"Is this your boy's first protest?" the volunteer at the table asked, fixing the red ID bracelet around the child's wrist.
"Yes, ma'am!" His father beamed. "They wouldn't let him wear his Friends of Humanity t-shirt at school, if you can believe it, but he's proudly wearing it today, aren't you, Brandon?"
The kid didn't seem interested, but nodded at his father's urging. Rogue couldn't see the front of the t-shirt in question, but the back said "America Is For Human Americans".
Rogue and Mystique stepped up to the table next, smiling brightly.
The woman looked them up and down, pursing her lips slightly at Mystique's skimpy tube top and shorts, though Rogue's low-cut t-shirt and jeans seemed to be tolerable. "Names?"
"Amanda and Rebecca Wilde, ma'am." Rogue was the one to answer, and the volunteer recording names noted them down, along with the membership numbers on the Certified Human cards that Rogue held out for her. "Me and my sister have been to Friends of Humanity meetings and such, but it's the first time we've been to a protest!"
The woman smiled at her excitement. "We're starting the march with a picketing, this time."
Rogue opened her eyes wide. "Oh? What are we picketing?"
"A law firm who've been defending mutants. Muties who attacked humans and are trying to claim self-defence!"
No matter how long they worked together, Rogue was still surprised to find that, while Mystique had more experience, Rogue was the one with the cooler temper. Rogue stepped on Mystique's toes before she said anything cutting – it was always effective, as Mystique was still a little unsteady in shoes that weren't extensions of her own body. "That's terrible!" Rogue lowered her voice, pitching her tone between scared and defiant. "But you don't think there'll be any actual muties there today, do you?"
"You never know where they might be," the woman replied, shaking her head. Mystique took that as her cue to grab their plastic wristbands and hurry Rogue over to the bus.
"Don't start laughing!" Rogue hissed. "I can't believe you've lived this long!"
Mystique pulled a bottle of water out of her tote bag and laughed at Rogue's expression. "Back then I was infiltrating halfway-competent organisations. Right now, I think we can spare a little levity." She swigged from the water bottle and handed it over to Rogue, who wiped off the lipstick and took a sip. Summer in Virginia wasn't nearly as hot as at home in Mississippi, but it was hot enough, and by the look of the passengers already on the bus – more than half of them young men and some of them already drunk – it was going to be a long ride into DC.
By the time they reached DC, Rogue was regretting not following Mystique's lead and wearing revealing clothing, even if Mystique did have to carry a bag to have her usual tools handy. The air conditioning was either feeble or broken, and sweat pooled at the back of Rogue's knees, making her jeans stick to her legs. Her hair – all brown these days – clung to her neck and even her light t-shirt felt hot. It was a relief to get off the bus and away from the crush of other sweaty people – their closeness made her nervous even though there was no longer any risk of hurting them. Well, not accidentally.
Mystique had already moved away from the people unpacking the banners and signs and Rogue hurried over to join her.
"This is a big rally for a weekday," Mystique muttered, much more on task now that there were actual people at risk. "And there's a counter-rally, too."
Rogue checked out where Mystique was subtly pointing, and frowned. The counter-rally approaching along the side road was a sizable coalition of anti-racists, pro-mutant activists and shabby college students with banners. Unfortunately there were at least four times as many Friends of Humanity protesters already present. They shouted slogans and waved signs with co-ordinated fervour, lined up precisely at the edge of the law firm's property, not setting a toe over the line. The building's security guards wisely confined themselves to escorting employees from the parking lot to the building, but Rogue watched a little knot of FoH protesters edging slowly towards the driveway, getting their courage and numbers up until they were ready to block it. A police cruiser was sitting across the road, but, as the officers were laughing and joking with a few of the FoH organisers, Rogue didn't expect much assistance from them.
"Where do you think the trouble's going to be?" Rogue asked, looking across the lawn towards the knot of protesters gathering at the driveway.
Mystique shook her head. "Security should deal with that. Simple trespass. No, I think they're going to take on the counter-rally, like in St. Louis."
"To incite the mutants into using their powers again, I guess." Rogue followed Mystique through the thickening crowds, towards the counter-rally. Mystique easily cut through the shouting, sign-waving clusters of people in a way that Rogue was only beginning to understand, but she at least knew enough to move along in Mystique's wake. The police had a strong tendency to arrest the mutants first and the Friends of Humanity never, so Rogue considered it unlikely there would be no conflict today. She and Mystique could delay it, though, and minimise the risk to the mutants present, even with the aggravating factors of an already angry crowd and a stinking hot day. They'd done it before, under worse conditions.
"We'd better get in position." Mystique surveyed the area with a practiced eye. Rogue ran over and grabbed a pair of sturdy plastic trash cans from near the buses. By the time she made it back, Mystique had taken up position near a band of the drunken young men from the bus who were now bellowing over the top of the anti-racist chants. Mystique took one of the trash cans from Rogue, touched her on the arm, encouraging, then moved into the heaving crowd of mostly men, carrying her trash can one-handed. She made her way directly to the angriest and most aggressive of the protesters, and with her usual smiles and flattery – plus random tugs of her ever-lower tube top – started distracting and calming them even as she helpfully collected their trash – potential missiles – in the trash can. The attacks on mutants almost always started with some over-excited idiot throwing a bottle or a rock, and the longer they could delay that, the better it would be for the mutants and their allies.
