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X-Cursions, part 3/5

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  • Rhonda Amos
    This sucks, commented Jubilee for the fourth or possibly fifth time, nudging her carry-on bag further up the line. Beside her, Bobby Drake grunted in a
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 21 7:12 PM
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      "This sucks," commented Jubilee for the fourth or possibly fifth time,
      nudging her carry-on bag further up the line. Beside her, Bobby Drake
      grunted in a manner quite possibly adopted from Wolverine as he regarded
      the long line of people between them and the check-in counter. He
      pretended to watch another plane take off, staring out through the large
      glass window as they waited to catch their flight. The board above the
      gate announced their connecting flight from Atlanta to Orlando was on time.

      "How come Rogue gets to go off and do all the cool stuff, and we get to go
      play fetch?"

      "Maybe it's your sparkling personality," he commented blandly, rolling up a
      large tan envelope and stowing it in the inside pocket of his satin Yankees

      "I'll give you sparkling," she huffed, the light on her fingertips sparking
      his earlobe before he grabbed her hands with the reflexes of long practice
      and yanking them down.

      "Would you knock that off!" he hissed, glancing around to see if anyone had
      noticed. She blew a large pink bubble at him, grinning unrepentantly.
      "Rogue gets to go because she acts like a grown-up, not a three-year-old,"
      Bobby continued pointedly.

      "Well, that does leave us both out, doesn't it?" Jubilee drawled.

      Bobby pinched her behind.

      She retaliated, poking his ribs and tickling him until he wrapped both arms
      around her. They became a single struggling entity, much to the amusement
      of the businessman standing before them in line. A security guard left the
      wall beside the gate and approached them, causing them to straighten up.

      "Is there a problem here?" he asked, giving them both a stern glare that
      still came nowhere near what they were used to from Cyclops, Jean, Logan,
      or anyone else at the Mansion.

      "No, no problem. We're just in love," gushed Bobby, draping one arm around
      Jubilee's neck. Manfully, he did not wince as her elbow jabbed his stomach.

      "You dropped this," said the guard, handing him the large envelope. His
      thumb was over the single name - TOMMY - typed on the edge.

      "Thanks," muttered Jubilee, nipping it from his fingers.

      The guard gave them the accustomed 'behave yourself' stare before heading
      down the concourse to another gate, where he made a short comment to the
      attendant there. The woman laughed, and he continued on his way.

      Jubilee watched him disappear from view, her expression thoughtful.

      "What?" Bobby asked.

      "Don't know." She turned the same thoughtful expression on her partner.
      "Bad vibes."

      He glanced around the area, Wolverine and Cyclops' training suddenly
      apparent. "We'll be careful," he said in a low voice, the goofy demeanor
      on the two dropping back into the professionalism of two well-trained
      operatives. Only the closest of observers would have noticed the haze of
      condensation wafting from his fingertips.


      At precisely 8:00 am, LeBeau offered Wolverine and Rogue beighnets and
      coffee as they drove to their first assignment. Logan, seated in back but
      hanging onto the back of the passenger seat behind Rogue, disregarded the
      pastry but gulped half of his coffee while it was still steaming hot.
      Rogue sipped hers gingerly. She didn't have a healing factor to deal with
      a scorched tongue. Working off one satin glove as the men talked, she
      carefully picked up one of the powdered squares. She'd deliberately chose
      a moment when Gambit had both hands on the wheel.

      He glanced at her bare hand for a moment, noting the long fingers with
      neatly painted oval nails. "You have lovely hands, chere. Why don't you
      leave those gloves off?" His charming manner was still in high gear.

      Rogue sipped her coffee again. "Because I like the people I'm around to
      stay alive," she replied.

      Gambit gave her a longer look, still trying to keep an eye on the road as
      he turned into a warehouse district. "Falcon's body was found here, 'bout
      ten days ago. He disappeared 'bout a week before that." Slowing down and
      turning neatly into the loading area behind one of the buildings, he threw
      the vehicle into park.

      Logan peered up and down the rows of buildings as he got out of the
      vehicle. "You people got anything out here, any reason for him to be in
      this area?"

      "No, and s'far as we know, he didn't have any personal reasons, either."

      "So, he was running," mused Rogue, as she got out and surveyed the
      depressing parking lot and stunted weeds. Lingering over all was the smell
      of fish and dirty water from the Mississippi and the nearby Gulf. She
      sniffed the air experimentally, but a keen sense of smell was one aspect
      she'd never absorbed, even temporarily, from Logan. "Can you pick up
      anything?" she asked him.

      "Nah. Been too long. Where was the body?" Logan asked, business-like.

