Tue, 5 Sep 2000
"latex1" Latex1@tinyonline.co.uk
The Price of Coffee (Rogue, Mystique, Beast, Iceman)

Disclaimer: the X-Men and all associated characters are Marvel's, and no financial profit is being made from this work of fiction. All other fictional characters, songs and things of that nature are the property of their respective owners and are being used without permission, although no infringement of copyright is intended. Any references or similarities to any movies you may detect -or think you detect- reflect not a lack of originality on my part but are rather what we'll choose to term in-jokes or tributes (thus neatly avoiding the charge of plagiarism). That's my story, at any rate, and I'm sticking to it :). The review Bobby quotes is paraphrased from Kim Newman's. Apart from all that, the rest of it is nobody's fault but mine. Feedback is sought (well, let's be honest - actively craved), so any comments of whatever nature, so long as they're constructive, would be more than welcome and much appreciated at Latex1@tinyonline.co.uk

Enjoy.


The Price of Coffee

Latex

 

"Goddamn it!"

The expletive accompanied the sound of shattering crockery and the spillage of hot coffee on the kitchen floor. Rogue stood, hands fisted by her sides, eyes closed, internally counting to ten or some other analogous and allegedly stress-reducing number. With a sharp intake and lengthy exhalation of breath, she bent down to gather the fragments together, sorting the pieces of plate from the toast which had, in accordance with that well-known law of physics, landed condiment side down.

"Least tiles don't stain," she muttered to herself, brushing her hair back with an irritated gesture from where it had fallen over her face, attempting in the process not to smear condiment and coffee into coiffure. In that, at least, she succeeded.

"Should I infer from your less-than-overjoyed countenance, your exclamation of displeasure and the presence of your breakfast on the floor that this morning is not proceeding as smoothly as one might hope?" inquired Hank McCoy, putting his head tentatively around the doorframe and squinting as he moved into the path of the morning sunshine streaming through the kitchen window.

"That'd be one way of puttin' it," Rogue agreed, scraping the last of her intended breakfast into the bin and reaching for a cloth.

"Can I be of assistance?"

"You can put on some more coffee," she suggested.

"How serendipitous," Hank beamed, "I was coming here for that very purpose." Hank had, of course, been up for hours, working on a cure for the Legacy Virus, a cause to which he devoted much of his free time.

"You even been to bed?" Rogue asked.

"I have," Hank responded, an injured tone in his voice.

"An' how many people had to nag you before you went?"

"Just the three," he admitted, although it sounded more like a protestation than an admission. "Although Bobby did enough nagging for two. Sadly, my sleep-deprivation has availed me naught. I'd discovered a number of potentially promising avenues of inquiry, but unfortunately none of them bore fruit. They involved...." Rogue closed her eyes and put up a hand to forestall him.

"Coffee first, Hank" she decreed, "then technobabble."

"As you wish, dear lady," replied Hank, graciously acceding to her command. Rogue finished clearing up and sat down, chin in hands, elbows propped on table, and watched Hank prepare coffee, saying nothing. As his fingers did the work, Rogue watching the muscles and tendons work in perfectly synchronised order under his blue fur, Hank said without turning around

"The unfortunate fate of your intended meal notwithstanding, you present the appearance of a woman with something on her mind. Care to share?"

"It's nothin'."

"Clearly not entirely true," he replied with a smile in his voice, back still turned, "or your dolour would not be quite so observable a phenomenon. Come, Rogue, you can tell me: I'm a doctor." He turned to face her, a mug of coffee in each hand, and placed one in front of her while perching himself in what for anyone else would have been a precarious position on the chair opposite her. Clearly, he was not going anywhere until she talked. She sighed.

"It's Mystique," she admitted. "Remember a few weeks ago when we all lost our powers an' still went up against the High Evolutionary an' Sinister?"

"Heroism is a bad habit, but a hard one to break," Hank replied with a smile. "I remember."

