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X-cursions, part 4/5

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  • Rhonda Amos
    Rogue and Joshua walked down the sidewalk in the late afternoon, blending with the tourists and other shoppers in the open-air market. One of the largest in
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 21, 2001
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      Rogue and Joshua walked down the sidewalk in the late afternoon, blending
      with the tourists and other shoppers in the open-air market. One of the
      largest in the country, the booths occupied several football fields' worth
      of space. Everything and anything could be bought or sold, and often were,
      from cheap clothing to exquisite jewelry, antiques to the latest knock-offs
      of designer accessories.

      Rogue flapped the open neck of her shirt, long-sleeved as usual, and pulled
      her hair off her neck. The dark leather jacket slung over her arm made it
      awkward to juggle the salt encrusted soft pretzel and the bottle of water
      she carried, until Joshua took it from her.

      "Thanks. Does it ever cool off down here?" she demanded in a mock-growl.

      Joshua grinned. "Eventually. January and February are fairly nippy."

      'Does the cold bother you? I mean, you're invulnerable, right?"

      "Well, yeah, to bullets and knives and stuff. But I still feel the cold.
      Not that I've tested, to see if I'd freeze to death or anything."

      "Hmm. You probably should. You know, like, in a walk-in freezer. You
      don't want to find the limits of your powers the hard way."

      "Is that what you people do? Test yourselves?"

      Rogue shrugged one shoulder. "We do some research, to see how capable we
      are," she answered guardedly. "It wouldn't be great for Cyke to be in the
      middle of a fight and discover he's only good for a dozen blasts or so."

      "Have you found your limits?" he asked, curious.

      She shook her head. "Nah. It would be different if I had a useful
      mutation. My ability is fairly useless. Not to mention dangerous."

      "Right. Like any of our mutations are worth squat." The bitter tone in
      Joshua's voice surprised Rogue.

      "Hey, c'mon. Invulnerable -- and you're strong. Gotta be a cage out
      there somewhere with your name on it." Joshua looked at her, startled, and
      she managed to drag her impish expression back into a serious mode.
      "Anyway, you can fly, too. That alone has got to be cool."

      Joshua snorted. "Yeah, me and Falcon. We made great second-story men.
      And let's not forget the ability to pick up or drop merchandise anywhere,
      any time."

      "Well, okay. Actually, I was thinking about aerial reconnaissance."

      "Now you sound like your friend Wolverine," he said with a laugh.

      Rogue grinned. "He kinda rubs off on ya. But, come on. Flying has got to
      be wonderful. No matter what you do with it." She flipped the last of her
      soft pretzel at the pigeons strutting along the street. "I kinda envy you
      that."

      "It doesn't bother you, what I do?" The odd note in his voice made her
      look up at him.

      His earnest blue-gray eyes were troubled, and she gave the question sincere
      consideration before she answered. "No. I may not agree with what you do,
      but I don't condemn you, either. I've done things I'm not proud of. When
      I ran away from home, I was on my own for nearly a year. Some of the
      things I did to survive� they were wrong." He frowned, but let her
      continue. "It's not my place, and it's not my right to judge you, Joshua.
      Maybe it's not your place to judge yourself, either."

      "I could have done a lot of things besides becoming a thief, Rogue."

      "Maybe. Maybe not. In Philadelphia, there's an enclave of mutants who
      survive by panhandling. IF I had to make a choice between begging and
      stealing, I can't say which I'd choose. I'm just glad I don't have to."

      He snorted, almost amused.

      "Maybe you shouldn't take yourself so seriously," she teased. "You never
      know what's gonna change your life tomorrow."

      "No. You don't." His long fingered hand caught one of the blowing strands
      of silver, and Rogue held perfectly still as he gingerly tucked it back
      behind her ear. "You never know."

      Abruptly he straightened, as though remembering something. "Look, I've got
      to be getting back. I'll walk you home, okay?"

      Rogue smiled. "That's be fine."


      **********

      Under the ornate iron balcony railing, the door to the Thieves' Guild safe
      house was depressingly plain and reassuringly thick. It banged shut behind
      Wolverine as he entered the small apartment the four of them had been
      calling home for over two weeks. The building was built along traditional
      lines for the French Quarter - wooden floors, tall ceilings, and long,
      narrow rooms. The main room had a now-defunct fireplace, boarded up with
      plywood and painted over with the same paint as the walls.

      Ororo held up cautioning hand for quiet, her attention on the small black
      laptop computer that graced the rickety wooden table. Part of the room's
      spare furnishings, the wooden surface was barely big enough for two people
      to sit at either end and eat a meal, but Scott and Ororo huddled together
      along one edge.

      One eyebrow went high on Logan's forehead as Scott started talking to the
      small screen, until he remembered the latest craze among the computer users
      in the mansion. He gave Xavier and Jean's separate grainy images a sparse
      wave of his hand as he passed.

      "Where's Rogue?" Storm asked.

      "With Joshua," he replied shortly, heading into one of the two bedrooms.
      Jerking the duffel out from under the crisply made bed, Logan stripped off
      his sweat marked tee-shirt and grabbed a fresh one from the bag. The
      discarded shirt was stuffed in at one end. Laundry had never been one of
      Logan's strong points. His movements paused momentarily as his sensitive
      ears picked up Xavier's voice, oddly tinny over the speaker and phone line.

      "Bobby and Jubilee had a very close call on their way home."

      "Are they alright?" came Ororo's softer voice.

      "They're fine." Jean's voice this time. "They pulled their usual flash
      and freeze routine. The manager called the police, but the owner of the
      motel won't press any charges against the men who attacked and caused the
      damage. Fortunately, our two were long gone by then."

