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X-Cursions, part 5/5

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  • Rhonda Amos
    Her knees hurt. Her shoulders hurt. Her arms hurt too, but Rogue kept her fingers laced tightly behind her back and her forehead in contact with the wood
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 21, 2001
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      Her knees hurt. Her shoulders hurt. Her arms hurt too, but Rogue kept her
      fingers laced tightly behind her back and her forehead in contact with the
      wood paneled wall in front of her. Gambit and Logan knelt in similar
      postures to her right. The Humanity's Champions squad had brought plenty
      of handcuffs with them, each set bright and shiny as the day they'd
      disappeared from some law agency's manifests and found their way into the
      service of the men around her. The last pair were being brutally applied
      to poor Clyde, who lay on his round belly, his short arms pulled
      uncomfortably behind him.

      A single guard stood over Rogue. Whether misguided chivalry or the
      chauvinistic assumption that a chubby middle-aged man was more dangerous
      than the young woman beside him, Logan could not have said, but he was
      fiercely glad. Not even Joshua could stand up to Rogue's power. With one
      touch on the man's skin, and the balance of power could be shifted quickly.
      Now if only the G.I. Joe wanna-be would make it easy -- and the goon with
      the M-4 carbine nuzzling Rogue's cheek didn't get antsy.

      "I can't believe you, homme," Gambit bit out as Joshua dragged Clyde to his
      feet and shoved him down next to his boss.

      "Quiet," ordered another of the tan-shirted squad. Joshua yanked at the
      front of Gambit's jacket, retrieving the packaged deck and loose playing
      cards from the pocket and tossing them aside. The Champion who'd taken the
      Bo stick handed it to Joshua, who tossed across the room. It crashed into
      the bottles that lined the wall behind the bar, filling the room with the
      acrid tang of alcohol.

      "Remy know you for almost three years, Joshua," Gambit continued. A rifle
      butt slammed into his back, making him twist in pain. "Can't believe you
      turn on us like 'dis!"

      "He didn't turn - he was sent here," growled Wolverine. "Weren't you?" he
      accused. Joshua gave him a long look, but didn't answer.

      Two more men came into the bar. From the corner of his eye, Logan could
      see them holding the doors of the establishment open for a third. When he
      entered, his unhurried pace brought total silence to the men within. The
      white shock of unruly hair was the first thing to be noticed, then the
      piercing dark eyes and prominent beak of a nose.

      Franklin Piece glanced about approvingly at the men who stood at attention
      throughout the room. His gaze fell on the four figures under guard.

      "Four more unfortunates," he mused aloud.

      "Only three, Father. Clyde is a human," came Joshua's deferential voice.

      Although she made no sound, Logan saw Rogue's mouth open as though suddenly
      struck, her eyes drifting shut as the painful truth about her would-be beau
      slid home.

      "A collaborator," Pierce commented. "His soul is in just as much
      jeopardy." The leader of Humanity's Champions paced behind his captives.
      "Only three, then. I am disappointed."

      The words and tone were simple, but the reaction from his son was telling.
      Logan recognized it - he classified it as a 'just once say you're proud of
      me,' posture, and his assessment of their predicament went down several
      more notches.

      "It will make no difference, in the end," Pierce continued. "We know where
      the rest of the abominations can be found, here in the city. We will
      gather them."

      "I been called a lot of things over the years," Logan sneered. "Gotta say,
      that's a new one for me."

      A faint flicker of Pierce's hand stalled the rifle butt headed for Logan's
      head. "Of course it is. The truth of your affliction has been kept from
      you by the Liar who created you."

      "So we're works of the devil, is that it? Then why bother wasting your
      time on us?"

      "The mutation of humanity is an abomination in the sight of God. It must
      be blotted from his sight," Pierce expounded calmly. "Your souls, if you
      even have souls, are damned." Pacing again, the Reverend warmed to his
      subject. "Your salvation is the work God has set before me. Some of you
      are not beyond redemption. Even my son strives every day towards this
      goal. Your fellow mutant, for instance, the one with the eye covering�
      removing the Devil's mark might save him."

      The man's tone was perfectly reasonable. Sickened, Logan realized the man
      was talking about removing Cyclops' eyes.

      "Is that what you did to Falcon?" demanded Gambit. "You chopped off his
      wings, b�tard! Did that save his soul?"

      "Of course not. It simply opened the door to his redemption. The fact
      that he did not survive the amputation took away his chance to repent."

      He began to pace behind them again. "You too have a chance to repent, and
      redeem others. My son tells me you come from a haven for mutants in the
      north. You will tell me where this is, and I will cleanse this witches'

      "Your ass," Logan muttered, furious. "Torquemada and the Spanish fucking

      "The only alternative is a holy cleansing slaughter of all mutants!" Pierce
      thundered. "I have worked tirelessly to save you all, and on every side I
      am opposed by the hellspawn I seek to help. You WILL tell me where to find
      this haven."

      "Or else what?" demanded Logan. "You start a war? I got news for you,
      bub. There's a load of mutants out there who've seen that coming already.
      It could be a lot more work than you think."

      "I will be upheld by the grace of God," insisted Pierce. "The time will
      come when all of humanity will rise up in righteous anger against the
      mutants, and they will no longer pollute the land of God."

      Logan stared at the wall. "You're gonna have Joshua start it for them,
      aren't ya? Got it all planned out, I bet. How ya gonna do it, Pierce?
      Gotta be something big and flashy, " he continued. "A little germ warfare,
      kill a bunch of humans and blame it on the mutants?!" He paused, as
      another piece of the puzzle fell into place. "Shit, I'll bet you've got
      that set of disks from the CIA, too. Gotta be a lot of good stuff in there
      on how Joshua can kill a lot of perfectly innocent people!"

      "You'd have your son commit murder?!" Gambit demanded. "Your own son?"

      "Enough," stated Pierce, loosing interest in the game. "We will find your
      den of witches, wherever it is. When the country knows what and where you
      are, and sees a mutant attacking the nearest city, they will demand action."

      "Come on," breathed Rogue, leaning into Logan's shoulder, speaking barely
      loud enough for him to hear her. "Hasn't New York been picked on enough?"
      The bitter gallows humor lifted his heart more than it should have.
      Knowing she was still thinking like an X-Man was a relief, however fleeting.

      The slight movement brought Pierce's eagle sharp gaze back to Rogue's crown
      of white hair. "Bring the woman," he snapped.

