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X-Cursions, part 2/5

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  • Rhonda Amos
    Thin streaks of light played through the tall pines, highlighting wisps of fog and crystal dew on the devastated clearing. The damp grass showed dark
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 21, 2001
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      Thin streaks of light played through the tall pines, highlighting wisps of
      fog and crystal dew on the devastated clearing. The damp grass showed dark
      footsteps behind two men as they walked between the hulking remains of
      burnt out pickup trucks. The first man was just above medium height, lean
      framed, with a full shock of unruly hair gone white with age. His eyes
      burned with anger and with the fervor of an old time religious leader,
      bringing to mind preachers like John Brown. His clean-shaven lips curled
      in distaste as he entered the cabin and viewed the remains of the scattered
      poker game and other debris. The other man, taller and broader, younger,
      followed silently as a shadow behind him.

      At the last room on the right down the hall, the older man stalked towards
      the abbreviated chain hanging from a hasp in the wall. His eagle-sharp
      gaze noted the melted remnants of the last link. Slowly, methodically, he
      took in the overturned army cot, the scorched wall, and the fallen guard
      dog. The torn blanket on the floor caught his attention, and he poked at
      it with the toe of his boot.

      "Come," he snapped. Crouching with his hand reaching down to stroke the
      dog's soft black ear, the shadow froze, then rose to his feet and followed
      his leader as faithfully as the hound lying dead on the floor might have.

      **********

      Logan gunned the motorcycle up the winding country road. Overhanging trees
      on either side speckled the narrow two-lane blacktop with sunshine and
      shadows. The wind whipped his hair into its preferred shape, and his
      fierce grin simply begged for a large bug to hit it at full speed.

      Last year he'd finally relinquished Scott's beloved motorcycle and bought a
      vintage Harley with the salary Xavier insisted on paying him. The black
      monstrosity got him around and then got him to work. It was also a hell of
      a lot of fun to ride, but a special place remained in his affections for
      the little red nitrous oxide button on Cyke's machine. Uneasy feelings
      still cropped up about holding a steady job, but being an X-man was hardly
      a nine-to-five proposition and it was certainly more interesting than
      beating up truckers and red necks.

      He noted the white stone pillars flanking the turn off ahead. Reluctantly
      he geared down, putting his cigar in his mouth to free his hand. Braking
      and turning smoothly, the bike stopped in front of the security intercom
      system, its engine idling loudly. Black metal bars on the gate in front of
      him striped the view of the white gravel drive. He preferred this side
      entrance; it was almost hidden, compared to the delivery entrance, and
      lacked the ostentatious grandeur of the front drive.

      "I'm sorry," said a familiar voice, just a few fifths higher than neuter.
      "This is a private educational facility. All deliveries�"

      Logan took the cigar from his mouth and dry spit a fragment of tobacco off
      his lip. "Codename: Wolverine," he interrupted.

      The voice cut off. "Password?"

      "Beer chaser."

      "That password has now expired. Please choose another password."

      He growled at the intercom, irritated.

      "Please choose another password." Cerebro ran the security system, among
      many other things, and had far more patience than he did.

      "Cats suck."

      "Password accepted. Welcome home." The gates opened automatically, then
      closed behind him as the motorcycle roared up the gravel drive to Xavier's
      School for the Gifted.

      The huge Georgian style mansion gleamed white in the sunlight, the pattern
      in the circular paddock showing starkly next to the cool shade of the open
      garage doors. Logan heaved the Harley onto its kickstand and dismounted,
      stretching his back with a satisfying accompaniment of cracks and pops.

      The side door opened, and he smiled at the gorgeous redhead coming out of
      the house. "Welcome home, Logan." She greeted him with a kiss on the
      cheek, the flowing white of her loose cotton sundress brushing his leg.

      "Hey, Jeannie." Logan hoisted his duffel and gave her a one-armed squeeze,
      only slightly awkward as he maintained a respectful distance. A smirk
      crossed his face. "Hey, lookit, somebody got fat!"

      Jean Grey-Summers rolled her eyes. "Why do men seem to think that's so
      damn funny?" she asked, rubbing a self-conscious hand over her gently
      curved belly.

      "You look beautiful, Jean. Really, I mean it." Logan's voice was sincere.

      "Thank you." Jean could only smile the same proud, happy way pregnant
      women always had.
      She tucked her hand around his arm and they walked around to the front of
      the mansion. The cigar was unceremoniously stubbed out in the sand-filled
      concrete urn by the door.

      "How did your trip go?"