      "And the boy is safe?" confirmed Scott.

      "Yes, he's fine," Jean replied. "He's settling in well."

      Wolverine zipped the duffel with his usual physical economy and slid it
      back under the narrow iron bed. Cyclops' bag lay on own bed, freshly
      folded clothes laid out in typical orderly Cyclops fashion.

      "How's the Sentinal fight coming?" queried Scott.

      "Difficult," sighed the Professor. "Every single incident of mutant
      violence is being paraded in its glory before the committee, not to mention
      the cost of repairing a certain national monument." The amusement in
      Xavier's voice was echoed by a twitch in the corner of Wolverine's mouth as
      he flipped the clean shirt over his shoulder and headed for the small
      bathroom.

      Logan would have laid money that the hardware in the tiny lavatory was
      original to the building. A huge cast-iron tub dominated one end of the
      little space. Like the sink, it was equipped with depressingly tarnished
      iron fixtures which left rust-stains down the porcelain.

      "My greatest concern, at this moment, however, is something I've learned
      just this morning. One of my sources in the Central Intelligence Agency
      has warned me that a research file has been illegally copied.

      "What kind of research?" Storm again.

      "Essentially, it's an encyclopedia of release methods for chemical and
      biological warfare, including aerial and water supply contamination. Their
      technicians have traced the download and have verified that the information
      was loaded onto a standard disk, but whoever did it used an anonymous
      identification to access the network. They're currently investigating all
      those who had clearance for that information, but unfortunately the list of
      possible terrorists have mutants at the top and anti-mutants at the bottom."

      Scott snorted. "Figures."

      "Be alert, and be careful," admonished Jean. "Pyro and Shadowcat will be
      on standby status."

      In the bathroom, Logan splashed his face quickly and turned off the water,
      reaching for the threadbare towel. He could hear Cyclops' voice again, and
      the cracked mirror threw Logan's ferocious, startled expression back to him
      as his head came up sharply.

      "� and I think he could be a great addition. You might also talk to Rogue
      about him, too. She� seems to be getting to know him."

      "Indeed," replied Xavier smoothly, choosing to overlook Scott's
      good-natured smirk.

      "I'll invite him to come and meet with you, once we're finished down here."

      "Very well, then," finished Xavier with a nod, and broke the connection.

      Clean-up forgotten, Wolverine strode quickly into the main room as Cyclops
      closed the laptop. "Talk to Rogue about what?" he demanded suspiciously.

      Scott pinned him with a red glare before answering him with a guarded tone.
      "Ask her what she thinks about Joshua. I think the Professor would like to
      know her opinion as well."

      "What the hell for?" Logan demanded.

      Storm answered him, attempting to defuse the sudden tension between Logan
      and Scott. "Charles usually likes to meet potential candidates before we
      make any move to recruit them."

      "Recruit him? For the team?" Logan shook his head. "No way. Absolutely
      not."

      Cyclops stood slowly. "And what makes you think you've got anything to say
      about it?"

      Logan's long arm waved expansively. "You don't know this guy - you don't
      know anything about him! How the hell can you consider opening up the
      operation to someone like..."

      "Someone we don't know -- like you?" Scott challenged. "As I recall,
      you'd graced us with your presence less than a week before you got an
      invitation! And Joshua's got a hell of a lot more to offer than you did!"

      "You don't know if that kid can fight his way out of a paper bag! All you
      see is a Scooter clone who'll take your orders and believe the sun shines
      out of your ass! Xavier at least had the sense to dig through my head
      before he tried to talk me into joining up with you. Maybe we outta see if
      the big boy scout's got any dirt in his drawers before we give him the keys
      to the house!"

      "I believe that's what I just suggested, Wolverine. This conversation is
      over." Cool contempt rolled off Scott as he passed Logan, deliberately
      shouldering him to one side. The emphasis on his code name had been a
      deliberate reminder of who was in charge.

      Logan, seething, let him pass without ripping his arm off. Snot-nosed
      sonovabitch with his perfect teeth. He noticed Ororo staring at him with
      disdain.

      "What?" he snapped.

      "You are such a bastard." 'Ro's careful English accents had turned clipped
      and short with anger. Logan rolled his eyes. He did not need this right
      now. Apparently Ororo thought he did. "You really don't care about anyone
      but yourself, do you?"

      That got his wary attention. "What the HELL are you talking about?"

      "You're jealous."

      "Don' be ridiculous!" he sneered.

      "Admit it! Rogue had it bad for you when she was seventeen. Well, she's
      not seventeen any more."

      "Of all the stupid conclusions to jump on, 'Ro, that's gotta be stretching
      it!"

      "She's got a man who's interested in her. Two, actually, not that she'd
      take Gambit seriously. And you cannot stomach it!"

      "I am not in love with Rogue!" he shouted.

      "No, you're not! And as far as I'm concerned, that just makes you even
      more selfish!" she shouted back. "You waltz in and out of her life like a
      damned stray dog, and now that another man has her attention, you can't
      stand the idea that you're not the center of her universe any more!"

      Logan was suddenly clenching his forgotten shirt in his fist, his body
      bristling with rage. "You're full of shit, Storm. You always have been,
      and you still are."

      He turned his back and slammed out of the apartment, yanking on the shirt,
      shower forgotten, and cussing under his breath while he wished for a beer.
      The tavern beckoned to him and his boots made satisfying thunks as he
      stomped across the street.

      Out of nowhere, a familiar scent caught his attention. Shit. He stopped
      in the middle of the street. Shit,shit,shit.

      "How long have you been standing there?"

