Rogue cranked up the A/C and fiddled with the tuner until she found a country station. She peeled off her gloves and tossed them in the empty passenger seat, letting bare palms settle back onto the Jeep's steering wheel and looking out over the open stretch of highway. Traffic had been light all afternoon; nothing but brilliant autumn woods on both sides and that long, smooth stripe of asphalt as far as she could see.
Vacation. A week in Vermont. Charles had been right; this was just what she needed. She'd been forced to absorb too many foreign thoughts, feelings, and mutations these past few months. She needed a little time alone, or what passed for alone in her ever-crowded mind. It was time to get back in touch with Marie.
Speaking of which . . .
She focused for a moment, keeping moderate attention on the road as she retreated to her inner world.
Charles and Jean had helped her construct this refuge over their years of sessions, and it ended up looking much like the mansion in Westchester, mainly since they all knew that place from the blueprints up. Rogue pushed open the heavy oak doors, vividly envisioning the foyer, immersing herself right down to the sound of her heels clicking across the tiles, up a familiar stairway, and through the corridor to her own room.
Rogue knocked politely. "Marie?"
The door swung open of its own accord. Rogue stepped in, scanning the room, and paused when she saw herself sitting on the bed in meditation.
Well, not herself, exactly. Marie's features were softer—younger, in a way. There were no white streaks in her hair, no scars on her ankles and wrists from the time those FOH jerks kidnapped her. Her eyes were still warm brown rather than Carol's piercing green. Rogue thought of all the scars her body bore, every attack, mental and physical, that she had endured to keep her deepest self, Marie, from enduring them. Rogue protected Marie from the cruelty of the world, and Marie protected Rogue from becoming hardened by that cruelty. They balanced each other, as best they could.
Marie looked up from her meditation. "I been strengthenin' the barriers around Sabertooth," she said in an accent still untouched by ten years in New York. "I sure wish you woulda never absorbed that creep. Every time he gets loose, I swear—smashin' walls, clawin' up furniture, makin' a mess like you wouldn't believe, Rogue. Even worse than Carol used to be."
Rogue just quirked her lips in a smile. "Believe me, sugar, I didn't wanna touch that overgrown furball either. But he's fadin' already, I can tell."
Marie nodded. "We didn't absorb too much of him. Should be gone in a couple weeks."
"Good," Rogue said. "Sounds like ya got things under control. And now that we're on vacation, I want you to start comin' out more, hear me? You can't hide in this room forever, sugar."
"I know," Marie conceded. "I'm just tired, is all. It's a handful, keepin' all the chaos under control in this head of ours."
"Don't I know it," Rogue sighed. "Well, better get my attention back to the road. Vacation won't do us much good if I can't get us there in one piece."
"Bye, Rogue." Marie smiled and gave a small wave before settling back into her meditative pose.
Rogue blinked a few times. The room swirled and faded as her focus returned to the outer world. She sighed once more, settling back in her seat, turning up the radio, and letting Collin Raye's growly voice convince her, "You're my kind of girl."
"Xavier, you said?" The girl at the front desk perked up, her baby-soft face dimpled with an overeager smile.
"Um. Yeah?" Rogue replied, wondering how she had suddenly become charming enough to warrant adoration from strangers. The unusual hair, leather jacket, and gloves that never came off tended to scare most folks.
The girl practically gushed with enthusiasm. "You must be Ms. D'Ancanto. It's so nice to meet you! Well, after speaking with Charlie—" Rogue's jaw dropped, "we decided to book you the cabin near the edge of the lake. It's private, secluded, and very relaxing . . ."
Rogue was still hung on 'Charlie,' trying and failing to reconcile that name with her image of the stately gentleman who ran a school for mutants, held sway over some of the most powerful political figures in the world, and, with the help of his X-men, conquered evil on a pretty much daily basis.
The girl had picked up a clipboard and a set of keys, coming around the desk to place a hand on Rogue's arm. Rogue flinched away, and the girl let her hand drop. "Uhh…," she said a bit awkwardly, "anyway, I'm Tiffani with an 'i,' and you can feel free to ask for me if you need anything. Have you already taken advantage of our excellent valet and bellhop services?"
