Chapter 29: Nine Crimes
Los Angeles, California
"Gambit cares for her. A lot."
It wasn't a lie; Rogue would have tasted a lie when her senses were pushed to the heightened degree she'd forced them to. It explained his insistence on staying with her, his refusal to allow her to confront Essex alone, the way his eyes followed her when they were in the same room. It explained the hormones his body pumped into the air when she stood too close to him, his irritating habit of goading her into conversations with him that hung heavily with innuendo. It didn't explain why her own body instinctively mirrored his moves, leaning closer when he did, responding to his scent as if starved for air. It didn't explain why she'd allowed him to join her and had even felt the smallest touch of gratitude that she wouldn't have to be alone. It didn't explain why she let her thoughts about his surprisingly truthful admission to Essex distract her from the fact that Essex's sycophant Riptide had not really left the building and instead had crept up behind Gambit.
It didn't explain why through the sudden fogging of her vision and loss of consciousness, her thoughts were concerned with the sudden facile body of Gambit under her. He hit the ground hard, his head making a meaty, muffled thump as it hit the tiled laboratory floor harshly. Rogue grimaced and struggled to remain conscious, the small telltale prick of a several needles on her legs helped her fight off the effect of the drugs within the syringes but not even her strength of will would keep her going for long. Gambit groaned beneath her, his eyes sliding open just a sliver. Her name was the word that formed soundlessly on his lips.
"Did you really think your little plan would work, Monsieur LeBeau? That I would let you and another alpha mutant like Rogue just walk in here without taking precautions? I'm not a fool," Essex exclaimed with a humorless laugh. "I'm more informed than you give me credit for, Gambit. I know that Rogue has been missing for a month and recently reappeared with more powerful abilities than when she left. I know that she was supposedly transported to the future. I know every little detail of your lives that you would never want anyone to know."
Rogue's mind was unstable, the glowing orbs of power she'd created were spiraling dangerously in a dizzying loss of control. Her senses amped down, Wolverine's ability sliding from her grasp, and suddenly she was the same vulnerable and powerless girl she'd been a month (year) ago. Pulse's ability joined the tornado of light, and she felt the unsettling stabbing tingle of her ability slide over her skin slickly. If she could get someone to touch her, imprint on her, she'd be able to shake off some of the drugs. Their life energy would supplant hers and there was a chance she could get up enough presence of mind to transport herself and Gambit.
It wasn't meant to be, however.
"Riptide, take our guests to their accommodations. When Malice returns have her join me in the laboratory. I have a new assignment for her."
Riptide's gloved hand gripped her shirt by the collar and began to drag her from Essex's lab and Rogue couldn't restrain the small moan of pain she felt as the projectiles in her legs dragged on the floor. Gambit was pulled beside her but she could see that he'd been hit in the chest with more syringes than she. His eyes were open, just a bit, but no one was home in them. Rogue wanted to feel angry, wanted to use that anger as she always had to build a wall around herself that nothing and no one could penetrate.
"Oh, and Riptide? We don't need any trouble so don't forget the collars."
Instead, she just felt numb.
Bayville, New York
'...using Cerebro, but I've been unable to narrow down the signals. It's almost as if something is deliberately interfering with my ability to contact them. Combined with the other signs that have been reported and things I've been able to glean from surface thoughts, I'm growing worried. The deadly nature of the situation has caused me to rethink my intentions for the 'New Mutants' for the summer. There are still two months before school restarts and I've already contacted the parents to ascertain that an early return would be welcome. For those that have homes to return to travel plans have been made. Unfortunately, for Ray Crisp and Tabitha Smith, there are no homes to return to. Ray has contacted the Morlocks and is welcome to return, but has expressed that he would like to stay here at the Institute even if he won't be allowed to help on the different missions I've just approved. Tabitha's surfaces thoughts have indicated her own plans to leave, though she hasn't settled on a place to go. I'll have to make sure that Logan plants a communication device in her belongings, somewhere she'll notice it quickly in case of emergency.