Rogue was still not comfortable surrounded by so many people, but unless she had to help extract Mystique from trouble, she had other things to do. She moved a little further away from the bellowing protestors, towards a convenience store, and upended her plastic trash can. She climbed up on top, pulled her camera from her jeans pocket and started photographing the Friends of Humanity protestors – and, more importantly, the organisers who were ferrying signs and bottles of water to the front lines. A few people glared at her suspiciously, but she waved to them cheerfully, not trying to hide the fact that she was taking pictures. As soon as they caught sight of her ONE RACE HUMAN RACE badge or recognised her FoH wristband from the bus, every single one waved back or gave her the thumbs up. At previous rallies, she'd even shown the protesters her photos afterwards, and they were universally flattered that she had taken their picture. Of course, she was hardly about to tell them that their photos were going straight to the X-Men and their sophisticated facial recognition software. It was always Irene who forwarded the photos, though – Rogue might be willing to help the X-Men help mutants, but that was a far cry from trusting them again.
The two groups surged closer together and the police started to force them apart. Rogue was so absorbed in her twin tasks of photographing the protesters and watching out for Mystique that she almost missed the attack. Her body, well trained by now, registered that something was happening before her brain did, and she had four photos of the teenage boy being dragged away by two business suit-clad men before she realised what she was seeing. They'd snatched the kid as he tried to cut around the side of the counter-rally, and with the imminent risk of physical fights breaking out at the collision point of the rallies, no-one but Rogue was looking off to the side. Rogue took a moment to signal Mystique with a two-armed wave, then jumped down from her trash can in pursuit of the boy. It would take a few minutes for Mystique to push through the crowd but Rogue had to act now. She shoved her camera safely into her pocket and hurried towards the convenience store.
The store itself was full of FoH members buying drinks but the two men had already dragged the teenager around the back. The fact that the men were wearing suits really bothered Rogue - were they could be FBI or Homeland Security or something? Anything was possible here in DC. Even so, there was no way she could let them kidnap some kid off the street and get away with it. It was quiet behind the store as Rogue cautiously sidled along the wall; she could hear scuffling, but no voices. A moment later, a tongue of flame flashed across the ground, scorching the dry grass that grew in the cracked concrete. Rogue jumped back, and a second flare just missed the toes of her sneakers. She dared a quick glance around the corner, and nearly caught a third blast of flame in the face. The fire leapt from the outstretched hands of the teenager, who was pinned to the ground by the two men. One man, a solid Asian guy, knelt on the boy's upper arms, forcing his hands away where they could do no harm. The second man, white and skinny, had a foot on the boy's head, grinding his face into the ground so that he couldn't call out, while he unfolded a large pocket knife. Neither of the men looked excited, or even anxious– they were oddly blank-faced and methodical. . Rogue had been right in front of them but despite their professional demeanour, neither of them paid her the slightest bit of attention. She quickly glanced around the immediate area, because if someone was telepathically controlling the men, they could just as easily start controlling her.
Rogue dug out her phone and flicked through her default playlist to "Mosquito". It was meant to be a ringtone so high-pitched that adults couldn't hear it, but Rogue had found it really handy for distracting telepaths, if only momentarily. She checked behind her to see if Mystique had made it out of the crowd – no sign of her – then she started the track. She took a deep breath, gave the sound a moment to disrupt the telepath's control over the two men, then hurtled around the corner. The best strategy Mystique had taught her was that almost nobody expects to be attacked, so strength and size differences are less important than striking first. Rogue gathered as much speed as she could in the distance she had, ducked her head and rammed straight into the stomach of the man with the knife, sending him staggering and the knife flying. She turned quickly and launched shoulder-first into the guy kneeling on the mutant boy. While he was off-balance, she rolled to her feet and looked for the knife.
The first man she'd hit didn't seem winded at all – he'd already retrieved the knife and, despite the disruptive ringtone, he was still blankly focused on his original target. The second man had landed sprawling on the ground but also seemed unhurt. He gracefully leapt to his feet and made a grab for the boy.
"Kid! Fry him!" Rogue yelled, and the boy responded automatically, bringing his hands around to focus on the immediate threat. Flame roared from his palms – not as strong as Pyro, but more than enough to set the attacker's clothes on fire. Rogue followed through with a hard kick to the man's knee. He collapsed forward, then got up again. He made no attempt to extinguish the flames, as if he hadn't even noticed that he was on fire.
Rogue grabbed the mutant boy by the arm, intending to run, but the knife-wielding man was already upon them. He seemed completely uninterested in Rogue, trying to reach past her and stab the boy instead. Rogue grabbed his arm and used his own momentum to throw him forward for a hard landing square on his head. The mutant boy was getting into the fight now, and hit the prone man with a blast of flame, setting his suit jacket alight. Rogue sprinted past him and grabbed the knife.
The first man, still ignoring his burning clothes, tried to grab the mutant boy in a fiery bear hug. Rogue was faster and pushed the kid aside, so she could slash at the burning man with the knife. To her shock, he didn't flinch back, but threw himself forward after the boy, lodging Rogue's knife deep in his own chest. She didn't let go, despite the jarring impact up her arm. She pushed him away, and the knife dragged against bone. The man gasped – the first sound he'd made – and his eyes rolled up for a moment before he exploded into dingy yellow smoke. Rogue staggered backwards, choking on the foul air, and the mutant boy did the same. The second attacker was still getting to his feet, one arm hanging at an odd angle, when Mystique flung herself around the corner and grabbed him by the head, snapping his neck with a hard, practiced, twist. He sighed, slumped and dissolved into the same sulphurous smoke.