      "NO!" yelled Logan. The guard batted his head with the stock of his

      Joshua seized her by the arm and hauled her up, his vast, pitiless strength
      keeping the tips of her feet barely brushing the floor. The strain on her
      shirt ripped the top two buttons, revealing the neckline of the white
      sports tank she wore beneath.

      "I known you a long time, Joshua. I never figured you de kind to pick on
      girls!" The guard hammered the Cajun in the back with his gun butt again.

      "They come from the north. Philadelphia, maybe," Joshua offered. His
      hands held her shoulders, and he was perhaps unconscious of the way he
      pulled her back against his chest. Rogue eyed Franklin Pierce, an odd,
      defiant glitter in her eye. She'd begged for her life once, and it did no
      good. She'd made herself a vow to never beg again.

      Pierce gave her a benevolent smile as he leaned down to put his face on the
      same level as hers. "Tell me where you came from, and you will not be

      Rogue smiled back. "Liar."

      The old man's hand rose to backhand her, checked when Joshua called out,
      "Don't!" Under his father's intense glare, he continued. "Don't touch her
      - her skin absorbs your energy."

      "Hmm," remarked Pierce. He glanced around the tumbled room, to one of the
      tables that still stood upright. "Bring her." The baseball bat Clyde had
      used lay discarded on the floor; with deliberate movements Pierce picked it
      up and weighed it in his hands.

      "A woman who drains the life from the men around her, offering temptation
      that is never fulfilled," he mused. "She is woman, indeed."

      "Great," drawled Rogue. "Misogyny disguised as fundamentalism." Pierce
      shot her a fierce look, but continued to address his son.

      "Women are weak, my son. They have no courage, in the end." He hefted the
      baseball bat. "Free her hands, and take those ridiculous gloves."

      "Father�" Joshua protested.

      Anger flashed suddenly under Pierce's shaggy white brows. "Has this whore
      of Satan seduced you?" he demanded.

      "Of course not," Joshua replied sternly.

      "If you have any hopes of redeeming your immortal soul, my son, then do as
      I say! Hold her!"

      Joshua's long arms held her from behind in a grotesque reminder of their
      earlier dance as he unlocked the cuffs and yanked at the fingers of her
      gloves, stripping them off and dropping them to the floor. The fabric of
      her sleeve bunched around his fingers, his body behind hers forcing her to
      bend while his strength easily forced her hands flat on the table in front
      of his father.

      Pierce regarded the small white talons with vague interest. "Tell me where
      your den is, witch."

      She shook her head, and the bat fell instantly. She gasped with the
      instant pain, knowing it would get so much worse very quickly.

      Pierce assumed a patient expression. "Tell me," he coaxed.

      "No," she managed.

      Pierce frowned, and the bat fell again, this time on the other hand, and
      she let out a small scream.

      "Tell me!"

      "Go to hell!!" Rogue spat as she coughed and struggled, but Joshua's
      embrace held her like a vise.

      Logan listened to her scream again, his body jerking involuntarily to the
      sound of the bat falling. He stared at the wall in front of him, feeling
      the familiar tide of red rage swamping his thoughts. A movement of
      Gambit's chin caught his eye for a split second, and he saw the rifle
      barrel of the closest guard sagging. The man's whole attention was on the
      torture being enacted on the far side of the room.

      Another sobbing scream abruptly broke the last of Logan's control.
      Snarling in rage, he rammed the inattentive guard over Remy with his
      shoulder, kicked another who never had the chance to bring his weapon to

      A sharp explosion behind him made him whirl, but rather than a gunshot,
      LeBeau had used his mutant ability to charge a link of his handcuffs and
      make it blow. In one quick, fluid movement he scooped up a handful of
      coasters from the debris on the floor and let fly.

      One hit Joshua square in the back, causing him to drop Rogue from his grip.
      Pierce scrabbled backwards, shouting, "Shoot him!"

      Another second was all Gambit needed to charge the chain between Logan's
      wrists. Hands free at last, claws out, Logan staggered a half step as a
      bullet hit him in the chest, then waded into the men with a roar, his wound
      already closing. Gambit dropped to the floor and rolled, coming up with
      another handful of coasters and some of the scattered cards, charging them
      with a touch and sending the whining missiles into the chaos, his aim
      uncannily accurate. The sight of Joshua striding towards him inspired the
      charge on his next handful, and he sent them all to impact square in the
      man's chest, hitting him with tremendous force and staggering him

      Logan was only peripherally aware that three of Pierce's men had grabbed
      him and hustled him unceremoniously out the door. Twisting out of the way
      of a shotgun blast, he kicked the owner and rammed his knee into the man's
      gut. Gambit's missiles were exploding around him, taking out additional
      men before concentrating on Joshua.

      The young man faltered under the onslaught, throwing one hand up to shield
      his eyes from a blast that came uncomfortably close to his face. Logan had
      a moment to gather himself, preparing to charge him again, when Gambit let
      loose with an even larger barrage, all of which hit dead center and blew
      Joshua back, off his feet and into the wall hard enough to go partially
      through it. He slid down the wall, and slumped to the floor, unconscious.

      Logan dragged the last Champion up to meet a pile-driving punch and
      dropped the man to scan the wreckage of the room. In the corner, Remy
      quickly popped the cuffs around Clyde's wrists and helped the big man to
      his feet. With a quick slice of his adamantium claws, Logan shed the
      remains of the cuffs off his wrists.

      "Where's Rogue?" he demanded. Suddenly he caught sight of her leg behind
      an overturned table.

      Remy reached it at the same time he did, and together they threw it away.
      Rogue lay curled against the wall, leaning on her elbows, her white-shot
      hair was a waterfall over her face. Logan carefully pulled it back. When
      she raised her head and looked back at them, her irises were once again a
      rich chocolate brown, but glistened with unshed tears.

      LeBeau took one look at her hands and looked away, then met her eyes again
      with murder gleaming in his scarlet orbs. Logan gently put his arm around
      her and helped her sit up.

      "We must be leaving now, mes amis."

      "In a minute,' Logan growled. He took her wrists in a delicate grip over
      the torn cuffs of her shirt, fighting to keep his face impassive as he
      examined the misshapen wrecks that were once graceful fingers.

      "Sortez d'ici, maintenant!" Remy shouted to the bartender, who immediately
      dropped the weapons he'd been gathering and headed out the door. "Chere
      needs a doctor, an' I'm thinking pretty damned quick. And we got no idea
      how many more guests be coming for this party." He eyed Joshua's still
      form, lying among the other unconscious or dead HC members.