      "Long enough." Rogue shifted slightly, but did not move from where she
      stood, leaning against the grimy brick wall, her arms crossed. The late
      afternoon sun highlighted the pure white strands of hair around her face,
      making them glow silver. The charcoal colored leather of her jacket
      blended down into the black of her jeans, and with every other inch of her
      skin covered, the eye automatically gravitated to her face. Framed by the
      rich brown and streaks of white, the lack of expression there conveyed as
      much to him as her normal animated features, and it gave him pause.

      Logan wanted to cuss, throw something, or get a beer. Instead he put his
      hands in his pockets and tried to rein in his temper. "I'm sorry." He'd
      always had a hard time saying those words, and this time wasn't any easier.
      "We had no right.."

      "It's okay," she interrupted.

      He took a step closer to her, swallowing hard and trying to find the words
      to get through to her. "Storm is right, in a way," he admitted. "Because
      you saved me, Rogue." Her eyes flickered away, then back to him. Logan
      took a deep breath. Honestly expressing himself was not something he was
      good at. "Before I met you, I just didn't care. About anything. I was
      just kinda existing in a haze of anger." He took another step. "Then I
      met this kid. And for some reason she got to me. Made me start thinking
      again." He hesitated. "Living again.

      "I told her I'd take care of her, and then did a piss-poor job of it."
      Rogue stood just outside of arm's reach and he paused again, not sure how
      to say the rest of it. "And now, she's all grown up and she doesn't need
      me. I'm not sure she ever did, but she sure doesn't now. And I don't know
      where that leaves me."

      The silence between them stretched out as she studied his face, looking for
      something. When she spoke, her voice was so soft even he could barely hear
      it. "Everyone needs a friend, Logan." The light accent was back, always a
      sure indicator of her emotions. "Ah'll always need a friend."

      Logan held out his hand. Slowly, she put her gloved hand in his, and he
      squeezed it tight. "Yeah, well. C'mon. I need a beer." She finally
      smiled at him, and he hauled her off the wall, putting an arm around her
      shoulders. Her arm went around his waist, and together they crossed the
      barren street to the tavern.

      The place was slowly filling with patrons, but Logan ignored their usual
      table and found a pair of stools at the bar. He lit a cigar and shoved
      some cash at the bartender when two glass mugs appeared in front of them.

      "Cheers," he said, lifting his mug to her and downing half of it
      gratefully. Rogue took a sip of hers and made a face.

      "You know, I never really like beer unless I'm mad about something."
      Something in the amused tone caught his attention.

      "And that's my fault?" he asked, mumbling around a new cigar as he lit it
      with a silver lighter.

      "Yeah. You're still hanging around."

      Logan looked at the white streaked top of her head. "Do you still feel me�
      in your head?"

      Rogue shrugged, and reached out and took the cigar, puffed it a few times,
      then handed it back.
      "It's kinda like a bad habit, you know? Every now and then it just pops
      out. Wanting a beer, Storm's claustrophobia." She took a drink and snuck
      a glance at him. "I've had nightmares of watching my mother being dragged
      to the gas chambers in Poland. I aced European History, thanks to Eric -
      Magneto," she clarified. "My professor still gave me a B 'cause he was
      sure I was cheating and couldn't catch me." The amused glint was back in
      her eye. "And I never had the heart to tell Jean one of the main reasons
      you hit on her is 'cause you've got an incredible thing for redheads."

      Logan groaned and pounded his head on the bar once, then tossed down the
      rest of the beer.
      The bartender replaced it without a word while Rogue chuckled.

      Five beers to her two later, he finally got around to asking her. "So.
      You and Joshua."

      She quirked an eyebrow at him, another habit she must have picked up from
      his bad influence.

      "There is no 'me and Joshua," she explained patiently. "There's me, and
      there's Joshua."

      "You seemed pretty cozy the other night," he muttered into his beer.

      "It's called dancing, Logan. Okay," she confessed with a huff, "I like
      him. Something about him seems so wonderful� and he gets points for not
      totally spazzing on the whole skin issue. But don't be passing out any
      cigars or nothin'."

      He quirked his eyebrow right back at her. "Did I miss something?" She
      gave him an exasperated look.

      "Yeah, right. Like any man in his right mind is gonna want to keep going
      out with a girl who can't touch him."

      "That's the thing, darlin'. The right gal comes along, and men just lose
      that objective thought process." She snorted at his comic leer and leaned
      towards him.

      "Uh-huh. But when the brain loses all that blood, it goes somewhere else.
      And that's where the problem comes up. So to speak." Amusement tugged at
      the corner of her mouth, and he had no doubt what she was talking about.

      "C'mon. You're smart. Surely you could get, you know, creative or
      something." Dammit, his face was getting red. Time for another beer.

      Rogue shook her head, then leaned in even closer, whispering in his ear.
      "Alright, the thing is - with those flimsy silk scarves and heavy
      breathing? - you can actually inhale those suckers at the wrong moment.
      Really kills the mood."

      "OKAY, this is a conversation I do NOT want to have," Logan interrupted,
      laughing in embarrassment.

      "Hey, you brought it up! How can you be embarrassed? ANYONE who did the
      bunny hop at Jean and Scott's wedding has no right to�"

      "I NEVER did the bunny hop!" he roared, nearly choking on a mouthful of
      beer.

      "Do you have any idea how drunk you got that night?" she challenged.

      "No way," he insisted, waving one hand. "I don't care if I got blind
      staggering pissed, I'd have been catatonic before I'd do anything that
      stupid."

      Rogue eyed him over the rim of her mug, mischief sparkling in her chocolate
      brown eyes.