'On a personal note, I am afraid that my own personal grief over the loss of Dr. McCoy has made my judgment suspect. My instincts are telling me to trust Rogue and her team, but my logic tells me that their interests are entirely selfish. Whatever their mission is they're going to complete it no matter what the costs, and that is more dangerous than anything other variable of this situation to date. I've decided that the remaining inhabitants of the Institute, with the additions of Magneto's remaining Acolytes will branch off into three separate missions. Team One, Storm, Shadowcat, and I, will seek out the Hellfire Club. After the disastrous first meeting of several days ago I feel it best to sooth ruffled feathers especially given their clandestine funding of the Institute. Team Two, comprised of Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Colossus, and Pyro are going to search out Rogue's team and if necessary restrain them or help them. I can't trust my own feelings on the matter, so I'm leaving it to Wolverine. He is fully capable of making the hard decisions. Team Three will be populated with the remaining members of the X-Men and Acolytes; Magneto will collect Jean and Scott from the city, then along with Sabretooth they will search out the Legacy Virus. Magneto has contacts in the black market and believes he can-' Xavier paused the flurry of movement of his fingers on the keyboard and struggled to find the appropriate word. Finally, he decided to simply go with the most truthful. '-intimidate useful information from several brokers associated with the Hellfire Club and S.H.I.E.L.D.
'I'm very proud of the way my X-Men are handling themselves in the interim. Through emotional turbulence and deep grief they have risen to the occasion and pushed aside their personal feelings to act in the best interests of humanity. I have chosen them well.' Xavier sighed heavily as he finished the entry, encrypting and hiding the file with familiar movements. It wasn't a journal so much as a way for him to line up his thoughts. When you can hear every surface thought within a file mile radius without effort, sometimes it helped to differentiate your own thoughts from the pack. Writing, or in this case typing, them was a way for Xavier to do that.
The soft babble of many teenagers in one place drew him to the window; below in the courtyard pandemonium ruled. Storm had arranged for two vans from the nearby Bayville airport to transport the numerous teens all at once, one vehicle there solely for luggage. Xavier watched the young mutants playfully battle it out for seating favor, the grip of grief easing from around them for a few minutes before Storm's somber countenance reminded them of why they were there and what had happened. With a few movements and authoritative words she had the children scrambling into the van and waving goodbye somewhat forlornly. Jamie and Rahne, both the youngest of the group, were taking the goodbyes very hard, though Jamie fought valiantly to keep composure.
Tabitha waved merrily from the mansion's front steps, though Xavier knew that beneath her exuberant personality she was feeling the loss of her friends keenly. Ray barely managed more than a careless head nod, however, his own face sullen as he watched from just behind Tabby. Together the two of them watched the vans pull away, their facade of nonchalance fading within seconds. They, out of the entire group, had nowhere to really go and no amount of conciliatory offers on the behalf of their friends could made that distinct feeling of desolation go away. Ray could've gone with Bobby and stayed in Boston, but he wasn't fool enough to think that it would last. Having your son's friend over for a few days was all well and good, but not for two months. The same could be said of Tabitha and both Amara and Jubilee's offers of a place to go. Neither Ray nor Tabitha had accepted because for them it was better to face the truth than put it off and have to deal with small reminders every day.
Tabitha's face brightened perceptively and she turned to the only remaining New Mutant with a smile that spoke of mischief and more than a little trouble. "Ready for some fun, Ray?"
His eyes widened as the many memories of times Tabitha called "fun" resurfaced. "Um...no?"
"Nonsense, my dear boy!" She exclaimed in a pitch-perfect imitation of Professor Xavier. "I'm thinking you and me, poolside slumber party with all the accoutrements!"
"You're not putting make-up on me," Ray resolved, his eyes seeking out Storm as a source of back-up only to find that the Weather Witch had wordlessly left the scene and abandoned him to Tabitha's clutches.
"Of course not," Tabitha agreed and she looped her arm through his and began to pull him into the Institute. "That's 'movie night' gear, slumber party means spa things. Your face really needs to be exfoliated, Ray."
"Don't worry, Auntie Tabby will take good care of you."
Xavier smiled to himself as he watched Tabitha drag Ray inside, effectively taking his mind off of the situation at hand and making sure his mind wouldn't drift back to it anytime soon. Xavier felt a wave of gratefulness for the first time for Tabitha's overwhelming personality. In most situations it proved only a hazard, but in this particular one it was only a boon.