      Gambit pointed to a set of stairs near a loading bay at the back of the
      nearest building. The metal steps led to a door marked 'Delivery.' The
      opening underneath the steps was filled with torn cardboard and other

      "Workers found him when they came out for a smoke, round 'bout mid-morning.
      Called the police." He pronounced it like a Southerner, with the emphasis
      on the first syllable. "We figured he'd run from up there," and his hand
      pointed to the slight uphill incline towards the east, then swung back in
      an arc to indicate straight into the stairwell the mutant had died in, "and
      just couldn't go no further. We searched almost all the warehouses up
      there, pretty much."

      "Find anything?"

      Gambit smirked. "We found plenty of inter'stin' things. But nothing like
      what we were looking for."

      "Was Falcon a true feral mutation?" asked Wolverine, crouching by the hole
      and peering into the dark recess. The tattered bit of faded yellow police
      tape fluttered in the light breeze. "Were the wings just an add-on, or did
      he have other avian characteristics?"

      Gambit shrugged. If he were surprised to hear the more technical
      descriptions from a man who seemed less than civilized, he didn't comment.
      "Falcon had talons, not fingers or toes. Reg'lar shoes didn't fit him.
      Had real good eyes, too."

      Rogue and Logan looked at each other.

      "Maybe you were looking in the wrong direction," Rogue offered, to Gambit's
      obvious skepticism. "Mutants with feral mutations tend to react
      instinctively under stress. A bird of prey would be seeking high ground,
      not low."

      Logan grunted in agreement. "And he wouldn't have run straight into this
      hole if he were being hunted. If he could see into it, he'd assume the
      ones chasing him could see it, too." He shifted, to look down the slight
      slope to another row of warehouses. "C'mon."

      Gambit started the SUV and trailed behind them, reflexively scanning the
      surrounding area before following the pair. Much sooner than he expected,
      they paused before the burnt ruins of a smaller building. Completely
      gutted and swathed from the front with new yellow police tape, the broken
      wooden timbers stabbed skyward in mute accusation. He yanked the brake and
      joined them, his annoyance turning to something deeper as he surveyed the

      "What was the cause of death?" Logan eyed Gambit, then regarded the
      wrecked building again. "What did Falcon die from?"

      Gambit's eyes were hard. "Shock and blood loss, 'cording to the autopsy.
      'Course, they're not calling it a homicide. Just saying it's a suspicious

      "There was no blood trail under the stairs," Logan said, ducking under the
      tape. "He didn't have anything left. He couldn't have gotten far."

      Rogue was right behind, stepping over knee-high drifts of blackened
      building material. Logan pulled a pair of his own leather gloves from his
      back pocket and tossed them to his fellow X-Man. Rogue pulled them on over
      her own, her fingers swimming in the larger cut.

      The three of them began to dig through the rubble, none of them with much
      idea as to what they were looking for. While Logan sifted through the
      corners, Gambit and Rogue concentrated in the center.

      "Help me with this," she eventually called to Logan, and between the three
      of them they moved a timber that fell over with a crash, sending plumes of
      ash into the air. She waved at the choking cloud but immediately squatted
      on her heels and delved beneath the unrecognizable burnt chunks. In a
      moment her filthy glove came up holding a loop of chain. Tugging, she
      yanked until it stopped in a loop set in the concrete slab beneath their
      feet. Her face grave, she pulled the other end, coming up with less than
      six feet of heavy chain. At the end, a large manacle dangled.

      Wordlessly, Logan took it from her and turned it over in his hands. The
      chain, and the manacle, showed several bright marks against the soot that
      had turned his fingers black.

      "Whoever it was, they panicked. Tried to get any hard evidence out of the
      building before they torched it, but couldn't get this." He dropped it
      into the ashes. "We need to see when this building burned, and when." His
      gaze dropped to the bright, shiny tape around the perimeter. "Can't have
      been that long ago."

      "Why would they leave this," Rogue indicated the chain with a twitch of her
      blackened fingers, "then suddenly panic and torch the place?"

      Logan shook his head. He didn't have an answer. Not yet. He held out a
      dirty hand, and helped Rogue to her feet. "We won't find anything else

      Again, Gambit trailed them out of the ashes and back into the alley.
      "How'd you know that chain was down there, chere?" asked LeBeau. His
      normally warm tone had gone a few degrees cooler.

      "I can.. feel metal, sometimes. Not very often. I can't ever find my car
      keys, but I can tell you've got a large piece of metal on you. Not a
      gun�." She paused, frowning at him.

      Reassured, a slow grin grew on LeBeau's face. He reached behind his back,
      below the leather duster he'd worn even though the day was slightly muggy
      with Mississippi Delta heat. His hand flashed out, twirling a long, narrow
      cylinder of dark metal.

      "That's no asp," commented Logan.

