The door swung shut with an audible click and Rogue found herself staring at a thick sheet of dark, rusted metal. What had she done? She had left the man she was quite possibly falling in love with in a room with the woman who had been solely responsible for ruining every good thing that had ever happened to her. Shaking her head, she reached out to push the door back open. A hand reached out and wrapped around her wrist. Rogue turned and found Irene watching her with her sightless eyes.
"You have to trust him to do his own part," the older woman said quietly.
Rogue felt her lips curl down. "Ah don't even trust mahself anymore," she shot back, pulling her arm away. "How long Irene? How long have you been workin' with Mystique? Mah whole life? Has anything been real?"
Irene opened her mouth to speak but Rogue cut her off. "You know what? Forget it. Ah'm not interested in hearin' any more lies. Let's just do what Ah have to do and get outta here. Then Ah never want to see you again."
"You can be cruel, child." The older woman's voice was flat and toneless.
"Yeah, real surprisin' right? Considerin' all the love and tenderness Ah was raised on."
"Did you ever stop to think that if you hadn't been through all you've been through, you might not be where you are now? Who you are now?"
"And that would be a fuckin' bad thing?" Rogue whirled around and stalked a few feet away, just barely resisting the urge to fist her hands in her hair. She felt like she had been her entire life stuck in a tiny cage, being poked and prodded just so that, eighteen years later, she could be pulled out and shown at a science fair. She wanted to scream, she wanted to claw, and she wanted to kick the shit out of somebody. Turning back, Rogue held her arms out wide.
"Look at me Irene. Ah hate mahself. Ah hate mah life. Ah'm a mess."
"You're the only one who can save the world. You're its savior."
"Ah don't want to be a savior! Ah never wanted to save the world. Ah just wanted to live in it."
"Live in it, but not take any responsibility for its welfare?"
Rogue folded her arms across her chest. "Now you're sounding like Professor X. Ah didn't ask for any of this. Ah didn't ask for Mystique to take a sick interest in screwin' up mah life."
"And I did not ask to be blind. To see only shattered fragments of the future. To know what will happen and be unable to stop it. But that is what I do."
Irene reached out again, this time resting her hand on her shoulder. "Because it is all I can do."
Rogue shook her head and pulled away. "No. Why are you working for Mystique? What's in it for you?" When the blind woman turned her sightless eyes away, Rogue pressed, "Ah deserve an answer, Irene."
For a moment, it didn't seem as if she would be given that answer. And then the words came tumbling out.
"I dreamed of you. Ever since I was a child." Irene closed her eyes and saw not the future, but the past. "Sometimes you were small. Other times you were grown up. And one day, a few days after I had turned sixteen, I saw you battling a giant man encased in a strange sort of armor. It was not the last time I had that particular vision. I've had it countless times over the years. Sometimes you are victorious. Other times, you are not."
Rogue shifted impatiently. "What has this got to do with Mystique?"
Irene's eyes flickered open. "I met Mystique many years before you were born. She was in trouble and needed help."
"Trouble she probably caused."
"Regardless, I offered her a place to stay. After all, we had something in common. We were both mutants and if you think anti-mutant sentiments are bad now, then you can't imagine what it was like then."
"So y'all bonded over bigotry. Great. Where do Ah fit in?"
"Mystique was interested in my visions. How they worked, what I saw, how often things came to pass. On one occasion, I told her of you and the man I saw you fighting. She wanted to know who he was. And who you were." A slight smile passed over Irene's face and she shifted toward Rogue. "I must say that I, too, was interested in knowing your identity. Mystique said we should try searching for you, and I agreed."
Irene paused, as if she was considering something. She shook her head and continued on. "Whenever I had a vision involving you, she would question me closely. For clues to your whereabouts. As well as information about the strange man. It was later that I learned that Mystique had always known his identity. Where she learned of Apocalypse, I do not know. But she knew that you were the key to finding him."
Lifting her head, Irene stared directly into Rogue's eyes. "We found you in an orphanage and Mystique arranged for your adoption. I began to have stronger visions, ones that involved the destruction of the world by a great black cloud. She seemed to think it could be controlled. I tried to tell her it would only bring ruin but she laughed at the idea. I knew the only way to protect you was to stay with her."
"Well ah hate the break it to you, but you did a lousy job of protectin' me." Rogue's voice dropped to a whisper. "Did you know what she was going to do to me? Ah want the truth, Irene. Did you know?"
Irene shook her head violently and when she spoke, her voice was just as low. "I swear. If I had known, I would have never have left you with him."