"Well, when it happened, Mystique was in the process of doin' extralegal things to the NSA computers. She got caught an' put away, an' was goin' crazy, bein' trapped like that. She turned to me for help, was even askin' me to bust her out. An' then you discovered what the long-term effects of losin' our powers were gonna be, not just for us but for all life on the planet, so we all went off an' saved the world like we do. Ah told Raven that somethin' had come up an' Ah'd be back, not to do anythin', but she didn't take it too well. By the time we got back an' Ah called to find out how she was doin', she'd busted out herself.

"Last conversation we had, Hank, ended with her screamin' at me, cursin' me for choosin' the X-Men over her. Again. Ah did what Ah had to, Hank, but Raven feels Ah rejected her for the X-Men, like she feels Ah've always done, time an' again. Way she looks at it, she needed my help an' Ah blew her off, an' Ah don't know if she's gonna forgive me this time."

"You did the right thing, Rogue," Hank answered her. "The needs of the many and all that. And what you did was as much for Mystique as anyone. Without powers, you'd still have been powerless to help her, and she'd still be imprisoned. The way it worked out, everybody wins (with the possible exception of the Federal Government and the Department of Corrections)."

"Yeah, but she don't know 'bout all that an' even if Ah'd had the opportunity to explain the situation to her before she hung up on me, Ah somehow doubt she'd see it that way."

"You've had your differences and disagreements in the past," Hank pointed out. "I'm sure that, given time, you'll be able to resolve this too. As you yourself said, incarceration was making Mystique crazy, and I'm sure once she's had the chance to cool down she'll be more disposed to view the situation logically and dispassionately."

"Ah don't know. Raven ain't exactly what you'd call the trustin' type, but she trusted me to get her out of that situation, an' as far as she's concerned, Ah betrayed that trust when Ah chose to go with the team. When Ah first joined the X-Men, she felt rejected, but then she had Irene to argue the other side. Now with her dead, Raven ain't got that emotional balance. An' Ah don't think, despite what she says, that she's really come to terms with Irene's death. It's like Irene was a calmin' influence on her, an' she's lost without her, like when Irene died she didn't just lose someone she loved, she lost part of her soul." She paused, looking at Hank.

"You really want to be hearin' all this first thing in the mornin'?" Hank reached over and squeezed her arm through the baggy sweatshirt she wore.

"What are friends for?" he asked rhetorically, his voice warm with affection. The sound of approaching voices interrupted the moment and, as they got nearer, Rogue and Hank could hear that it was Bobby and Kurt.

"Do you take nothing seriously?" Kurt asked Bobby with mock exasperation.

"Hey, Fuzzy, people say I'm the life of the party 'cause I tell a joke or two," Bobby sang at Kurt as they entered the kitchen. "But though I may be laughing loud and hearty, deep inside I'm... Blue!" He looked at Hank on the last word, turning it into a greeting. "Settle a bet for us. My friend with the tail here seems to think that the Rambo films are nothing more than a glorification of violence and a dramatic enactment of and metaphor for American foreign policy during the 80s, and most especially the Reagan Administration, while I contend that they can equally be read as a homoerotic S&M fantasy." There was a moment of stunned silence.

"What?" asked Hank in a surprised voice coloured with undertones of very real concern for his friend's sanity.

"Think about it. In the trilogy, there's only one significant female character, the guerrilla girl in the second movie, and she's shot dead after she kisses Rambo. And the third movie? C'mon! The 'love interest' is either the father figure colonel or the teenage boy, and you've got this buff, oiled, semi-naked muscle guy taking multiple beatings, brandings and piercings and grunting in a way that implies he enjoys it! So, Hank, what do you think?"

"I think, Robert," replied Hank with an appropriate degree of gravity in his voice, "that you have entirely too much time on your hands and nowhere near enough to occupy your mind. In short, my friend, you really need a hobby. And why were you watching such tripe anyway?"