"What the hell was that?" the kid gasped, clinging to Rogue's arm. Bruises were starting to appear on the pale, freckly skin of his arms and face, but he seemed otherwise unhurt. He pointed at Rogue's ONE RACE HUMAN RACE button. "You're with the FoH?"
"Don't be stupid," Mystique snapped, still on alert. "Has anyone ever tried to attack you before?"
"No, no-one... I mean, just some idiots at school." He turned to Rogue. "Thank you so much! I think they were going to kill me!"
Mystique cast a questioning glance at Rogue.
Rogue poked her toe into the yellowish smear that the men had left on the ground. "Yeah, they were definitely going to kill him. Even after I got here, they were really going for him."
"What's your name?" Mystique snapped.
"Rusty – Russell Collins, ma'am."
"Go home, Russell Collins. Stay with your family, go to school, make sure that you're in a group at all times. Does your house have a security system?"
"Make sure it stays on. And if there's any problems, call this number straight away." Mystique handed him the card with the Xavier School's emergency number on it. "Tell them Raven sent you."
"Is that your name?" Rusty was wide-eyed now, and was starting to shake.
"No, of course it isn't. Now, go home."
Rusty took a step back, then turned and ran back into the noise and chaos of the street.
Mystique picked up an empty Coke bottle from the ground and carefully scraped some of the damp yellow substance into it. "It smells a bit like Nightcrawler's teleportation."
Rogue sniffed and nodded, feeling a little shaky now that the fight was over. "Yeah, but it was more like they exploded outwards. There was no noise, and I didn't feel air rushing in to fill the gap they left." She looked herself over. "And, oh gross! Some of that gunk is on my t-shirt."
"Good," Mystique nodded. "We can analyse that if my sample doesn't work out. I've never heard of anyone sending single-use assassins before."
"And exploding when you die sounds like a pretty crappy mutant power," Rogue added, picking at the yellow specks on her shirt.
"Stop fussing with that. The police are breaking up the rally out there, so we'd better call Irene then get back to the bus and look frightened. Someone new is coming after mutants. We've got a lot of work to do."
Rogue took one last look at the remnants of the two assassins, then resolutely turned and followed Mystique. She didn't have time to feel regret, not if they were going to find and stop these mutant-hunters. It wouldn't take Irene long to find the information they needed – Irene's precognitive powers were far from perfect, but decades of backing up her visions with research meant that her skills in assessing intel and compiling data were far greater than Mystique's.
It had been Irene that helped Mystique find Rogue, when Rogue had left the Xavier school and started heading west, angry that her voluntary removal of her dangerous and disabling power had also cost her most of her friends. Mystique had lost her power, too, one of the many attacked with the Cure in the initial frenzy of anti-mutant activity. These days the Cure was only used for medical reasons, as Rogue had done, or on convicted mutant felons. Mystique had delivered plenty of rants about the latter use, but not once had she voiced disappointment with Rogue's choice, or been anything other than respectful about her right to make it.
"So, why are we fighting for mutant rights again?" Rogue had asked, as she and Mystique limbered up for a training session in the yard of their isolated home. Irene was washing the dishes, and they could hear her singing to herself through the open window.
Mystique arched her back, graceful even in tattered running shorts and a sports bra. "The selfish reason – MacTaggert said we're still technically mutants. Our children will almost certainly be mutants."
"You don't even have kids, and I don't know if I want them." Rogue jogged on the spot, her ponytail flicking around and whipping her chin.
"And, of course, it still holds true that no-one should have to hide."
Rogue gestured towards the kitchen window. "You could fight for gay rights, if you wanted. Or women's rights."
"What makes you think I haven't?" She stretched out her long legs. "But there's lots of other perfectly capable people handling those. I like being on the frontlines, and there's just not enough opportunities to kick morons in the head when you're an escort at a women's health clinic." Mystique smirked. "Well, there's no shortage of morons. But it causes too much trouble for the clinic."
"You kicked a protester in the head?" Rogue gasped.
Mystique flopped down into lotus position. "And one day, Grasshopper, you too may experience the joy of taking out an over-entitled religious fanatic."
"Says the woman who worked for Magneto!" Rogue poked at Mystique with her toe, and Mystique grabbed her leg, throwing her forward. Rogue rolled neatly with the throw, came back with a kick, and training was suddenly in full swing.
"What did Irene say?" Rogue had been hanging around Mystique trying to listen in on the phone call until Mystique had snapped and sent her away to get something to eat. Rogue had miraculously found an awesome sandwich and juice bar, and returned with an entire bag of tastiness, which she waved under Mystique's nose.
Mystique feinted left, then grabbed the bag with her right hand before Rogue could snatch it away. "I hope there's a turkey sandwich in here."
"Uh huh, on rye, with that gross seedy mustard."
"Good." Mystique ate half her sandwich before she deigned to answer Rogue's original question. "Irene found a few reports that matched our vanishing men. A man in Tokyo was hit by a car and dissolved into yellow smoke, just like our two."