Rogue simply nodded. Charlie? Really?
"Great!" The dimply smile reappeared. "Follow me then. I'll show you to your lodgings."
Rogue followed the girl out along a well-tended trail. A blonde ponytail bobbed as she talked incessantly, firing off a well-practiced spiel, and Rogue let herself drift away from the conversation.
". . . Several nature trails, for everyone from the casual hiker to the experienced trail runner . . ."
The woods really were nice. They had obviously been thinned, but it seemed the resort had tried to keep a natural feel with the mulch-covered footpaths winding unobtrusively through autumn foliage.
" . . . Where you'll find the exercise facilities, restaurant, and of course the indoor pool . . ."
They rounded a bend in the path, and Rogue's breath caught in her throat. The sun, low in the sky, seemed to set the trees aflame in every shade of red and gold. A calm blue lake stood out in sharp contrast, and at the near edge of the lake sat a small cabin with smoke billowing from the chimney to disappear in the evening air. It looked like a picture from a calendar, not like anything Rogue had seen in real life.
"I knew you'd like it!" The girl's smile widened further, if that was at all possible, and Rogue felt her own lips curl upward in response.
"It's—it's gorgeous," she whispered.
"It's yours," Tiffani with an 'i' replied, holding out the keys. "Enjoy your stay, Ms. D'Ancanto!"
Rogue made her way toward the cabin, eyes wide, still soaking in the view. "I will. I definitely will."
The bath was full and steamy, candles flickering all around. Gentleman Jack sat on the tub's generous ledge, and Rogue poured herself another glass, enjoying the smooth sweetness on her tongue followed by the burn in her throat. Yes, the Gentleman's attentions were much appreciated tonight. She could already feel her muscles unwinding, a pleasant fog softening the edges of her mind. She started to wonder what her teammates were up to, but immediately pushed the thought away, settling deeper into the water. The X-men were more than capable of holding things down without her.
Well, they could handle outside threats, anyway. If Rogue had anything to worry about, it was her newest teammate, Wolverine. He and Cyclops had been at each other's throats for two weeks, ever since Charles recruited the guy and gave him a spot on the senior team—much to the anger of the junior members who'd been competing for that promotion for months.
Rogue didn't understand Charles' reasons, but she trusted his judgment implicitly. If he thought Wolverine was the best man for the job, then she thought so too.
It didn't hurt that he'd saved her ass during their last mission. If not for the Wolverine's fighting skills, she would have been forced to absorb even more of Sabertooth, and that was not an appealing option. Rogue shuddered, downing the rest of her whiskey in one gulp.
It also didn't hurt that Wolverine—Logan, that was his other name—Logan looked really, really good in the uniform. Rogue smiled, knowing Marie had brought that thought to the surface. Rogue didn't usually entertain those kinds of thoughts—what was the point, after all, with her being the way she was? But Marie still liked to think that someday, she'd have the kind of relationships she saw others having. Relationships built around touch, around physical affection. Rogue decided to let her inner self entertain the fantasy, and poured herself another glass.
Sunrise over the lake was just as gorgeous as sunset had been, and Rogue took her coffee out on the deck to enjoy it. The morning air made the backs of her hands tingle with cold, while the coffee mug made her palms tingle with warmth. The dual sensation was almost overwhelming to her long-deprived senses, but she resisted the urge to get her gloves. She wanted to feel, to touch everything and store up every sensation she could during this week of freedom, before she went back to the mansion. Back to the constant, looming fear that one careless brush of skin could harm one of her teammates, or worse, one of the children.
She had a sudden urge to know how ice-cold lake water would feel running between her fingers. She set her coffee down and walked barefoot, savoring the crunch of fallen leaves and brittle grass. Her toes dug into the damp earth at the lake's shore, and her fingers dipped down to pierce its opaque blue-black surface.