The door to his study opened with a soft sound, Storm stepping in and shutting it behind her. His location at the window told her that he'd seen the van leave, but she repeated the information anyways. "The students are on their way to the airport now."
He nodded silently, before he turned from the window and the charming view that resided on the other side of the glass. "Magneto and Sabretooth have left?"
"Yes. They're going to collect Scott and Jean and will proceed with their assignment," Storm answered as she moved across the room to take a seat across from the desk. "I'm concerned that we were unable to contact them before assigning them this task. You know that Scott likes to be involved in the decision-making process."
Xavier nodded absently. "Jean needed some privacy from the bombardment of emotions the mansion was projecting, and I don't blame her. I decided against contacting her telepathically in case she's still dealing with adverse effects. I'm sure she and Scott are just using the time for some much desired..." Xavier hesitated before finishing with a slight smile, "...togetherness. What of Wolverine's team?"
"They're in the lower levels preparing to leave. Nightcrawler only just returned home an hour ago and needed some extra time to get ready. They'll be ready to leave in just a few hours. Kitty is currently agonizing over the civilians clothes she wants to wear for the meeting with the Hellfire Club, otherwise I need only to change as well and we can go." Storm stood and moved around the desk to stand beside her mentor. "Are you sure about this, Charles? The Hellfire Club was hostile when they attacked the Institute. Perhaps diplomacy is not the best strategy."
"They were hostile because of Rogue's interaction with them, they weren't aware that she was no longer affiliated with the X-Men. I can only hope that they are willing to hear our explanations and forgive the encounter," he explained, before sighing softly and continuing. "If we could have one less enemy in this world then I would breathe easier. You can never have too many allies, but you can have too many enemies, Ororo."
Storm felt slightly chastised and nodded her agreement. "I'm going to get ready, Professor. Call me if you need assistance."
Xavier demurred silently and waited until she'd left the room to return to his laptop and re-open his previous document. 'I will try to resolve the situation with the Hellfire Club as amicably as I can, but should I fail I have programmed my computer to send these files to you, Moira. I trust that you will know what to do with this information.'
Los Angeles, CA
Rogue came awake very suddenly, one second trapped in the inky hell of unconsciousness and the next opening her eyes to the piercing light of fluorescent bulbs. Her head was echoing with the sound of drums and the tears that leaked from the side of her eyes fell in rhythm with the pain. She didn't move at all, the only sign of her awakening being the sudden quickening of her breath. Slowly she took inventory of her body and mind and found both sorely lacking. Her body felt hollowed out and numb, with the exception of small points of stinging pain on the back of her legs and the headache reverbrating through her skull.
Most frightening though was the unending sense of alone that pervaded her senses. There wasn't a whisper of anyone in her head and the sudden cacophony of silence, compounded by the waves of pain had her nerves jumping with anxiety. She wanted to just lay there, wherever she was, and thoroughly search her mind for the whispers of presence that she knew had to remain somewhere. Not even Xavier's expunging of the psyches had made them leave completely. They left indelible marks on the walls of her mind, graffiti signatures that had grown to represent a sense of rightness for her. She could remove the personalities from the imprints, but they still had a visceral image tied to them.
There was nothing now. A blank canvas where the masterpiece of her powers used to be.
Rogue blinked slowly and forced herself to sit up, her body shedding the numb shell in favor of stiff ache. She studied her surroundings with the placid acceptance of someone who'd spent months locked in a room with only a few people allowed visitations rights. Her cell was small, only ten feet by ten feet, and instead of bars there was a wall of some sort of clear polymer. There was a bed which she'd been lying on, toilet facilities, but other than that it was filled with a whole lot of nothing. She was still wearing the same clothes she'd arrived in but they felt stale and dirty after having been slept in. Removing her jacket Rogue stood and stretched, forcing her muscles to lose the tension and loosen around her bones. She focused all her senses on the environment she found herself in and though she didn't have the superior senses other mutants' abilities afforded her, she could tell several things. The vent located in the ceiling pumped air into her room, air scented just slightly with a bitter component she couldn't recognize. The clear wall was movable only by the keypad on the other wall, which she had no hope of reaching. Gambit was standing the cell directly across from her.