"Okay, you got me," Bobby admitted. "I was just repeating a review I read. Still, I used the word 'metaphor'. That's got to count for something, although it probably just means I'm spending too much time with you."

"Or, arguably, not enough," Hank countered. "Those fortunate individuals who are blessed enough to spend extended periods of time in my august presence generally are not afflicted by insanity as a result, so I hardly think you can lay the blame for your wayward musings at my door." His smile robbed the statement of any pomposity it would otherwise have had, indicating as it did that his tongue was lodged firmly in his cheek.

"Worth a try, though," Bobby winked at him, helping himself to some coffee and pouring one for Kurt too.

"Am Ah alone in thinkin' that it's too early in the mornin' for biochemistry *or* homoerotic fantasies?" asked Rogue of no one in particular.

"You're not alone," Kurt assured her, taking a seat beside her.

"Homoerotic fantasies do indeed have their place, Bobby," Hank allowed, pointedly ignoring the biochemistry part, his statement implying that he had both the moral high ground and the support of Rogue and Kurt, "but the breakfast table is not it."

"There are those who'd disagree," replied Bobby with a vaguely lascivious smile and a mildly suggestive waggle of the eyebrow.

"Not if they want to live through breakfast, they wouldn't." This from Rogue, in a tone of voice intended to convey the impression that a change in topic would be in everyone's best interest, and Bobby's most of all.

"Good point." Bobby turned his attention to the far less controversial matter of refilling the toaster. "Everybody want toast?" There were various nods and grunts of affirmation. While the bread turned to toast, Bobby joined his teammates at the table, sliding in next to Hank. "So, gang, what's the plan for today?"

"I'm not certain we have anything I'd choose to dignify with the term 'plan'," Hank answered him, "but my research on the Legacy Virus has reached an impasse and I feel the need for a change of scenery. With that in mind, and the fact that our Southern belle here is a little down in the dumps, I recommend retail therapy. Copious quantities thereof. How about it, Popsicle?"

"Why not?" Bobby responded magnanimously, with a flamboyant gesticulation that sent his coffee slopping around in his mug and coming perilously close to spilling over the lip.

"Kurt?"

"I am afraid not. I've already promised to help Ororo rearrange her attic today."

"Well, then, just the three of us, unless you can think of anyone else to invite, Rogue."

"Ah don't know, Hank," Rogue began to demur. "Ah'm not real good company right now."

"I beg to differ. I can think of nothing more pleasant than time spent in your company and, even if you were right, that's all the more reason for you to accompany us. Come on, Rogue: live a little, spend money! It'll be fun."

"Besides," Bobby added, hastily swallowing a mouthful of coffee, "you know he'll just keep nagging you until you say 'yes'."

"I can be most persistent," Hank agreed with mock solemnity.

"Okay," Rogue smiled, acquiescing gracefully, "but Ah'm gonna need more coffee first."


Raven Darkholme was not having a good morning. Coffee was an integral part of her morning routine, and she was very particular about how she drank it. Lots of milk, lots of sugar. So after rising late she'd leaned against the breakfast bar, listening to the comforting, rhythmic sound of the coffee percolating. She'd taken the mug out of the cupboard, poured the dark, gently steaming liquid into it, opened the refrigerator and discovered that she was out of milk. She'd briefly debated drinking the coffee black, but it just wouldn't have been right.

Therefore, Raven had dressed, morphed into a form less likely to draw attention than her natural one (an attractive blonde woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Val Cooper) and sallied forth from her domicile, her frustration completely impairing her ability to enjoy the weather.

Her mood was not improved by the fact that, once she located a convenience store and found the milk she sought, she had to wait in line behind a succession of people who, for one reason or another, seemed to conspire to keep her from purchasing the milk within the foreseeable future. Some didn't have the correct change. Some spent what felt like an eternity hunting for the correct change. Some spent what felt like an eternity hunting for the correct change, only to find that in fact they didn't have it, and so had to wait for change of their own anyway.