Cold, cold, cold. The sensation shot up nerve endings that were long-accustomed to experiencing the world through a shield of leather.
Rogue—or perhaps Marie?—laughed in pure delight. It felt so . . . so . . . not good, not bad, just vivid. She imagined this was how Scott would feel if he could take off the red-tinted glasses and suddenly see the world in all its myriad colors. She let her fingers drift through the water for a long moment, then rose and went back to the deck to finish her coffee.
"Just wanted to call and let you know I got settled in alright. Thanks again, Charles. This place is just—just amazing."
"I'm glad," the Professor responded, and Rogue could hear the smile in his voice. "You, my dear, have more than earned it. I look forward to seeing you soon."
"Yeah, soon. Bye." Rogue set the phone back in its cradle and sat down on the bed to pull on her boots. She tugged her well-worn jacket over her tanktop and tucked a pair of gloves into the back pocket of her jeans, just in case.
Rogue made her way down the trail to the front office. Tiffani with an 'i' was not on duty, but another generically young, blond, and cheery girl sat in her place. She smiled at Rogue and answered her questions about the nature trails, offering up a map.
Rogue looked from the map to her own bare hands several times before summoning the courage to reach out and take it. She hoped the tremor in her hand wasn't too obvious as her fingertips closed over the glossy paper. She jerked her hand back and stuffed the map into her pocket, swallowing thickly. "Thanks," she whispered.
The girl seemed unfazed by the odd exchange. "Sure. Oh, and Ms. D'Ancanto?"
"If you choose to take the two-mile trail up north, there's a spot about halfway through where the trail forks. The map tells you to go left, but if you head right, it only adds about a half mile to your trip. It goes past these cliffs, and well, the view is just to die for. Not many people know about it."
"Stephany," the girl supplied, "with a 'y.'"
"Thanks, Stephany." Rogue attempted a smile and turned, heading out of the office.
"Enjoy your hike!" the girl called out as the door shut.
Safely outside, Rogue pulled the map from her pocket and muttered to herself, "Good grief, folks sure are friendly around here."
Half a mile, huh? Rogue was pretty sure she'd been hiking longer than that since the fork in the trail, and there were no cliffs in sight. Maybe she'd misunderstood the girl. Oh well. She was in no hurry. She'd go a bit further before turning back.
Rogue looked up into the trees, absently running her fingers over rough bark as she watched the sunlight filter down through the leaves. Her feet meandered on the path, which had grown a bit rougher. The carefully tended mulch had given way to beaten dirt, and the woods grew thicker around her. It was nice. She felt more certainly alone with every step, more able to let go of the worry that always nagged her to cover up her toxic skin. She peeled off her jacket and let the crisp air bite into her.
A few more steps, and the trail turned left and steeply upward. Rogue pressed her fingers into the ground, half walking, half climbing, until she finally came upon the promised cliffs.
"Oh, wow," she breathed, looking out over an immense wooded valley.
"Like I said, isn't it just to die for?" a familiar voice murmured close behind her.
Rogue nearly jumped out of her skin, hovering uncontrollably for a moment as she whirled around. "What the—how did you—oomph!" The last sound was every ounce of air exiting her lungs in a rush, as her question was cut off by a massive tree trunk slamming into her torso.
Rogue toppled backward, trying to draw a breath and failing with a miserable wheeze, and then she was falling, tumbling end over end, slamming into the sheer face of the cliff wherever rocks occasionally jutted out. Jolts of pain shot through her, one after another—shoulder, thigh, skull—as her invulnerable skin met sharp stones that would have torn a normal body to shreds.
Fly, fly, fly, Carol's voice in her brain screamed, and it dimly registered before it was drowned out by Pain, fear, and I can't breathe! Gasp. Wheeze. Her mind cried out instinctively, Help! Charles, help me!She couldn't get her lungs to fill properly, and she closed her eyes against the ground racing up at her and begged—to God or nature or whoever would listen—begged not to die.
Rogue felt something jerk her body up, and opened her eyes to find that she was hovering an inch above the ground. She tried to draw in a breath of relief, managed a slightly louder wheeze, and fell.
