track one / "MONEY"


"Oh, you hush." She turns her glare on the unconscious

heap laid out across the seat. "Lucky for me, I am invincible."

Rogue –

Too anxious to get down from the cab and Rogue stumbles, worn shoes sliding past the metal step, toes landing on iced-over concrete. The door swings wide, pulling the weight of her body and her duffel bag with it. She rests her forehead against her gloved hand, still clutching the handle.

Nearly cross-eyed, she glares through the blotchy buzz until she can clearly see her breath coming out in puffs of condensation. Her taut skin settles into the pinprick sensation she's more or less gotten used to. Five Mississippi Rivers, and she straightens.

She blinks rapidly, against the snow and the scenery. A handful of people paying her no mind. A dozen or so beat up pickup trucks. A dilapidated structure that looks half made out of aluminum. Beyond that, arctic tundra.

"This is Laughlin City," Rogue intones.

Moron child don't know a destination from a hole-in-a-wall. Sure, hitchhike 'cross Canada, eh? Why not. I could be anybody, takin' her any place. She don't know. Hell, all these fuckin' kids today think they're invincible –

"Oh, you hush." She turns her glare on the unconscious heap laid out across the seat. "Lucky for me, I am invincible."

His head lolls and gravity wins out. She tilts her chin, scrunching her face as his cheek smashes against the dirty floor.

"Not so lucky for you, I might need to know how to drive a semi someday."

Dropping her bag to the snow, she climbs back into the cab enough to yank his bulk onto the seat. As she's arranging him into a more comfortable position – he'll be sleeping well through the night, by her careful estimation, and waking up not knowing what hit him – the wallet sticking out of his back pocket catches her eye.

Rogue's nimble fingers have the wallet picked and contents counted before her conscience can interject. That ain't Christian, chickadee, it reprimands in her momma's voice. Her mother lost her footing on the moral high ground eight months ago, but Rogue still pauses.

Seventy-two Canadian dollars. Blindsided victim.

Moral quandary.

His drool collects on the seat. He bought her lunch, and this is how she thanks him.

"Damn," she bites off, snapping shut the wallet and shoving it back into his pocket. "You waste that money on a hooker with a bad tit-job instead of putting it toward next month's alimony payment, so help me."

My ex put out honest like a hooker 'stead of givin' it away for free to every man 'cept me, I'd consider payin' her on time.

"Charming. You know, I cannot afford to be such a soft touch, especially not to misogynists. In fact." Rogue pops open the glove box with her fist. "Keep your money. I'm going to pawn your gun." She checks the ammo and safety with the familiarity of an Air Force captain. "You're a lousy shot anyway," she tells him, slipping the cool metal into the inside pocket of her voluminous cloak.

She gets down from the cab a final time and presses down the lock.

"Well, Patrick Lee Guff, lifetime resident of Calgary, antiques aficionado, and fly-fishing tournament champion '85, '86, '87 and '91 – quite a comeback – I appreciate the ride, and I appreciate the gun. Sleep well, and, uh, thanks for all the memories."

With that, Rogue slams the door shut, picks up her duffel bag, and marches through the snow and into the next in the series of poorly thought-out decisions that have come to define her miserable excuse for a life.

And how, she thinks to herself as she edges her way into the bar, which seems to be lit by trashcan fire. Warm, yes. Cheap, yes. Intelligent, no. The siding might be aluminum but the rest of the place is little more than plywood.

There are far more bodies inside than the parking lot suggested. Their voices are rough, excited. Rogue shrinks back inside her hood. The crowd surrounds a large cage, where three figures are silhouetted by a thick haze of smoke. A boxing bell dings. Her gaze follows a body as he's dragged out of the cage by his armpits. The crowd boos, evidently on the fallen man's side.

She's never seen a cage fight before, but Guff's seen plenty. Blood sport, she thinks with his distaste. But profitable, she adds, remembering their buddy Al hitting pay dirt two summers ago in this very bar. Owner's an old hunting buddy of Al's. Rough clientele, damn fine whiskey.

"Gentlemen!" the announcer yells, and she has to sneer a little at the irony. "In all my years, I've never seen anything like this. Are you going to let this man walk away with your money?"