Right then, Raven hated them all and would cheerfully have slaughtered every last one of them if she thought it would help her get out of there any sooner. Part of her wanted to kill them just for being slow, stupid and, most of all, in front of her. Finally, she was the only one in the queue and she approached the counter and placed her milk on it with rather more force than was, arguably, strictly necessary. And then the phone rang, and the clerk, some pimple-faced *child* not yet old enough to shave, answered it without so much as an apologetic glance in her direction.

"Yeah? I can't, I'm at work. I know, but he called in sick. What was I gonna do?" He paused. "It's not my fault! No, no, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell at you. I just can't get into this right now." Another pause. "I'm not avoiding the issue, I'm at work! Look, I really can't talk right now. Yes, of course I love you, but...." Raven coughed, loudly and obviously, glaring at the boy. He glanced her way, irritated, and then returned to his conversation. "Can we talk about this later?" A pause. "I don't care what your sister says!" Raven leaned across the counter, taking his wrist. She twisted it, eliciting a yelp of pain from him and causing him to drop the receiver, which she caught.

"He'll call you back," she said into the phone, deadpan, and then slammed the receiver back onto the cradle.

"Lady, what the fuck do you think you're doing?" the clerk demanded, outraged and nursing his wrist. Raven reached out, took a handful of shirt and pulled him toward her across the counter. When they were nose to nose, she said calmly

"I have been waiting in line for a long time while cretin after moron after imbecile completed their transactions. I did not suffer in silence, you little shit, so that you could ignore me and pursue your pathetic adolescent romance on my time. So either you give me your undivided attention and let me pay for this milk, or I will happily kill you, and in so doing save the world from the disturbing prospect of you perpetuating your genetic code. Am I understood?"

He opened his mouth to retort and then stopped, seeing from the look in her eyes that the threat had been a sincere one. He gulped, nodded. Raven paid, received her change, turned on her heel and stalked toward the door, all in stony silence.

"Bitch," she heard the clerk mutter as she neared the door. Snatching a tin of cat food -the nearest available item- from a shelf, Raven whirled and, with unerring accuracy, flung it at the clerk. It hit him in the face, and the crunch of cartilage as his nose broke was audible from across the shop. He staggered backward, blood streaming down his face and a dazed look in his eyes.

"And then some," Raven murmured in satisfaction as she turned and left the store, the door swinging shut behind her.

As it turned out, she'd waited so long in the store that her craving for coffee compelled Raven to locate a more immediate source than her abode, so she found a Starbuck's and, ordering, settled against the bar to await the arrival of her coffee. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply and savouring the aroma of the coffee, beginning to relax and feeling the tension in her neck and shoulders dissipate for the first time since she'd woken up.

It was shortly thereafter that everything went straight to hell.


"Do the words 'cruel and unusual' mean anything to you?" Hank asked.

"Hey, it was your idea," protested Bobby.

"And not one of my better ones," Hank retorted. "If I have to render an opinion on one more silk shirt which is almost identical to its predecessor, swift and extreme violence will be visited upon your person, Robert. I proposed this shopping trip to cheer Rogue up, not so you could inflict upon me The-Death-of-a-Thousand-Garments (which is like the Death of a Thousand Cuts but more painful)."

"Look, Hank, I need someone to give me a second opinion and Rogue's in the changing room. It's a position of the utmost responsibility," he added, attempting to sway his friend. "I wouldn't trust just anyone, you know." Hank sighed.

"Very well. I preferred the previous one. Smaller collar, but the blue went well with your colouring." Bobby raised an eyebrow. Catching the glance, Hank answered the unspoken question. "I may spend much of my time bounding heroically about in a lab coat and something resembling underwear, Bobby, but I am not impervious to the aesthetic nuances of clothing. It is, after all, my own sartorial flair which is reflected in the attire the image inducer clothes me in." He spread his arms and twirled to give Bobby a better view. "Besides, yellow is *so* not your colour."