"Tokyo? The guy that I stabbed could have been Japanese." Rogue started in on her own sandwich, though now that she was actually eating, it was sour and unappetising. She still had the sulphurous smell in her nostrils, even after a shower.
"Tokyo has the only report of an apparent death. There's a few more recent reports of those yellow smears at crime scenes, though."
"What kind of crime scenes?"
Mystique grinned. "You're starting to ask the right questions. We've got four suspected abductions, and one suspected murder, all in New York."
"Why just suspected?"
"In the murder case, there was enough blood from a single victim to assume death, but there was no body found. The police did report a yellow smear on the ground and a nearby wall."
"And the abductions?"
"Mutants have been reported missing in the area, and in two cases personal effects or blood were found near the yellow marks."
"So, these guys are trying to abduct or kill mutants, but the mutants fight back and sometimes kill them? But the mutants go missing anyway."
"That could be why the assassins attack in pairs – even if one dies, the other completes the abduction or murder. "
Rogue poked at her energy juice blend with her fat straw. "I didn't mean to kill that guy. He kept trying to get at Russell even though his own knife was in the way. I thought they might be telepathically controlled, but playing Mosquito made no difference at all."
"They could be programmed in advance, I suppose, but it's incredibly difficult to make people forget their self-protective instincts if the telepath isn't right there forcing them."
Rogue nodded. "Yeah, I thought it was kind of weird. They really did have that zombie look on their faces, though, like when the Professor would make someone do something." She shook her head and tried to focus. "Maybe when we get the yellow stuff analysed Irene will know more? Oh, and hey, why were they suddenly hunting mutants in Washington when the other cases were in Tokyo and New York?"
"Not just anywhere in New York. They're all within half a mile of each other, in Brooklyn. There's a mutant-friendly clinic near there, so they could be targeting patients or their families."
"And the rally today was guaranteed to have mutants present." Rogue drank her juice with more enthusiasm. "They might not be tracking mutants, then. They're just going to places where there's likely to be mutants in public and using those stupid short-range mutant energy scanners that the FoH like."
"Good." Mystique wiped her mouth with her napkin. "It will make them far easier to find."
Rogue didn't know if Dr Reyes was a mutant herself, but the medical clinic hadn't specifically treated mutants until she started working there. Most mutants just saw regular doctors and never confessed their secret – mutants got sinus infections and sprained their ankles like everyone else. On the other hand, there were always mutants like Rogue had been, whose powers were visible, dangerous or disabling enough that they needed the kind of help that very few doctors were willing or able to provide. Dr Reyes and her colleagues were among those few, and as such their clinic was constantly picketed by protesters.
"I'm starting to see a common thread here," Mystique said conversationally, as she and Rogue stood a block away, watching the small crowd outside the building.
Rogue twisted her ponytail into a knot so it was off her neck. "The hot weather, you mean? Or the protesters giving a nice clear indication of where the mutants are?"
"I'm shocked that a girl from Mississippi is complaining about the heat!" Mystique laughed, although she was sweating more than Rogue was. "Our attackers are only hitting the most obvious targets, following the people who are shouting about mutants until they find a mutant. It's not a very smart way to work. Several attacks in the same area is asking for trouble."
"You'd know!" Rogue gibed, but without any real malice behind it, not anymore. Rogue might still be uncomfortable with Mystique's willingness to kill, but, unlike her former leader, Mystique was no kind of mutant supremacist. She fell more naturally into roles of the intelligence gatherer and the protector, and that called out to something in Rogue herself. It was becoming less strange to think that, even without her powers, she still didn't want a normal life; she still wanted to travel and experience and make a difference. Irene always laughed at Rogue's fits of introspection, telling Rogue that it was all obvious to her. Irene always saw so much in people, though, that Rogue didn't feel bad about it.
Rogue spotted the teenage girl on the fire escape before Mystique did. The girl was dressed for the heat in sneakers, shorts and a tank top, plus a long necklace that she was wearing wrapped around her arm. She was fidgeting slightly, absent-mindedly flicking the beads through her fingers, as if she was counting a rosary. Her eyes were firmly fixed on the crowd in front of the clinic, though, watching the protesters just as closely as Mystique was. Rogue elbowed Mystique and subtly gestured towards the girl. Mystique turned slightly and caught sight of her, then sauntered away down the block and around the corner.
"Do you think she's one of them?" Rogue asked as they walked. "We haven't seen any girls involved."
"Did the girl you spotted have the same blank expression as the others?"
Rogue bit her lip. "I don't really know. The two guys I saw just went straight for the kill, but they must have been watching beforehand to know when to grab a mutant without being spotted."
"Again, something that would be difficult for a telepath to program in advance. Let's get up there and see who she is. Don't forget to look out for her backup."
"Okay." Rogue jogged around the block and waited for Mystique to get to the top of the building – even without the benefits of her mutant form, she climbed much faster than Rogue. Rogue, though, was much better at not scaring people when she started talking to them.
She jumped off an empty planter that was lying on its side, onto a dumpster, then took one long leap to grab the side of the wrought iron guard rail on the fire escape. As expected, the fire escape clanged with her impact, and by the time Rogue had hauled herself up and over the railing, the girl was on guard, her string of beads held taut between her hands like a weapon. More importantly, her face was suspicious rather than slack.