Folding her arms across her chest, Rogue turned her back to Irene. Part of her wanted to call the blind woman a liar. Part of her wanted to scream in frustration and anger. And part of her, one small part of her, wished that she could be five again and could simply throw her arms around the woman she had considered her mother and have everything be alright.
An impossible wish.
"Fine. Let's go."
They moved quickly through a series of tunnels, each one exactly like the one before it; dark, damp, with rust stained concrete walls. Rogue could feel the subtle decline of the hallways and knew with each step they took, she and Irene were moving deeper into the earth. She bit her lip nervously. It was one thing to find Apocalypse and defeat him. It would be another to manage to get out alive. Rogue had been an X-man long enough to know that besting the bad guy did not necessarily mean the battle was over. There would probably be some kind of revenge mechanism or a sudden natural disaster to contend with. God was just spiteful like that. That is, of course, assuming that she actually could manage to take Apocalypse out. Maybe the world was just doomed.
Rogue glanced down at her hands and unconsciously slowed her steps. Just how the hell was she supposed to beat this guy anyway? Ask nicely for his surrender? The simple task of going after Mystique and giving her a red ass beat down had suddenly morphed into a vastly more dangerous and important task and Rogue wasn't entirely sure that she was up to it.
"Irene? Did Mystique happen ta have some corner 'round here where she could skulk up her evil plans?"
Irene shook her head. "No. Mystique did not come here often. I think some part of her fears the monster she has helped release. Why do you ask?"
Stopping in the middle of the corridor, Rogue set her hands on her hips. "Well, 'cause it's gonna be a bit tricky to beat this guy if Ah got nothin' to work with." At the confusion that crossed Irene's face, Rogue elaborated, "Mystique hit me with some kinda ray beam. Ah can't use mah powers. Or anyone else's for that matter."
To her enormous surprise, the blind woman waved her concerns away with one hand.
"Do not concern yourself with that."
One of Rogue's eyebrows shot up. "Don't concern mahself? What am Ah supposed to do? Challenge him to a thumb war? Read him his rights and expect him to go quietly? Ah don't even know what his rights would be."
"You will know when the time is right."
"Oh terrific. It's one of those things? Can't you at least give me a hint or somethin'? Like a weak spot? Or some kind of advice?"
"Think happy thoughts."
"Right." Rogue blew a stray strand of hair out of her eyes and squinted further down the tunnel. All she could see was the dim glow of electric light. "Well, are we at least gettin' close?"
Irene shrugged. "I have no idea."
"Okay. Great. Ah guess we'll just keep following these tunnels. They're bound to take us somewhere."
"But will it be where we want to go?"
Rogue flicked her gaze back towards Irene and pursed her lips. "Look, you're not helpin' any. Now, unless you're gettin' any weird voodoo vibes, we'll go this way. He's gotta be pretty close. After all, how big can this place be?"
"What is the depth of your courage?"
Shaking her head, Rogue started walking again, scanning the walls for doors or any thing that might give her some hint that they were headed in the right direction. Then again, there was only one direction to head in.
She growled deep in her throat. "Ah hate all this skulking around. What the hell kinda evil lair is this anyway? Irene? Irene, what's the matter?"
The older woman had stumbled and her hands flew up to clutch her head, groaning as if in some kind of terrible pain. Forgetting all her earlier anger, Rogue immediately stepped to her side and wrapped a steadying arm around her thin shoulders.
"He is near. Can't you feel it? His terrible presence?" Irene's voice was little more than a whisper. Rogue could only shake her head. She peered down the hallway again, straining to see the danger that Irene could feel so acutely. She thought she could just make out a set of doors at the end of the tunnel but if Apocalypse was behind them, she sure as hell couldn't tell.
"Ah'll have to take your word for it. Ah think Ah see some doors up ahead. You stay here. Ah'll come back for you," she said, gently maneuvering Irene so that she could lean against the wall for support. Irene moved without protest, her fingers rubbing circular motions in her forehead. She glanced up, her milky white eyes searching through endless darkness. A small smile twisted her lips.
"Will you?" she asked, without doubt and without mockery.
Rogue stared down at the helpless woman and felt a flood of emotions run through her, each one fighting for dominance. Anger. Sorrow. Hurt. Love. She withdrew her arm from around Irene's shoulder and stepped back far enough so she could not feel her presence. The expression on Irene's face did not change though she did lift one arm slightly, as if she were searching for something. Or someone.