"This from a man who wears Hawaiian shirts," muttered Bobby in response.

"You may mock, but it is my belief that they will be coming back in a big way," replied Hank haughtily, and to emphasise his point he located one such item and held it up against himself for Bobby to see.

"You're considerin' payin' money for that?" The question was rhetorical, the voice Rogue's.

"A prophet is never appreciated in his own time," lamented Hank, a sigh of resignation escaping his lips as he replaced the shirt on the rack. "However, may I be the first to observe that you look stunning, my dear. That, Robert, is how clothes should be worn."

"Well, thank you, sugar," said Rogue with a delighted smile. "Ah'll be sure to take you shoppin' more often in future."

"Is there anything you don't look good in?" asked Bobby.

"Pink."

"Nobody looks good in pink," Bobby admitted.

"Molly Ringwald excepted," Hank added.

"Your John Hughes obsession aside, Hank, not even Molly Ringwald."

"We'll just agree to differ on that issue."

"Well, while you two boys debate movies an' fashion, Ah'm gonna change back an' pay for this." So saying, she left Hank and Bobby by the shirts and headed for the changing room, returning a few minutes later. She made her purchase, Bobby also buying the shirt he and Hank had been discussing. Their newly acquired possessions bagged, by mutual consent the trio decided to take a brief break from retail therapy and, exiting the store, they went in search of somewhere to get a drink.


Raven's coffee had arrived after what seemed like an interminable wait but was in reality less than a minute, and she settled gratefully into a seat at a table in the corner, propping her elbows on the table alongside her recently purchased milk and inhaling the steam rising from the coffee in front of her, eyes closed and an expression approaching ecstasy on her face. True to form, the moment didn't last.

"Excuse me," said a voice. "I was over there with my friend and I couldn't help noticing that you seemed a little preoccupied when you walked in. I bet him I could tell what was bothering you." Raven opened her eyes and looked up to see that the voice belonged to a not-unattractive man in what appeared to be his late twenties.

"What's your name?" she asked politely.

"Alec," he responded with what he obviously imagined was a devastatingly charming smile.

"Alec," Raven said evenly, "I don't mean to be rude, but fuck off." Holding up his hands in a defensive gesture, Alec complied with her instruction. Sighing, Raven raised the coffee to her lips and gently took a small sip. The warm liquid passed her lips, washed over her tongue and flowed down her throat, caressing her taste buds en route and eliciting an entirely involuntary groan of pleasure from her. The second mouthful, larger than the first sip, was -if possible- even better.

And then they walked in. A couple of men in business suits but, more significantly from Raven's point of view, Iceman, someone she assumed was the Beast, as it looked like Hank McCoy before he became blue and furry (although he was presumably using an image inducer) and her foster daughter. Rogue.

"Shit," Raven hissed under her breath. She did not want to deal with this now. She and Rogue had things to discuss, things appertaining to Rogue's recent decision to leave her foster mother languishing in prison while she once again prioritised the X-Men over the woman who'd raised her. The woman who was, by Rogue's own admission, more her mother than the person who had given birth to her. But she was just not prepared to face that confrontation before her first cup of coffee of the morning was even halfway drunk. She averted her gaze and concentrated on being inconspicuous.

Over by the counter, the three X-Men ordered their respective beverages, but Rogue's attention was drawn for some reason she couldn't quite identify to a woman sat at a table in a corner. Her eyes narrowed and her lips parted slightly.

"Hank, Bobby," she began, "y'all recognise that woman over in the corner?" Hank and Bobby looked, but responded negatively.

"Why?" Bobby inquired.

"Just seems familiar is all," replied Rogue, her brow slightly furrowed. "Ah can't quite place her, but Ah'm sure Ah've seen her before."