Rogue looked up through the lattice of metal stairs. "Hey."
"Hey, yourself," the girl snapped, "What do you want?"
"How come you're watching the mutant clinic?"
"I'm not the only one." The girl took a step down the stairs, closer to Rogue. Her feet barely made a sound on the steel step.
Rogue backed up a little, cautious of the girl's confident stance. She had nowhere to go, but it didn't hurt to stay out of the girl's personal space. "You know Doctor Reyes, huh?"
"Why? Are you her undercover mutant police or something?" The girl ran lightly down the last few steps to stand closer to Rogue than was comfortable.
"No, are you?" Rogue stuck her chin out, determined not to let the girl intimidate her, no matter how together she seemed. The girl swung the loose end of her bead string idly, but Rogue could see that if she wanted to use it, Rogue would be well within striking distance. "And what kind of a weapon is that, anyway? Are you going to take my eye out?"
The girl scowled, and Rogue revised her estimation of the girl's age sharply downwards – she was no older than 15, despite her graceful movements and easy stance. She flicked the beads straight at Rogue, who blocked them with her bare forearm. They stung but didn't draw blood, and Rogue lunged forward while the weapon was slack and off-course, getting a hand on the girl's upper arm. The girl was faster than Rogue, though, and turned quickly, spinning Rogue and slamming her against the wrought iron railing, holding Rogue there with a hand at the base of her throat.
"Girls!" Mystique's voice rang out from above them.
Another female voice followed. "Stop playing, we've got work to do!"
The girl looked up, and Rogue took the opportunity to hook the back of her knee, so that Rogue could roll them over and pin the girl to the railing in exactly the same way as the girl had pinned her.
"She said stop!" The girl scowled again, her face now flushed with rage. She pulled against Rogue's hold, but she was trapped.
"Yeah, and now we're stopped. With me in charge." Rogue held on.
The girl kept struggling and called out, "E? Do you know these people?"
"I know that we're here for the same reason. Two men just grabbed a boy from the clinic." The woman's voice was tense, though the girl didn't seem bothered by her tone. A moment later, Rogue saw the speaker – a tall, dark-haired woman of maybe 30, wearing the kind of loose business casual clothing that could cover a multitude of weapons or mutant physiological differences. Mystique was right behind her, though, and nodded to Rogue. That alone wouldn't have made her relax her grip – the mysterious E could have been a telepath – but Mystique's little smirk at the sight of Rogue holding the girl down convinced her.
Rogue stood up straight, rubbing the stinging line that the beads had left on her arm. "So, who are you?"
"I'm Abby, she's Elektra. Let's go!" Abby seemed to hold no resentment towards Rogue, and grinned as she leapt down from the fire escape, landing neatly on the ground. She stopped still and looked back up, obviously realising that she didn't know which way to go. Elektra and Mystique hurried down the fire escape, a very similar, very familiar expression of fond exasperation on their faces. Elektra jumped after Abby, touching her shoulder to direct her back towards the clinic. Rogue dropped down over the railing, and waited for Mystique to follow.
"What name does she know you by?" Rogue hissed to Mystique. "And what the hell's going on?"
Mystique took off running, staying close behind Elektra and Abby. "We're Leni and Marie, mutant superheroes with our powers perfectly intact, as far as she knows. Elektra already knows the people we're after because they tried to kill Abby."
"Oh, well, there's a good reason to trust her!"
"I've worked with – well, against – Elektra before. She's ruthless, but she never learnt to deceive."
Rogue nodded, and saved her breath for running. It wasn't that she thought Mystique would be taken in by a pretty face, but that she didn't want Mystique to treat her as Elektra was treating Abby, the junior partner, the apprentice. She wasn't stupid or naive – if she had wanted to be alternately coddled and ignored, expected to accept tales of good guys and bad guys, she would have stayed at the Xavier School. Mystique gave her answers, even if she did need prodding on occasion. They'd moved a long way past the teacher-student dynamic now.
Rogue had been apprehensive the first few times she'd gone on a mission, but it turned out that infiltrating the Friends of Humanity had been far easier than she could have guessed –wearing low-cut tops really was a vital part of spying. Mystique always took great delight in men's total lack of suspicion, while Rogue was as pissed off as Mystique was cheerful – how could such stupid men do so much damage and spread so much fear? Even people like Storm, who shouldn't be afraid of anyone, who said she was proud of her differences, feared the great mass of regular humans. That made Rogue angrier than ever.
"So I was like, 'You tell me your cousin's a mutie, then you say you wanna have babies?' I sure ain't having no mutie baby clawing outta my belly!" Mystique threw back her head and laughed, and the men around her joined in. Rogue abandoned the queue in front of the coffee cart and stomped over to rescue Mystique from her own enthusiasm – for some reason, once Mystique got started with the Slutty Southern Chick persona, she just couldn't stop.
"Come on, Mandy, we've got to go into the hall now." Rogue tugged Mystique's arm and pulled her away from her admirers. "If we go in now, we won't get a seat for the speeches."
"This is my little sister," Mystique called back over her bare shoulder as Rogue pulled her away. "She's got a stick up her butt, but she's real nice when you get to know her!"
"See you in DC, babe!" one of the men yelled, and the others waved and whistled.