      "No. It's a Bo staff." The twirling abruptly stopped, and the ends shot
      out until Gambit held a metal staff nearly as long as he was tall. The air
      whistled as the staff whirled rapidly, his handling expert and deadly.
      Suddenly it collapsed on itself and disappeared beneath his coat. "Comes
      in handy."

      "I'll bet," Logan replied.


      Joshua, Storm and Cyclops regarded the stoutly locked door with annoyance.
      Black letter tape had faded and cracked, leaving the names beside each red
      intercom button indecipherable. Not a single voice answered as Joshua's
      finger pressed each of the switches in turn. Stepping back off the spalled
      concrete porch, almost to the curb, Storm shaded her eyes and peered up at
      the top floor of the four-story structure. Decrepit and crumbling, the
      apartment building matched its neighbors in lack of appeal.

      "He had to live on the top floor, didn't he?" Scott commented, peering up
      as well.

      "In the back," confirmed their guide.

      "Fire escape," said Storm simply, leading the way around the side of the

      Weaving through the narrow space between the buildings, which was choked
      with weeds, garbage, and an abandoned refrigerator, she came out into the
      back alley and found the fire escape. The ladder hung conveniently low,
      but that did little good as the first two landings were missing. The third
      hung from a single bolt on the wall.

      "Great," said Scott dryly. Expectantly, he turned to Storm. She raised an
      eyebrow, but lifted her arms and face to the sky. Joshua squinted against
      the sudden breeze and the accompanying dust. He raised a hand to shield
      his face.

      "What are you doing?" he protested.

      "I'm going to fly up there and go in the window," Storm supplied,
      distracted. Her feet left the ground.

      "Geez. Make a production of it, why don't you?" Irritated, Joshua
      bounced lightly on his feet, then sprang into the air. Four stories above
      the alley's cracked pavement, he hovered in front of one window, inspected
      the lock through the hazy glass, then moved to the next. An air
      conditioning unit hung drunkenly from the sill. He placed his hands on
      either side of the unit, stuck the tips of his fingers under the wooden
      frame, and pried it gently. The wood buckled and the metal frame of the
      window unit dented under his thumbs. He caught it as it fell, lifting the
      window open all the way while the heavy machine dangled absently from his
      fingers. He pushed it in the window, then settled on the ledge and
      straddled it.

      "I'll be down in a second," he said, then pulled the rest of himself
      through the window and out of sight. Below, Scott hid a smile behind his
      hand at Storm's blank expression.

      Inside, the three of them poked around the shabby one room apartment.
      "None of the chairs have backs on them," commented Storm as she took in the
      various pieces of furniture.

      "Kinda hard to sit with wings." Moving decisively, Joshua opened the
      freezer and examined the pitiful contents while Cyclops and Storm moved
      into the apartment, peering at the bookshelves and opening drawers. In the
      freezer, Joshua found several plastic film canisters, which opened to
      reveal small rolls of cash.

      "Four, five hundred dollars," he counted. He pulled a small drawstring bag
      from his back pocket and placed the money inside. "For the Guild," he
      clarified. Scott nodded and opened the closet door.

      "Nothing here," added Storm, as she rummaged beneath the mattress. A
      large, gray-striped secondary feather, longer than her hand, fell out of
      the sheets as she peered under the bed. "Oh, Goddess," she exclaimed in an
      odd voice.

      "What is it?" demanded Scott.

      "What does any single man have under his bed?" she asked, moving a stack of
      magazines out of her way.

      "I wouldn't know," Scott replied from where he was going through the
      pockets of the garments in the closet, while Joshua cleared his throat
      ruefully. "Jean made me throw all those away years ago."

      "Who's Jean?" Joshua asked, still going through the cabinets.

      "My wife."

      Joshua seems stunned. "Your wife? Is she a..mutant, too?" He seemed to
      have trouble saying the word.

      "Yes," Cyclops replied. "Is that a problem or something?" He smiled to
      take the sting out of it, but he was actually a little annoyed.

      "Well, no � I mean, it's none of my business. I just never thought�"
      Joshua trailed off, floundering for words. "Look, I'm sorry. When I found
      out I was like this, I thought all my chances at a normal life were just..
      gone. I didn't mean anything by it."

      "It's okay," said Cyclops, his voice sliding from irritation to
      reassurance. "Just because we got a little extra roll of the dice in our
      genetics doesn't mean we're not essentially human." He stuck his head back
      in the closet, angling up to see above the doorway from the inside.

      Storm snorted delicately. "It means that men are just as annoying."

      "Right. Funny, I noticed Forge seems to find a need to call up every
      couple of days." Cyclops' voice came hollowly from inside the closet.