The man in question is all sleek definition and muscle tone, like a Roman statue with wild dark hair and a shiny belt. He has his bare back to Rogue, though by his stance she can tell his last competitor was less than a challenge. She stretches her fingers inside her thin gloves, knuckles cracking audibly.

"I'll fight him!" a bald-headed behemoth cries from the bleachers.

Her arms droop. So disappointing. Rogue is confident she can take down anybody, and Statue's naked torso intimidation ploy would've made for a record-breaking knockout. Along with, if Al is any indication, enough cash to get her to Anchorage in style.

"Ladies and gentlemen, our savior!" the announcer cries.

Nothing generates gambling better than theatrics. A girl her age would never be allowed in that cage. But a little mutant girl? If she knows rednecks – and she does, firsthand – a lot of them would empty their wallets and more to witness that particular brand of Jim Crow justice.

Too bad money is worth a hell of lot less to her than anonymity, even if she has gotten herself into such a sorry state that money equals food. She's been careless with what she's stolen. An upper middleclass upbringing is to blame. Feast or famine; she's yet to figure out the in-between.

The bell dings again, signaling the beginning of the fight for what would be her winnings if the world was an even slightly fairer place. But fair play is dead, and Behemoth proves it by opening with a kick to the back and two successive punches.

Statue falls hard on his knees, and she half expects to hear a sound like shattered clay. The cage rattles as Behemoth repeatedly kicks him against the unrelenting metal. The crowd cheers.

Rogue watches grimly. She's come to the conclusion that, one way or another, the winner is her next meal ticket, and Behemoth isn't the better target of the two. He's a townie, no doubt, and she needs a ride.

Get up, she wills Statue. Kick his ass.

Behemoth steps back.

Distinctly, she hears, "You idiot!" Someone's been watching this fighter long enough to know that he may be down, but he's not out. His fist comes up, making a brutal sound against Behemoth's knuckles.

Her eyes gleam. The cage fighter's aquiline nose and abdominal definition may be Romanesque, but he's no statue. He is flesh, barely restrained. She knows something about that.

Blood sport, Guff whispers in her mind again. All of them boys is animals.

One good swing, and Behemoth bounces off the metal cage. He finishes Behemoth off with little more than a twitch of his neck.

Snarling, he loosens his shoulders. Eyes scan the crowd. A silver chain and dog tag flash under the glare of the lights. She raises her hand to the tags she's worn around her own neck for going on two months.

The soldier gives Behemoth a farewell kick for good measure.

"Winner and still King of the Cage, the Wolverine!"

The boos are louder this time. He stalks to the side of the cage, where he lights a cigar and resumes his earlier pose.

Her lips stick as they part to allow her to take a steadying breath.

Animals. Wolverine.

The announcer calls for another challenger but no one speaks up, so the crowd begins to stand and reach behind them for their coats. The theatricality is lost. The King of the Cage has proven unbeatable.

Rogue slinks back. Doubt settles in, agitating her. She takes a perch on an empty bar stool and rests her feet on her duffel bag. She asks for a glass of water, the only thing in her life she can ever get for free.

Her plan for stealing the money is half-cocked, like everything she does. With this kind of crowd, Guff tells her the winnings could be a grand or more. Enticing, but it puts things into grim perspective. No one breaks out the dogs for twenty, fifty bucks here and there. But anything approaching four figures could get her into serious trouble.

And that man is Trouble with a capital T, her momma warns.

Rogue tosses back her water like whiskey. Guff doesn't want anyone thinking she's soft.

It isn't the man she's worried about, not really. It's the possibility of the hunt. Animal. Soldier. Wolverine might track her down, turn her in – strip her of her hard-won anonymity. She'll starve before she gets taken back to Mississippi again. She'll lay down and die.

Fear makes her weak, and the dark takes advantage, pulls her in. For an indefinite period of time, she's aware of blinking but not seeing. She breathes, but she can't think beyond the mantra she's adopted. To the beat of a heart monitor: Me. Awake. Aware. Me.

With a slow shudder she pulls herself out of the dark.

She clenches and unclenches her jaw, upset with herself. She's more susceptible to what she thinks of as her coma-narcolepsy just after she absorbs someone, especially if she makes the mistake of letting herself think of the clinic.