The two women headed towards the town hall, which had Friends of Humanity banners tied over the doors, Mystique's high heeled sandals making her wobble a little on the uneven gravel of the parking lot.
"Every time we're sisters, you have to be the slutty one!" Rogue rolled her eyes. When Mystique started making all the decisions, things tended to get risky. "Is it the Southern accent? Do you really have to live the stereotype?"
Mystique grinned, her teeth white against her bright red lipstick. "Sure do, hon! At least until you get your Midwestern accent down. Hey, at least I didn't bleach my hair this time." She smoothed down her dark brown bob.
"Because it looked like crap, not because you didn't want to!" Rogue tried to frown, but ended up smiling back at her anyway. Rogue always tried to rein Mystique in before she progressed from "having a little fun" to "tormenting people" – it had quickly become Rogue's job to keep them on mission. "So this is just punishment for me not getting my vowels straight yet?"
Mystique adjusted her tube top to a more modest height. "Remember when the Cleveland FoH mistook us for a couple and told us that they were here for the precious children, so we weren't welcome? Sisters is the way to go." She took Rogue's arm and laughed again. "Of course, most people assume Irene is my mother, so it's not like they'd recognise an actual lesbian couple if they happened to see one!"
Rogue walked with Mystique, arm in arm, and let the anger seep away. Mystique had been fighting these battles a long time – Irene even longer – and Rogue knew that Mystique had been just as angry as she was, not so long ago. She could move on, too, slide through the crowd like a knife and cut pieces from their ugly hearts without them ever knowing.
Two blocks later, Mystique and Rogue caught up just as Elektra and Abby skidded to a halt beside a seedy, squat apartment building, rust trailing from the straining air conditioners down the brick and concrete walls. Abby was standing perfectly still, her head tilted to the side as if she was listening. Rogue waited patiently, wondering if Abby had some kind of super-hearing power, but Mystique was not so polite.
"What's she doing, Elektra? You said she wasn't a mutant."
Elektra stepped away from Abby and looked Mystique in the eye. Rogue watched her carefully to see if her hands strayed towards a hidden weapon, but Elektra's arms remained folded across her chest. "You're still obsessed with who is and isn't a mutant, aren't you? There's always been more to the world than that, Leni, but you don't want to see it."
"Then what is she doing?" Rogue interrupted, seeing Mystique's lips thin – the one warning sign that she was about to lose her temper.
Elektra's focus flicked over to Rogue, and she looked almost surprised, as if she'd forgotten Rogue existed. "The Hand are a death cult, and they see Abby as a religious figure."
Rogue couldn't maintain her cool at that. "Her? What kind of religious figure?"
"It doesn't matter what you believe. It matters that they kill people and resurrect them as obedient slaves. That's what they want to do to Abby."
"Oh hell, that's what they're doing to the mutants! Making zombies!"
"We followed them from Japan – America has a lot more mutant visibility than Japan does," Elektra continued, her voice remaining even and untroubled. "One of their factions suffered something of a setback recently, but they're trying to build their strength again. Mutants are ideal soldiers. They don't have the mental discipline that would allow them to resist conversion, and yet they're very powerful. And younger people are most likely to survive the Hand's process."
"That still doesn't explain what Abby is doing." Mystique was calm now, her voice icy.
Abby looked up at that. "There are all these signs that tell them I'm the Treasure. I can sort of sense where the Hand are, especially if they're weak or newly converted. I'm still working on it, though." She looked over to Elektra. "They didn't go past this building – they're in the basement."
Rogue turned her attention to the apartment building. A loose cover over an air vent was the obvious point of entry, so she hauled the metal grid aside exposing a dark hole in the brickwork, big enough for a person to crawl through. Abby leapt for it without hesitation, but Elektra was ready for her and dragged her back by her tank top.
Elektra pulled two long, three-pronged daggers from under her flowing jacket. Rogue was about to comment that they were sai, but then she realised she knew that from watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and was rather glad she had kept her mouth shut.
Elektra pushed Abby behind her. "I'll go first. The Hand usually work in groups, so there could be as many as twenty of them down there. Probably fewer, for the sake of stealth, but certainly more than two." She let go of Abby and ducked into the tunnel, moving in a low crouch rather than a crawl, her weapons ready. Abby immediately followed, her beads at the ready.
Mystique looked at Rogue. "So, do you think we should follow?"
"There's a mutant in trouble in there, and those Hand guys are going to kill him."
"Probably," Mystique shrugged, "But I don't like the idea of getting involved in a religious war."
"With zombies. Still, as I said, Elektra is a ruthless woman – she's going to be focused on destroying her enemies rather than saving lives, and that includes any of the mutants that the Hand have already converted."
Rogue stared at Mystique. "You think they can be saved? But they're dead!"
"If they're up and walking around, they can't be all that dead. Just because Elektra sees them that way doesn't mean that it's true."
"Where there's twitching zombie life, there's hope?" Rogue shook her head, feeling foolish for assuming that Elektra was right. "She really believes what she's saying, though."
"Fanatics usually do. Come on. There's got to be a public entrance, too – we'll go that way." Mystique hurried around to the front of the building, and Rogue followed. In a fine display of secure living, one of the heavy glass doors of the lobby had been broken and repaired with a sheet of plywood. Rogue could easily slide her hand around the poorly secured cover and unlock the door from the inside. The lobby was dank and smelled of urine, overlaid with a tinge of sulphur from the long yellow smear across the floor and across the mailboxes. Mystique glared at the mark as if she could burn it away with her eyes. "Abby's got the right building."
