississippi. It disappeared into the indistinct edges of the core, almost appearing to be the edge of a sea rather than a river, except for the obvious current. A large powerful body of water, reminiscent of the first avatar. Which meant that the girl was not real. The tiger posing as grass.

Then there was the massive, gnarled oak, spreading a protective canopy over the scene. The two symbols of age and power contrasted sharply with her apparent youth and naiveté. He smiled thinly. Perhaps she could oust him, if she was aware of it, which she was not. This power will be interesting to study in its full force. The only trick was to shatter this illusion and that key would either be in the water or the tree.

"I imagine it's fun to go swimming."

The girl was shaking her head. "I'm not supposed to go near the river. Uncle Lucien says it's dangerous." She wrinkled her nose. "And it's cold."

He headed towards the river. How could she know it was cold? The bank sloped down sharply, loose dirt and mud crumbling under his feet and causing him to slip abruptly. He discovered that the water was, indeed, cold. Here at the edge, the current was strong enough to sweep away small stones and undercut the bank. After some consideration, he turned away from the water and climbed up the bank. He was not prepared to battle such an amorphous power.

She was back in the tree, watching for him. "You shouldn't do that."

"I quite agree. I got wet and cold and there's mud on my clothing."

She frowned at him as if he'd grown a fifth limb. "You're real."

"Why yes..." The rumble of flowing water deepened and a cool breeze washed over him. The sky darkened momentarily, before everything phased back. "...I am." He crossed his arms as the sun returned throwing bright light on the greenery and water to his left. As he calmly approached the tree, he noticed that the river shifted, perpetually remaining in view. In essence, this small hillock was an island.

Ah. An island of land within a circling moat as the illusion was a lake surrounded by a crumbling city, both eroded by the currents of power. Now, he too circled the ancient tree and speculated on what would happen if he destroyed this bulwark of stability. Is it, for that matter, a symbol of stability? Of control? Of mental grounding? But this ground is not her power. There was rustle from the branches and he sent the girl a friendly smile. He kept one hand out of sight, building a charge and was still smiling when he brought it round to neatly burn through the trunk.

"No!" There was a flash of wide eyes that narrowed and disappeared.

There was strained crackle that intensified to a groan as the tree fell. Without its roots to hold the earth in place, the ground beneath his feet split away in a roar. The tree was flung into the river, shattering as wind and water blended. The girl, the nobody, was screaming at him, inarticulate in her rage. He watched as her very form warped, dissolved, was swept away with the remainder of the false focal point. It was regrettable that Xavier could not see this. Even in his cool rationale, Sinister raised his arms in exaltation over his own success and the din whirling around him.

And then, he lost his balance, caught in the violently churning currents. Perhaps it was time to leave.

A vise of power slithered around him like a snake. How dare she? I try to help, I try to be nice and what does the child attempt? He lashed out with equal force, swallowing bits of the mental soup strangling him. Angrily, he sliced at the anchor. It sprang apart like a monstrous rubber-band.

In the laboratory, appraising her still body, he growled warningly. Her eyes were unfocused, wet. Her hands frozen into claws. "That, " he enunciated, "was not a wise thing to do, girl." He increased the dose of tranquilizer enough to paralyze but not to kill. Let her body be frozen and her mind free.

 


Rogue started violently, not aware she was free of restraints until she fell over and landed in the snow. Crystals of ice. Blue, violet, lilac tinged with rose. They cut, crystal sharp into her mind. They cut into her skin. They cut into her gut. Rogue turned her face into the snow, sucking in the cold and moisture. She could hear snow melting under her cheek and a soft hissing. It was like the sound of a thousand insects. She moaned and curled in a fetal ball. She was shaking.

In a sideways world, she could see tree trunks, overlapping into gray shadows. There was orange and pink light twining between the branches. So it was either dawn or dusk. She stared at the trees trying to identify the pain in her head, a variation on sinus pressure. She decided that crickets had crawled up her nose, which made about as much sense as her current situation. She rolled over.

"God damn!" She grabbed the back of her neck, then wished she had not. "Shit. Aw...." Taking deep breaths, she concentrated on not vomiting. She fingered the goose-egg at the base of her skull, picking up a handful of snow to press against it. Someone got around my powers.

Trying to kneel up, she froze. There was a pain like acid in the place of blood, flowing through her body. The acid pooled in her stomach, crushing her heart, strangling. It was an internal injury, a pain that filled all of her. It was poison, a shot through the heart, being crushed by twisted metal and stone and all that she could think about was need. Need to escape...need. She tightened her arms around her stomach in a vain attempt to banish the pain. Ignore it. Ignore it. It'll fade. It will fade. A word, a memory. A man who had nearly starved to death in a refugee camp. Starvation. I can ignore this. Just shut it away, like before. It's wrong. Wrong. I can ignore it. I can control it.

She could not move. It hurt as if every nerve was over-saturated. What if I can't control it? Who'll I hurt next? Fear made a person want to run or die. She knew fear at every touch. How it felt to not know if her will was stronger; if her life would continue. Her life. She did not want to run. There was acid inside, the residue left of violation that she did not want to see.