      Logan ignored him. He could feel Rogue's trembling pain and he took a
      small breath. Creed had a healing factor, but any residual left in Rogue
      would never be up to the damage Pierce had inflicted.

      "Logan?" Her voice was thready, questioning but also warning.

      He refused to answer her, but carefully slid his hands down her arms. He
      could feel the edge of the seam on her sleeve, feel the warmth of her skin
      beneath the thin cotton. She tried to pull away, hissing in pain as her
      fingers were jostled, but his grip tightened. His fingers inched downward.

      "Logan, no. You can't. Logan!"

      His warm grip slid down to her bare wrists.

      Remy's attention snapped back as Logan made a choking noise. The man's
      face was gray as granite, but Rogue's mouth was open like a woman in the
      throes of passion. The thief watched with disbelief as Rogue's fingers
      straightened. The shattered joints and purpling knobs of broken bones knit
      together, the seeping blood ceasing as the split skin reformed smooth,
      whole. After only a moment, she wrenched her nearly healed hands away from
      Logan's grip.

      He fell down to his hands and knees, gasping for air like one on the verge
      of drowning. Her fingers flexed once, the healing slower now, but complete
      within moments. Rogue circled his broad shoulders with her perfect hands,
      whispering something that sounded like 'you idiot' into his hair.

      Across the room, Remy spotted Joshua stirring, and decided that enough was
      enough. "He who fights and runs away, mon coeur courageux," he muttered.
      He grabbed Wolverine under the arm and dragged the man to his feet. He was
      a lot heavier than he looked.

      Rogue snatched her discarded gloves from the floor and hauled on the other
      arm, and between them got Logan moving toward the back of the bar. A
      tan-shirted Champion came staggering down the corridor from the kitchen and
      Rogue took him out with a swift kick. She turned to see Logan's exhausted
      eyes watching her with an amused glint.

      "How are you feeling?" she asked breathlessly, hauling his bulk forward
      down the hall.

      "Little sore. How 'bout you?"

      She gave him a brief grin. " A little sore."

      Ahead of them, Remy kicked the Emergency Exit door and looked back
      impatiently as they hurried towards him. His back was to the cracked
      parking lot, so he did not see the cars that careened around the corner and
      screeched to a stop, but he did see the murderous anger in Joshua's face as
      he bore down on them. Logan's claws slid out with a harsh rasp, but his
      charge towards the men piling out of the vehicles was brought up short as
      Joshua's large hand grabbed the back of his jacket and bounced him off the
      metal door. Adamantium claws flailed uselessly as he was shaken like a rat.

      "NO!" shouted Rogue, struggling with her glove, but Remy grabbed her by the
      arm and dragged her away, towards the alley. Logan's body landed with a
      painful crash on the pavement, rolling to protect himself as he was
      surrounded by more Champions, who kicked and stomped every available inch
      as he struggled. With lightning speed Joshua reached out and snagged
      Rogue's other arm, pulling her and the thief back towards him.

      The menace of a shotgun brought Gambit up short, and his shoulders slumped
      as he raised his hands. The dog-pile of tan shirts obscured almost all of
      Wolverine, save his choked, ferocious face, while Rogue dangled from
      Joshua's raised arm like a carnival prize.


      Logan regained consciousness with a start, lifting his head, then decided
      against it. He was face down, his arms pulled painfully apart. Slower
      this time, he rolled his head to the side to survey the dark concrete cell.
      On that side, LeBeau gave him a tiny lift of his head, welcoming him back
      to the land of the living. The thief's hands were duct-taped flat to each
      other in a semblance of prayer, the handcuffs around his wrists further
      restraining his movement. From the scattered bits of tape and the blood
      around his mouth, he'd been working on getting the stuff off for a while.
      Damn fools should have cuffed his hands behind him. Of course, they may
      very well have, and not realized the thief was as flexible as an eel. A
      metal collar around his neck chained the thief to the wall.

      Struggling to check his own bonds, the Wolverine tried to keep the rage and
      panic down to a manageable level. A length of steel pipe ran across his
      back, U-bolts in the drilled ends anchoring the chains that imprisoned his
      arms and fastened him to the ground. Dark stains and the stench of old
      blood on the cold floor under his chest told him this room had seen use
      In front of him, a knee moved. He lifted his head higher, awkward as hell
      in this position.

      With relief, he realized a live and relatively unharmed Cyclops sat across
      from him, his hands cuffed behind him. The leader of the X-Men looked like
      he'd taken a lot of punishment before being taken down. The fancy black
      visor was missing, and in its place, surgical tape and cotton pads
      crisscrossed his eyes. A similar collar ran around his neck.

      "Cyke. You okay?"

      The younger man startled at the sound of his voice, then grinned
      half-heartedly. "Been better." He didn't sound traumatized, and Logan
      concluded with some relief that Pierce hadn't followed through with the
      threat to remove his eyes. It might be a hell of a lot of fun to needle
      his leader without mercy, but in no way did he want the guy permanently

      Logan finally got his head turned around the other way. Rogue sat with one
      leg curled under the other, leaning one shoulder against the wall. She had
      been dozing, or perhaps just resting. Her hands were similarly cuffed
      behind her. The fingernails that peeped through the ragged holes were
      perfectly normal, and he upped the estimate of how long he'd been out. Her
      face was calm, but her eyes were portals into a dark world of pain.

      "So," he began, conversationally. "What'd I miss?"

      "Not much, mon ami. We been sittin' here for hours."

      Cyclops shifted on the concrete floor. "Just be glad you missed Old Man
      Pierce and his nazi son in here telling us he's doing God's work."

      Logan shook his sore head, exasperated. "Already had mine. Why do these
      assholes always try to talk us in to going over to their side? At least
      Magneto had a good point to make, even if he was a nutball."

      "He was trying to convert us," Rogue added softly. "Joshua thinks he's the
      biblical Joshua, chosen to lead us poor unclean to the Promised Land." The
      bitter tone of her voice twisted in his gut like poison. "He should have
      been named Judas."

      Logan thought about it for a minute. "That one was a traitor, right?"

      It actually got a small laugh from her. "Yeah."

      "So. Cyclops. Still wanna recruit him?"

      Scott's perfect teeth were still bright in the dim light as he grinned.
      "Kiss my ass, Logan."

      He grunted in acknowledgement, then took a better look at Rogue. Her cheek
      was striped in three deep red welts, turning purple in the center. He had
      no doubts who had slapped her with such force. He made a mental vow to gut
      the bastard. "How long we been here, and do we have any idea where 'here'

      "I'm thinkin' mebbe half a day. Sunlight's startin' to fade out dere.
      They plannin' somethin', though. Been hearin' construction sounds, hammers
      and chainsaws and such."