"I hope all that mess means someone escaped," Rogue muttered, but she knew that if Elektra was right about the Hand working in groups, it was unlikely that their victim had managed to get out, even if they had killed one assailant and blown out the external door.
Mystique took the lead and they hurried down the well-worn stairs. There was still no sound, but the smell of sulphur grew stronger and the air took on a dark yellow tinge, barely alleviated by one feeble light bulb. At the bottom of the stairs was a heavy door, newer than anything else they'd seen in the building, and at the base of it, a crumpled body, almost invisible in the low light. Just as Mystique and Rogue froze in place, cautious, the body leapt up and launched at them, with enhanced speed too great to avoid. Mystique went down in a second, and Rogue was knocked aside, barely managing to protect her head as she flew into the wall, cracking plaster with the force of the impact. She slid to the ground, tumbling painfully down the remaining steps, and landed on top of Mystique.
"Oh my god!" Rogue looked up at the skinny teenager standing the top of the stairs. "It's Jean-Paul!" She lowered her voice. "He was at the Xavier school. He's got a speed-running power." Rogue remembered the Canadian kid as a fun, if overly sarcastic, guy. Now Jean-Paul's face was blank and his mouth slack as he stared back down the stairs at them, wondering what to do next.
"Stay still," Mystique hissed, almost inaudibly. "Get up when I say." She wriggled slightly, freeing an arm, and Rogue got ready to jump. "Go!"
Rogue leapt to her feet as fast as she could, and Mystique threw something past her. The moment Rogue was standing up, Jean-Paul's face settled into determination again, his programming kicking in, and dashed towards her. Before he reached her, though, he staggered on the stairs, his legs kicking out gracelessly. He fell flat on his butt, sliding and rolling all the way to the bottom of the stairs. Mystique and Rogue grabbed him with perfect timing, flipping him face-down before he could get up and engage his super-speed. Rogue knelt on his back, pinning him, while Mystique hog-tied him with the cable ties she kept handy in her jeans pocket. Rogue glanced up at the stairs and saw hundreds of tiny ball bearings still rolling back and forth across the steps.
Mystique shrugged and put the now empty zip lock bag back in her pocket. "I hate speedsters."
Jean-Paul couldn't get his legs underneath him, and quickly gave up struggling. He didn't seem to be able to talk, but made incoherent, angry noises in the back of his throat. Rogue touched his dirty hair gently, suddenly sad that the smartly dressed and smart-mouthed Jean-Paul had been reduced to someone's attack dog. He immediately tried to bite her and she yanked her hand back. "Hey, honey, it'll be okay. You just wait here."
Mystique gave her an irritated look and hauled open the heavy door at the bottom of the stairs. "Come on. Elektra's not going to have any hesitation killing the rest of them."
The basement was thick with the sulphurous fumes of the dead, but Elektra and Abby fought on, and there were at least a dozen Hand still opposing them. These Hand were a mix of young Japanese men in dark robes and assorted Americans in dirty street clothes. Most of the Japanese men in black seemed to be competent martial artists, but the other men were simply using brute force. The martial artists were a lot more capable of making decisions than the casually-dressed mutants, planning ahead and working as a team. Unfortunately, this meant that the mutants were easier targets, and as they watched, Abby's string of beads flew out and flung a huge, white-skinned, lantern-eyed man to the ground, snapping his neck with the force. His body exploded into yellow smoke, obscuring everyone's view for a moment, and Elektra took the opportunity to stab one of the black-clad men through the chest. Rogue stared, shocked at the casual violence, and wasted a moment feeling like an idiot for assuming Elektra was going to help the victims of the Hand. She didn't feel so bad, though, when she realised Mystique had also paused in the doorway, unsure of where to attack.
Mystique didn't hesitate for long. She shoved a few cable ties into Rogue's hands. "I can't believe I'm the one advocating non-violence. Grab the mutants, knock them out if you have to, but let Elektra and the kid handle the rest."
Rogue and Mystique tackled the biggest and oldest of the brainwashed mutants first, while the element of surprise was on their side. He was a solid, dark-skinned man with a curly mullet, an M tattoo on his face and glowing scarlet energy around his fists. He looked fit and capable, but he didn't even react until Rogue and Mystique had already pulled his arms behind his back and secured them with one straining cable tie. He roared out something incomprehensible and sent a blast of energy from his tied hands into the floor, cracking the concrete and barely missing Mystique's feet. Rogue kicked his legs out from under him but, even so, they needed the strength of both women to bear him to the ground and tie his feet. Mystique quickly added a second tie to support the first one, and the man lay panting on the ground, his face pressed into the floor, hardly struggling at all.
Some of the black-clad Japanese men noticed the attack and one of them launched himself at Mystique with a flying kick. She grabbed his foot and threw him roughly to the ground, but he landed in a crouch and circled around, neatly isolating Mystique from Rogue. Mystique kept him engaged with a flurry of punches, and Rogue took the opportunity to take down the next mutant. This one was the youngest she'd seen, a dark-haired white kid with some kind of green-tinged telekinesis. He was occupied using his TK to try to crush Abby against the basement wall. Abby was too fast and competent for him, constantly using other attackers as a shield against his power. Rogue could predict where Abby was moving next, but the boy was so damaged by whatever they'd done to him that he kept trying to hit where Abby was now, not where she was moving, and that was far too slow.