      "Liar," he accused. She only grinned at him. "Alright, you wanna play
      that?" He pulled at the last of his cigar, then stubbed it out in the
      ashtray and grabbed her arm, hauling her towards him. His other found her
      waist and began digging into her ribs. "Fess up. C'mon, tell the truth! I
      - never - did - the - bunny - hop. Say it!"

      Rogue shrieked and giggled at the same time, twisting to avoid his fingers.
      "Uncle," she finally gasped. "Alright, I give! It was Jubilee! You
      wouldn't dance with her, you said you'd rather eat glass than dance the
      bunny hop! Then I had to take your drink away from you, 'cause you tried
      it!"

      With smug satisfaction, he released her and helped her back on the
      barstool, ignoring the whack she gave him. "Told ya."

      "Yeah, you're so smart," Rogue flipped back. "You know, she thinks you're
      cute."

      "Who?" he asked, completely mystified.

      "Jubilee, dummy."

      He thought about it for a second. "Jubilee scares me," he replied,
      honestly. Rogue laughed, to his chagrin. "She's got more energy than any
      three people deserve. I swear, it's gotta be a part of her powers or
      something. She could take the ninth fleet on maneuvers and wear them out."

      "Combat or sex?" Rogue asked brightly.

      Logan paused. "Pick one," he finally replied.

      An easy calm settled between them as he commandeered a bowl of pretzels,
      until she sighed and he noticed her pensive expression. "What?"

      "Logan, do you ever think about God?" she asked, toying with the rim of her
      mug. "About why we're what we are?"

      He shrugged uncomfortably. "Not really. Why?"

      Her hair danced as she shook her head. "Just something we were talking
      about the other night. About God. Prayer. The whole 'meaning of life'
      bit."

      He was quiet for several long moments, and finally answered her. "I've
      only ever prayed once, that I know of." He glanced at her. "You lived.
      So� I don't really want to press my luck."

      Rogue favored him with one of her slow, heartbreaking smiles, knowing he
      was thinking of the top of the Statue of Liberty.

      "We've got trouble," Gambit said shortly, appearing between them at the
      bar. "Two of my people were moving a shipment. They're overdue."

      "Were they mutants?" asked Rogue.

      Remy shook his head. "No. But I'm not taking any chances. I want them
      found."

      Without a word, Logan and Rogue slid off their barstools and headed for the
      door, Gambit leading the way.

      "Shouldn't we tell Cyclops�" she began.

      "Screw 'im," growled Logan over his shoulder. "We'll call for backup if we
      need it."

      **********

      The sun had set fully by the time Gambit drove them to a dockside
      warehouse. The tall buildings were clad with rusty, corrugated iron over
      old wooden timbers. The cool breeze blowing in from the Gulf was almost
      strong enough to cover the stench of dead fish and diesel fuel from the
      trucks and forklifts that ran during the day.

      "Tig and Al received a shipment an hour ago. The supplier swears he left
      them here with the goods. They checked in when the package arrived, but
      when I called them back a couple o' minutes later, Tig didn't answer his
      phone."

      "Wasn't a package of computer CD's, was it?" Wolverine asked absently as
      they slipped in through the tall doors. Rows of anonymous wooden and
      cardboard boxes lined the floor. Stacks of pallets towered above them,
      creating a landscape of mountains and valleys.

      "What?" Rogue and Gambit asked in unison.

      "Tell you later." Wolverine's hand came up in a warning gesture, and LeBeau
      looked on, puzzled, as Logan sniffed the air. "What're you doin', homme?"
      he asked, only to be shushed by both of them this time. Abruptly Logan
      dropped beside a large drift of pallets. The other two immediately copied
      his move.

      "Sabretooth," he said simply.

      Rogue automatically tuned her head from side to side, checking for any
      sight of the big mutant, and for possible drafts that might carry scent.
      The air was relatively still, and she followed Logan's stealthy advance to
      the back end of the warehouse.

      Crouching behind another series of cartons, they peered around the edge to
      see Sabretooth ripping open a small wooden box. White packing peanuts
      cascaded as objects were plucked out, cursorily examined, and tossed to one
      side.

      The contents of other boxes were strewn about in haphazard fashion. In
      fact, the place looked like an upscale if disorganized tag sale; however,
      the bargain basement prices were more likely to net a five to ten year
      prison sentence.

      "Oh, no. That was a Benton," Rogue breathed as a middling sized painting
      went sliding across the floor. Gambit and Wolverine gave her identical
      looks, which she returned with exasperation.

      "Wonder what that overgrown cockroach is doing here," mused Wolverine,
      returning to his surveillance. "Magneto's still locked up, so he can't be
      working for him."

      "You know this chat grande?"

      "Oh, yeah. We've danced a couple of times. He's as tough as he is ugly.
      Whatever you do, stay downwind of him until you make your move." Logan
      lowered his head closer to Gambit. "You can fight, right?"

      The thief's face was blank, his scarlet eyes flat and dark as he replied.
      "I grew up on the streets, monsieur. Remy can handle himself." Nimble
      fingers fished inside his leather jacket. "And I always got dese." A
      handful of playing cards spread wide under Logan's puzzled frown, then
      quickly disappeared back into the pocket in the front of his coat.

      Logan grunted, then looked over at Rogue. Her chocolate eyes were wide,
      and he could see the wary tension in her frame. He knew Sabretooth was one
      of her least favorite people, if only because he'd been so nearly
      successful in helping Magneto kill her years before. "I want you to stay
      here."

      "Now wait just one minute," she protested. "I can handle..."

      "Against any other psychopath, maybe," he interrupted her. "You're stayin'
      put. If things go south, get out and call Cyke."