"Yes. Ah will," Rogue promised. And without another word she turned and headed towards the doors. As she drew closer, the doors seemed to grow in size, as if they were guarding some enormous creature. She thought she heard the scuffling of feet behind her, but when she glanced back, Irene hadn't moved. Taking a deep breath, she turned back towards the doors. They no longer seemed so large. Ah guess this is it, she thought and before she could talk herself out of it, she pushed on the cold metal. It gave way easily.
The room that she entered was not the room she had expected to find. It wasn't very much of a room at all, barely the size of a walk-in closet. There were no overhead lights; the only illumination came from tiny blinking blue bulbs. They lined the arms and sides of a strange looking chair that had an odd assortment of cables running from and around it.
And seated in that chair, the dim light spilling over grey skin littered with wires and tubes was Apocalypse. Rogue had only seen him once before and only for a brief moment, but his was a face that was impossible to forget. He seemed much larger seated in that chair than he had looked stretched out inside the sarcophagus hidden within the depth of the mountains. She had no idea what the cables hooked into him were for or even where they went, but she could guess that it wasn't good.
Flexing her fingers, she stepped closer, still having no idea how she was supposed to fight this monster. There weren't any weapons in the room and, for reasons that escaped her, she hadn't thought to bring any. And she certainly wasn't going to wake him up and ask if he would go quietly. Irene had said she would know when the time was right but what the hell did that mean, exactly? She didn't feel any different.
"Well, here goes nothing," she muttered to herself, reaching her hands out. They shook slightly as they pressed down against his arm. The skin was smooth and cold like the metal of the door had been. She waited to feel the sharp tug of her powers, but there was nothing. Mr. McCoy's diagnosis ran through her mind and she frowned. Mystique's blocks must still be in place. The shape-shifter wasn't even there and she was still a hindrance. Rogue felt the frustration build up inside her. She had spent most of her life trying to get rid of her powers and now that they were final gone, she was trying to get them back. Her fingers curled around his forearm.
And then she felt something. A slow and hesitant tug that turned into a sluggish stream. She felt it move like syrup underneath her skin.
Then it stopped. And began to pull back.
Rogue looked up and saw the dark eyes of Apocalypse wide and staring directly at her. She tried to pull her hands back but they felt as if they were glued to his skin. The flow of energy continued to move backwards, shifting from her into him, and the pain of it burned through her. Her mouth opened in a silent scream and blackness crept over her vision, swallowing her.
When she awoke, it was to a strange sight. The dark room had been replaced by a night sky streaked with purple and orange. The walls were gone, leaving opened streets filled with crumbling buildings and other wreckage. It looked like downtown New York City after a nuclear explosion. Rogue sat up and pressed a hand to the side of her head, feeling the echoes of pain shoot through her brain.
"Where am Ah?" she asked aloud.
"The future," came the deep, rumbling response. She spun around to see Apocalypse towering behind her.
"My future. Your future."
As he spoke, there was the sound of gravel being crunched beneath feet. A troop of robots bearing a vague resemblance to Apocalypse marched past in perfect lines of four. From far off came the heavy boom of an explosion and the ground shook. Rogue flicked her eyes over the destruction, the waste, and then turned towards him.
"Ah don't know what kinda trick you've pulled, but this," she waved her arm towards the carnage, "ain't gonna happen."
A smile curled his lips. "And tell me, who will stop me?"
The mocking tone in his voice infuriated her and she swung out with her fist. He caught it easily in his massive hand.
"Your government? Their armies will tremble before me," he continued, as if nothing had happened. "The X-men?" At her startled expression, his smile grew. "Yes, I know all about them. Mystique seemed to consider them a threat. I consider them flies to be squashed beneath my foot. You? Will you stop me? Weak and powerless as you are?"
His voice reverberated through her head, pressing down on her with an unbearable weight. Rogue shook her head, whether in denial of his speech or to ease the pressure in her mind she didn't know. She punched out with her left fist but he caught that one as well. Laughter rang out, harsh and grating. He squeezed her hands lightly in his grip and sent her to her knees.
"Puny, miserable creature. Why do you struggle against the inevitable? It was your hand that freed me. You should be rewarded, not punished. Join me and I shall give you your desires."
Rogue grimaced at the pain that coursed through her arms. He was barely applying any pressure and yet it felt as if her bones would snap beneath his hands. It was obvious he could easily crush her like a bug. Fighting him could only mean death. Or, she could side with him. Like Mystique had.
The choice wasn't hard to make.