      "We're about an hour or so away from New Orleans," Scott added. "We drove,
      so it's probably west or north."

      "What happened to you two, anyway?"

      "We got to the warehouse, but Creed was already gone. Some goons jumped
      the three of us, and just about the time I thought we were winning, Joshua
      nailed me. I told Storm to fly away. He must have tried to follow her,
      but I did heard a couple of lightning strikes." The slight grin flashed

      "Storm will find your people and coordinate with ours. It's only a matter
      of time." Rogue seemed confident. Logan knew none of them were. With the
      attack on the bar, the Guild had to be hiding deep from a traitor who knew
      all their contingency plans.

      "We may not have that luxury," Scott said baldly. "They know Storm
      escaped. Whatever their original plans, they've got to be changing their

      "You really think your Stormy gal's gonna get a passle o' my people
      together and find us in time?"

      "I sure hope so," Scott commented, shifting uncomfortably. "I really have
      to pee."

      (Author's Note: For those who don't remember, Moses lead the Israelites out
      of Egypt, wandered for 40 years in the desert with them, but died before
      reaching the Promised Land. Joshua, his second in command, actually led
      the way to the Promised Land.)


      In the underground reaches of a Upper New York mansion, Charles Xavier sat
      in the hollow heart of Cerebro, eyes closed and brow creased in
      concentration. Finally, he raised his head and opened his eyes, staring at
      something that isn't there. "West," he breathed.

      In the wood-paneled office above him, Jean Grey-Summers sat in a
      half-trance, her hand absently caressing the unborn child she carried.
      Over her brilliant red hair she wore a black phone headset. Dreamily, her
      eyes still drooping in her trance state, her fingers reached out and
      pressed a speed-dial button on the phone bank.


      Hovering far above Lake Pontchartrain, in the late afternoon sun, Storm
      pressed the earbug more firmly in her ear. The tiny black wire trailed to
      the cell phone zipped firmly in the front of her uniform, it's tiny green
      light blinking under her throat like a beacon as she banked and sped into
      strong light.


      In the driveway where Jean had greeted Logan with a smile, the younger
      generation of the X-Men waited tensely. St. John and Kitty leaned against
      the convertible, it's engine running quietly, while Bobby sat possessively
      in the driver's seat. Riding shotgun, Jubilee watched the front door with
      the same predatory intensity as the rest of her team. A bright yellow
      jacket topped her outfit, but did not disguise the black leather of her
      uniform underneath. Next to her, Kitty gnawed on a non-existent hangnail,
      her other hand thrust in the pocket of her uniform jacket.

      "Where'd the Professor get another jet?" she asked, her voice thin. It
      wasn't a real question; it was just a way to pass the moments while they
      waited for Jean to appear.

      "The Guild sent it, I think," Jubilee murmured back. Another thought
      occurred. "Did you get those crackers like I said?"

      "Um, yeah," Kitty said. "Why'dya need 'em?"

      "Not me. Jean. I'm not flying with Her Preggerness unless I'm armed."


      The ground rose shortly in the darkness, then sloped down and away from the
      group of mutants being herded by a crowd of Franklin Pierce's most fervent
      believers. Surrounded on all sides by the armed humans, Rogue kept her
      attention on keeping Cyclops' faltering steps from tripping them both up.
      They'd released her hands to allow her to help the blinded and cuffed man,
      but any thoughts she'd had about touching Scott and absorbing his powers
      had been circumvented by the duct tape that circled her gloved wrists
      tightly. Tempting though it was, Cyclops had forbade her to try it unless
      absolutely necessary.

      Behind her, she heard Sabretooth's roar as he was hauled forward. Trussed
      as tightly as Logan, he was not taking his captivity well. His arms
      strained against the chains encircling his wrists, which were bolted to the
      hefty steel pipe across his back. More chains looped around his shoulders,
      keeping the pipe close to his body. Wolverine had caused enough trouble
      that the HC guards had knocked him off his feet and were dragging him over
      the dry grass.

      Craning her neck, Rogue looked around for lights or any signs of
      civilization, but only marsh flats and twisted trees draped with Spanish
      moss stretched out beneath the lingering twilight as far as she could see.
      A fist lashed out of nowhere and cuffed her head, and she glared at the
      flat, impassive face of the HC guard who'd struck her. This man was
      Caucasian, but the next tan shirt was a Latino. Whites, blacks, even one
      who reminded her terribly of Jubilee surrounded her, but all wore similar
      hard expressions, implacable in their disgust of her and her kind.

      At last the group in front of her parted, and the progression of burnt
      circles and piles of ash took a moment to register. When it did, she
      inhaled sharply, involuntarily. Five new pyres were waiting for them.

      "What is it?" Scott asked. He turned his head into the breeze coming from
      the Gulf, sniffing in an almost funny imitation of Logan. Remy, standing
      nearby with his hands once again locked behind him, shook his head at her,
      but she ignored him.

      Her hands tightened on Scott's arm, warningly. He had a right to know.
      "They're going to burn us at the stake."

      He stiffened, but the shoulders straightened unconsciously. "Well. That's
      different. Good to see someone keeps up the old traditions."

      The tails of her once white shirt flapped against her hip as strong hands
      ripped her away from Scott's side, and her throat choked as she realized
      she'd lost her chance. She could only watch, helpless, as one by one they
      were forced up a small ladder on the individual pyres. Logan and
      Sabretooth had the chains of their bonds pulled around to be nailed to the
      upright timber, once a telephone pole, that thrust through the heart of the
      stacked wood. The hammering echoed loudly across the landscape.

      Franklin Pierce, coming late to his own party, frowned at the crucifixion
      image the two mutants presented. He waited until Rogue, Gambit, and
      Cyclops were each tied to their own stake, their handcuffs removed and
      substituted with harsh sisal rope. The guards who gingerly tied Rogue's
      hands behind her had to maneuver carefully on the tiny platform laid
      loosely at the top of the logs. Glancing down, Rogue could see the log
      cabin arrangement of wood and the tiny sense of humor she had left laughed
      at the pattern Scott had taught her on camping trips, years ago.

      "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," proclaimed Pierce to his

      "How original." Cyclops' voice carried just as well over the crowd, and
      the hisses of "quiet" from the people did nothing to intimidate him.