      "Mebbe we make him into a rug for jus' you an' me, chere." Gambit grinned
      outrageously, his implication clear.

      Logan huffed in exasperation. "C'mon, Gumbo."

      The two men left in opposite directions, leaving Rogue crouched alone.
      They scuttled closer, to where they could hear the huge blond mutant
      muttering to himself as he sorted out his twice-ill-gotten goods.
      Unfortunately, Victor Creed had senses as good as Wolverine's, and the big
      man whirled at the faintest brush of fabric against wood.

      "Wolverine," he growled as Logan stepped out into view. Creed's stance
      slid wide as he flexed his talon-tipped fingers. Big enough to hold a
      basketball and strong enough to puncture it easily, Logan had a healthy
      respect of Sabretooth's long reach. Unfortunately, he had very little
      respect for the man himself.

      "Here, pussy, pussy, pussy," Logan taunted. A rumbling growl greeted his
      taunt, but their meetings had a ritual to them, and it wasn't time to
      attack yet. "What would Mags say if he knew you were down here killing
      mutants?"

      "What are you talking about, runt?" Creed snarled. "I ain't killed anybody
      in this town, yet. Hell, even those two are still kickin.'" A casual wave
      towards the corner revealed two sets of feet sticking out from a large
      packing crate, their crumpled owners unconscious or possibly dead. "Well,
      kinda," he amended, noting their stillness.

      "So you haven't taken any mutants to join your little pansy-ass
      Brotherhood? A little 'join or die' action? 'Course, last time it was
      more of a 'join and die,' wasn't it?"

      "Five years, little man," Creed sneered. "Get over it."

      Anyone who knew Wolverine would have recognized the signs of his
      always-tentative hold on his temper giving way. All six claws sprang from
      between his knuckles with a metallic rasp. "Just getting started,
      hairball."

      With identical roars, the two men threw themselves at each other, slashing,
      kicking, the wooden floor of the old warehouse vibrating as Wolverine was
      slammed to the ground, only to roll instantly and spring back into Creed's
      chest, his teeth clenched in a grimace of rage and determination.

      Skirting the battling pair carefully, Gambit slid to the packing crate and
      checked the pulses of his men. One twitched slightly as he touched his
      neck, and he breathed a slight sigh of relief. He peered back at the
      combatants, wincing in sympathy as Logan's claws missed a swipe and
      imbedded themselves in a metal support post. In the split second it took
      to yank them free, Creed hammered him twice in the kidneys. Logan ducked
      away in the next instant, spinning out of the way, only to spin back in a
      high kick that caught Creed in the face. Creed kicked back, catching Logan
      high in the inner thigh from behind and knocking him off balance, sending
      him tumbling across the floor towards Gambit.

      Time to join the game, he thought to himself, rising from his crouch and
      retrieving his Bo stick from its place. His other hand fished out several
      cards from the specially sewn pocket.

      Creed paused. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded.

      "Name's Gambit," he said with a nod. "Wanna play cards?" The edges of the
      first card rippled with scarlet light, which abruptly coalesced into the
      center with a blinding intensity. A flick of his wrist spun the card into
      Creed's chest.

      With a deafening blast it detonated, knocking Creed stumbling back. Two
      more followed with quick succession, keeping him off balance. On the
      floor, Wolverine frowned up in grudging admiration at the concussive force
      of Gambit's talent. The Bo stick was abruptly planted in the wooden
      flooring by his waist as Gambit vaulted over the top of him. Both boots
      nailed Creed in the face.

      Creed snarled ineffectually as he was driven back another step, the
      confusing whirl of Gambit's stick leaping out to slam him on one temple,
      then the other in quick succession. He blocked the next, bringing the
      whirling to an abrupt halt as he grabbed the weapon. Hauling both it and
      its owner over his shoulder, he sent them sailing with tremendous force
      into a stack of cardboard boxes against the wall.

      Wolverine stabbed him with his claws, eliciting a roar of pain from Creed.
      His other set of claws was grabbed in a massive hand as he tried to drive
      them home. The first set were yanked out, and Wolverine knew instantly it
      had been a mistake to let Creed get control of both his hands. Creed
      yanked his arms out, then down, his longer reach giving him the advantage
      as he drove his knee into Logan's gut, two, three times.

      Logan coughed, breathless, as the air was driven from his lungs. If not
      for his reinforced bones, his ribcage would have been crushed under the
      force of Sabretooth's blows. One huge, meaty hand found its way around his
      neck, squeezing, and he grabbed the hand with both of his, his own claws
      jutting up dangerously close to their faces as Sabretooth throttled him.
      He flailed one set at Creed's other hand, then stabbed up into the man's
      biceps. Creed dropped him with a curse, kicking at him as he rolled clear.


      Not clear enough, though. Creed kicked again, catching Logan in the solar
      plexus and flipping him over once more and sending him skidding several
      more feet. With a pounce, absurdly quick for such a big man, Creed planted
      his knee in the small of Logan's back, one of his big feet crushing Logan's
      clawed hand into the floor. Logan got his other arm under him, but not
      before those hands again found their way around his neck and began
      squeezing.

      His one free arm was not strong enough to flip both his and Creed's weight,
      and try as he might, he could not pry the fingers loose from around his
      throat. He looked around desperately for Gambit, but the Cajun was on his
      back in the crushed boxes, one hand moving feebly as he fought for
      consciousness.

      Logan's face began to turn dark red, and he rolled his eyes desperately,
      seeking Rogue's hiding place. "Run," he tried to mouth, unable to see her.
      Perhaps she'd already taken off. Then, from the corner of his eye, he
      caught sight of a tiny scrap of fabric that made his hammering heart
      freeze.