      Storm fought the smile, but could not keep the blush from rising in her
      cheeks despite the advantage of darker skin. "What are we, in sixth grade

      "Found it," said Cyclops, in a different tone. His long arms pulled at
      something above the door-frame, and it came loose with a ripping of duct
      tape. He held the bundle out; a gun, a wad of cash, and three passports in
      different sizes all in a large plastic freezer bag. "Falcon never had a
      chance to run. He never suspected anything was wrong until he was already


      The crowd varied widely, from middle-aged men in suits to young women in
      jeans and scanty, midriff baring shirts, older men in white t-shirts and
      the odd housewife in simple dresses. They filled the auditorium in sweaty
      drifts, the air conditioning having long since given out.

      The man at the podium was giving no such signs of giving out, however. His
      shock of white hair quivered with his emphasis, the fire in his eye and
      speech had the rapt attention of almost everyone in the room. They'd been
      listening, enthralled, for quite some time, and like sharks smelling blood,
      they sensed it as he wound his way to a climax.

      "We may be of different colors. We may be of different races. But we are
      HUMANS! We will not lie down before our enemy. We will NOT ALLOW this
      CORRUPTION into our families, our churches, and our schools. We will not
      allow this CONTAMINATION among our women, our children. We will not expose
      our people to this FILTH!"

      Here and there, heads nodded. A breathless 'amen' arose from various
      sources. "We must be VIGILANT. We must root out these abominations where
      they hide, in our communities, in our neighborhoods. The unclean must be
      DRIVEN from us. They must be CLEANSED!"

      The outpouring of rage and indignation spilled out into the crowd and set
      off a wildfire of reaction; the audience surged to their feet, shouting
      incoherently. The white-haired man gripped the edge of the podium and let
      the fervent crowd die down. When the uproar settled, he began again.
      "We are the Champions of Humanity. We will not be defeated. We will not
      be silenced. We will be VICTORIOUS!!"

      Again, the assemblage was on its feet, shouting stridently. A new figure
      joined the speaker on the stage. Dressed in an ill-fitting suit, he
      radiated the quiet presence of a security detail. He leaned into the older
      man and whispered in his ear. "Mr. Pierce, there's a news crew waiting for
      you in the office."

      Franklin Pierce nodded once, then turned back to the crowd, which was
      showing signs of devolving into a mob. And he smiled.

      On a perfect lawn in a cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood, Tommy Robertson
      hugged his kneeling mother for the umpteenth time. Despite the short gray
      fur covering his face, Jubilation Lee and Bobby Drake could read the
      embarrassment of a nine-year-old boy confronted with an emotional mother.

      "I'm sorry, but we really need to be getting on the road," Bobby
      interrupted. "We've got a long drive ahead of us." He took the large
      suitcase and put it in the trunk of their unremarkable rental car. A small
      bicycle was lifted into the trunk as Tommy's father helped in the only way
      he could.

      "You're sure you don't need any money for the trip?" he asked as they shut
      the trunk together.

      Bobby pushed Jubilee towards the open passenger door. "No, everything's
      fine. Whatever you worked out with the Professor is between you and him;
      we're just along to make sure he gets to school safely." He opened the
      rear door of the car, and Tommy took the chance to break away from his
      mother. He gave his dad a quick hug and climbed in, buckling his seatbelt
      as Bobby shut the door for him.

      He waved, Jubilee waved, and his parents waved as Bobby went around to the
      driver's door and climbed in. Tommy's father held his wife as she
      collapsed against his chest, fighting sobs, trying to smile bravely as they
      drove away.

      "Praises be," exhaled Jubilee noisily. She turned to the back, climbed to
      her knees, and fixed Tommy with a stern stare. "Okay, kid, here's the
      rules. No throwing up. No asking 'are we there yet?' No kicking the back
      of the seat. No bathroom breaks unless we say. Or, unless there's
      something really cool to look at, then all bets are off. You like pizza?"

      "Uh, yeah. Sure." A little smile grew as Tommy took in Jubilee's
      rapid-fire change in subject.

      She grinned back, snapping her gum loudly. "Cool. I'm starving."

      "Seatbelt," reminded Bobby patiently as they pulled out of the subdivision.


      The green neon rat blinked energetically as Rogue and Storm wearily
      followed Logan and the other men into the tavern. Now bustling with Friday
      night patrons, it was loud and crowded. Several musicians were preparing
      for a show on the small raised dais at the end of the room. The group
      appropriated a long table to one side of the dance floor and sat down,
      ignored in the general hubbub. Joshua left them, making his way to the
      back of the establishment where the doors read 'EMPLOYEES ONLY' and

      Automatically now, a beer appeared in front of Logan. He grunted in
      appreciation and quickly swept it out of Rogue's reach as she made a grab
      for it, and ignored her protest. "Two shakes," said the waitress in a
      comforting voice, and Rogue nodded, then piled her head on her folded arms.

      "I'm beat," added Storm, and the white streaks on the tabletop nodded in
      agreement before Rogue lifted her head and propped herself on her elbows.

