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"You call that safe?" Mystique sedately raged at the flight controls while taking the aircraft away from the riddled swat team below. Inside, the background drone of jet engines drowned out the gunfire below. A lit button on the console flickered insistently and was pressed down. The hull vibrated slightly as a outside gun turret rotated.
Irené calmly removed the austere mask, setting it in a cubby hole, in favor of her sunglasses. "Aside from a minor scrape, she is unharmed and in fine health, as I predicted. Truly, Raven, there is no need for such an emotional outburst." She pressed back stray strands of gray hair.
"Emotional outburst? Emotional outburst?! I'll give you-"
Irené smiled, leaning on her cane in the same way a knight leaning on his sword. Mystique scowled, ground her teeth and resumed navigation.
Rogue mutely watched as they bickered briefly now that the excitement had faded. She felt a bit lost. The rush of adrenaline had left her exhausted and charged at the same time. Sunrise was approaching; it was bedtime. Her cloak dripped goo on the clean floor and her clothes stuck, chafing skin. She craned her head to examine the blood trickling from her side. The cool, dry air of the jet bit sharply across the shallow furrow running along her ribs. Scar? Being shot was not outstanding but it happened. She grimaced. The wound, although relatively small, would need to be well-cleaned to prevent infection for mud wasn't conducive to healing. Meanwhile, Irené walked up behind Mystique and leaned down to whisper something in her ear that made her relax. Rogue desperately wanted to change into clean clothing.
Mystique twisted in her seat, then frowned in mock distaste. "What happened to you?"
"Ah fell." The truth sounded woefully inadequate when the parts about running, mud, and a slippery log were left out. Looking down, she realized her pistol was still in her hand. A glob of mud was working its way down her glove onto the barrel. She looked at the firearm, at a clean, empty cubby, and back again unsure what to do. Irené took it away from her solving the dilemma.
"You fell?" Her mother nodded in full understanding. "Would you care to elaborate on that statement? As in, is that why you're late?"
She bit her lip and wiggled her fingers. That was the problem with putting the gun away, nothing to hold on to. Being late was always bad. Wish I knew what she was thinking. "Uh huh. The guy heard me an' Ah had t'go quiet like so's he di'n' shoot me first except Ah had t'be quick too else someone might've caught on." It was a very good reason. Not like I did it on purpose or got lazy.
Mystique mulled over this and leaned back in the pilot's seat. She looked at Irené who tipped her head. "I see, your clumsiness cost us. Luckily, no one was hurt except you. Luck is not something to count on. Training tomorrow afternoon."
"Aw, man." Her protest died. It was not that she disliked practice, but the afternoon was the middle of the night for them. Martial training had begun disguised as a game. 'Try to hit the pine cone. If you can get through the obstacle course, we'll go to the fair.' It had evolved into things like 'How to asphyxiate someone with a ping pong ball.' She grumbled to herself more when Irené came closer with the first aid kit. This is going to sting.
"Yes, I am already tending her. Did you think I would allow her to bleed all over the pristine floor?" She pulled back the front flap of Rogue's burnoose. "Quite harmless with the proper antiseptics. Hold still and keep quiet."
"But th'ain' no one-" This really was not fair.
Irené raised her chin imperiously and that was the end of it. She applied the antiseptics liberally with brisk, efficient motions. In seconds, it was done and she began to bind the injury in gauze.
Rogue stared ahead at the dancing white spots filling her vision. Her hand twisted tight until all sensation left it. A little scratch shouldn't hurt that much, but it stung. Wuss. So long as she didn't cry, it would be okay. Saying she felt pain was one thing, whining and crying about it were not allowed. It obviously could not be that bad because Momma had ordered the training exercise. She gave another mental groan.
She gasped according and warm spread underneath the bandages. Ew, yuck. It's bleeding again. And it hurts now. Someone tapped her shoulder.
Mystique stood patiently. "If you were more careful-"
"Ah wouldn' get hurt. Ah know. Ah'll do better next time." She sighed in resignation. Momma was right, as usual. The inconvenience could have been easily deterred by being more alert.