      A single glove lay crumpled on the wooden floor.

      Heedless of the blood dripping from him as Sabretooth's talons dug into his
      neck, he managed to vocalize a choked "NO!" Only the fact that his eyes
      were starting to roll back in his head let him catch the flicker of
      movement as Rogue charged the short packing crate in front of the embattled
      pair. She launched herself up and over, her hands outstretched to grab.
      Her bare hands.

      The big mutant rose to catch her, dropping Wolverine automatically as he
      reacted to this new threat. He caught her around the body, pinning her
      against his chest. Her body mass knocked Creed backwards, forcing him to
      stumble to keep his footing. Rogue's hands braced themselves against his
      face, fending off his open fangs as he roared. One big hand grabbed at her
      wrist, prying it away from his eye just as her mutation kicked in.

      Another roar came from his chest as he staggered, his face going gray.
      Long blond hair tangled with hers in a parody of a lover's embrace as he
      collapsed to his knees. His black eyes, for once open wide in pain and
      shock, stared into hers as she rode him to the ground, still clasped
      tightly to his body. A third roar came weakly from his chest, echoed by
      Rogue's scream.

      Wolverine forced himself to hands and knees as his neck healed and allowed
      him to draw a rattling breath. He could only watch as Sabretooth slowly
      collapsed to his back, taking Rogue with him. She straddled his huge
      chest, her hands finally yanked free and planted on either side of Creed's
      head. Her hair hung down in a tangled curtain of brown and platinum,
      shrouding her face. He could hear her gasping breath as her shoulders
      heaved.

      Gambit managed to sit up in time to see Logan make it to his feet and
      stagger a few steps closer to Rogue and call her name in a thick voice.

      "Rogue?"

      The young woman's back tensed at the sound of Logan's voice. He glanced
      down, drawn to the fine-boned hands that flexed against the wooden
      flooring, almost lost in the loose mane of her victim. It took a split
      second for the narrow, white talons to register. He watched in horrified
      shock as they raked against the floor, effortlessly dragging up splinters.

      "Oh, SHIT," he muttered.

      Slowly, sensually, Rogue rose off Sabretooth's prone form. Suddenly, she
      whirled to face him, talons held out and down to her sides. Her pure black
      eyes narrowed at him, and a contralto growl rose from her throat. The
      formerly sleek brown hair seemed wilder, fuller, framing her face in an
      untamed mane. Her head snapped to Gambit as the thief made it to his feet,
      leaning heavily on his Bo stick.

      "Rogue," Logan ventured again, questioningly, and she launched herself at
      him with unbelievable speed. Years spent sparing with her did not prepare
      him for her additional strength as she kneed him in the side and knocked
      him backwards.

      "Chere!" protested Gambit, and with lightening speed she turned on him as
      well, kicking the stick out from under him and shoving him, hard. Gambit
      went down, sliding across the floor. He crabbed backwards on his elbows as
      she stalked towards him.

      "Why is she so strong?" he shouted at Logan.

      "Because fuzz-face is so strong!" Logan replied tersely. The sound of his
      voice distracted her again, the feminine rumble in her chest rising and
      falling with the slow heaving of her chest. "Go low!"

      Logan charged her from the front, his hands grabbing for her covered arms
      as Gambit scrambled to his knees and threw himself at her legs. Between
      them, they knocked her to the ground and struggled for control. Logan
      levered himself on top, his hands tight around her forearms. Slowly, he
      forced her arms against her chest as she fought him. A fierce feline
      scream of rage pierced his eardrums as he gained the upper hand, and her
      talons arced dangerously close to his face.

      He checked Gambit's position - the thief had both arms wrapped around
      Rogue's legs and was hanging on desperately as she tried to kick free.
      Leaning on her with all his weight, Logan pinned her down and shouted her
      name.

      "Rogue!" She snarled in frustration as he called her name again and again.
      "Rogue, can you hear me?"

      She blinked at him, panting through clenched teeth. "Yes," she grated.

      "Control him!" She snarled and wrenched against his restraint again. "You
      can do it! You have to!" he urged. She snarled again, then lapsed into
      dry sobs, shaking her head, her wild hair dancing across her face. "Do
      it!"

      Her fists clenched tightly, drawing her own blood with the nails, creating
      small wounds that healed immediately. Her brows drew together furiously,
      and Logan could see her eyes moving beneath her closed lids.

      Slowly, Rogue's breathing began to even out. The clenched hands opened and
      pushed up against his chest. Logan felt her body relax, and moved back
      slightly, easing his hard grip. Her closed eyelids slid open, revealing
      the fact that her eyes, although still solid black, were calmer. Logan
      moved off of her gingerly. As Gambit released his hold on her legs, she
      rolled over and coughed lightly.

      The two men moved back, freezing as she suddenly leapt to her feet in a
      burst of feline grace. Logan pulled at Gambit's sleeve, backing them both
      up another step. She startled at their movement, then took several
      slinking steps to stand over the unconscious Sabretooth. Another contralto
      growl slid from her throat.

      Logan was dealing with several conflicting emotions at that moment, and was
      having a hard time regaining his calm. He'd seen Gambit's interest perk up
      at Rogue's sensual glide. Hell, he was having a hard time dealing with it
      himself. The animal characteristics abruptly manifesting themselves in
      Rogue were bringing instinctive responses from him, bypassing his brain
      completely. Desperate for something else to focus on, he cast about and
      fixed his gaze on the back of a metal shipping container, the doors wide
      open and inviting. Used for transporting goods all over the world, the
      walls were made of thick steel and the doors would close with no way to
      open them from the inside.