In her peripheral vision, Raven could see Rogue staring at her. She willed Rogue to look away or to be drawn into a conversation with her friends. Anything to distract her. Those two men who had followed them in were staring at the group quite intently; that might occasion comment, or at least attract Rogue's attention. Raven would settle this business with Rogue, but it would be in a time and place of her choosing. Raven got her wish, and Rogue looked away, but not for any of the reasons Raven had imagined or hoped for. As Raven watched, the two men who'd come in with the three X-Men began to change; for Raven, it was like looking at an eerie, distorted version of what she saw when she looked in a mirror while morphing.

Their features became harsher, more angular, and their eyes and the tips of their fingers began to glow dull red. They moved away from the counter, adopting aggressive postures. The three X-Men turned as one of them spoke.

"Mutant designates: Iceman, Beast and Rogue, you are genetic anomalies and must be purged from the gene pool." Even as he spoke, energy shot from his hand, splintering the wooden bar and causing the customers to dive for cover, screaming and fighting their way toward the nearest exit. The next blast narrowly missed Hank, who bounded away, gathering a customer under each arm before leaping over a table, flipping it over as he went and forming a makeshift shield to protect both himself and the terrified customers.

"I thought we'd seen the last of you assholes when Operation: Zero Tolerance was cancelled," snapped Bobby, icing up and encasing the Sentinel in a block of ice, temporarily pinning his arms to his sides and immobilising him. "Didn't S.H.I.E.L.D. take them all away?" he asked of no one in particular. As Hank and Bobby concerned themselves with the first Sentinel, Rogue turned toward the second, but his attention was focused on the woman in the corner.

"Mutant designate: Mystique, your existence is an affront to the genetic purity of the human race. Prepare for termination," he intoned emotionlessly, raising his arm in Raven's direction. Raven began to rise out of her seat, surprise on her face that the Sentinel had recognised her in this form. She moved into a patch of sunlight streaming through the window, but with the realisation evident in her look of apprehension that the Sentinel would fire more quickly than she could evade him, and that her morphing ability was no defence against his firepower.

"Raven!" cried Rogue, both in concern and recognition, striking the Sentinel's arm so that the shot went wide, instead shattering the window and sending glass spraying into the street outside. The Sentinel responded by backhanding her across the face, sending her stumbling into an adjacent table. He brought his arm to bear on her but Rogue scythed his legs from under him and, as he fell, followed his head down toward the floor with her fist, punching him in the face and driving his head into the tiles. He lay still, the cracks radiating out from where the back of his skull had impacted with the floor.

"How do you figure you're protecting humanity by shooting up a coffee shop filled with innocent humans?" Bobby demanded of the Sentinel he'd imprisoned. "From where I stand, you pose a far greater threat to humanity than we do."

"Your very existence endangers the future of humanity," replied the Sentinel coldly, visibly struggling against the bonds of ice that Bobby had formed around him.

"Then explain why we're the ones who just saved these people from your attack," Bobby retorted. "No, don't even bother. It'd just be more bullshit about 'the Mutant Menace'."

"You and your kind are a menace," said the Sentinel as the ice cracked around him, "but not for much longer." He swung his newly liberated arms toward Bobby but was prevented from saying or doing anything else by Rogue, who stepped forward and slammed his face into the remains of the counter, even as Bobby moved to counter the Sentinel's attack.

"There's only so much ignorant an' prejudiced anti-mutant rhetoric a girl can stomach in a mornin'," she muttered, kicking the Sentinel hard in the head to ensure he stayed down.

"They won't be down for long," Bobby warned, covering the pair in ice to buy them all some time. "I've seen them shot: even bullets only slow them down, but they're not machines, they're still alive, so we can't just tear them apart. Any suggestions?"

"I may have a solution," volunteered Hank, "provided that some altruistic soul allows me the use of a phone." The two people he'd shielded from the Sentinel's attack simultaneously held out cellular phones in quivering hands. They were the only people who were left in the place apart from Raven, the X-Men, the Sentinels and the manager of the shop, who raised a dishevelled head from behind the ruined bar to survey the damage to his establishment, a stunned expression on his face. "My gratitude," said Hank with a gracious smile, taking the one nearest him and punching in a number.