"Yes, you shall. Get changed and be ready to complete the mission. As Irené predicted, dear old Nick found the boys much more important than Suarez and left the FBI to handle him. They're taking him to a facility in West Virginia, traveling by ground, keeping a low profile. I doubt they expected us to have planned for their little ambush. Your task is to obtain the remaining information and make it a wash. Clear?"
"Yes'm." The insistent pain combined with her general discomfort resulting in impatience. Want to change, want some drugs, I know, you already told me, so what? Irené waved the cane warningly at her. Sometimes, living with a precog was a pain. She turned her thoughts back to business. This whole event had started as a training exercise; show and tell. A relatively simple task, kidnap one Emilio Suarez and level his laboratory. Something had gone sour, someone had tipped the Feds. So it was a wash; clean up job; eliminate the witnesses. She stopped fidgeting.
At first the possibility that Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. might stay on scene had worried them. It could still happen despite Irené's assurances that it wouldn't. Even if they were guarding Suarez en route, there would be ample warning at this point and they could get away.
Mystique narrowed her eyes in preparation for a lecture, then changed her mind. "Fine, go sit down and cope. Wait for my mark. You know the rules."
She sighed again.
None of the team were about. Ororo was likely gardening in her personal greenhouse, Logan was terrorizing small furry animals, Bishop was on rounds, and the rest could be anywhere. She passed Sam watching TV on her way to the kitchen. Once there, she halted in the doorway. Rogue watched Remy through the door, knowing that something important had happened and wishing she didn't know it had. It made her furious because it made her hope and she could not stop that hope. Hoping and hurting in the same tired cycle that marked most of her life. And knowing that she could not walk into the kitchen pretending to hate him or ignore him because, after all, he understood that cycle. Most of all, she didn't want to acknowledge that. Must've made a total ass out of myself last night to boost his ego like this. She wanted to back out of the kitchen, leave him to his cooking and sidelong glances. Her stomach growled at her warningly and her mind conjured an image of a red and white, clucking chicken running helter skelter in a cloud of feathers. She crossed the remaining distance into the room.
She squinted blearily at the window and grunted. "That explains the bright light." The headache, nausea and aches were passing. Thank you Kree metabolism. Her stomach still flipped at the suspicious smells emanating from his cooking. She regarded it warily.
"Either dat or a near deat' experience."
"Uh huh." Shifting from foot to foot, she folded her arms while he tossed something in a frying pan that then emitted a fierce crackling spatter and hiss. Several ticks of the clock passed and the refrigerator hummed as she watched his economical movements. "What really happened last night?"
He glanced at her swiftly before returning his attention to the food. "Came to tell ya 'bout de memories y'got from me."
"Because y'knew Ah was gon' look at 'em?" Her question came out testy. He can tell me anything he wants so long as it isn't a lie. I couldn't deal with that. She felt tired and confused. On one hand, she wanted to forgive and forget, but on the other, he could abuse that trust. Shutting the door, she stepped forward to lean against the lukewarm linoleum of the refrigerator. It creaked in protest and she tried to relax a bit.
He pushed some potatoes around the pan, not looking at her. "Mebbe. Den 'gain, dat's what y'wanted, neh?"
"Don't try an' make me feel guilty for wantin' t'know. Ah'll always want t'know.
"Wasn' tryin' to. Jus' pointin' out a fact. You di'n' wan' me around 'cept t'ask what I done an' I t'ink y'already know. On top of dat, ain' none of your business." He caught his tongue and stilled before continuing. "A past belong to a person an' de past itself. I not sayin' dat mebbe I shouldn' of confirmed what ya was seein' but y'had no right t'hold it 'gainst me."
"An' whenever Ah was 'round, you'd preten' like there wasn' nothin' wrong." And so did I. Why? She closed her eyes. For the same reason I did. For the same reason we both understand. He was still looking away. All right, so I'm intrusive and you're secretive. Fair's fair. "Yeah, deep inside Ah knew something an' Ah definitely do now, but so what?" He scraped the pan with more force than necessary. "Sue me for carin' 'bout what troubled ya, for thinkin' Ah was yo' pa'tner."