      "C'mon," he ordered, slapping Gambit lightly on the arm. Gambit grunted
      once and collapsed his Bo stick, stowing it away. Warily, the two men
      circled the predatory woman and each grabbed one arm of her victim. Rogue
      watched intently as they dragged Sabretooth into the container.

      "Will this hold him?" Gambit asked.

      "Dunno." Logan answered with a grunt. "Rather slit his throat, but it'd
      probably just wake him up."


      **********

      The old wooden bar was damp, and the shot glass slammed down with a sharp
      retort. Immediately, the rotund bartender filled it again with a clear
      golden liquor.

      "Clyde, why don't you cut the chere off?" Gambit called from the far end of
      the bar, where he stood with Logan, Storm, and Cyclops.

      "'Cause I want to keep my fingers," the bartender replied. He watched his
      customer warily as she flexed her gloved fingers, seemingly fascinated by
      the way her own talons erupted from the fabric tips.

      Remy turned back to the others with a light grin. "So, she'll sleep off le
      chat along with her hangover, non?"

      "No!" Logan kept his voice down, but he all but spit on the smarmy little
      bastard. "She got me five YEARS ago, and she's still having my nightmares.
      And right now, Sabretooth's stompin' around inside her head, wearin' his
      shitkickers and wantin' OUT!"

      "Sabretooth is a very powerful Alpha class mutant," Storm added. "His
      life-force, his personality, could be overwhelming Rogue. Her body is
      trying to conform to Creed's feral mutation - trying to mimic what he is.
      Her talons, her eyes.."

      "Her pheromones," added Logan succinctly. The others looked at him, but
      realized he was holding onto his temper and self control by only the
      slightest margin, and decided to leave it alone.

      "If her sense of self collapses, the most dominant personality in her mind
      could take over. Best case scenario would be Wolverine, and I'm not sure I
      can take two of you." Cyclops' feeble attempt at humor was ignored by his
      target, and he shifted into leader mode.

      "Xavier's contacts in the Justice Department claim they'll be able to hold
      Creed if we can deliver him. We need to get back over there and make sure
      he's contained."

      "Joshua will meet you at the warehouse," Gambit added. "Monsieur Creed has
      helped himself to our shipments before, but this is the first time we've
      caught him cold. If you don't get him out of town immediement, the Guild
      will demand his head."

      "Alright. The Professor will be leaving Washington in a day or two. He
      wants us to do what we can to keep Rogue quiet until he gets here. Logan,
      that means you. You're probably got the best chance of controlling her if
      she loses it."

      Logan only nodded in recognition of his status as Rogue-keeper. Over
      Gambit's shoulder, he could see her at the bar, turning the shot glass over
      in her fingers. She carefully placed it upside down on the bar and stiffly
      made her way to the blank wall, sliding down to rest on her haunches under
      the little sign that pointed a finger towards the restrooms. Her gloved
      hands laced together behind her head as she hunched over, leaning against
      the cheaply paneled wall.

      "The only good news, according to Jean, is the physical manifestations
      should fade within twenty-four hours." He checked his watch, gauging how
      long it had been since Sabretooth had been brought down. Logan had been
      out for hours, but one example was not enough to set a rule on. "We'll
      meet back here as soon as we get Creed locked down."

      Storm and Cyclops took off quickly, leaving Gambit chatting with Clyde.
      Logan moved to Rogue's side of the bar and crouched beside her. Her head
      lifted, eyes closed, but her nose twitched slightly. Realizing she was
      taking in his scent, he wondered idly if her senses were as acute as his
      now.

      "Decide to go on the wagon?" he asked lightly.

      "HE likes tequila. I don't." She raked her fingers through her hair,
      pulling it out of her face impatiently.

      Logan watched her intently, and she turned her face towards him, her head
      sliding on one plane only, exactly the way Sabretooth moved his head. "How
      you holdin' up, kid?"

      Her eyelids sagged almost shut, then opened up wide. They were still pure
      black. When she replied, her voice was a husky drawl that sent that did a
      dance on his hormone center. "Everything I am is all about controlling
      myself. He's all about losing control . . . He says it feels so-o-o
      good." Her voice slid into a seductive whisper. With a start he realized
      he was leaning towards her, scenting her. He froze, leaning no further,
      but unable to move away.

      "Does it feel good when you loose control, Logan?" Her hand reached out,
      nails kneading the air by his face. "Do all the voices in your head shut
      up, when you loose control?"

      He thought about it. "Sometimes. They always come back." He paused. "I
      know this is hard for you. But you're stronger than him, Rogue. You can
      do this."

      A sound, part sob, part laugh, came from her. "He's full of rage, desires.
      I can't have what I want. But I can give him what he wants� " her
      talon-tips lightly traced his jaw, lightly denting the skin of his throat.
      He was unable to tell if it was the talons or her scent that made him
      swallow convulsively. "How do I know what I want, and what he wants?"

      She snarled suddenly and grabbed the front of his jacket, yanking him to
      his feet and slamming him against the wall. The leather made little popping
      noises as her talons dug in. The others in the bar reacted, but held their
      ground when Wolverine held up a cautioning hand.

      Rogue's head cocked to one side, another unnerving Sabretooth mannerism.
      "Call me kid one more time, I'll tear your heart out and eat it." She
      pushed him forcefully into the wall and stalked off, the door to the
      ladies' room banging harshly against the wall as she slapped it open.

      "Gotcha," he muttered.