"Go to hell you over dressed tin man," she spat, struggling to pull her hands from his grasp.
Apocalypse stared down at her, as if he were not surprised at her refusal.
"So be it."
As if she weighed no more than a rag doll, he lifted her off the ground, swung her around in a circle, and then let go, sending her flying through the air. She felt herself falling from a terrible height and tried to search within her for some power, some ability that would halt the downward motion. That would save her.
Darkness descended once more.
When she next opened her eyes, the darkness was still there, heavy and unbroken. It made her wonder if she was blind or if she was dead. And then she wondered which she would prefer. Either way, at least she wouldn't have to see the destruction that Apocalypse was going to bring about.
"Quit bein' so dramatic. You ain't dead, kid."
Rogue turned her head in the direction of Wolverine's gruff voice but could see nothing.
"Nor, child, are you blind."
Storm's voice was a cool contrast to Wolverine's and it came from the opposite direction. Rogue strained her eyes but there was only blackness.
"So if Ah'm not dead and Ah'm not blind, Ah guess that just leaves crazy, right? Ah cracked mah head on something and now Ah'm hearing voices."
"You've heard voices all your life Rogue. Why should this be any different?" Mystique.
Rogue felt her fingers clench. "Shut up. You're dead. Or close to it."
Laughter. "Am I? Or is it your precious Gambit who is begging for his life?"
Rogue turned her head and came face to face with Mystique. The shape-shifter had a sly smile on her face. "Or is he begging for . . . something else?"
The sound of the Professor's voice was enough to cut through the rage that was building up inside of Rogue. She heard the quiet hum of his wheelchair first. A moment later he hovered out of the darkness. She blinked at him.
"Professor? What are you doin' here?"
He folded his hands on his lap and smiled his patient smile. "We are all always with you Rogue, wherever you go." As he spoke more X-men appeared out of the darkness; Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, Forge, Shadowcat, Angel, Nightcrawler, Colossus and countless others. She stared blankly.
"Uh, not that Ah don't appreciate the whole 'we are one' mindset but frankly, it's a little creepy. And second, it still doesn't answer the question of how the heck did ya'll get here?"
"Do you know where 'here' is?"
Rogue opened her mouth to answer, then snapped it shut a moment later. "Not really."
"You're inside the mind of Apocalypse. Instead of you absorbing him, he absorbed you," the Professor explained.
"Okay." She ran a hand through her hair, tugging on it lightly. "So what are you doing here? Did he absorb ya'll too?"
Professor Xavier shook his head. "No. But you did."
A light bulb went off in Rogue's head. "So if y'all are here, then you can help me fight him. Ah bet against all of us, he'd fall faster than a pig from a maple tree."
But the Professor shook his head again. "None of us are really here. We're only shadows of your mind."
There came a crashing sound from not too far away and the Professor's face grew grave. "Listen carefully. There is not much time. He'll be here soon. It is imperative that you get out of his mind. The chair you saw earlier? It hooks him into a machine. A machine that can very well cause the destruction you see here."
Rogue felt the terror shoot up from her stomach into her throat. "How the hell do Ah get outta his mind? Ah can't fight him. Mah powers are blocked."
"The block is only physical. In your mind, you can accomplish anything."
She stared at him. "What the hell does THAT mean?"
Any answer he might have given her was cut off by an enormous arm suddenly exploding through the darkness, sending bits of concrete flying. Thick fingers closed around her waist and dragged her out into the lighted, destroyed streets. Caught in a vise-like grip, Rogue struggled to break free and seconds later found herself looking into the face of Apocalypse once more. Only now he was three times the size he had been before, a half-mechanical version of King Kong.
"You cannot hide from me in my own mind. I give you one last chance. Pledge your allegiance to me, and I shall let you live." His voice crashed over her like an ocean wave, blowing her hair back away from her face and thundering in her ears. Rogue continued her struggles, his fingers gripping her body tightly enough to make breathing difficult. It caused panic to rise up in her, to mix with the fear that had already set in. How the hell was she supposed to get out of this? There was no one to help her. She couldn't even help herself. Her eyes traveled to his massive face, grinning in apparent victory, in smug superiority, and she wanted, more than anything, to take a page from Cyclops' book and blast him right in the center of his ugly face.
She felt the heat behind her eyes. Her lips curled.
"It's a really intriguing offer, but Ah'm afraid Ah'm gonna have to decline. Ah already have a job."