"Bull. When's the last time we wen' on a mission together, huh? Cyke's obviously not sendin' us out together for a reason. Ah never asked for all the details, jus' 'nough t'explain the mem'ries. Jus' who so Ah don' have t'worry so much." The need to protect those she cared for was an ever-present force in her life. It had driven her to attack both Carol Danvers and Allison Blaire without regard for consequences. Remy didn't make controlling that instinct any easier with his reckless behavior and secrets. "You know that. Mos' the time, y'di'n' even give me a chance an' snuck off with some snide remark 'bout Joseph."
"Joseph, hah! Why ya keep callin' him dat?"
"'Cause that's who he is."
To her consternation, she realized he was jealous. Jealous. The concept boggled her mind. Over me and Joseph. She shook her head absently. No one had ever felt that way over her. "Remy, Ah knew Magnus. This man ain' him. He will be sooner or later, but for the time bein' Ah'm gon' respect his wishes an call 'im Joseph."
"For the same reason Ah ask t'be called Rogue. It's who he is." That wasn't quite the truth, but it held a grain of it. Her surname was well known among some. She, by all legal records, did not exist. Mystique had seen to that as the first step in fostering her. For her forgotten family, her criminal non-record, would be a scandal. She hardly cared but a real identity would give lawgivers a lead. It was best left alone.
He turned back to cooking with a mutter. "What about him?"
"What d'ya mean, 'what 'bout him?' Huh?" Circling around to his other side, she leaned over his shoulder. "Care t'clarify?"
"T'ought y'liked him. Always goin' out wit' him, hangin' off of him. He make you smile." He clamped his jaw and concentrated on his cooking. His eyes were calm, body language relaxed. It didn't fool her.
"Hangin' off of him?! Ah do not hang off of him." Do I? "Ah pay attention to someone who's bein' ignored left an' right an' if it does look that way it's 'cause Ah'm the only one who will keep him company at all."
"Sticks 'n' stones."
"Joseph is my friend an' he spends time with me which is more 'an you been doin' lately. Y'can hardly whine over him takin' such a blatant opportunity. Anyhow, Ah'd rather he 'member me as his friend when he gets his mem'ries back instead of as a self-righteous jerk who kept callin' him Magneto."
"Pardon?" He bristled.
She bit her tongue, covered her eyes with one hand and swore. "Ah'm sorry. Ah di'n' mean to.... Look, Ah don' un'erstan' why y'actin' this way but Ah am tired of fightin' with ya. Can we please ignore that las' part? Ah di'n' mean it." If I try hard enough, maybe I can get the other foot in my mouth. "Ah got carried 'way with that. You've been awful nice 'bout it." she admitted reluctantly. "Stupid, but nice. Joseph might think otherwise, but he ain' more'n a frien' t'me."
He rapped the frying pan with the wooden spatula, buying time with metallic drumming. His elbow almost brushed against her as he moved, face impassive. "What if I don' wan' ignore it, eh?"
"Ah am not gon' apologize for bein' his frien'." She realized she was chewing on her lip and stopped. Remy was moving more slowly and his arm was relaxed. It was very tempting to bait him back but she didn't want to talk about something as inconsequential as Joseph or names. "Toothpaste."
"Y'know, fightin' about whether or not t'cap the tube?"
He was expressionless for a time before breaking into a faint smile. "Okay, I said we talk, might as well be somet'in' 'portant. 'Bout las' night and de teasin' dis mornin', I was givin' ya space all dis time, but dat wasn' what y'needed. An' I guess I should tol' ya 'bout...Sinister."
She blinked owlishly at the rush of information. So what exactly do I need? "Yeah." Crossing her arms, she lounged against the stove watching him obliquely. He had breezed over the first part of his statement but she was willing to bet it had something to do with this morning. "Sooner or later he's gon' show an' if you don' go with him, he'll use one of us as leverage 'gainst ya."