      He shrugged one shoulder. "Fine. Ran into an old friend." The sarcasm in
      his voice would have tipped her off, even if she hadn't picked up the
      thought from the surface of his mind.

      "Sabretooth?" she asked. "And?"

      "Same as always. We kicked the snot out of each other, then took off to
      lick our wounds." He looked around at the empty grounds and silent
      basketball court. "Where're all the kids?"

      "Those who have ties are still home for the summer. Most of the rest have
      gone camping with Scott and Ororo."

      "How's the Prof?"

      "He's fine."

      "Good." He paused only slightly. "Rogue home?"

      "Yes. I made her go outside and get some sun. No one else is around, so
      it should be safe." Together they went up the sweeping stairs to the
      second floor, his hand automatically under her elbow in a gesture from
      another century as she climbed the steps with her unaccustomed weight.
      "We opened your room when you called yesterday. Everything should be just
      as you left it."

      Jean held the door for him, let him enter and place his bag on the bed.
      She tilted her head to one side, watching him circle the space the same as
      he had the first night she'd shown him to his room. A mixture of amusement
      and affection warmed her smile. "I have some things to finish up. Call me
      if you need anything." She left the door open behind her.

      "Thanks, Jeannie," he called after her.

      Logan hung his jacket in the closet, the empty hangers jingling beside it.
      The only clothes in the spacious recess were a few pairs of pants,
      something in a dry-cleaners' bag, and a heavy robe. The duffel was dumped
      unceremoniously down the laundry chute, bag and all, save for a few items.
      A handful of change and his keys went in the dish on his dresser. The
      seldom-used shaving kit was slapped down beside the sink.

      Fishing a new bar of soap from the cabinet, he stripped off the sleeveless
      undershirt and threw it at the floor, where it landed under the previously
      used chute. He needed a shower and shave in the worst way. The top
      dresser drawer held a few clean shirts. Grabbing one, he shut the drawer
      again.

      Movement through the softly blowing curtains caught his attention, and he
      pulled the gauzy fabric out of his way to peer out the window. The young
      woman on the terrace below was going through kickboxing katas, her
      movements swift and focused. Perspiration gleamed on her pale skin,
      already starting to redden with unaccustomed exposure. The bicycle shorts
      and sports bra were utilitarian but revealed long, well-defined muscles,
      and did nothing to disguise a figure that was barely short of breathtaking.
      Her dark brown hair, the pure white streak startling in contrast, was
      fastened back in a thick tail and swung wildly with her aggressive
      movements.

      Logan's face was impassive as he watched, completely lost in thought.
      Finally, he stirred, blinking. He glanced down at the clean shirt in his
      hands as though wondering how it had gotten there, took one last look out
      the window, then turned back to the bathroom.

      **********

      Two hours drive northwest of Xavier's School lay a small mountain, one of
      many in the area. It's youth far behind it, geologically speaking, the
      rolling landscape had once been a resort for city people to escape the heat
      of summer. Never as popular as the Catskills, the resort was now an
      accumulation of ramshackle cabins, the painted walls peeling and drafty,
      the roofs falling down after years of neglect.

      Surrounded by acres of forest and the occasional small farm, the old resort
      was an ideal place to take a dozen mutant kids camping. One need never
      explain to the guy in the next campsite over why one of your kids was
      green, another had cat-like eyes, and two of them had tails. And if the
      property never showed up on Charles Xavier's personal property list on
      April 15th, well, neither did the sleek black jet in the hanger under his
      house.

      A small accumulation of twigs and dry grass sat on a bare circle of earth
      scraped into the remains of campfires burned earlier. The small adolescent
      stared at it intently, hunched over her knees, then took a deep breath and
      tried again. Scott Summers was aware of the handful of other kids gathered
      in a circle around them, but his attention was on the child as she
      concentrated on the tinder piled in front of her. At last, a small tendril
      of smoke rose from the grass, delicately wafting in the breeze. One of the
      older kids gave a whoop, unfortunately breaking the creator's concentration.

      "That was great, Casey!" Scott encouraged, before she realized the smoke
      had died. "You're getting much better." Ororo clapped, and a few of the
      others joined in. The girl looked sheepish from the praise, but pleased.

      "Lemme try again," she demanded, but Scott brushed her sweaty bangs off her
      face and shook his head.

      "No, not today. You're putting too much of a drain on your powers. You
      need to give it a break."

      "You light it, Mr. Summers!" The kids were entirely enthusiastic, and
      Ororo Munroe joined in, acting just as obnoxious as the kids half her age.