      "That was it, right?" Logan asked, after draining half the mug. "We've
      covered every last one of your people?"

      LeBeau nodded.

      "And all their security checks out?" Scott queried to Wolverine.

      "Yep. Unless they want to start traveling in packs of four or more, which
      is real subtle. No real vulnerabilities."

      LeBeau may not have realized the compliment inherent in Wolverine's words,
      but he shrugged in acknowledgement. "We ain't got enough people to keep up
      with t'ings now. We're hurtin' for reliable help, an' dat's a fact." On
      the stage, a musician dropped a piece of equipment with a loud crash.

      "Well, if we come across any reliable thieves, we'll send them your way,"
      commented Storm tartly. LeBeau grinned at her unrepentantly, and glanced
      through the crowd. In the doorway to the office, Joshua stood holding the
      door open with his shoulder.

      "We're always on the lookout for new talent, chere. Now, if you'll excuse
      me," he said courteously, and rose from his chair, weaving his way through
      the patrons towards his cohort.

      "Storm," said Cyclops, in the same warning voice he'd used on their first
      night in town.

      "What?" she replied, indignant. "They make no apologies for being what
      they are. He's perfectly frank that he's a thief, and proud of it!"

      Surprisingly, Rogue leaned towards her shoulder. "This isn't your little
      band of Cairo pickpockets, 'Ro."

      Storm's fingers began fiddling with each other. "How do you know that?"

      The waitress placed a beer at Rogue's elbow, causing her to pause until a
      small bottle of bourbon and two shot glasses were placed in LeBeau's empty
      place. She thanked the woman, then continued. "No kids. Look around. No
      one's using children against their will here."

      Storm still looked stubborn, but she was obviously thinking about it.

      Logan was thinking too. The beer had nearly slipped out of his fingers when
      he'd registered Rogue's comments. How the hell had Rogue known about
      Storm's past life with a street gang in her native Cairo, where she'd been
      forced to steal every bite of food or other necessity � Okay, stupid, he
      thought to himself. Somewhere along the line, Rogue had sucked up some of
      Storm's memories. For the first time he wondered how many people she had
      in her head by now.

      The two Guild members came back from the back office and settled down on
      the empty chairs. "We have more news," LeBeau began, uneasily. He opened
      the small bottle of whiskey and poured himself a shot.

      "Another one of your people has come up missing?" asked Wolverine sharply.

      "No," Joshua replied. "But we started doing some checking after you got
      here. The Guild has always had a reputation for sheltering mutants, but we
      don't keep tabs on those mutants who didn't apply to us for protection.
      New Orleans is one of those cities where people come and go all the time,
      and we got enough trouble keeping track of our own folk."

      Cyclops' visor glinted as he leaned forward, intent, and Gambit shifted
      uncomfortably in his chair. "We been doin' some asking 'round. Some of
      our group, they got friends who're mutants, but don't have anythin' to do
      with the Guild."

      Scott's head rotated slowly, not wanting to hear this. "More

      "We've compiled a list," Joshua added. "At least ten more have vanished
      from the city in the last three months alone."

      "Shit. You're talking another week of chasing our tails, playing two-bit
      detective," Logan bit out, disgusted. Storm reached for the unused shot
      glass and appropriated the bottle, pouring herself a drink.

      "You're not thinking about quitting, are you?" asked Joshua, alarmed.

      Rogue's gloved hand flitted over Joshua's wrist in a butterfly light pat of
      reassurance. "Don't you worry. What Wolverine lacks in patience, he makes
      up for in stubbornness. But that's almost twenty-five people," she
      continued with concern. "This definitely rules out a serial killer."

      "How can you be sure of that?" Joshua asked her in a low tone. "That's one
      of the things we've been afraid of." He glanced around the room uneasily,
      as though merely saying the words would make it come true.

      "I'm taking some advance coursework in violent criminal psychology," she
      said softly. "Disappearing without a trace requires meticulous planning,
      and that takes time. One person could not have done this in this time
      frame, not and disposed of the bodies."

      "Then maybe we're not dealing with one person," commented Wolverine,
      interrupting their almost intimate discussion. "Maybe they're being taken
      by a black ops group. It wouldn't be the first time."

      "Jean and Xavier have not been able to detect a concentration of mutants,
      except here in this immediate area," offered Scott disconsolately.

      "Given how Falcon was found, I think they're probably all dead." Rogue's
      eyes closed briefly as she made this proclamation, but her voice was steady.

      "Who do you think did this, then?" asked Joshua.

      Remy slid his glass across the table, where Storm filled it with bourbon.
      "We got Friends of Humanity, Humans First -- half a dozen organizations who
      hate mutants."

      "What about Humanity's Champions?" asked Rogue.