Fuck. Shit. Fucking shit. IT HURTS! were the only thoughts she managed before something massive and heavy landed near her, shaking the ground. A sharp kick connected with her tender ribs, knocking her over on her back.
"Fuck!" this time she gasped the word aloud and focused on the hateful face glaring down at her. She wheezed again, and the smell of his breath was unbearable, even at this distance. "Saber . . . Sabe . . ." she tried to push the name out through gritted teeth.
"I'm here to repay a debt." Another vicious blow to the ribs drew streams of tears from her eyes. "You gave me one hell of an ass-kicking, for such a little girl. But don't worry. I'll pay you back, with interest." He growled savagely, and this time the kick connected with her temple, plunging the world into darkness for a few moments.
Rogue fought her way back up, forcing her eyes to focus, willing her lungs to inflate so she could think, could make her damn brain send a message to her muscles. Move . . . absorb . . . grab him . . . grab . . .It was no use. The world swam before her, blue sky and golden leaves . . . No, blue skin and golden eyes . . . Stephany . . . Mystique. Damn it. Damn . . . the darkness swept up again, and with another kick her eyes fell shut.
Charles looked up from the expense report he'd been scanning. Something was coming. A burst of telepathic energy surged towards him from far away. It was powerful and raw, not the skilled transmission of another telepath, but a crude plea for help from a mind to which he was deeply attuned.
Charles barely had time to brace himself before the ripple of emotion reached him, entering his mind with all the subtlety of an oncoming train. Fear. And pain, terrible pain. Help! Charles, help me!
And then . . . nothing.
"Rogue!" he said in alarm, immediately sending up a call to arms to every X-man in the mansion. Trouble. Gear up. Meet me at Cerebro.
Charles left his office and went straight to the elevator, entering the code that would lower him to the mansion's deepest subbasement.
Cyclops and Beast were already suited up and waiting for him when the door slid open. "We were in the danger room when we heard your call," Scott said by way of explanation. "What is it, Professor?"
Charles felt another presence and glanced down the hall to see the other elevator descending. "One moment, Scott. I'll explain."
The elevator opened to reveal Wolverine, still tugging on his gloves, flexing his hands to adjust the fit. He crossed the hall in a few long strides, stopping at Xavier's side. He nodded to Hank and cast only a perfunctory glare at Cyclops. Their mutual hostility seemed to be waning—slightly—with time.
"Where are the others?" Cyclops directed the question to Wolverine.
He sneered. "I look like a babysitter to you, bub?"
Hank spoke up. "Pardon me, but I believe Kurt and Remy are doing a security consultation with the French ambassador. Jean and Ororo should be en route now from the press conference in Washington."
Xavier cut in, "We cannot afford to wait for them. I sensed a cry of distress from Rogue. She was in pain, and now," he shook his head, "now I am unable to sense her at all."
Logan's eyes narrowed. "That mean she's—"
"Unconscious," Scott interjected. "She could be unconscious."
The Professor's mouth was set in a grim line. "Yes. I am hoping that is the case. This is a rescue mission, until we know otherwise."
"Will you be joining us, Charles?" Hank asked in his cultured voice, as though he were inviting the man to tea.
Charles felt Wolverine tense in anger. The new recruit didn't know Hank well enough yet to understand that his seeming nonchalance was anything but. The Beast only used that tone when he was trying desperately to rein himself in. Charles sent a wave of calm to his friend's mind, helping him maintain control over his inner monster. "No, I think not. I'll be of most use here, in Cerebro. I shall inform you immediately if I gain any useful information. Until then—"
He projected a series of images into their minds.
Scott nodded, taking in the information. "But Professor, that resort backs up to a federal wildlife reserve. You're saying she could be anywhere in miles of wilderness. Can't you be more specific?"
"I'm afraid not," Xavier said. "It will be impossible to pinpoint Rogue's location unless she wakes up. But perhaps . . ." he looked up at Wolverine.