      "All right, all right!" He lifted his hands in surrender. "Back up,
      everyone." The kids retreated to a safer distance under their other
      teacher's urgings. Scott checked that everyone was far enough back, then
      dialed his visor's control and let loose a mild beam to the squared stack
      of firewood waiting in the pit. Within seconds, it was engulfed in flames,
      whooshing high in the waning sun. The kids cheered with appreciation.

      "Showoff," Ororo accused him, grinning. He could only shrug in mock
      humility. "Okay, go find a stick for your hotdogs and marshmallows!" she
      ordered, then had to step lively to avoid the rushing horde of teenagers.
      "I want everyone back here before it gets dark!"

      Scott noticed Casey staring at the leaping flames, and put his hand on her
      shoulder, kneeling beside her. "What's the matter?"

      "I couldn't do it. How come I could burn down my own house, but I can't
      light a tiny little campfire?" The frustration and anxiety in her voice
      was to be expected. She'd been at Xavier's School for only a short time,
      and was having a difficult adjustment period.

      "Casey, you're very young still. You're ten, right?" The girl nodded.
      "My powers didn't even manifest until I was a teenager. You've got some
      growing to do, and so do your powers. Give yourself some time, okay?"

      The police report on Casey's first manifestation, the complete destruction
      of her home, had originally been attributed to a fight between her parents.
      The couple had a history of violent confrontations, and the outburst that
      night had been over the top. The insurance investigator had been thorough
      enough to track down the real cause, but of course the policy had not
      covered destruction due to mutant powers.

      "How come you wouldn't let me keep trying?"

      Scott put both hands on her shoulders, giving her a small shake. "It's not
      because I don't think you can do it. I just don't want you overextending
      yourself. Do you feel shaky, like you're going to throw up?" (Please, not
      on me, he thought.) The girl nodded. "You can use your energy reserves up
      too fast, especially at this early age. It's called 'burning out.' I've
      done it, and I was really sick for a while. It's not any fun, I'm telling
      you."

      Casey thought about it for a moment. "What about Miss Rogue? I mean, she
      sucks energy in, right? So she couldn't ever burn out, could she? And
      what about Mr. Drake? Would he be able to catch a cold from all that ice?"
      Fully diverted from her own failure, the questions kept tumbling out.

      Scott threw a pleading look at Ororo, who simply crossed her arms and
      waited for an answer, enjoying his predicament.

      "I don't know, Casey." Scott finally got a word in. "There are a lot of
      things about being a mutant that we don't know. That's why we're all here,
      right? To learn?" She nodded, staring up at him with her big blue eyes
      full of speculation, then skipped off to find a stick on which to cook her
      dinner.

      Scott groaned as he got to his feet. "You're a cruel woman, 'Ro."

      The white haired woman only chuckled. "Think of it as practice, 'Daddy.'"

      **********

      Hours later, Logan rolled to a sitting position on his bed and scruffed his
      fingers through his hair. After a shower and a change of clothes, he'd
      stretched out on the bed for just a moment, and it was a telling sign that
      he'd crashed and slept for hours. Usually his healing factor would let him
      stay awake for days on end, but eventually even it gave up and let him
      sleep like a dead man.
      The window was now black with night, and the clock on his nightstand told
      him it was almost ten in the evening. His bedroom door was shut, meaning
      someone had come and checked on him. That his door had been closed without
      waking him was another good indication of his fatigue; normally, the sound
      of anyone even breathing outside his door was enough to bring him out of a
      sound sleep.

      He made his way through the luxuriant halls of the mansion, his ambling
      gait a far cry from his first panicked reconnoiter. He paused outside the
      professor's office, hesitating when he heard several more voices than he
      expected. After a moment, he realized the Japanese accents were coming
      from a phone line. Sliding against the doorframe for a quick glimpse, he
      saw the large computer monitor displaying a group of somber-suited
      gentlemen and women grouped at a table. The Professor and Jean were in the
      midst of a video conference call with people who were just starting their
      workday.

      Logan continued down the grand hallway, casually inspecting the artwork and
      photographs hung on the fine wooden paneling. Here and there he recognized
      his teammates in the photos. In one, a young Scott Summers was accepting a
      trophy of some kind from a geek in a lab coat. Another had Xavier shaking
      hands with an obvious political bigwig. A formal looking document lay on
      the table behind Xavier's shoulder, and each man held a pen in his left
      hand.