      Gambit frowned. "Haven't had a lot o' them 'round here," he said
      thoughtfully. "They're mostly north of here, in Alabama and such."

      "Their bases are north of here," Logan commented. "But that kid was from

      "Maybe they don't want to mess the nest," added Scott.

      "There are a lot of larger groups around here," Joshua objected. "Maybe we
      should start with the biggest and work our way down."

      "That chain had all the markings of H.C." Rogue countered.

      Scott carefully inched his glasses down and rubbed his closed eyes. The
      others caught only a glimpse of his pale eyelids as he eased the glasses
      back into place. "I need a beer."

      "Cyke, that's the first thing you've ever said that made sense," agreed
      Wolverine, waving at the waitress, who immediately headed their way with a
      laden tray. "We're officially off the clock. We need a night off."

      LeBeau threw back his shot and slapped the empty on the table. "Damned
      straight." He shoved his chair back and stood decisively. "Ma chere, s'il
      vous plait?" Rogue stared at his extended hand, surprised, then smiled and
      put her fingers in his. He tugged her to her feet and kissed the tips of
      her leather gloves.

      "I shall return in one short moment, chere," he said with a grin. He made
      his way to the band and spoke urgently in the ear of the closest musician.

      Rogue ran her fingers through her silver locks and shrugged her way out of
      the light jacket. The fabric pulled the long-sleeved shirt with it, baring
      one shoulder and revealing the strap of her close-fitting tank top.

      "Watch yourself," Wolverine growled from his seat. "I don't trust that

      "Excuse me?" Rogue demanded. He glanced up at her, a little surprised at
      her tone of voice, and her temper visibly flared. "What are you afraid of,
      Logan? That he's going to try to steal a kiss? Cop a feel?" She grabbed
      the tails of her shirt, crossing them under her breasts. The neckline
      pulled tight against her arm in a deliberately provocative pose.

      Even Cyclops paused with his beer in mid-air as Rogue stalked towards Logan
      in a hip-popping swagger that instantly drew the eye of every male in the
      immediate vicinity, including Joshua. She leaned over Logan, incidentally
      giving him a view down her cleavage, and said quietly, "Making a pass at
      me would be just like peeing on a cattle prod, remember? Gambit doesn't
      seem to be particularly stupid."

      She turned away and took Gambit's offered hand as the band struck up a
      lively zydeco number.

      Logan's beer landed on the table with a thump. "What'd I say?"

      Scott grinned at his puzzled expression. "She's not seventeen anymore.
      Give her some space."


      "Hey," Rogue said breathlessly as Gambit brought her back to the table.
      She plopped down in the chair he held for her grabbed someone's glass of
      water. "Having fun?"

      Wolverine gave Rogue's flushed cheeks a measured glance. Her mercurial
      temper had apparently subsided, so he took the question at face value and
      accepted the truce that it represented. "Mutant misadventures of the
      teenage variety," he grumbled, jerking a thumb towards Cyclops and Storm,
      who were obviously several drinks into a good time. "If I hear one more
      'remember that time' story I'm gonna lose my lunch."

      She regarded the pair, who were unsuccessfully suppressing a case of the
      giggles. "Remind me to skip that part, when I get old and senile."

      "Hey," protested all three senior X-men at the table.

      Joshua's chair scraped as he stood. "So, are you, uh, all danced out?"

      "I think I've got one or two left," she replied, smiling. Logan looked on
      as the two younger men maneuvered around Rogue. While they neither one
      said a word, the friendly rivalry was evident as Gambit eventually
      relinquished his place and allowed Joshua to have a chance. Instead, the
      Cajun turned to Storm with his usual flourish and held out his hand, daring
      her to turn him down. Speculation and wariness flickered across her face
      before the dark beauty took up the challenge.

      The music had changed to a slower beat as the four of them joined the other
      couples on the floor. After several gingerly steps, their awkwardness
      evaporated and they moved easily to the steel guitar. Beyond Joshua's
      shoulder, Rogue saw Scott leave the table and head for the pool tables at
      the very end of the establishment, nonchalantly picking a cue from the
      rack. The leader of the X-Men was a pool shark, and he had apparently just
      realized he was in a new ocean full of fresh victims.

      "Jubilee calls this 'goat roping' music," Rogue offered, attempting to
      break the ice.


      "A friend of mine."

      "Ah. Is that another one of your code names?" Joshua's mockery was gentled
      with a smile.

      "Something like that. Like 'Gambit' is a normal nickname."

      "Okay," he laughed. "You've got a point. I never use my last name
      anymore; just 'Joshua.' It's easier that way."

      "I know what you mean. So tell me," she began, still chipping at the ice,
      "how does a smooth-talkin' Midwestern boy end up in the Big Easy?" Her
      Southern inflections made a sudden appearance as she teased him.