But as she looked down at herself, she saw the exit marks of a plasma blast on her uniform. The hole was perfectly circular, melted at the edges, scorch marks shadowing the cloth from shoulder to shoulder. She touched the pink scar tissue, to the right of her sternum. Either I've been here a long time or someone patched me up. And did something to the back of my head.

She unfolded an arm, splayed a hand in the snow. It crunched softly. Her arm shook and she collapsed. Something hot and wet ran down the side of her nose. The acid inside was corroding her heart. This was wrong. This was like before, when her power first emerged and she used it as instinctively as breathing. Show me a good time, sugar. Show me. Show me. Of their own volition, her hands covered her ears. The sound, the sound of insects, or melting snow, was drilling into her head.

And she could not shut it out. She was making sounds too. Incoherent. Maybe words. She rolled drunkenly, jerked and shot up into the air. Away from the sounds and the pain. Take the high ground. She swallowed but the acid was still there. Show me a good time. She started to laugh and cry because it was wrong to enjoy the mental contact, to enjoy dominating, feeding off a person. Parasite, like an insect. Little blood sucker. The craving was there, she could hear it, feel it like acid. Her shivering turned into a shudder. Right now, there was only one thing to think about. She knew that the next person she was might not survive and there was only one place she could think of where people could help her: Home.

First, she had to figure out her current location. There, that was a sane thought. She pulled up into the air, unsteadily, since the horizon kept wobbling. I think I can, I think I can. Stop that. But, if I turn blue and spout smoke- Stop that.

Blue. That meant something. She floated aimless staring at the translucent snow covering. Blue, like fluorescent lights. Hospital lights. She ground her teeth, and fingered the back of her neck again. She flew up until the ground below her turned into a pitted, rolling land mass. The wavy white and lavender lines were hills, stretching north to south. I'm going to hazard a guess that I'm still in the States. She zipped her jacket to cover the damaged uniform, in front if not in back. There was nothing she could do except fly home.


The icy chill in her bones magnified the further she traveled from civilization. She bit down on it until her jaw ached as her body became one general ache, a pain in her bones, joints, sinuses. She felt bruised by something she could not see or name. Maybe I'm sick. She was beginning to feel sluggish. Passing the lower Appalachians, she dropped out of the sky.

The snow was wet and slushy under her fee and the bright morning sun. The temperature was rising. She was shivering with cold and exhaustion. Rogue slumped against a tree, panting, bewildered by this draining weakness. Her power, the Kree powers, should be compensating if she drained her physical reserves. She could feel the subtle flow of energy, but it did not satiate. What is this? Power withdrawal? At least her mind was clearing up. Maybe I was just disoriented.

There was another niggling possibility that she had to consider, just in case. When Jean had talked with her last time, she had felt the same chill and uncomfortable physical pressure. If those sensations were magnified, would they feel like this? Freezing? Bruising? Is this what Jean was saying? Was her mind generating its interpretation of a sensation she was blocking out? Frequently her senses would overload when she used her power. Her current state might be nothing more than psychic hypochondria. If that was so, she shuddered to think of what she was refusing to feel. I must be out of my head to be thinking like this. Jean will know better than me.

The irrational part of her mind balked at returning to the mansion. Cyclops had put her on probation. If he saw her like this, he would ask her, very politely, to seek help. It would be out of best interest for the team, but would be a death knell for her. As much as she hated the constant battles, injuries, fears for no personal reward, it was her life. Fighting was the only thing she was truly skilled at except for, laughably, mechanics. Working five to nine had been invigorating but she would go insane as a spectator. Nevertheless, she would not be able to stay with the X-Men and not pull her weight. They were people she cared about, loved. I can't let them see me like this. She wanted to wait this out. If Jean was right, if this was her power acting up, she did not want to risk hurting her friends. But I have to go home. They'll help.

Rogue looked up too quickly and her field of vision swam. At least I'm used to that. She restrained the urge to shake her head and carefully flew up over the forest canopy. If she bore head on, she would reach Salem Center. After a moment of hesitation, she turned right a couple of degrees and headed towards New York. From there she could find a place to rest and get transportation if she needed it.

She launched again just below Mach and within approximately ten minutes, the city came in view and she sped up, ignoring her warping vision. Crossing over the city in flight was dangerous. Anyone who bothered to look up might spot her because she was keeping under radar. Normally, that would not be a concern. Today, though, a kid with a air gun could knock her out of the sky. Consequently, she wanted to take the first available landing.

She angled for a cluster of brownstone apartments that had seen better days, but then it happened. The roof was a few feet away when a wall of sensations hit her. Spots danced in her eyes, static in her ears and white hot knives on her skin. She collided with concrete, slid through and past the ledge and landed heavily in an alley with a pile of debris.