      Moving on, Logan paused at two more. The first had been added since the
      last time he left. In it, Charles Xavier sat smiling proudly in his
      wheelchair. Crouched on either side of him were Rogue and a young woman
      Logan recognized as Rogue's roommate, Jubilee. Both were wearing black
      commencement gowns. While Rogue wore her usual self-composed smile,
      Jubilee's classic Chinese features did nothing to mitigate the pure
      mischief in her eyes as she reached behind the Professor's head to flip
      Rogue's mortarboard. As she fended off her friend, only the word
      "University" showed on the black diploma folder in Rogue's hand. Her
      fingers were covered in a glove of some sheer white material. It had to
      have been a recent photo; six months ago she'd still been in college.

      Next to that photo was a larger one. While the clothing was exquisitely
      formal, the attitude certainly wasn't. It had been taken at the end of the
      first dance after Scott and Jean's wedding just over a year ago. Scott had
      dug up a brother from somewhere to be his best man, but Logan had been
      unaccountably and gruffly touched when Scott had asked him to stand with
      him as well. The bridal party was not so much formally grouped as it was a
      group hug. Ororo had been the maid of honor, and Alex Summers had a casual
      arm around both his brother and his dance partner, and all three had wide,
      happy grins. On the other side of the joyful bride, Logan had been caught
      in mid-laugh with his arm around Rogue, pulling her in against his chest as
      they all squished together for the photo. Logan recalled he'd pulled her
      off balance and she'd caught her heel in the hem of her deep blue gown. In
      the photo, he could just see her satin-gloved hand clutching at his
      encircling arm for balance. Undiluted happiness shone from her eyes.

      It was one of the best memories he had, despite the fact that it put an end
      to any extraneous possibilities between himself and the redheaded doctor.
      A corner of his mouth curved up in remembrance. So intent was he on the
      photo that the sudden pounding of feet caused him to react instinctively.
      He grabbed the blur that burst through the doorway and pulled it off the
      ground by its shirtfront.

      'It' was short teenage boy who let out a squeak and froze, wide eyes
      blinking behind the lenses of his glasses. A freshly popped bag of popcorn
      slipped out of his grasp and fell to the floor. Logan looked him over
      once, then lowered the boy until his feet were on the floor again.

      "Slow it down, kid."

      "Y-yes, Mr. Logan," the kid stammered. He remained frozen in place until
      Logan turned and walked away, then grabbed his popcorn bag and scurried -
      slower this time - towards the television room.

      Logan found himself wandering, down past the school's territory and into
      the restricted areas that admitted only those recognized as members of the
      team. The warm wooden hallways gave way to the sterile tiled halls of the
      X-men's domain. Everything here was still and quiet, as though waiting for
      the next crisis to erupt. His footsteps echoed down the corridors as he
      made his way past Cerebro's lair and the passage to the Blackbird's hangar.
      The Ready Room was just as it always was, the lockers with clear doors
      revealing the black leather uniforms. His own locker contained exactly
      what he'd left; two uniforms, one rather used, the other relatively new.
      His boots were there, and one eyebrow raised as he spied a stray sock he'd
      forgotten. He pocketed it and turned to leave, but paused when he realized
      Rogue's locker door was ajar.

      Curious, he poked it open a bit further. Hooked over the door from the
      inside was a hanger with a brand new jacket, still in the gossamer plastic.
      Behind it, on another hanger, was another jacket. He touched it idly, then
      noted the damaged sleeve. The bottom third was shredded and hung in
      tatters. His fingers told him the same thing his nose did - it was stiff
      with dried blood, and underneath was Rogue's own scent, interlaced with
      that of an animal.

      An unusual whirring sound intrigued Logan as he returned to the main floor
      of the school, and he followed it down yet another hall to a large door
      that proclaimed it the Art Room. The whirring sound stopped just as he
      pushed the door open, and the potter's wheel slowly ground to a halt as
      Rogue glanced up at him. She wore a tank top and an apron, her bare and
      slightly red arms speckled with clay. A large bandage encircled one
      forearm.

      "Hey."

      "Hi there," she replied with a smile, her concentration on the clay form in
      her hands. "Jean said you were back, but I could hear you snoring. I just
      let you sleep." The southern accent was almost completely gone, and he
      frowned at its absence as much as at her words.

      "I don't snore," he protested.

      "You do when you're really beat." Logan frowned ferociously at her, but
      she wasn't paying attention. He DIDN'T snore.

      He wandered around, looking and poking. Behind her was a metal utility
      rack, the shelves labeled with various students' names he vaguely
      recognized. The shelf with her name on it held a few objects. On was a
      simple yet graceful vase, sitting beside a set of huge coffee cups. He
      smirked as he read the "POPCORN" legend on a large bowl. Behind the
      utilitarian pieces were two dusty objects all but buried at the back. One
      was a slab of bas relief, somehow perfectly capturing a pair of birds
      taking flight. The other was a larger than life man's hand, palm to palm
      with a woman's.