      "I do NOT have an accent," he protested with a laugh. "All of you do. How
      did I get here?" he mused. "Well, once the army kicked me out, I kinda
      wandered down the East Coast for awhile. I just sorta ended up here."

      "Just like that, huh?"

      "Pretty much." Neither one of them noticed when the music changed again,
      they were completely involved in their conversation, their bodies moving on

      "Didn't you think about getting a job, settling down?"

      "Oh, I thought about it," he replied expansively. "I'm not�" he paused, as
      though embarrassed. "I'm not very good, on my own. I've been in military
      school since I was ten, then I went straight into the army. The lone wolf
      deal just isn't my thing. What?" he laughed at her expression, not
      catching her glance to where Logan sat in solitary splendor nursing his
      beer. "Besides, a dishonorable discharge carries some serious baggage with
      it. When I have to tell some jerk in a suit why I'm out of the military,
      it all goes to crap."

      "And you couldn't go back to your family?"

      It was a long moment before Joshua answered her question. "My father is
      very old fashioned� You can't imagine what his reaction was when he found
      out I was a mutant."

      "Try me," commented Rogue quietly, and Joshua seemed to remember she was a
      mutant as well. He didn't say anything further, but pulled her closer as
      they mutely shared their pain.


      Bobby let himself into the motel room. Instantly, two missiles impacted
      his chest and arm, splashing him liberally with water as the balloons
      burst. From their vantage point between the beds, Jubilee and Tommy

      "God dammit, Jubilee!" hissed Bobby, dropping the vending machine snacks on
      the standard issue dresser and peering back out the door. "We've got

      "What kind?" she scrambled to her feet and joined him as he peered out the
      door. Only the row of numbered doors greeted her, and cars parked here and
      there in the gravel lot. Their own rental car was parked several doors
      down, following Logan's drilled-in instructions to never park in front of
      your own motel room.

      "I had to go to the vending machine near the office - I saw two cars pull
      in and about seven goons go in there. Two guesses what they're after."

      "If someone was watching the kid's house when we picked him up, they saw
      our plates. Could our credit card have been traced from the rental?"

      "Maybe." Bobby swiftly began pulling all their belongings and dumping them
      unceremoniously into their duffel bags. "We make a stand here, and take
      out enough that they don't chase us. Got it?"

      "Got it." Jubilee went to the suddenly quiet Tommy and took a gentle hold
      on his shoulders. "Things are gonna get a little exciting, squirt. I want
      you to hide, right here," and she steered him back to the space between the
      beds. "If I tell you to run, you run. If I tell you to get in the car,
      you get in the car as fast as you can." She gave him a reassuring grin.
      "I promise I'm not going to let anyone hurt you. Do you believe me?"

      His gray face screwed up, but he nodded. Bobby dropped the bags next to
      the boy, creating a flimsy barricade. Jubilee pushed him down to a crouch.

      "You keep an eye on our luggage, 'kay? I paid a fortune for those clothes
      in there." The feeble joke earned her an equally feeble smile in return,
      but it was the best she was getting. The phone on the night table between
      the beds rang, startling her. She picked it up quickly.

      "Yeah," she said into the receiver, and listened for a moment. "Thanks.
      Appreciate the warning." She hung it up and joined Bobby at the door.
      "They're on their way," she added, unnecessarily.

      "Nice of him to warn us. Think he'll call the cops?"

      "Think they'd come?" she countered, shaking her hands, then clenching them
      rapidly into fists. "You gonna ice the ground?"

      "I always ice the ground when we're outnumbered," he protested.

      "Yeah, and I always fall on my ass," she retorted, peering through the


      The music had changed again to a slow tune. The vocalist gave way to the
      harmonica and the guitar, giving every couple on the floor and excuse to
      snuggle even tighter to their partner. Joshua looked down on Rogue's head,
      and was caught unaware as she glanced up at his face. Slightly, flustered,
      he grasped for something else to say.

      "So. You ever talk to your parents?"

      One shoulder shrugged. "I send 'em a letter, once or twice a year. Let
      them know I'm alive, that I've found a place to belong. I use a mail
      service that will forward anything they send to the return address, but so
      far they've never sent anything back."

      "Do you belong - where you are?" he asked. At her arch expression, he
      laughed again. "I know, I know. Up north. Part of that whole 'code name'

      The laughter seeped away from his face, leaving only a trace of pain, and
      Rogue pulled back further to look at him. "How about you?"

      His mouth twisted. "The last time I saw my father, he threw a bible at me
      and told me I was born sinful from the time my mother conceived me."

      "But I shall be cleansed with hyssop, and be whiter than snow," Rogue
      countered with a smile.

      Joshua's double-take was classic. You know it?"