"Are you okay?" His question was muffled but carried through his cell wall and hers easily enough. His face betrayed that he'd been awake longer than she and had spent that extra time concerned about her. She didn't give him platitudes or sugar-coating, even if it was what he wanted.
"I'm fine. What happened?" Her voice was hard, she couldn't help it. She was vulnerable and in an unknown situation and there was no back-up coming. This was what the X.S.E. had trained her for, but putting that training into practical use was harder than she'd expected.
"Riptide spinned around and around and took the world with him..." Gambit answered, his eyes falling to the floor and his voice fading.
"Pardon?" Gambit asked instinctively, his eyes shooting upwards and meeting hers for the first time since they'd begun to speak.
"You mean he 'spun' around and around. 'Spinned' is not a word."
"You're correctin' my grammar? Here? Now?"
"Well, if you're going to wax poetic about letting Sinister and his goon get the jump on us, then at least do it correctly," Rogue admonished, though she knew her intentions were lost on the shame-faced Cajun. She didn't need a morose pessimist for a partner, she needed her creative and foolhardy one back. That was the partner that she'd dragged into this situation with her and would be the one who helped drag them out of it. "Tell me about Riptide."
Gambit sighed and shrugged. "I recruited him for Sinister-"
"You what?" This was information that she hadn't known. Information that he'd have to have repressed very deeply for her not to have gleaned it from his memories easily. The older memories were the less depth they had and the harder they became to conjure. This memory, though, this working for Sinister had to be a fairly recent memory (at least in terms of Gambit's life length) but she hadn't even caught a hint of it when she'd imprinted him, any time she'd imprinted him. It spoke of conscious effort to repress and forget, and said more about Gambit than Rogue was comfortable with knowing. The look on his face only confirmed his feelings on the matter and Rogue felt regret for the first time since she'd made the decision to try and fix the time line. It was one thing to say you'll do anything and everything, but it was quite another to be faced with the living victims of her decisions. It was one of the reasons she'd left the Institute so quickly after terminating Dr. McCoy. The dead can't condemn you and your actions, only the living make that judgment.
Gambit hesitated, watched the thoughts slide across her face, before answering. "I was only fifteen when my abilities manifested, without control. I blew up everything from tables to clothes to food to people. I killed and I couldn't stop it. I ended up sitting in a room in my family's Garden District house slowly going mad. Someone had to dress me, feed me, bathe me; I was little more than a pet for them to care for. My adoptive papa found a doctor who said he could help me. Doctor Nathaniel Essex, but there were conditions." Rogue wanted to ask questions, her curiosity getting the better of her, but she restrained the urge and instead listened. His accent faded to near non-existent but the small flares of it in his words charmed her immensely. She stepped closer to the wall between them and placed her hands on the cool surface, subconsciously reaching out for him though the effort was unnoticed and unfruitful.
"I had to work for him," Gambit continued, his eyes unseeing as he immersed himself in memories he'd tried his damnedest to drink, smoke, and fuck away. "Jean Luc reasoned with him, had a contract written out. It was just another business proposition for him, the same as all Guild business. He didn't need to know what the Doctor would do to me, or what he'd make me do, just needed to know that in a year I'd be released and could continue my work with the Guild." Gambit smiled suddenly, awareness sliding back into his eyes as he threw a flirty smirk at her. "Gambit is de best t'ief, chere, and Jean Luc wanted to know he'd get me back in one piece." His smile faltered. "So to speak."
"Dr. Essex did what he said he could do. He operated on Gambit's brain and did something to give me control. I could turn it on and off, focus it, but there were limits too. I couldn't charge organic things anymore, no more people or plants or animals. Perhaps it was a safety measure, so I wouldn't turn my control on him." Gambit said thoughtfully, tilting his head slightly as if the idea had only just occurred to him. "With my newfound control he put me to work, and that's when I met Mr. Sinister. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one a kindly doctor, the other a raving monster made up of all the darkness of humanity. He sent me out to start recruiting specific mutants for him. I recruited Riptide, Malice, Arclight, Vertigo, and Sabretooth."
"Sabretooth?" Rogue asked with surprise. She was unaware that Sabretooth had ever worked with anyone but Magneto.