      Logan watched Rogue wipe her hands briefly then release the current piece,
      carefully placing it on a sheet of brown butcher paper. An escaped strand
      of white hair swung gently with her movements.

      "These are good," he said finally.

      She smiled without looking up. "They're okay. I'd never make a livin' at
      it, but� it feels nice." He watched her bare hands caress the new vase,
      pinching it gently to mold the edge into a pouring lip. An old fashioned
      pitcher began to materialize under her hands.

      An odd rumbling groan reached his ears, and after a second he realized it
      came from Rogue. Specifically, from her stomach.

      "You hungry?"

      "Not enough to cook anything."

      "I'll cook - I'm starving." He hadn't realized it until he'd said it. And
      don't gimme that look," he added.

      She raises her clay covered hands in surrender, grinning. "Okay, you cook.
      Be there in a bit."

      **********

      "You've got to be kidding."

      At the sound of her voice, Logan looked up at her questioningly. Rogue
      stood in the kitchen doorway, her oversized, long-sleeved shirt hanging
      open over the tank top. Her gloves were slung casually over her shoulder.

      "What, never had breakfast in the middle of the night?" He cracked a sixth
      egg into the large skillet, then fished out the errant bit of shell. The
      eggs and last pieces of bacon were all but submerged in bacon grease. A
      large raft of cooked bacon lay draining into paper towels on a plate on the
      counter.

      "Some people don't have to worry about clogging their arteries," she
      replied. "Whatcha need me to do?"

      "Juice." He indicated a bowl of oranges with his spatula, heedless of the
      drips it left on the counter.

      Rogue opened a drawer and retrieved a knife, and pulled a juicer bowl from
      a cabinet. They worked in companionable silence for several minutes.
      Logan drained the rest of the bacon and pulled two plates from the cabinet.

      "Drove past your parents' place last month," he said finally.

      Rogue hesitated, but did not look up from her juicer. "I thought you were
      just gonna mail that letter for me."

      "Yeah, well. I was in Mississippi anyway," he replied.

      "And � how are they?" she asked.

      "They looked fine."

      "Good," she replied shortly, and he left it at that.

      The eggs were just about perfect. Just inside his peripheral vision, he
      saw her snag another orange, caught the flicker of steel as she sliced it
      quickly and suddenly flinched.

      "Damn," she said softly, dropping the knife with a clatter and reaching for
      a paper towel.

      "Lemme see." He reached for her hand, but Rogue shied violently, backing
      away from his reach.
      Logan snagged a towel off the counter with a wordless growl and reached for
      her again. Using it as insulation, he reached for her again, and she
      allowed him to turn her thumb to the light. A small cut oozed a single
      drop of crimson.

      "I'll live," she said dryly.

      "Yeah, well, don't bleed in the juice," he replied, rescuing the eggs.

      Rogue favored him with a lopsided smile and bunched the paper towel and
      injured digit in her fist. Her free hand grabbed one of the orange halves
      and mashed it thoroughly.

      "Saw your uniform downstairs," he commented. "What happened?" He nodded
      to the bandage wrapped around her upper wrist.

      "Rottweiler. Big one."

      "Bad?"

      She topped off the juice glass and shrugged one shoulder, a gesture she had
      picked up from him. "Jean stitched it up for me. Thanks," she added,
      carefully taking the far side of the loaded plate he offered. She pushed
      one of the glasses of juice his direction. Neither of them bothered to
      move to the table, but stood companionably leaning against the counter,
      separated by less than 24 inches.

      "Oh, by the way. Here." She pulled the chain out from under her hair and
      dangled the dog tag into his palm, dropping the last few inches of chain
      before her bare fingers could come close to his. The metal was still warm
      from her body. "Welcome home."

      "Thanks," he said gruffly, weighing it in his hand. It was their little
      ritual. Every time he left, he gave her his tags. Every time he came
      back, she returned them. Every time. He shoved it in his pocket and felt
      something in his chest slowly uncurling. The tension that had sent him
      wandering began to leak away, and he finally identified the sensation that
      replaced it. He was home.

      'It's funny," she said, nibbling on a piece of bacon. "That poor dog was
      so afraid of us... he was just protecting, but I could feel how scared he
      was, even after his heart stopped beating." She swallowed the bacon hard.
      "Never been in anyone's head before, when they died."

      She picked up another crisp of bacon, but didn't eat it. "His name was
      Bosco," she added softly, then raised her embarrassed eyes to meet his
      gaze. Even without words, she could feel his silent sympathy.