      She chuckled slightly. "I grew up down here. Of course I know my Bible.
      It's from Psalms, right?

      Utterly dumbfounded, Joshua stared at her. "Do you believe in God, Rogue?
      Truly believe?"

      Rogue hesitated. "I don't believe the way I used to." Her gloved hands
      slid down to his biceps as she sensed his turmoil. "I do believe what they
      used to tell us in Sunday school. God made us the way we are. And if he
      made me a mutant, then he must have had a reason. Some days, that's all I
      can hold onto."

      He snorted, and she couldn't help but be glad of the lightening of his
      mood. "You are amazing, you know that?"

      Rogue was suddenly aware that they'd stopped moving to the music. Joshua's
      hands were warm around her waist, and he was pulling her closer. His blue
      eyes were full of promise, and longing. His mouth dipped in closer.

      "Don't!" She abruptly pushed away from him. His head snapped up,
      confusion fading into anger.

      "What? I thought� I thought you wanted this." His fingers tightened
      painfully on her hips.

      "Joshua, you're hurting me." He released her and her hands slid down to
      his chest. "I can't touch you, Joshua. I can't. I could kill you." She
      could feel his heart hammering under her palms. "I can't touch anyone."

      "Ever?" He paused, considering. "You're serious, aren't you." His voice
      was flat.

      She nodded. "My mutation is my skin. It absorbs life-energy, and I can't
      control it. The last person who touched me almost died."

      He continued to stare at her, shock and several other emotions, chiefly
      revulsion, warred across his face.

      "I'm sorry, Joshua." Resigned, Rogue took a single step backwards as the
      music started up again, another slow tune. She turned away, but his hand
      reached out and seized hers, keeping her from going. His long, strong
      fingers ran over her gloved knuckles, then turned it over and opened her
      palm. He stared at the leather-covered hand, then raised it to his lips
      and kissed it softly, his eyes glancing up to check her reaction.

      Gingerly, he pulled her closer to his body and began moving gently to the
      music. Just as carefully, Rogue leaned into his strength, until her head
      came to rest on his broad chest.

      At the table, Logan watched the couple dancing, Joshua's hand still cupping
      hers to his chest, then turned and ordered another beer.


      "I know your time is valuable, but we were hoping you could take a minute
      to answer a few questions for us." Joshua's tone was even and polite, as
      was his expression, but the burly man he addressed was having trouble
      forming a coherent answer. This was partly due to the fact that his feet
      were dangling several inches off the floor as the younger man held him
      effortlessly in the air.

      "He could probably talk better if he could breathe," Rogue said mildly.

      The floor was once again under the pudgy man's feet as Joshua set him down.
      His greasy black hair hung in tangled strings across his white, sweaty
      forehead as he took in the blond, the brunette with white streaks, and the
      silent, menacing man behind her. One of his mechanics goggled at them from
      across the maintenance bay, but didn't move from under Wolverine's stare.

      Motorcycles in various stages of repair lay around the garage. 'Bob's
      Cycles' looked chaotic, but experience told Wolverine that this was a place
      to consider for future work on his own beloved machine. If they let 'Bob'
      live, of course.

      "What do you want?" Bob demanded asked shakily.

      "You had a woman who worked for you, keeping the books, ordering parts,"
      Rogue stated. "What happened to her?"

      "I don't know," sneered the man. His feet left the ground again. "Swear
      to God, I don't know! She was here on a Friday, she didn't show up Monday.
      Never even came by to get her check. I tried to call her, but didn't get
      an answer!" His feet touched the ground again.

      "I even went by her place, but I never saw her again." He shoved
      ineffectually at Joshua's hand, still clenched in his Harley Davidson
      t-shirt and ragged leather vest. "Hey, I liked Monica. She did a good
      job, came to work on time." His eyes flicked to the skinny young woman
      behind the glass partition of the garage, who sat with her feet up on the
      desk, painting her nails. "I'm having a hell of a time replacing her."

      "And it didn't bother you that she was a mutant," growled Wolverine.

      "Hell, no. At least she wasn't out hugging trees and badgering me about
      the ozone layer. I can't tell you how many customers I've lost since I
      hired that one." He grimaced in disgust at the secretary in his office.

      The three exchanged looks.

      "Well, thanks anyway," Logan muttered over his shoulder as they left.

      "Yeah, you're welcome," came the snide response, as he tried to brush the
      creases from his disarrayed clothing. "Hey," he called out. The three
      paused, and the man shifted uncomfortably. "If you find Monica, tell her
      she's always got a job here. If she wants it."

      "Thank you. We'll tell her, if we find her." Rogue answered.


      Author's Note:
      Psalm 51, verse 5 - Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my
      mother conceived me.
      Psalm 51, verse 7 - Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me,
      and I will be whiter than snow. (NIV translation)
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