"Know dat too. Dat's why I'm gon' leave 'fore den. Be best t'prevent any-"
"Excuse me, but where did that come from? Ah am not Belle an' Ah will not put up with you high-tailin' it t'protect me. Heck, Ah'd be alot more ticked than she was. Y'think Ah'm gon' let you run right into his arms?" Several times the possibility that he might leave had worried her. She had resources, but limited ones. They wouldn't be able to reach him if he decided to disappear.
"He not m'type." After the flippant reassurance, he looked up and they were left at an impasse.
Something hissed in the frying pan.
"Your hair drippin' in de pan."
"Water won' hurt it." She crossed her arms. "Remy, Ah will hunt you down if y'leave so don' kid yo'self."
He didn't call her bluff. "Okay, den, if I leave, I tell you where I goin'."
"Glad t'hear it." Lord, I don't need this headache now. I have to leave and take care of Clive and Remy threatens to vamoose. Should I tell him? "Ah am not mad that you won' tell me nothin', frustrated, sure, but not mad. Ah'm upset 'cause Ah know y'scared of Essex on account that y'care 'bout the team an' y'won' let anyone help. But y'need t'un'erstan' that we've fought him before and we can do it 'gain."
A smile twitched the corner of his lips. What is the private joke? Was he laughing because he knew he could leave at any time or that she was concerned. Snorting, she began to leave but a light fingertip on her shoulder brought her short. It traced a line down her arm, dropping off at the elbow. Her entire arm jerked at the unaccustomed contact. It had been awhile. She drew a pined breath and rested against the range letting him massage one shoulder. "Had me fooled."
" I...." He sighed and rubbed his jaw. "I wasn' tryin' t'avoid ya."
I was. "No, jus' the subject." She kicked a loose crumb across the linoleum floor when his eyes fixed on her. "Ah guess we're even as far as that goes."
"Mebbe I shoulda caught on quicker, non?"
Not quite sure what he meant, she nodded. It was a start and she wouldn't disrupt the tenuous peace just yet. Now, how do I tell him that I have to go out on a mission that he can't?
They cleared the tree line to emerge over the black streak of a semi-deserted highway. Further along the ribbon were sparse yellow and red lights. The squarish bulk of an armored van was flanked by two slate blue sedans, all crawling at a seemingly sluggish pace.
"They could be more obvious." Mystique rose from the chair and leaned into the recessed window.
"I would make no difference. I would derive their location regardless of their camouflage. We have little time for discussion."
"Yes, I'm aware of that. I'm saying they could have at least made an effort, unless of course, it is a trap in which case, it's still obvious."
Rogue quit flicking pieces of mud off her pants and crept up between her parents to look curiously out the widow. The guarded escort was rather blatant. She couldn't see any other vehicles that might be assigned to protect Suarez. Surely the Feds understood the ramifications of fighting against Irené. It might be a trap except that's what the ambush had been. She pointed an imaginary bazooka at the van and blew it up.
"Come along, they're no doubt catching up with us while we philosophize. Hup hup, mustn't be shot down. We could cause a serious traffic jam." Mystique settled back into the pilot's seat.
"We have, perhaps, five minutes."
"Why, a veritable lifetime." Mystique replied and began to whistle.
The trailing sedan was blown into a ball of flame and shrapnel. It was barely audible, unreal in the nature of a video game. The other two vehicles swerved speeding up in a futile attempt to outpace the low flying aircraft. A white face was pressed to the side of the window of the second sedan, then withdrew, missing its own destruction. The van skidded directly into the smoke filled crater tipping to skid with a shower of sparks. Its wheels spun as uselessly as the legs of an over-turned tortoise. A door was pushed open jerkily, then riddled with black dots as Mystique lowered the jet to hover over the van.
"Tsk tsk, look at the mess I made."
Rogue trotted to the hatch covering her eyes as a blinding beam shot silently from her right to melt through the side of the van. The slag edged hole left in its wake glowed white. She wondered if anyone had been misfortunate enough to stand directly under spot. She was tired and would need a boost from whoever left the van first.
"Take care what you seek, child."
She scrunched her brow in puzzlement. Whenever Irené gave advice, it was always important and invariably cryptic. There was no time for explanations. Instead, nodding, she slid down the cable ladder to land on the van with a sold thunk.