Gambit nodded and noted, "That's how Magneto heard of me and recruited me for the Acolytes. Sabretooth mentioned me, supposedly favorably." He diverted his attention back to his original train of thought. "That was the core of the team, but I didn't know that at the time. He just kept sending us out to recruit more people. I figured he was making a mutant army, preparing for the war that was already rumored to be coming." He shook his head, his russet hair dancing across his brow. "But the newer people we were bringing in weren't coming back out. They were disappearing into his labs. We never stuck around long after dropping off the new mutants, just did our job, got our next assignment and left. I didn't even notice-" He froze, biting his lip and sighing heavily before he looked her in the eyes and continued the thought. "I didn't even notice what was happening for months. I just...concentrated on doing my time and getting out. He didn't share his plans or anything with me, we were just the hired help. Even when I realized what was happening, I couldn't stop him. He kept sending us out for more, specific people that he had whole dossiers devoted to. Some of them knew we were coming, though, and fought back. Arclight was killed and Vertigo was hurt bad enough that she went home to recover. Sabretooth left to rejoin Magneto. Sinister just found new people to replace them. The new people knew what they were getting into, though. Rumors had begun to spread through the mutant underground like a virus. The Marauders, the scourge of mutantkind. No one knew who we worked for, the government or someone else, they just knew that mutants seen with us were never seen again."
"What was he doing with them?" Rogue asked, unable to stop the question from spilling past her lips.
Gambit smiled bitterly. "What everyone wants to do with us, chere. Experimenting. Studying. Fixing us. Pushing the limits of our abilities to see how far we could go. Anything and everything he wanted. When my contract was up I left and I didn't look back. Just returned to my life at the Guild."
Rogue stared at him until he forced himself to meet her gaze. "It's not your fault, Gambit."
"Really, chere? Are you sure about that? Sure that I couldn't have stopped him? I'm not. I'm not sure of anything," he bit the words out, practically snarling at her as his guilt over the situation surfaced and overwhelmed him.
She was sure, definitely sure, that it wasn't his fault though. Just because you weren't to blame for the actions of others and your own inability to stop those actions didn't mean that the guilt didn't plague you from one life and into the next. She knew guilt, she knew guilt for others' actions, and knew that there was no way to simply stop feeling it. Rogue knew all these things, so she struggled to move past it. "What can he do, Riptide?"
"He can spin his body to just under the speed of light. Once he gets going there's no stopping him or anything he throws. He can form spikes from his bones but he prefers to use other objects like throwing stars and-"
"Needles full of sedative?" Rogue finished for him.
Gambit shrugged and moved away from the cell front to sit heavily upon his bed, covering his face with his hands as the stress of the day caught up with him. Rogue started to speak but realized that Gambit wasn't in any place to listen anymore. There was a soft fog emanating from his ceiling vent but he was already too far gone to notice it. Slowly his body slackened, his muscles loosening until he'd slipped backwards into a prone sitting position with only the wall holding him up. "Gambit!" It was futile, but she called for him anyways.
Rogue turned her eyes to her own vent but there was no sleep-time fog hissing gently from hers. The soft vibrations of footsteps coming closer to their cells shook the front wall that Rogue's hands still rested on and she threw herself away from the wall to curl up in a tiny ball in the corner. The placement of the cell bed blocked her partially from sight and she peaked around the plastic railing at the foot of it to watch Mr. Sinister and Riptide as they walked into vision.
"Good afternoon, Rogue. How are you feeling post-sedation? Any nauseous, light-headed feeling, or loss of bodily function?" Sinister asked in a jovial even tone. If it wasn't for his appearance, deathly pale with hair the deep purple of a bad night and a uniform that seemed to have been bought from Bondage 'R' Us, one might almost mistake him for a kindly pediatrician, if just listening to his voice.
Rogue shook her head slowly, watching as Riptide entered a code into Gambit's cell keypad. The clear wall slid away and the air-borne sedative dissolved into the hall air harmlessly. With the ease of great strength the mutant lifted Gambit's prone figure and slung him over his shoulder before exiting the cell and disappearing from sight.
Rogue jumped to her feet, and though it placed her closer to the despicable Sinister, she placed herself as close to the wall as possible and tried to see where Riptide was taking Gambit. She turned her questions to Sinister, though. "Where are you taking him, Essex?"