      "These mutants are the spawn of Satan, and we shall send them back to their
      creator in the hellfires from which they came!" The crowd murmured in
      approval as Pierce stood on the bottom rung of Cyclops' ladder. "That one
      has the clearest markings of a demon of hell, " and Sabretooth growled
      menacingly at Pierce," but all of them are of the devil's making!"

      "And you got all the markings of a psycopath!" yelled Remy.

      "Shut up," ordered Joshua, from his place near his father's side.

      "Look around you, Joshua," Remy shot back. "This is wrong, and you know

      "Which is blackening your soul more?" Rogue added, unable to keep the
      bitter tones of betrayal and hurt out of her voice. "Being a mutant, or
      killing people who trusted you?"

      Franklin Pierce turned his thoughtful, patriarchal gaze on his son. "Well,
      Joshua?" he challenged. "Will you damn your soul forever, and side with
      these� things?"

      The silence stretched out for interminable moments. "No, Father," Joshua
      finally answered, softly.

      Smiling with just a touch of triumph, Pierce held out his hand. One of the
      guards handed over a length of smooth wood. The end was wrapped in a
      swathe of white cotton, perhaps an old shirt, and soaked in paraffin and
      lighter fluid. A lighter sparked, the flickering light glowing a glorious
      warm light in the gathering darkness as the sunlight reluctantly faded from
      the marsh. A cool breeze from the sea caused the flame to gutter for a
      moment. Then the fire leapt eagerly to the end of the torch, licking up
      and around the fabric wrappings. He held it out, letting them all see
      their fate.

      Abruptly a sonic boom broke over the group, followed by a scream of jet
      engines and the harsh sound of retros firing in the darkness.

      "Jean!" shouted Scott, his bandaged face unerringly drawn up and out
      towards his soul-mate. His dry and bruised mouth moved minutely, his brow
      creasing in concentration as Jean's telepathic voice reached him.

      Bright white sparks and multi-colored streams of plasma arced in the
      distance, accompanied by the ominous roll of thunder. The assembled mob of
      Champions dissolved into chaos. Some ran away into the wilderness, while
      the majority rallied and charged back towards the main camp. Several
      commanding voices shouted orders as the group headed back to defend their
      base. Pierce was immediately surrounded by his handlers; hard-faced men
      who urged him away.

      "They will not stop God's work!!" Pierce thundered. "Joshua!!" He cast
      about desperately for his son, and spied him standing exactly where he'd
      been during their brief conversation. Striding forcefully, he grabbed his
      son by the front of his shirt. "Finish this, then join me." The spitting
      torch was thrust into Joshua's numb hands. "My work must be completed!"

      "Yes, sir," Joshua replied, taking the torch. "I promise."

      Joshua Pierce watched his father and the bodyguards as they disappeared
      over the rise, then scanned the sky, where the first star of the evening
      made a pale appearance. He paced towards the closest pyre, and stood
      motionless, despite the sounds of battle coming through the night,
      contemplating the torch in his hand.

      "Joshua," Rogue called out, but stopped as the man shook his head.

      "All I ever wanted was to serve God and my country, Rogue." Joshua raised
      his face to see her, hanging against the stake above the chest-high pile of
      wood. "Get married, raise a family�" His voice trailed off as he
      remembered the dreams that had died for him.

      "And then I found out I was a mutant. God help me, I was one of the things
      I'd been taught to hate. I tried to hide it. I tried to pretend it didn't
      exist. I did everything I could think of the keep it from tearing my world

      Logan saw the blond demi-god swallow hard, a single tear track making its
      way down the man's cheek. "I was a good son, and a good soldier, and I
      ended up with NOTHING!" The word tore into the night with the raw anger of
      a man holding onto sanity by only the barest margin.

      "And then you came here. You made me want to believe again, Rogue. You
      made me want things that I can't have!" The torch crackled in the still
      evening, whooshing softly with the erratic movements of its wielder. "The
      military doesn't want me. GOD doesn't want me. And even if you wanted me,
      you couldn't touch me!" A harsh laugh followed his anguished shout.

      "I think I've finally figured it out," he said after a moment. "Finally,
      it all makes sense." The fire reflected off the tear track on his face.
      "We're already dead, Rogue. We're dead, and this is hell."

      Joshua slowly approached her waiting pyre. "We're already dead," he
      repeated softly, then thrust the torch into the gasoline soaked wood.
      Greedily the fire spread at the base, following all the gasoline. Joshua
      watched the leaping, eager flames impassively, then looked up at Rogue.
      Like a stag clearing a fence, his mutant strength carried him in one
      prodigious leap to the top of the pyre.

      Joshua's hand was almost hot as it cupped her face, pulling her mouth up to
      his. In contrast to his brutal grip around her waist, his kiss was gentle
      and passionate, until the familiar undertow hit her. Her torn shirt had
      slid off her shoulder, and the thin strap of her tank was not wide enough
      to act as insulation as Joshua's large hand dropped painfully onto her
      shoulder. His skin went gray and his mouth on hers gasped open in a rictus
      of pain, the veins of his face standing out boldly, but he made no effort
      to break from her. His entire body shaking, he sagged to his knees,
      buckling slowly like a burning building. His lips dragged their way down
      her cheek and neck as her talent pulled more and more life from him.

      The fire spread quickly to the adjacent pyres, first to Gambit's, then
      Logan's. Behind the couple, the leaping, flickering flames began to rise.
      Joshua held Rogue in an iron grip, his hands circling her bared waist where
      her tattered shirt had left her exposed, and leaned his cheek against her
      naked belly like a lover.

      Logan could barely hear the raging battle at the camp over the popping of
      the spreading flames. Despair was a vise in is chest as he could only
      watch as Rogue absorbed more and more of Joshua. Rogue's head was thrown
      back, in either pain or pleasure, her long hair whipping in the breeze.
      With a start Logan realized they were gasping in unison.

      At last, Joshua Pierce dropped away from Rogue and slid down the pyre,
      dead, sparks popping up in the wake of his rolling body. Under Logan's
      horrified witness Rogue's back arched, then snapped her head forward,
      shaking in convulsions. Never before had she absorbed so much that her
      body attempted to reject the grafted energy. A strangled scream came from
      her as she lost consciousness and sagged limply in her bonds.

      His vision hazed with impotent rage, Logan again yanked futily,
      desperately, against the chains and spikes pinning his arms. He did not
      consciously consider the mercy that Rogue would be unconscious when she
      died, only knew he was desperate to get to her. He paused in exhaustion,
      his abused muscles shaking and blood running freely from his wrists, before
      beginning again to wrench at the chains.