A short while later, Hank and Bobby conferred with Captain America, Thor and Iron Man as the Avengers took the Sentinels into custody. Hank's status as a member of that group (albeit in a reserve capacity) meant that he had access to their resources which, in this case, were far more appropriate to the task of keeping the Sentinels contained -or, as Bobby had quipped to withering looks from all, 'on ice'- than anything the X-Men could muster on short notice. Other than the Sentinels, no one had been hurt in the attack, although those who'd been in the coffee shop at the time were more than a little shaken.

"We can hold them temporarily, until I can contact Nick Fury and have S.H.I.E.L.D. arrange for something more long term." Even standing still, doing nothing special, the man radiated authority.

"Thanks, Cap. I appreciate it," replied Hank.

"My pleasure," the living symbol responded with a warm smile. "It's good to see you again, Beast, even like this."

A little way from the crowd that had been attracted by the noise and activity of Avengers, NYPD radio cars and a paramedic truck that had been called, Rogue and Raven sat at a table outside another cafe, awkward in each other's presence. Raven cradled a mug of coffee in her hands, its warmth radiating through the mug to her fingers. Rogue broke the silence first.

"Ah'm glad you're okay, Raven. Didn't recognise you back there. Not right away, at any rate. Was a time, Ah'd've known you no matter who you looked like."

"We've been strangers for a long time, Rogue, growing further apart ever since you left me to join the X-Men. If it were up to you, girl, I'd still be rotting in jail," Raven retorted bitterly.

"That ain't true," Rogue protested. "Ah had no choice."

"Of course you had a choice!" hissed Raven, anger flashing in her eyes. "And you chose the X-Men, just like you always do."

"Raven, Ah couldn't help you like that, not without powers, an' we had to do what we did for everyone's sake, you included. An' you got out by yourself, didn't you?" she added, a touch defensively. "How was Ah gonna bust you out without any powers?"

"You'd have found a way for one of *them*." She spat the word. "If any one of them had asked you to break the law for them you'd have done it. In a heartbeat, without hesitation. But you wouldn't do it for me. It's pretty clear where your loyalties lie, Rogue. It has been for years. When it comes to you making a choice, I always come off second best. And I'm tired of taking second place to Xavier's little disciples."

"You're makin' it out to be an either/or decision, an' Ah don't wanna have to choose between y'all, Raven. You're my family, but so are they."

"You choose between us all the time! You chose to go to Xavier rather than trust me to help you control your powers. And has he helped? Can you control them? And Dallas: I warned you not to go with them, I told you Irene's prediction, but you turned your back on me and you died, Rogue. And when you were resurrected, did you let me know? Did you tell me you were alive? No, you stayed with the team, chose them over me. It's not just this last time, it's every time: it's all the time!"

"That's unfair. It wasn't like that at all."

"It's *exactly* like that. If I want your attention, your loyalty, even your love, I've got to stand in line behind the X-Men, and I'm sick of it. I took you in. Irene and I raised you, and for what? Oh, Rogue," she said, anger suddenly replaced by emotional fatigue, rubbing her forehead, "you and Irene are the only two people I've ever loved, and now she's dead. You're all I've got left from that time when we were a family, and time and again I have to see you choose your other family over me. Do you think that kind of rejection's easy to take? This last time was just the latest in a long line of rejections, and I'm not going to keep coming back for more. I love you, Rogue, but I just can't do this any more." Abruptly, she stood up, blinking away the tears that had begun to well up in her eyes and picking up the milk that had miraculously survived the Sentinels' attack.

"Raven," Rogue began as she started to walk away.