The slag around the blast hole glowed a deep orange fading to red and she could feel the melting heat through her boots. It wasn't a safe entrance. She removed a small grenade from her belt, depressed the button and tossed it into the opening. Five seconds later, gas poured forth in curling wisps and ribbons as a small audience gathered at a distance. One of them held up a camcorder but no one came forward to investigate. Typical. Folks can't ever resist a good show.
Turning to crouch with arms dangling over the back edge of the van, she waited until there came the grind of unlocking gears and the back doors were kicked open. One fell with a crash to the pavement, the other was held up until a helmeted head appeared from the corner. The man wasn't stupid and was already looking up. She grabbed him by the visor, yanking the man's head back to lay her palm against his neck and closed her eyes in transient pleasure at the surge of energy. Only when his legs collapsed and the weight of his body began to drag on her did she let go.
According to the guard's memories, another man was inside with the scientist. Dropping down, she used him as a shield. A lonesome shot came but veered wildly echoing in the night air. The man, now a corpse, was pushed into the buckled pavement as she scuttled inside the van underneath the fallen door.
The second guard was half buried, unmoving, under a rack. She let the knife sheathed in her glove slip into her hand. Past him sat Emilio Suarez, legs sprawled, hands limply between his knees. Several areas on his white lab coat flaunted spreading red stains. Gentle eyes behind cracked glasses on a round, smile-lined face appraised her soberly.
He sighed. "Of all people.... How old are you?"
"Ah as old as y'wan' me t'be. Where're the names?"
"I imagine there's no point in asking you to reconsider?"
"Sorry, sir. Where're the lists?" She flipped the knife in her hand, up, down, toying with it, a comfortable weight in her palm. This was her favorite weapon, small, sleek, held or thrown. She ran her thumb down the spine of the blade.
"Nor will I reconsider. I'm afraid, girl, that we both lose tonight." He smiled, a glittering smile. "Although, some lose more than others."
"Yeah, you." She grabbed his hair and chin for a dispassionate kiss. Into her mind flowed an incomprehensible glory of information and power. The knowledge of a lifetime of science, memories of a family, children, a dream of living in a fine country house, images of fire and pain, dismay, hatred, disinterest and...amusement. Smug amusement.
Sucking in her breath, she jerked away and shook her head. Something was wrong. Something felt wrong about the transfer. Something was...missing. Her heart was in her throat and her vision almost hallucinogenic. The pleasure was missing. Force of habit kept her upright. Letting go, she met direct, cognizant eyes, and without thought, swept out with the knife.
Rattled, she shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut. It took a few seconds to get rid of the mildly nauseous sensation. Not supposed to stay awake. Is this what Irené was talking about? Her arm swung to execute the fallen guard.
There was no one there.
She ducked, pivoting to face the bedraggled agent who fired where her head had been. You idiot! Should've double-checked. He was injured, gassed and confused. It saved her. He struck out savagely clipping her jaw and she fell on her elbow with a yelp. A layered series of splintering cracks shot to the inside of her eardrums. Hot tears leaked out as she swore, clutching her side and fractured arm. Her knife fell uselessly into the clutter.
His leg was inches from her nose and she could see the muscles flex as he readied a kick. There was an embossed shape in the cuff of his boot. A dagger shape. I still have strength. Working with the acquired energy from the first guard and Suarez, she snatched the second knife from his boot to embed it in the back of his knee. He made an inhuman sound and kicked her.
Everything moved and a reverberation went through her body. Somewhere, there registered the sound of booming metal. The muted tangle of the van interior went out of focus when her arm was twisted further. Her hand tightened on the knife handle and she hung from it as if it was a buoy. The leg attached to it moved again, then went limp. The man collapsed on her, suffocating and she flailed ineffectually. Get off of me! Rage filled growls mixed with her own shocked pants, were both interrupted by the shrill beeping of her watch. Time! He had fallen on the blade. It took precious seconds find hers. A stab to his unprotected throat. She staggered out and grabbed the cable ladder with her good arm. Shock was a wonderful thing, but Mystique was going to kill her.