      He did not see when Rogue's head came up, moving in dreamy leisure. The
      flames at her feet began to blacken the fabric of her jeans, the sparks
      flying up around her like an unholy halo. Sluggishly she glanced at the
      inferno around her, then down to where her arms disappeared around her
      back. When she gave the tied wrists a twist, the rope parted like rotted

      The flicker of movement drew Logan's stunned attention as Rogue leapt
      lightly to the ground. A slow turn of her head to see the fires, then she
      took another effortless bound that placed her beside LeBeau, and her
      suddenly prodigious strength had the knots giving way in seconds. She
      lifted him easily and flew them off the pyre. His hands were still taped
      together, and the tape tore under her fingertip as easily as a paper

      Relief flooded through Logan like a drug as Rogue turned to him, but turned
      to apprehension as she continued her dispassionate calm while ripping at
      the chain holding his wrists. "Rogue?! Are you still in there?" He
      flinched as she pulled the nails out of his chains with her fingertips.

      "ROGUE!!" he shouted in her face. She blinked, but made no response.
      Scooping him up in her arms, she brought him unceremoniously to the ground,
      where he found his abused body did not want to stand upright, and
      immediately left him to free Cyclops. Within seconds, the younger man was
      sprawled next to him.

      "What the hell is going on, Logan?" he demanded. His fingers hovered by
      his bandaged eyes, quivering in frustration. Logan glanced at the body of
      Joshua Pierce, lying backlit by the roaring flames like a Viking prince on
      his funeral barge.

      "Joshua's dead," he said shortly.

      "Rogue?" The shock vied with concern in Scott's voice. Logan made no
      response, but watched Rogue as she flew to the enemy that remained trapped
      atop a raging fire.

      Sabretooth grinned with anticipation as Rogue freed him, the chains popping
      like children's toys under her gloves. When his talon-tipped hands came
      free, he made a lunge for her throat. The snarl of satisfaction changed to
      a grunt of surprise as she grasped one massive thumb in each hand and
      pulled, forcing his hands away from the bare skin.

      "We always were a slow learner," she growled. With a quick leap backward,
      she pulled the big mutant off the licking flames and sent him tumbling to
      the flattened earth. He scrambled to his feet to face her, the momentary
      shock of seeing her hovering several feet off the ground giving her ample
      time to slug him, a single punch that laid him out like a bad prizefighter.

      Logan took a moment to drag Joshua's body further from the raging fire,
      uneasy with the detached, unconcerned way Rogue watched him. She had not
      responded to any questions, and he was leery of pushing her while she was
      still at Joshua's full strength. Sabretooth remained unconscious, and when
      he considered the effort it would take to truss the man up, dismissed the
      idea entirely.

      An explosion over the hill caught everyone's attention.

      "I think we're missing the party, Cyke," Logan commented.

      "Then let's go," Scott ordered. He startled when Logan grabbed his arm,
      but let his teammate pull him upright. LeBeau left off scavenging for
      small rocks on the ground, stowing the handful of golf ball-sized missiles
      in the appropriate pocket.

      "I've told Jean we're safe," Scott commented as he stumbled over the ground
      he could not see. "She's told the team where we are."

      "Jeannie's stayin' in the Blackbird, right?" Logan queried, not really a
      question. His attention and wholesale concern remained on the lithe form
      of the woman in front of him. Rogue's walk was different than usual; but
      oddly, it seemed to change from moment to moment, from a hunter's stalk to
      a short-stepping march, then back to easy gait he was accustomed to seeing.
      She walked up the slope that separated the base camp of Humanity's
      Champions from their execution field, then paused to wait for the rest of
      them. He considered the fact that she even acknowledged their existence as
      some progress.

      Rogue had once told him that managing the people in her head was similar to
      juggling. Surprisingly, that was a skill at which Lensherr was adept, and
      which she'd demonstrated, laughing when Logan teased her. Now, his gut
      twisted with the worry that Joshua's absorption could be too much for her
      to handle.

      At the crest of the hill, Rogue surveyed the compound, one corner of which
      was burning as brightly as the pyres they'd left behind them.

      "That's a really bad idea," she commented, the light trace of her accent
      completely missing.

      Logan gave her a level look, then gave Cyclops' arm a tug. "Better tell
      Jean they need to get that fire out."

      "Gotcha," Scott replied, his attention turning inward. A moment later, a
      breeze rippled through the grasses, pulling moist air from the south.
      Thunder rumbled in the distance.

      As they approached the buildings they'd been summarily marched out of
      earlier for their execution, several figures appeared in the smoke and
      gloom, weirdly lit by the fire behind them. A few stray raindrops pattered
      down as Jubilee, Iceman, and Shadowcat came closer.

      "Pyro's helping Storm control the fire," Jubilee volunteered. She fished
      in the pocket of her soot-smirched yellow jacket, and came out with a curve
      of black. "Here," she said, guiding Scott's hands to his visor as he shook
      off Logan's hand.

      "Thank God," he breathed, tucking it under his arm and tearing at the
      bandages over his eyes. He grimaced but continued to ruthlessly remove the
      tape until his face was bare. Cyclops' boyish features were still too
      young for Logan's comfort, but it was something he'd accepted in the years
      they'd fought side by side. Once the visor was back on, the leader of the
      X-Men was once again in charge. "Status?"

      "Most of the goons are under control. The Guild sent some people along to
      help," reported Bobby. "They're out searching for the strays now."

      "The fire is contained to one building," added Jubilee. Pyro said it will
      be about five minutes before he gets it out completely."

      Scott glanced at Rogue, who stood with her hands clasped lightly behind her
      back, her feet apart in the at-ease stance of a soldier. "Iceman, see what
      you can do to help Johnny get it out faster."

      "Check," Bobby replied, disappearing into the darkness again.

      "Any sign of Pierce?"

      "A car tried to run me down when we got here," commented Kitty. "The
      engine died when I phased through it, but no one was left in the car when
      we went to check."

      "Then he's still around. Kitty, show Wolverine the car. Logan -- find
      him." The flat finality of Cyclops' voice was without pity. Logan nodded.

      "We need to find his little science project, too," he growled. "Those
      disks the CIA lost? I'm betting they're here in the compound somewhere."

      "Great," Cyclops replied dryly. "Jubilee, I want you to get Rogue on the
      Blackbird and keep her there."

      "Uhm, sure," she responded. "Why the house arrest, if ya don't mind my

      The rebellious tones in her voice earned her a possible glare from behind
      the red visor, but Logan answered the question. "Rogue's had a rough
      couple days. Take care of her, alright?"