      **********

      Clyde was dozing on a chair in the corner of the bar when Gambit returned,
      his feet on another chair and his head drooping on his portly chest. He
      carried two large paper cups to the bar and sat down next to Rogue's
      hunched form. Her jacket lay discarded beside her, and he pushed it aside
      to place the cups on the wooden counter. Her long sleeved shirt, made of a
      gauzy white cotton, looked much the worse for being worn all night, but the
      wrists had been neatly buttoned over the cuffs of her tattered gloves, and
      the front buttoned up nearly to the neckline. It was a small attempt to
      impose control on herself, but even the smallest effort was helpful to her
      state of mind.

      "Feeling better, chere?"

      "Gimme that coffee and we'll find out," she growled, and he slid it to her
      with a chuckle. Logan, smoking a cigar on the far side of the room,
      watched him.

      "Your eyes'r startin' to come back to normal," he noticed.

      "Bully for me," she replied shortly. Her fingertips were still talons, and
      skittered across the paper cup as she drank the coffee gratefully.

      "Tell me somethin'. You touch Remy, you get my memories, or jus' this?" A
      stained coaster flipped through his fingers like an oversized coin, the
      edges glowing faintly red. He reabsorbed the energy with a slight popping
      noise, and she took it from him, frowning with the obvious effort of
      thought.

      "It depends. How long I hold on, how powerful you are. I'll know what
      you're thinking at that exact moment, but long term memories� " her voice
      trailed off as she shook her head. "That's iffy at best. General stuff,
      yeah. Exact details are a hard to nail down."

      "But it goes away, right?"

      "No," she said flatly, her voice colder than winter.

      Gambit might have said more, but the door opened to let Joshua in, his long
      form covered in dark clothing, a black leather jacket covering him. More
      than ever his close-cropped hair and square bearing evoked military
      reminders from the Wolverine and Magneto in her head.

      "Well?" demanded Gambit.

      "Nothing," Joshua announced, disgusted. "No sign of him."

      Logan shot off the wall. "He's gone?! Shit! Where's Storm and Cyke?"

      Joshua jerked a thumb behind him. "They're right�" he broke off in a rough
      laugh as Rogue threw herself into his jacket, snuffling deeply at his
      chest. "Okay, good to see you too, honey. The container was empty," he
      continued, holding out a pair of tranquilizer darts.

      "Then maybe he didn't get away," Gambit offered.

      "Maybe the people we've been chasing took him," Logan said grimly. He gave
      Rogue's head an exasperated look, at least as much as he could see of it,
      buried as it was in Joshua's chest.

      "C'mon kid -- Rogue," he corrected himself, taking an arm and pulling her
      away. "Snap out of it."

      "But he smells . . ." she protested, snuffling into Logan's chest this
      time, her face scrunched up in concentration. Her hands fisted up beside
      her head as she struggled for control. "Not me. Bosco."

      "Bosco." Wolverine stared at her, pieces in his head moving. "The dog."

      Remy's gaze flickered from the woman clenching her hair in fists to the
      Joshua, who stood still with a strange, thin smile on his face.

      "Who the hell is Bosco?" Gambit demanded.

      A violent twitch from Joshua brought Logan's hard stare back to him.
      "Bosco's the dog that died when it attacked Rogue at the Humanity's
      Champions camp.

      "Joshua's dog."

      Joshua's eyes gleamed with the strain of meeting Logan's, the tense tableau
      of a beta wolf challenging an alpha causing the hair to rise on both their
      necks. In the circle of Logan's arm, Rogue stood perfectly still, shock
      and recognition moving across her face.

      "Where's Cyclops and Storm?" Wolverine demanded in a deadly growl.

      Remy took a single step forward, breaking the tension like a gunshot.
      Joshua's hand shot out and backhanded the Cajun thief, sending him sliding
      across the floor. Wolverine caught sight of the tiny black microphone in
      Joshua's collar as he tackled the younger man, his claws shooting out. The
      metallic rasp was all but lost as chaos broke loose in the bar. The wicked
      double slash of claws shredded Joshua's leather jacket but left only faint
      red lines on his shoulder. Joshua shrugged, catapulting Logan into the
      wall several feet away.

      "All units - move in!" shouted Joshua into the collar mike, before a boot
      slammed across his jaw with enough force to stagger him. The impact of
      Rogue's boot and fists twisted his head back and forth as she threw
      successive kicks and punches, but even with Sabretooth's addition, she was
      no match for his tremendous strength when he grabbed the flying black heel
      and heaved her away from him.

      Wolverine threw himself on the young man's back, claws tearing at the
      leather but ineffectual against the invulnerable skin of his neck. A
      handful of Logan's jacket was all Joshua needed to throw Logan headfirst
      across the room. One of Gambit's exploding cards caught his back, but the
      inrushing horde of men from the main door knocked the Cajun over. He
      rolled on the ground, hauling out his Bo stick and flailing at the men
      surrounding him, each one of them in the light tan uniform of Humanity's
      Champions.

      Wading through the crowd of his men, Joshua caught Rogue's arm as she
      punched and kicked at the two men who opposed her. He quickly snagged her
      other glove-covered wrist and added it to the first. The shoulder of his
      jacket was in tatters, but the long leather sleeve kept him safe as he
      wrapped his other arm around her neck and pinned her to his chest, whirling
      to face Wolverine's next charge.

      "Back off or I make a wish!"

      Logan froze.

      The four parallel lines on his cheek testified that Rogue's talons had
      scored, but they only added to the ugly expression on Joshua's face as he
      pivoted with his hostage. Reluctantly, the action died around him as Clyde
      the bartender surrendered the baseball bat he kept under the bar. Remy's
      staff was jerked away from him by one of the goons.
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