Wolverine nodded once, before the question was even asked. "I'll need something she's worn."
"Hm, yes," Charles replied, thinking for a moment. "Cyclops will show you to her room. Hank, if you would prepare the jet?"
"Right away. Meet me in the hangar, gentlemen." Then Hank headed down the hallway in one direction, Cyclops and Wolverine in the other.
Charles put a hand to his temple and sent out a message he had little hope would be received. Hold on, Rogue. Help is on the way.
Logan followed One-Eye to the area of the mansion he recognized as the teachers' wing. He was staying in a guest room on the opposite end, until Chuck could make more permanent arrangements. Arrangements that included a private apartment on the edge of the grounds. It was one of his many conditions for signing on—Logan didn't go for this communal living crap.
Scott stopped at the last door on the right and pulled a key from his pocket, fitting it neatly into the lock.
Logan raised an eyebrow. "You always walk around with keys to the ladies' rooms, Cyke?"
His goad worked, as the younger man turned red. "I have a master key for emergencies. What are you implying, Furface?"
"I ain't implying nothin'. I'm sayin' if you feel the need to shop around, I might have to take that redhead off your hands, show her what it's like to be with a real man—"
Scott pushed the door open, and Logan didn't have to see his eyes to know that he was rolling them. "Would you give it a rest, already? I know my wife is beautiful, even without a jealous bastard like you reminding me all the time."
Logan just smirked. He had to give the guy credit. That was a pretty good comeback—for a pansy.
"So, uh . . ." Cyclops faltered as he walked into the suite, glancing around. "I don't really know what you're looking for . . ."
Logan stepped in and gave Rogue's living space a quick appraisal. He was a bit surprised, though he'd never speculated what her room might look like.
What she might look like under that bodysuit, sure, but he hadn't gotten far enough to be seriously pondering her bedroom furnishings. Yet.
A mahogany four-poster dominated one wall, the crisp white bedding a bit rumpled where she must have laid out her suitcase to pack. The bedside table held a small stack of books, an empty glass, and half a bottle of barrel proof whiskey. His lips twitched up in approval.
Aha, there. Between the mahogany dresser and what he assumed was the door to her bathroom. A hamper. He strode over and raised the lid, letting her scent wash over him. He was suddenly very aware of Scott's eyes on his back as he lifted articles of clothing from the hamper.
"What are you looking for?" Scott asked, obviously uncomfortable invading the room of someone as private as Rogue. "How hard can it be to find something that—uh, smells like her?"
Logan continued sifting through clothing as he spoke, "Like her? Pretty damn difficult, actually. Which you'd understand if ya paid more attention."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Logan shrugged. "There's a whole world goin' on right under your nose, Cyke, and you're too thick to even sense it." He lifted a sweater, inhaling experimentally before tossing it to him. "What do you get off that?"
Scott made a face. "You want me to sniff her shirt?"
"Hey, you asked me, remember?"
Scott curled his lip, but held the shirt up and took an experimental whiff. "Uh, I dunno. It smells like flowers to me."
"Yeah, jasmine. That's her perfume. And under that there's fabric softener, lotion, deodorant. Hand soap near the cuffs. And I'm pretty damn sure none of that's what she's gonna smell like if she's scared and hurt out in the middle of a forest. I gotta find what she smells like underneath all that stuff."
He turned back to the hamper and considered picking up the scrap of lace that held her scent most strongly. But he didn't exactly want One-Eye gawking at him while he stuck his nose in Rogue's panties. Damn. He settled for a scarf, which must have rubbed against the place behind her ear where her scent was also strong. He breathed it in, too faint to really imprint on his senses, but it would have to do.
It was a good scent. He breathed it in more deeply, feeling a rush of animal attraction that made him want to find her and truly imprint her in his mind.
He turned and stuffed the scarf in his pocket, pushing the animal urge away. He'd settle just for finding her alive.
A/N: This story is also archived at WRFA. But after losing some stories in another fandom (wah) I figured I'd better back these up :). FFnet formatting gives me fits, but oh well.