      The younger girl shrugged. "Whatever you say, big guy. C'mon, sweetie.
      It's quittin' time."

      "Jubilee," Rogue acknowledged an odd voice, peering down as her as she took
      Rogue's arm.

      Logan and Kitty set off towards the far side of the compound, but had gone
      no more than a dozen yards before he reached out and stopped her. Cyclops
      and Gambit saw him freeze, and called out to Jubilee to stop.

      A single figure surged out of the grass past Logan and Shadowcat, careening
      wildly up the path towards the way they'd come. Almost barreling into
      Jubilee, Franklin Pierce reeled out of the women's way and staggered
      towards the small rise, only to be confronted by Cyclops and Gambit. The
      old man recoiled violently and turned to flee, only to see Logan suddenly
      blocking his way.

      His white shock of hair even more unkempt than usual, he swore incoherently
      as he spun around, searching for an escape, but was thwarted by the mutants
      who moved to surround him. His eyes glittered in the light of the burning
      buildings, reflecting a not-quite-sane gleam as he came to bay in the
      circle of X-Men. A tire iron wavered in his trembling grip.

      "Joshua!" he screamed skyward, virulent hate distending the cords of his
      neck as he raged. "Where are you? Answer me, BOY!!"

      "Mr. Pierce," Cyclops called commandingly. Pierce whirled. "Mr. Pierce�
      your son is dead." Only his basic decency let the words come out with the
      smallest particle of regret.

      "He cannot be dead. My son is invulnerable!! God's grace protects him to
      be my instrument!"

      "Everyone has their weaknesses," Logan stressed flatly. He'd meant that in
      a purely military context, but that was not how the words were received.

      "No. NO!" He cast about the X-men, the manic glint in his eye growing
      wilder. "YOU!" he shouted. "Whore of hell, what did you do to him?"

      Swinging wildly, Pierce laid into Rogue with the tire iron, despite Logan's
      abortive attempt to intervene. Rogue took the blows without flinching, in
      fact, without any visible effect. Jubilee gasped, one of the few times
      Logan had ever heard the firecracker taken aback.

      "Have you lost a tool, or have your lost a son?" Rogue demanded coolly, the
      contempt dripping from the European accent in her voice.

      Screaming incoherently, Franklin Pierce swung wildly, a blow that should
      have split the skull of any human. But a human did not stand before him,
      and when Rogue's hand shot out and grabbed the length of iron, it was
      suddenly as immobile as a mountain. With a casual jerk she pulled it from
      his hands and slung it away in the darkness. Pierce goggled at her, his
      mouth working without sound, until her other hand rose and backhanded him
      with an explosive slap. His body landed several feet away.

      Rogue stalked up to the man who lay moaning in the dust. Logan seized her
      shoulders in a hard grip. "Get a handle on this, Rogue. Keep control."

      "Piss off, runt," she bit out, before wrenching her arms from his grasp.
      "I got it," she added in a quieter voice. "I'm all right."

      "We don't have much time before the authorities show up," Scott called.
      Jubilee was trussing the semi-conscious Pierce with a length of dark rope.
      "I want those disks found and destroyed before we leave." He turned to
      Jubilee and her prisoner. "Get him to the jet. Jean might be able to dig
      it out of his conscious thoughts, but I don't want her and the baby out
      here where someone can take a pot shot at her."

      "He doesn't go anywhere near Jeannie," Rogue snarled in a low voice. She
      stalked towards Jubilee and her prisoner, and Pierce shrank from the young
      woman who'd so casually beaten him.

      "Rogue, don't!" warned Cyclops as tried to stop her, she pushed his chest
      with her fingertips and sent him staggering backwards. She grabbed the
      front of the Reverend's shirt and hoisted him up.

      "Human," she said, the European lilt back in her voice. Holding up her
      hand, the tip of her index finger emerged as the other fingers inched down
      the torn glove-tip. "Where is the information you stole?" The faintest
      crease of concern went through the old man's face, as he realized he was
      completely at her mercy, but never realizing the question had been asked to
      deliberately bring the information to the top of his mind.

      "Rogue, STOP!" shouted Logan, shoving forward to grab her arm, just an
      instant too late. Her fingertip touched Pierce's lined cheek, turning it
      gray for a moment before Logan yanked her hand away.

      She dropped Pierce, shaking her head as she made sense of his mind.

      Her posture changed slightly as the balanced yet another personality in her
      head. "Father," she said in a begging voice, her head twisting as she
      fought for control.

      "Tell Kat the disks and a biohazard container are in the walk-in safe
      hidden behind the south wall of the basement. There's a framed print of
      Christ hanging on it. The booby traps are electronic� phasing through them
      should take 'em out."

      After a moment, she began to laugh, and her own voice came forth. "You're
      a fool, Pierce. The 'bio-weapon' you paid so much for... it's worthless.
      It's killed virus, used for inoculations. It's completely harmless." She
      dropped the old man, still laughing, then suddenly snarled at him.

      Rogue's hand shot out, fingers wide, and the metal tire iron came winging
      out of the darkness into her palm. Her eyes were black in the firelight.
      "No -- Stand Down!" she ordered, then tensed, jaw clenched, muscles frozen
      as different personalities vied for dominance.

      Her back arched painfully as she fought the voices in her head, her fingers
      digging into the disordered tangle of hair. Logan caught her as she
      collapsed, and she buried her face into his chest as strangled sounds came
      from her throat, her body still twitching convulsively.

      "Shit!" he cursed, trying to turn her over enough, his bare hand reaching
      for her face, but Cyclops stopped him.

      "Her body isn't hurt. You can't help her."


      In a misty gray landscape, Rogue walked past a plain concrete wall. Doors
      hung open all along the avenue, and as she approached one, she peered
      inside. A teenage boy stood in the center of the cell, his skin oddly gray
      under the bright white light that made the walls of the room indistinct.
      He stared at her defiantly until she stepped back.

      The door to the boy's cell swung shut of its own accord. Rogue's hesitant
      steps took her to the next doorway. Inside, Magneto spared her a single
      glance before returning to his contemplation of a chessboard, the pieces
      fully engaged in a complex game. That door also closed with a clang, and
      Lensherr ignored her as he moved his queen. Logan occupied the third cell.
      Seated in a simple folding chair, his feet were spread wide with his elbows
      planted on his knees. A cigar dangled from his fingers. The smoke curled
      through the air as he gave her a slight smirk. A tiny glimmer of fondness
      curved her mouth, and she left that door partially open. The next
      half-dozen doors swung shut as she surveyed the row of cells. From the
      barred window of his cell, Sabretooth snarled viciously at her. She walked
      down the hall, peering in the little windows. The final door was wide
      open, but empty, save for a branch of pale purple flowers on the floor.
      Tentatively, she picked it up.