His low chuckle was a manifestation of all things malicious and caused chills along the back of her neck. "Don't worry, Rogue. You'll find out yourself soon enough."
Then he too disappeared along the same path as Riptide and Rogue was left alone.
Completely, and totally alone.
Bayville, New York
Amara watched as the small town of Bayville passed by. For a place that was such a large part of her formative years, it took a surprisingly short amount of time to pass through it on their way to the airport. All around her the rest of the Institute students had fallen quiet, the knowledge that this was the last time they'd see each other for a few months at least was depressing, to say the least. They'd all bonded tightly, adversity forging connections that would have otherwise never have been made. It didn't matter that they came from different cultures, different worlds; they were all mutants and it was a part of their identities that they would never willingly give up.
They were going home, though, the whole lot of them. To places where being a mutant was a secret, where it wasn't an identity so much as a flaw, where even familial love couldn't hold a candle to wide-spread bigotry.
Amara felt pressure on her seat and turned to find Rahne leaning over far enough that her face was only inches from Amara's. "Are we there, yet?"
It was enough of an icebreaker to clear out the terrible tension that had plagued them all for days now. "No, now sit down, Rahne. You're going to make the driver crash."
Roberto scoffed. "No, Jubilee stealing his rear view mirror to put on make-up is going to make us crash. Why did she get the front seat, again?"
"Because you were too slow, Sun-boy," said girl responded, putting the finishing details on her eyes and returning the mirror's possession to the Indian driver, who smiled gratefully. He adjusted it until it was correct again and ignored the small shadow he thought he saw dancing on the outer edge of his vehicle. It was just a trick of light, he believed.
"You wanna come back here and say that, chica?" Roberto threatened, a slight glow appearing on his skin as his powers revved up at the thought of a good old-fashioned squabble.
The driver ignored that too as a trick of light.
"Stop fighting," Bobby scolded, more than a little cocky. He was the only one of them to have worked an actual mission with the X-Men and had since then presumed himself to be the "head" New Mutant. "We're almost there and Xavier would be very disappointed if we were to destroy another vehicle."
The driver's (whose name was Rashid Suresh, not that the teenagers knew that) eyes widened almost comically and contemplated briefly radioing the driver in the van of luggage just behind him. He'd volunteered to drive the young mutants, was getting hazard pay for doing it, but also didn't want to be blamed if there was any damage to the airport's van. He listened as the seven youngsters dissolved into amicable bickering and lost interest in gazing at the scenery as it passed. The threat of vehicular harm from inside faded, but outside the sun seemed to hide behind the clouds as the air they rushed through began to darken. Rashid couldn't recall a storm warning from the news but fervently prayed that it would hold off until the various flights had left. He didn't want to be obligated to drive them all back to the Institute, not sure if the vehicle would survive a return trip.
It wasn't a storm that darkened the sky, however, because the only area being overcome by shadows was the area the van passed over and into. The radio on the dashboard crackled softly as his fellow driver behind him tried to contact Rashid, but interference kept the message from getting through. Distracted briefly from the sudden change in daylight, Rashid reached for the walkie and spoke softly. "Repeat, please."
There was no chance for the other driver to repeat his warning, however, because the shadows that had been surrounding the van, matching speed and direction, and dancing around the edges of perception suddenly rose up and consumed the van and all its inhabitants. For several seconds there was a fast-moving shadow form, shaped like a van and moving as if there still was a van inside the inky darkness, then just as quickly as the shadows appeared they disappeared...and took the van with it.
The other driver, whose name neither Rashid nor the New Mutants had known, was so shocked that he drove right through the spot they disappeared and didn't brake when the road curved. His truck hit the median with enough force to send the large vehicle flipping end over end, the driver's head smashing into steering wheel and driver window several times before crashing to a stop upside down and smoking.
Author's Note: I'm actually taking Selene's comic!canon power 'shadow-morphing' and taking it one step further. It's a bit of artistic license, so forgive the presumption.
Author's Note (2): I'd like to give a big welcome to those who only recently discovered and commented on this story. I'm very glad to have you all here reading and enjoying.
Author's Note (3): Heads up for all my America-locked readers! The website HULU now has all four seasons of X-Men: Evolution up! Every episode, every moment, everything we've all missed since it went off air!