"Don't," Mystique replied, her voice thick with emotion, the profound depth of bitterness and hurt in her tone cutting Rogue to the quick. With that one word, she shouldered her way into the crowd that had gathered, as crowds always do, and by the time Rogue had stood up to look for her, she looked like someone else, one more unfamiliar face in a sea of alien features. Rogue sat down again and rubbed her hands over her face. Sitting there with the sounds of the crowd and the noise of the emergency services in the background, alone with Mystique's unfinished coffee, watching it grow gradually colder.


Later that day, as evening turned to night, Rogue sat at the edge of Breakstone Lake, arms rested on knees and back against a tree that overhung the water, eyes looking unseeing over the lake, but gaze directed somewhere else entirely. The fiery ball of the setting sun ignited the tops of the tre es, the waters around its reflection turned angry red and bloody. Rogue was oblivious to the beauty of any of it, her thoughts on darker and more troubling issues, her expression preoccupied and her eyes sad. One of the many lengthening shadows detached itself from the others and resolved itself into the form of Kurt Wagner, his yellow eyes glowing gently out from the deepening gloom into the fading light.

"How are you feeling?" he asked tentatively.

"Ah'll let you know when Ah figure it out myself," replied Rogue with a mirthless chuckle and a rueful shake of her head. "Pull up some ground, Fuzzy Elf. Ah'm not gonna bite." Smiling, Kurt settled down on the ground beside her.

"Hank and Bobby told me what happened," Kurt offered by way of a conversational opener.

"It has been an intense day," agreed Rogue in a non-committal way. She sighed. "Kurt, am Ah a fool for wantin' to believe that Raven's more than just another crook? An' who am Ah to judge anyway? Let's face it, Ah ain't always been the paragon of virtue Ah am today," she said with a wry, self-mocking, almost imperceptible smile

"We all want to believe the best of those we love," Kurt answered.

"She's my family, Kurt, as much as the X-Men, an' Ah don't wanna lose her, but the lives we lead mean we're more often than not on opposite sides. Today, she accused me of always sidin' with the X-Men against her, an' of always puttin' you all before her. How do you deal with it, havin' your mom on the other team? So to speak."

"She gave birth to me, Rogue, but that's the only sense in which she's my mother. We're connected biologically, not emotionally. Mystique and I have always been on opposite teams, and I've never known her as anything other than an adversary. In that, your relationship with her is the antithesis of mine. She didn't give birth to you, but she is your mother in every other way that matters, and so you have far more emotional complications to overcome that I do. I never knew Mystique or Destiny as anything other than members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and I dealt with them on those terms.

"You saw another side to them, a side that was loving and nurturing, and who's to say which is the truer picture? You've always done what you believed was right, and she can't blame you for being true to yourself. In fact, Kitty told me that Mystique said something like that to you herself, not that long ago." Kurt squeezed Rogue's shoulder. "Give her time, Rogue, let her calm down. She'll forgive you."

"Ah don't know, Fuzzy. Ain't no one can hold a grudge quite like Raven."

"You are the only real family she has left, Rogue. I don't count," he continued with a gentle, almost wistful smile, cutting off her disagreement. "It may take a while, but I truly believe that she will get over it. At the risk of sounding like a cliche, it will be all right."

"Ah hope you're right. Anyway," she said, forcibly making her tone lighter, "ain't nothin' Ah can do about it, so Ah guess we just play the hand we're dealt." They sat there in wordless companionship for a while, staring out over the lake, silent by mutual but unspoken accord. The sun sank lower in the sky, touching the horizon and setting it ablaze, a smear of orange-red in the deepening blue of the sky.

"Should we go inside?" asked Kurt presently. "I believe that The Princess Bride is starting on Channel Seven shortly. Come on: adventures; fencing; chases; escapes; giants; monsters; miracles; True Love. You wouldn't want to miss all that, would you?" He gave her his most charming smile.

"Ah guess not," replied Rogue with a smile of her own, pushing herself up off the grass, using the tree for balance. "B'sides, Fuzzy Elf," she continued with affection, taking Kurt's hand and pulling him to his feet, "Ah could really use a coffee."


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