      Suddenly, Charles Xavier was standing at her side, his expression one of
      calm patience.

      "What is it?" he asked calmly.

      "Hyssop flowers," Rogue answered. Her fingers caressed the blossoms. "He
      isn't here," she said softly. "I can't find him anywhere."

      "Rogue," began the Professor, startling backwards as she whirled.

      "He's not here!" Rogue shouted.

      In the library, Xavier flinched suddenly, pulling his fingers from Rogue's
      loose hair as her head came off the soft arm of the sofa with a lurch. He
      moved his wheelchair from beside the sofa to a closer proximity to Rogue,
      and waited as she swung her feet over the edge and sat up.

      "Sorry, Professor," she said, and he gave her a pained smile.

      "It's quite all right, Rogue. Your defenses are� quite formidable. I must
      say I'm impressed. "How do you feel?"

      "Empty," she replied after a moment of reflection, her voice equally empty.

      "The personalities you've absorbed are all still there, Rogue. They've
      simply been put away. You should, with practice, be able to access them
      when you choose."

      "Except Joshua," she added bleakly.

      "I'm afraid so. I found no trace of him." Xavier regarded her with
      fondness, not a little intrigued. "I'm not sure exactly how you received
      Joshua's abilities without absorbing his personality, and so unfortunately
      I cannot predict how long you'll be able to utilize them."

      "Joshua wanted to die," she said quietly, fiddling with her gloves. "He
      didn't want to exist any more. And he doesn't, not even in me."

      Xavier seemed to be unsure of how to address the sense of loss in her
      voice, and unable to think of anything else to say. "Well. I suggest you
      get some rest. You've had a very trying time." He paused, obviously
      feeling the need to say more.

      "Franklin Pierce and his organization were among the strongest supporters
      of the Sentinal proposal. Exposing his activities of Humanity's Champions
      has created a backlash of sympathy for mutants, and without the
      organization's political support, the Sentinel bill has been postponed in
      all congressional hearings." Deliberately, he reached out and pressed his
      fingers over her clasped, gloved hands. "We're all very proud of you,

      She nodded shakily, her white-shot hair slithering loosely over her
      shoulders. Xavier's silent chair carried him from the room, and she stared
      at the carpet for a long moment. Moving gingerly, careful of her new
      strength, Rogue moved to the window. The sheer white curtain hissed
      against her gloves as she pulled it aside to see the kids playing on the
      lawn, including Tommy, his furry shoulders covered only by a tank top as
      the rest of the children wore long sleeves and jackets. They were kicking
      a ball around, shouting exuberantly, happy.

      Suddenly she was aware of Logan, leaning silently against the bookcases.
      Whether he was there all along, or had silently appeared in his usual way
      while she was looking out, she could not have said.

      Her mouth moved, as though she would say something, but looked out the
      window again rather than continue to meet his steady gaze. Pushing away
      from the bookcase, Logan crossed the empty room and stood beside her,
      looking down on the crown of her head.

      "Would you rather be alone?" he asked, his voice gravely.

      She shook her head in tiny, jerky movements. Carefully, Logan folded her
      into his arms and rested his chin on the top of her head. Together,
      unmoving, they watched the children outside playing on the lawn.

      After a bit, Rogue stirred in the circle of his arms. "I think I need some

      "Okay. Wanna take a ride?"

      "Actually�" Rogue started. The quiet tones of her voice rose, and Logan
      pulled back to look at her. A tiny frown creased her forehead as she
      thought, then a small smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth. She
      glanced up at him through her lashes, an arch expression that he'd never
      yet been able to refuse. "I was kinda thinking about something else."

      That got her the eyebrow, but he didn't question her. At least, not until
      it was far too late.

      Franklin Pierce had convinced his only son that the mutant powers he
      possessed were shameful, something to hide. And while Rogue had never been
      ashamed, exactly, her energy absorbing talent was hardly something that
      could be considered enjoyable. Now, despite everything, she had been given
      an ability that didn't hurt anyone. Several, actually, considering the
      strength and invulnerability that showed no signs of fading. And if she
      had nothing else of Joshua, she at least had his gifts. If he had never
      been able to enjoy them, surely she could enjoy them in his memory.

      Several minutes later, Logan followed Rogue down the back steps to the
      expansive back yard of the mansion, grumbling but inwardly glad at the
      rallying spirits of the woman in front of him. Across the yard, Tommy gave
      Rogue a furry wave, and she returned it with a smile.

      "I feel stupid in this getup."

      "Well, you don't look stupid. You look like a fighter pilot."

      "I look like one of Jubilee's S & M music videos." The web strapping hung
      off of his huge frame like a jet pilot's parachute harness.

      "It's either this, or piggyback," she warned.

      "Alright, alright," he grumbled, and pulled out the Matrix-style sunglasses
      Jubilee had given the entire team as a gag Christmas gift. "You sure I
      need the shades?"

      "Definitely. We don't need to find out the hard way if you can regrow an
      eyeball." Rogue circled him, checking the fit of the harness until he
      slapped her hands away with a mock growl.

      The sight of her brilliant smile as she put on her own sunglasses was worth
      looking like a dork, even if Scott did see him. "Okay. Let's do this."

      "Hang on," she warned from behind him.

      "No," he corrected. "YOU hang on. Don't drop me."

      He felt her small hands grab the webbing over his shoulder blades, then the
      gentle tug upwards as she rose off the ground. The straps tightened around
      his body.

      "Ready, sugar?"

      Sugar? Where had that come from? "Ready as I'll ever be." With a lurch
      his feet left the ground, causing him to grab convulsively for the secure
      harness across his chest. The grass dropped away beneath him and the wind
      blowing through the points of his hair increased suddenly.

      An uncontrollable whoop came from his lungs as she accelerated sharply,
      pulling them into the air, circling the house and the stately trees wearing
      their brilliant autumn colors. The sounds of the children pausing in their
      soccer game to cheer came to Wolverine's ears, and a huge grin spread over
      his face. He heard Rogue laugh in exhilaration, and glancing up, caught
      the joy on her face.

      His hands reached up, found her gloved hands where they gripped his
      harness, and took a firm hold. "Punch it."

      And she did.

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