      "So, how 'bout you?" she asked, trying to change the subject. "Find out
      anything on this trip?"

      A disgusted grimace flickered across his face, but he continued to rapidly
      demolish the food on his plate. "Nah. Dead end."

      "Maybe that place in Alberta�" The phone jangled loudly, interrupting her.
      Logan wiped his fingers on his clean shirt and snagged it off the wall.

      "Yeah," he offered into the receiver, talking around a mouthful of egg.
      Rogue watched his expression change, trying to guess who would be calling.
      He chewed for a moment, then grew still. His eyes met hers, a frown
      growing by the second. "How'd you get this number?" he asked finally.


      **********

      By ten the next morning, Storm and Cyclops had the kids home and straggling
      noisily up the stairs. Scott caught his wife in a hug from behind as she
      entered the Professor's study, her hand fending off his three-day beard
      while they both grinned like teenagers.

      Logan, standing by the window, watched the couple indulgently as Scott
      kissed his wife and brushed a gentle, protective hand over her belly. His
      eyes dropped to Rogue and noticed the several different emotions that
      flickered across her face as she also watched the couple - envy, sadness,
      and a rueful fondness, before she crossed her feet in front of her chair
      and focused her attention on Xavier.

      'Ro pushed the couple further into the room, and they all grouped
      themselves around the Professor's desk while he laid out the contents of
      his phone call the night before.

      "They call themselves a Guild, and from what I've been able to gather,
      they've become something of a haven for mutants in the New Orleans and
      Mississippi Delta area. Unfortunately, a large number of that population
      has been disappearing. More than a dozen Guild individuals have vanished
      in the last two months."

      "This is the first you've heard of it?" queried Logan in a slightly
      skeptical voice.

      Xavier favored him with a patient smile. "Contrary to the belief among the
      students that I know all and see all, my information network is appallingly
      thin. In too many instances, I am forced to rely on the media to inform me
      of trouble, such as the young boy retrieved a few days ago."

      "And they're sure these people aren't just leaving?" Ororo asked.

      "Yes. In this most recent case, a body was found. Or, should I say, the
      majority of a body. The mutant had been born with wings; his body was
      found with those wings removed."

      "Surgically removed?" Jean asked.

      "No," the Professor replied flatly. The X-men digested that unsavory
      thought silently. The mood in the room became much darker. "Law
      enforcement has been completely ineffective. On the few instances they
      have filed a missing persons report, only the most basic of investigations
      was instituted." Xavier rolled his chair to another angle and reached for
      a stack of papers on his desk.

      "Unfortunately, I must be in Washington next week. I want Cyclops, Storm,
      Rogue, and Wolverine to go and investigate. Jean and I will use Cerebro to
      see if we can find any unusual concentrations of mutants, perhaps held
      against their will, somewhere in the region. We'll expand our search, as
      time permits. I'll want regular reports.

      Additionally, the Guild member who contacted us last night made it clear
      that the existence of the X-Men was not widely known to his people, and
      he'd like to keep it that way. He would also appreciate the same courtesy."

      "He won't dig in our back yard if we don't dig in his," Logan clarified.

      Xavier nodded. "Exactly." Uncharacteristically, he took a hesitant breath
      and addressed the youngest member of the team. A slightly pained
      expression joined the sympathy in his eyes. "Rogue, I empathize with your
      reluctance to use your abilities offensively. However, without a psychic
      on hand, you may find it necessary�"

      "I understand." She cut him off.

      "What's in Washington?" Logan asked, breaking the awkward silence.

      The Professor hesitated. "Another proposed piece of legislation regarding
      mutants has suddenly surfaced. It seems to be unusually popular. I'm
      going to see what I can do to help squelch it."

      "Mutant registration again?" Scott voiced, echoing all their thoughts.

      "Not this time. I'm not sure that wouldn't be easier. There's a movement
      towards creating a special branch of federal law enforcement strictly to
      police the infractions of mutants. It's being called the Sentinal Program,
      but the implications of a mutant-only police force, with separate
      jurisdictions and holding facilities, are dire."

      "Concentration camps." Rogue's voice was soft, but Xavier nodded gravely.

      "Take the Blackbird. Your host has a private airfield. You will be met by
      one of his people, a man named LeBeau. He will be your liaison officer
      with the Guild to help you with this investigation.

      "Good luck."