There, between a dumpster and a moldering pike of greenish bags, the chaos stopped. Eerily, the earlier pain ceased. If anything...no, that could not be right. She felt good. It was nothing tangible, just a s sense of rightness and peace. She was involved in interpreting what was happening to herself when the cold and pain hit again. She waited until the dry heaves ended before opening her eyes. The laughter started as a thrum in her chest, until she was wheezing, wiping tears out of her eyes as she considered her skillful landing.

She laughed until her stomach hurt, then gasped to a stop and swallowed. It really was not funny. She did not understand what was happening to her, or her power, nor did she want to comprehend. I'm not drunk. I'm not high. I'm hurting but I don't think I'm sick. Not really. Just sick and twisted. She looked up at the brownstone into which she had skidded. I flew over the building and came into contact with something, didn't I? And what's inside buildings? People. People are inside buildings. She shut that thought away.

Gazing at the sky, she watched the sun until spots appeared in her field of vision. The building in front of her had a decorative frieze, curling, interlocked spiral squares. When the sun hit them, the seemed to glow a pale beige that reminded her of rice paper.

The ground was filthy. She sat up. So what do I do now?

There was a road flanked by sidewalks at the mouth of the alley. It was morning rush hour and cars edged along between pedestrians. Rogue clambered to her feet, secure in the knowledge that people looked into alleys less often then they looked up. She made her way towards the sidewalk, dragged a hand along the brick wall to steady herself. It sounded like a city, it smelled like a city and even the fetid air, so different down here than miles up, clung to her.

There were people everywhere. She jerked every time someone passed by the mouth of the alley. Their proximity was like air passing over a raw wound. She swallowed and hugged her stomach.

A woman passed by the alley. She carried a pocket book and dragged a small child behind her. The child, bundled so thoroughly that its gender was indecipherable, planted its heels in the snow. The mother had none of that and continued on. Then came a man was a patchy beard and olive green knit cap. He glanced at Rogue, then ignored her.

Yeah, this is New York. I could be mugged and raped in the middle of the road and no one would stop to help. She closed her eyes and felt the warmth around her. It was a heat beneath the winter chill. Her teeth were chattering and she clasped her arms tighter.

A door opened.

"Hey, Mark, see ya later."

Another voice admonished the speaker to be on time tomorrow.

Her eyes flew open and she tried to straight up. This was not a blind alley, it continued across the block. She saw a side door close, the employee exit of a store. A young man was walking towards her through the slush. No, not me, he doesn't see me yet. I have to.... She squinted and shook her head. The more she stared at him, focused on him, the more it seemed as if she should be able to see something. An imaginary draft washed over her as he got closer. It felt like brushing into a spider web.

The young man saw her now. He looked away swiftly, avoiding eye contact.

Since he was not watching, she indulged her curiosity and put out a hand, palm toward him. The skin of her hand tingled. It was like putting a frostbitten extremity under hot water or over a radiator. She had frostbite once, before she fought Carol. Always too sensitive to the cold. The warmth was a part of him but he was two feet away. She wiggled her fingers, feeling the discomforting tingle of flowing energy. That's not right. How can I feel him from this far away?

"Uh, sorry lady, I don't have anything." He shied away a bit and started to go around her.

She was not paying attention. She was staring at the green leather encasing her right hand. Her left was still cold, but the this one was warm. The glove was useless. I can feel it. I'm not even touching him and I can feel his life force. I could just.... She turned her hand in a grasping motion, imagining she felt a tug of resistance but not truly thinking.

She watched his face go slack before closing her eyes, which was a mistake. As she jerked away, her hands clenched,, mimicking the action of her mind and power. There was no difference. She heard herself whisper something to the stranger or from him to her. Except, he was not a stranger anymore.

There it was again, the acidic bruising letting her know that someone else's personal space was crossing into hers, that their life-forces were merging in a parody of intimacy. The most recent memories first: frustration at staying so late after a night shift, cleaning up after his "team members". Concern that he would not make it home before rush hour was truly severe. Wondering if he had any of his favorite cereal left and if any of his fish had died. An idle memory of sunlit snow and sledding from childhood. A buried notion to have sex with that crazy girl since no one would notice if she disappeared. She jerked back with pain and revulsion

Her back struck rough brick and she let herself slide down the building wall. She was panting. Her pulse shook her body. She gulped in air, cool air to clean out her lungs. Because it did not hurt anymore. She hid her face behind her knees. Oh crap. It did not hurt because it felt good. Better than the best high I've ever had, except, maybe, San Fran. She started to plead with herself. But she could not stop it. There was no more bruising, no more hunger, no more nervous pain. That's not need. That's greed. Ororo could stop her power. And Logan. And Jean. Why can't I? She stared at her hands to avoid seeing the heap of humanity in front of her.

Minutes had passed. Just minutes.

There were too many memories. So many. So interesting. So curious. So remote.

She heard loud footsteps clatter into the alley and jerked her head up. "Hey! Hey, you! Ma'am? Stay calm, I'm-"

She saw a navy blue uniform and that was enough. Rogue bolted sideways, unconsciously swinging her arm in an arc as if to push the threat away, the shot up into the sky. She had to go home.


PART17

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