Too arrogant by half, Guff warns her. He's not wrong, but she's not happy to hear his opinion. She blames him, anyway. His personality is so easy to handle, it's no wonder she got lulled off her guard.

Well, not again. No more just-in-case borrowings, and no more thousand-dollar fantasies. Stick to the small stuff, she tells herself, eyeing the jar full of singles and change in front of her.

"Want somethin' new, honey?" The owner's stare is none too friendly. "Or you stickin' with water?" He slides the tip jar out of her reach.

She doesn't respond. The man's name is Ed Baylor, and he's missing the pinkie toe of his right foot. Over a beer, he'd told Guff it was from frostbite, but Al told him later Ed'd accidentally shot it off himself on a hunting trip. His wife's name is Leah, and he has a grown-up daughter named Marie. Rogue wonders if the coincidence is enough to wheedle him out of a bowl of peanuts.

Ed turns away before she can bring it up. It's late now and the place is almost empty, but Wolverine takes a seat at the end of the bar. He could have left already, she wouldn't have known. Story of her life. Always reflecting when she should be acting, always acting when she should be reflecting.

"I'll have a beer."

She expects his voice to be deep but not so low. The King of the Cage all but murmured, and that tells Rogue everything she thinks she needs to know – he doesn't like attention, either. He's like her, an outsider. Her resolve quickly vanishes. He'll be all right to steal from.

Rogue is grateful. She almost smiles, watching him drink his beer out of the corner of her eye. He catches her. She demurs, but can't help but look back when she sees him pick up his change from the bar. Is that part of his winnings? Has he gotten it yet?

He's not pleased with her staring, but it honestly doesn't matter at this point. They're rapidly becoming the only people in the bar, so he'd notice her anyway.

If he looked a little more inviting, she'd slip off her coat, flash him some teeth. He'd pick her up, take her to a motel. She'd knock him out with a touch, enjoy a warm bed for a few hours, then head out with money in hand.

A good con in theory, and the only time she'd tried it it'd worked right up until the very last part. For fifteen measly bucks, pervert Gordy Neville rented a permanent space inside her head. After him, Rogue likes to think she's become more discerning, but fear of ignorant mistakes and a half-realized search for something to fill the dark keeps her borrowing far more than she needs.

Wolverine glares at her. Rogue pretends to watch the television she's just realized is on.

"The leaders of over two hundred nations will gather to discuss issues ranging from the world's economic climate and weapons treaties to the mutant phenomenon…"

His eyes dart to the TV for the first time.

"…and its impact on our world's stage."

Mutant is a trigger-word for him as well, she suspects. Whether out of hate or affiliation she tries to deduce from his expression. His eyes are half lidded behind cigar smoke, but she decides it's the latter. Not wishful thinking. Recognition.

It's been a long time since Rogue has seen another mutant. She wants to run over to him, grab him by his leather jacket, shake him with the strength that isn't her own. She wants to yell in his face, "Listen to what they did to me!" because someone's got to. Someone's got to look her in the eye and tell her no one deserves Southaven, no matter how dangerously unnatural.

But he has more pressing concerns. Behemoth approaches, taps him on the shoulder. "You owe me some money."

"Come on, Stew, let's not do this."

Behemoth Stew waves off his friend's words of caution. "No man takes a beating like that without a mark to show for it."

"Come on, buddy, this isn't going to be worth it," the friend says, voicing her opinion.

Coming forward, Behemoth Stew leans in close. Whispers, "I know what you are."

A thrill shudders through her. Recognition again, along with fear. That was all it took in Los Angeles. One sharp-eyed nun who thought a mutant runaway worth reporting.

Wolverine doesn't miss a beat. "You lost your money. You keep this up, you lose somethin' else."

The friend ushers Behemoth Stew back, but cooler heads don't prevail. Light glints off steel.

"Look out!"

She blinks, and Wolverine has Behemoth Stew pinned to the wall with the two huge metal knives jutting from his knuckles. A hint of a middle blade makes its way toward Behemoth Stew's jugular.

Ed rests the barrel of his shotgun against Wolverine's ear. "Get out of my bar, freak."

"Don't point that at him!"

Rogue brings her stolen handgun up steady, even as her stomach drops out. All are eyes are on her.

So much for anonymity.