      **********

      "There's our hanger," Rogue said softly from the right seat of the
      Blackbird. A single light over the hanger door did not begin to chase away
      the impenetrable darkness of the Louisiana night. The Blackbird's infrared
      scanner, however, showed surrounding buildings with perfect clarity. Scott
      taxied the custom hover jet into the waiting maw of the hanger with a
      minimum of fuss and set it down as delicately as a fragile vase.

      "Damn, Cyclops. It's about time you actually learned how to fly this
      thing." Logan could not resist needling the younger man. He rolled his
      shoulders as he unstrapped and settled his old leather jacket over his
      civilian clothing.

      "Had to." Scott replied. "I was getting too much competition. Between
      Rogue and St. John, it's worse than when they got their drivers' licenses."

      Business-like as she shut down the systems, including the telemetry showing
      a man's figure in outline near a large blocky vehicle, Rogue did not
      acknowledge his comment. "I still show only one person at the end of the
      runway. Looks like they're keeping to the plan."

      Outside, Logan and Scott pushed the huge hanger doors shut. Rogue attached
      a padlock to the handles. It appeared to be an ordinary stock item, but on
      the bottom a tiny red light turned green as she snapped it shut.

      "This won't keep out anyone real insistent, but the Blackbird's not
      completely defenseless," Scott said. He handed Rogue her duffel bag.
      Logan frowned at the sports utility vehicle standing alone a dozen yards
      away.

      "Now, y'all wouldn't be worryin' 'bout trustin' us, would ya?" came a
      Cajun-accented voice from just outside the circle of light thrown by the
      overhead lamp, startling each of them to varying degrees. A tall man in a
      brown leather duster lit a cigarette and looked pleased with himself for
      sneaking up on them.

      "You must be Cyclops." He held his hand out. There was no lighter in his
      hands.

      Scott took it with only a moment's hesitation. "I am. This is Storm.
      Wolverine, " he indicated each, and the man gave each of them a nod. "This
      is�"

      "An angel," interrupted the man as he brushed by Logan. "This must surely
      be an angel." He smiled at Rogue with the confidence of a man who knows
      he's charming. She noted his pupils were a striking scarlet, ringed with
      black.

      "Rogue," she corrected evenly, holding out her hand. He brought her hand
      to his lips instead, kissing the leather-clad fingers.

      "Remy LeBeau. The man of your dreams."

      "I'm sure you are," she agreed pleasantly.

      Logan did not bother to stifle a snort, but it only made Lebeau smile
      wider. "My friends call me Gambit. My employer is anxious to meet you
      all. If you'll follow me?" He indicated the waiting vehicle with a
      courtly flourish, but turned and strode rapidly towards it rather than wait
      for their assent.

      Storm led the way as they followed the would-be gallant, disapproval
      radiating from her in waves. "The Professor dug up quite a bit of dirt on
      these people. They're involved in just about every criminal profession in
      three states. The only thing they don't seem to be in on is heavy
      narcotics."

      "Such a nasty business, chere," interjected LeBeau reprovingly, appearing
      again to open the door for her. "Entirely the wrong kind of people.
      Always in such a hurry to turn a profit, but no sense of tradition, no
      style."

      "Storm," said Cyclops, warningly.

      The white-haired woman opened her mouth, but Rogue cut her off. "We all
      remember what it's like to be hungry. Not everyone caught the breaks we
      did." Her statement was matter of fact, but no less challenging.

      She's got a point, Logan conceded to himself. He remembered the cold,
      wintry day he'd met Rogue, when he'd watched her wolf down old beef jerky
      as if it were the first time she'd eaten in days.

      "We're here to find answers." Scott's tone made it clear there would be no
      further discussion. Fuming, Storm got in the truck without further comment.

      The streets in the French Quarter gleamed wetly under the streetlights as
      the SUV pulled up in front of a tavern. A green neon rat in the window
      blinked off and on as it proclaimed 'The River Rat.' Logan slid out of the
      back seat and quickly scanned the street, taking in the damp night air with
      short sniffs. Rogue's shorter legs had to clamber out of the vehicle but
      she pushed her hair back and did the same, although with less sniffing and
      more appreciation of the wrought iron railing wrapped around the upper
      balconies of the buildings facing them.

      "They're very pretty," she murmured.

      Logan gave a non-committal grunt. "Good place to hide snipers."

      Rogue let the comment pass. She turned towards the tavern, only to be
      brought up short by LeBeau's chest as he blocked her path.

      "Most of N'Orleans is pretty, chere," he told her in a low voice. A lazy,
      suggestive smile showed her he had a very nice teeth. "Remy can show you
      the best parts."

