She makes no sound as they come for her, refusing to cry out even as they rend, tear, pummel and blast her. She is lost in the flurry of blows, each excruciating moment of pain an eternity, each blow a reminder of her past sins. She almost welcomes it, not fearing her death…in fact, she nearly embraces it, moving closer toward the comforting blackness. Justice served at last, she thinks, as coherently as she can beyond the pain. She forces herself to keep her eyes open, to witness every moment of retribution. Their faces swirl before her, a myriad sea of color and feature…friends, enemies, even those she does not know. Their visages twisted, almost demented with their terrible pleasure at her pain, loving every moment of revenge. They are demonic, savage, caricatures of their normal selves, and she cannot help but wonder if they were always so, just beneath the surface. Always hating her for what she took from them, always wanting to pay her back for violating their very body and soul.
Body broken and bleeding, injured beyond any chance of repair or life, and yet she lives on. Enduring it all without complaint, she prays incessantly for the end. The end of her pain, of all her years of torment and loneliness, to be finally free of the guilt over what her powers have inflicted on others, to finally pay the price for her transgressions in this life. To be forgiven, to be absolved.
So cold, she thinks, no warmth left. Surely the end must draw near, her lifesblood spilling onto the dirty concrete of the city street.
"K-kii..lll….muh-muh…eeee." Her words are but a whistle of air as she forces them through cracked lips and gum, a testament to the life she still miraculously possesses.
"Ready for the end, darlin'?" Wolverine's bloody claws almost seem to flex as he clenches and unclenches his fists, eyes dark and intense as he brings his face closer to hers.
Unable to speak, she tries to nod instead, her head lolling helplessly to the side as her severed, battered muscles give way.
"That'd be the easy way out," he agrees, nodding slightly. "But that's not the way it works." He stands, sheathing his claws with a click of finality.
And before her eyes, the phantoms begin to wink out, one by one, as if they simply ceased to exist.
"Nuh..n..nooo…" she gasps, almost desperate to stop them. They cannot leave yet, not before the final judgment has been carried out. They can't leave her like this…a broken shell of a human being, dying slowly and forgotten all alone. Even she had never been so inhumane…had she?
Oh, but hadn't she? Came the mocking voice from the back of her mind. Hadn't she when she had stolen Carol Danvers life and then tried to kill her? Hadn't she when she had fought against Carol for her own lifeforce, lifeforce that would have let Carol live again? Hadn't she when she had stolen the X-Mens powers to better defeat her own opponents?
But Ah was only trying to help them win, to save mah own life, she pleads against the accusations.
Liar! You did it because you enjoyed it; you wanted to feel their lives inside you, to have something to fill that empty void you carry around. You can't have your own life so you live through others, isn't that it?
No! That's not true! Ah didn't…Ah didn't….Ah…
"…didn't…" Her own voice. She stops speaking in wonder of the sound, awareness finally returning.
"Ah'm whole again," she whispers, both happy and saddened by the fact, all the while pondering how it could be so. "As perfectly whole and…miserable as Ah was before…." Slowly, she rises from the dirty street, testing each limb for stability and finding them as strong as ever. As if the whole scenario had never happened…but it had...hadn't it?
"Sure did, darlin'," Wolverines voice from behind her. She spins, ready for his attack, and finds herself facing not just one teammate, but all of them. Her stance relaxes, and she again accepts her fate. Who, if not the X-Men, had more right to (hurt?) punish her? In the front stand Wolverine, Storm and Gambit, their expressions unreadable as they stare at her.
"Then why am Ah still alive?" she asks, almost belligerently.
"Because, chere, dat was never de intended outcome," Gambit replies smoothly from Storms side.
"But…but why not?" she asks, her voice growing small again as she sinks down to the ground, giving in to the weight of the sorrow within her. "Ah…wanted to die after everything Ah did…"
"So you would just give up then? Without a fight? Without striving to make up for whatever wrongs you have done in your past?" It was Storm speaking this time, and the calm, even tone of her voice held just a bit of reproach. "I cannot believe that you have spent so much time with we X-Men and yet learned nothing of our ways."
"But Ah have tried!" she cried out, raising her head to look at them all. "Ah have! And it's not enough…"
"And why is dat, chere?"
"Because…because…" she struggles to answer his question, the conflicting emotions within her so tangled that she cannot put them into words. "It just isn't," she finishes, in a bare whisper.
"An who says so, darlin'? Who passes judgment on any o' us in this life, besides God himself, if you believe in that?"
Again she is almost stumped by the question, thinking the answer obvious.
"Well…but…everyone…" she replies helplessly. "Everyone Ah ever known has passed judgment on me one way or another."
"But who passes your sentence, Rogue? Who is it that makes you suffer for your sins in this life?"
She is left wordless, without any hope of answer. She has never pondered the question before, she realizes, and now that she does, there is no answer…she doesn't (want to?) know. She stares at them for a long time, wondering if they know the answer, wondering if she should know as well. They seem so sure, as if they all know, she thinks. Why doesn't she?
"Ah don't know," she says finally, admitting defeat. "Who?"
"You, chere." Gambit drops down, resting on his knees before her. "Only you."
"M…Me?" she asks, her voice filled with disbelief, too stunned by the revelation to even let it register yet.
"That's right darlin', only you. You're the only one that can forgive yourself, and you're the only one that can make yourself suffer."
"Then…then…" she struggles to grasp the concept, feeling the realization dawn on her. "All of this," she gestures weakly at the city around them, "Everything… Ah did this?"
Storm nods gravely, looking at her with something like sympathy. "These phantoms, they exist to be sure, but they are an inevitable by-product of your power. All of them, save Carol and Cody, have survived their encounters with you unscarred. You have repented for those mistakes ever since they happened, and yet you still torture yourself with the thought of their hatred for you. These phantoms have no power over you, no existence even…unless you let them."
"Forgive yourself, chere," Gambit urges, taking her hand in his.
"And ya'll forgive me?" she asks quietly, not really believing that they ever would.
"For what, darlin'? For not knowin' any better? For tryin' your hardest to make it right when you finally did know better? For fightin' for your life?" Logan shook his head. "There's no forgiveness to be asked for that."
Stunned, she barely notices the tears streaming down her cheeks as she turns to Gambit. "Remy…do ya'll forgive me, too?"
"You only did what I would've done to myself, chere, when you left me behind. How can I blame you?"
She gives in to the sobs then, wrapping her arms around Gambit and holding him tight against her.
"Forgive yourself, chere… forgive and den all tings are possible."
"Even controlling mah power?" she asks softly, almost innocently.
"Especially dat." He smiles, drawing back to brush her cheek lightly with one gloved hand. "Once de healin' starts, once you accept who and what you are, you can do anyting. Believe…" he whispers, his form growing hazy and beginning to vanish.
A moment later, she sits alone on the city street, her mind filled with everything she has learned. "It's been up to me all along," she says, realizing it aloud with wonder.
Then she smiles for the first time, her heart almost as light as her form as she takes to the air, climbing her way from her subconscious with rapid speed. The dingy city fades away behind her, and she just sees the beginning of a new structure, solid and beautiful, begin to take form in its place.
And then, she wakes.