And with that she left the plasma blast outward in a massive stream. It slammed into in his face and he roared in anguish. His hands released her and flew up to his face. Rogue free fell for a few seconds before hitting the ground and pitching forward. She rolled deftly out of the way of his feet as they smashed down blinding, trying to crush her beneath his soles. Flinging one hand out, she felt the air around her fingers grow cold and a stream of ice flowed through the air, settling into a pool spread out before him. Apocalypse stepped onto the slick surface, his hands still pressed against his burning eyes. Holding her arms out in front of her, she blasted off of the ground like a cannonball out of a cannon and slammed into him chest, pushing him over backwards. He fell with a tremendous rumble, sending up a cloud of dirt and debris. She ran up his chest, pulling her arm back as she went, skin turning to metal with each step she took.
His hands fell away from his face just as she reached his chin and his eyes, though raw and red, could still see her clearly.
"I am a god among peasants," he intoned.
"Oh yeah?" she asked, rearing back. "Well, the peasants just revolted."
With that her fist collided with his face, and there came a huge explosion of white light that momentarily blinded her. She heard his long, drawn out scream of denial and then, abruptly, there was silence. Blinking away the spots in her vision, she saw that she was back in the room with the machines. Apocalypse still sat in the chair, only his eyes were closed now and his head drooped onto his chest. But that didn't mean that he wouldn't wake up any minute. Gotta destroy that machine, she thought frantically, setting her gaze on the chair and the cables that ran from it. She tried to fire off another one of Cyclops's blasts but nothing came.
"Shit," she gasped, turning her eyes to the room, searching for anything that would help her destroy the machine that was moments away from destroying life as she knew it. There was nothing. The room was empty save for Apocalypse, the machine, and herself. She started forward, intent on ripping the wires free with her bare hands when she felt a light tap on her shoulder.
Gambit stood a few feet from the door, a pack of fresh playing cards in his hand. He held up the entire pack and they were lit with a pink fire.
"Allow me," he said lightly, tossing the pack towards the chair and at the same time, grabbing hold of her hand and tugging her out of the room. The door had just closed behind them when the explosion went off, the shockwave washing over them and sending them sprawling to the floor. A stream of flame passed over their heads, singly their backs lightly and leaving the smell of burning in the air.
With her cheek pressed against the concrete floor, Rogue looked at Gambit and smiled a huge smile. "You always show up at the best times."
Around them the earth began to tremble. They dragged each other to their feet; Gambit's arm wrapped firmly around her waist to help steady her. He leaned down and whispered in her ear just before they began to run through the collapsing tunnel.
"We gotta get outta here, cherie. You can thank me properly w'en we get outside."
"Ah'm still not sleepin' with you."
"Me'be you change your mind w'en you see de present Gambit gotchu."
"Shut up and run, swamp rat."
Later, when they sat in the cockpit of the X-Jet, Irene safely stowed away in one the seats, her sightless eyes staring out one of the windows and the earth below them still rumbling with the aftermath of Apocalypse's recent burial, Rogue punched in the controls for the autopilot, leaned her head back against the seat, and sighed, feeling suddenly too tired to move. She lolled her head slightly to the right and saw Gambit sprawled out in his own chair, looking just about the same as she felt.
"Now what's this about a present?"
He held up one finger and pushed himself out of his chair, heading towards the back of the jet. Halfway, he turned around and motioned for her to follow him. Groaning, she got to her feet, feeling as if each of her limbs weighed a thousand pounds, and shuffled after him. She found him pulling something out of a small storage compartment.
"What the hell is—"
Before she could finish her sentence, the body of Mystique fell the floor with a clang. Rogue stared down at the bruised and bloodied corpse. Very slowly she lifted one foot and nudge the shoulder. Nothing. Tilting her head to the side, she stepped back and slammed her foot into the shape-shifter's side. Then she sighed again; this time it was a sigh of release.
Looking up, she saw Gambit standing there, arms folded across his chest, a small smile on his face. She watched him for a long moment, her expression unreadable.
And then, lips curving, she crooked one finger at him beckoningly.
Bah! I am so very sorry about how long it took me to get this chapter out. Rough couple weeks and some major writer's block. It didn't even come out the way I wanted. I heartily apologize to anyone who's still reading. But at least we have reached the end! A much different end then I envisioned when I started the story a couple years ago but that's kinda what you get when you stop a story in the middle then wait a year and a half before you get back to it. Anyway I want to thank everyone who has been reading the story and reviewing the story, you guys all rock. I am totally unworthy of any speck of your interest. Thanks a whole bunch.