      The unusual sensation of being flirted with startled Rogue, but in that
      instant, a coquettish streak surfaced. An answering smile curved her lips,
      and she tilted her head to one side. "Can you, now?" she asked. Behind
      her, Logan frowned as her spine curved, her weight going to one hip and her
      voice sliding into a lower register. "Can you show me� all of it?"

      LeBeau's grin grew wider, much to Logan's disgust. "C'mon Gumbo," he
      growled, and grabbed Rogue's elbow, pulling her after him. Used to Logan's
      hands-on lack of tact, Rogue gave LeBeau a single backwards glance under
      lowered eyelashes before she pulled her arm free but followed him anyway.

      "That's Gambit," LeBeau protested, bringing up the rear.

      "Whatever."

      Inside the bar, the late hour was apparent. A teenage boy was putting the
      chairs upside down on the tables, while a woman in a white apron swept bits
      of broken beer bottle into a dustpan in the corner. Storm and Cyclops
      halted before the large wooden bar, out of the way of the cleanup crew.
      Storm gave her fellow X-woman a curious look, and with a simple tilt of
      their eyebrows they exchanged the non-verbal communication women have when
      men are around to torment.

      "I'll have a beer," Logan commented to the bartender, who was restocking
      the shelf under the bar with large bottles of amber liquid, the pedigree of
      which would not have withstood a great deal of scrutiny. The beefy man
      shrugged and lifted a relatively clean mug from the rack, filled it with a
      smooth pull from the spigot and slid it in front of him.

      "Are you physically incapable of going into a bar without ordering a beer?"
      Cyclops asked with disbelief.

      "Yes," answered Logan and Rogue at the same time. Rogue grabbed a large
      pretzel fragment from the bowl and dipped it in the beer, blithely
      disregarding Logan's scowl and 'hey' of protest. She munched it and turned
      to look for their guide. LeBeau stood across the room, talking to another
      man. Fair haired and handsome, the other looked up at her and continued
      eye contact for several seconds before returning his attention to LeBeau.

      "This just keeps getting better and better," Rogue murmured to Storm, who
      had to agree. She'd also noticed the tall newcomer, and if he was a bit
      young for her, he was absolutely perfect for Rogue. Logan, however,
      frowned at the younger woman again and turned his closer attention to the
      man following LeBeau to their side of the room.

      "Mes amis, this is Joshua. He is a member of our Guild, and a trusted
      friend. He will be assisting us in this matter."

      Logan took in Joshua's stance, his feet apart, hands clasped loosely behind
      him. "You military?"

      "I was."

      "Yeah?"

      Broad shoulders shifted slightly in discomfort. "'Don't ask, don't tell'
      doesn't apply to mutants."

      Cyclops nodded once in acknowledgement. "I'd like to start out with an
      investigation of each disappearance. Talk to neighbors, friends, all the
      things a good police investigation would have done. If you agree to it,
      Wolverine can go over your procedures from a security standpoint. He might
      be able to pinpoint any problems or weak spots, in light of those mutants
      who went missing while working for your.. organization." His brief
      hesitation brought another flash of Gambit's grin. "He has experience with
      less than above board activities, and maybe he can give you some advice on
      how to keep any more of your people from disappearing."

      "Unfortunately our chief has been called away on urgent business this
      evening. I regret he will be unable to meet you all tonight, but he will
      undoubtedly be delighted to make your acquaintance at a later time." For
      some reason LeBeau's flowery delivery didn't sound stupid, even when he
      continued, focusing in on Rogue. "Very delighted, I'm sure."

      "Urgent business? In Washington, by any chance?" queried Rogue, giving him
      an innocent look when he froze for a split instant.

      His suave demeanor immediately heated up again, but he smiled widely again
      rather than answer her question. "Immensely delighted."

      The bartender was possibly the only person in the room who did not pick up
      the innuendo in LeBeau's voice, with varying degrees of amusement or
      annoyance. Joshua moved his elbow minutely, but the small gesture sent
      LeBeau staggering a full step sideways. The younger man was apparently
      much stronger than he should be.

      "We have a safe house across the street," the tall blond told them. "It's
      not very big, but at least you won't be sleeping on the floor. You can
      rest there for a few hours, and we can start first thing." He took the
      opportunity to smile down at Rogue while ignoring LeBeau, clearly
      establishing a rivalry which seemed to be a continuation of an ongoing
      situation.

      "Good," interjected Cyclops, before LeBeau said anything. "I'd like to
      start by checking out the one mutant we know was killed - Falcon - where he
      lived, and where he died. We'll split into two teams. Give us�" he
      checked his watch briefly. "Five hours."
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