Rogue grabbed his arm and twisted it up his back so that he lost his balance and fell back against her. He used his TK to push her but when she didn't let go both of them skidded across the slippery floor, crashing into the far wall. Rogue managed to turn them sideways mid-flight, so that the boy caught worst of the impact. She heard something snap as they hit the wall and the boy went limp. Rogue almost let go in shock that she might have killed him, but he collapsed to the ground rather than vanishing in smoke. He tried to get up, grabbing at Rogue, but his right leg wouldn't support his weight.
"Sorry," Rogue muttered, and kicked the boy hard in his broken leg. His eyes rolled up and he passed out. Rogue quickly tied him up, rolling him out of the way of the fight. She glanced over at the first man they'd immobilised, in case he was trying to use his powers. He wasn't, but he had turned his head enough to stare at her.
"Help us..." he rasped, then his jaw slackened again and he started to pull against his bonds. Rogue gave him a quick, strained smile and hurried past him to a dreadlocked teenage boy cowering against the wall. He was the only person not trying to fight, so Rogue could only assume he was the boy Elektra had seen kidnapped.
He nodded, too shaken to speak. There was blood around his hairline and nostrils, and as Rogue got closer, she could see that he looked dazed, rather than inhumanly focused. Elektra and Abby must have attacked in time to stop the Hand killing and controlling the boy. Elektra had pulled the fight well away from where he crouched, and he was in no immediate danger, so Rogue left him there and hurried back to help Mystique.
Mystique's attempts to save the mutants certainly didn't extend to the men who had transformed them in the first place. Just as Rogue made her approach, Mystique delivered a precise open-palmed strike to the underside of her attacker's chin, snapping his head backwards and sending him into convulsions then another greasy explosion of smoke. Mystique didn't stop for a moment, though, grabbing a green-skinned, scaly kid in both arms and rolling him to the ground, out of the path of Elektra's sai. Rogue dived to the ground where Mystique held the boy, and quickly tied him. He tried to bite her with his pointed teeth, his lizard tongue flickering in and out, but he was small and had no chance against the two of them.
A yellow cloud rolled over them and the last of the attackers was destroyed. Elektra walked through the cloud, the haze discolouring her jacket. She leaned over Mystique to retrieve her sai from where it had lodged in the wall.
Mystique stayed remarkably still, crouched over the green boy. "Do you want these last few, Elektra?"
Elektra looked down at them, then wiped her weapon on her jacket. "Do you?"
Mystique's eyes narrowed, and Rogue backed up a little, not wanting to get between those two. Abby was slinking towards the corner where the tall man with the energy power lay.
"Hey!" Rogue called, and Abby froze. "I don't care what they tried to do to you! These guys are victims of the same stupid plan, and I don't believe you still want to kill them!"
"It's safer," Elektra said, her voice as level as ever.
"We have somewhere to send them," Rogue shouted, then moderated her tone. "We can help them."
"And if you can't?"
Abby coiled her beads around her arm with a neat flick of her hand. "They're right, E. We had a second chance. They should, too."
Elektra looked unconvinced, but stowed her weapons and turned on her heel, stepping over the green boy's prone form as she moved towards the stairs. "Come on, Abby."
Abby glanced around the room, the air still thick with death, but followed. "We'll let you know if we find more," she said to Rogue as she passed by. She spoke quietly as if she was trying to convince herself.
"Yeah, well, I hope we never see them again," Rogue called after them, and helped Mystique to her feet. She knelt down beside the dreadlocked boy, who was now unconscious. "So, I guess we can call an ambulance for this kid, but how are we getting four tied-up sort-of-dead guys out to Westchester? You want me to go steal a van or something?"
Mystique grinned, the adrenaline of the fight still buzzing. "Actually, I called the X-Men before we entered the building. They should be here any moment."
Rogue carefully rolled the boy into recovery position so he wouldn't choke before the X-Men arrived, then ran for the stairs. "Did you call them to handle the zombie ninjas, or to handle Elektra?"
Mystique followed her, pausing only to check that Jean-Paul was still breathing. "Enemies I can handle myself. When it's friends, I need backup."
Rogue laughed, and put out a hand to steady Mystique over the steps still strewn with ball bearings. The wind kicked up outside the building, despite flags hanging limp at the other end of the street, and Rogue and Mystique covered their heads and ran from the imminent arrival of Storm and her team. Rogue laughed harder, horrible yellow dust blowing off her clothes and hair, and sprinted, her stride long and free, ponytail flying behind her.
"Come on!" she called back to Mystique. "Keep up!"
The seat of the bus stop was wet where the rain had seeped through the cracked roof, so Rogue stood instead, her one bag slung over her shoulder. Even if they did get Cerebro working again, there's no way they'd be able to track her now – although she was still technically a mutant, according to Doctor MacTaggert's tests, she no longer had an energy signature to detect. She had joked at the time that she should hand in her cult membership, but then came the days of condescending kindness or outright shunning from the students with the bright and shiny powers; and the jealousy and fear from the students with powers more like hers had been, deforming and dangerous. The constant stares and whispers made her feel like she was drowning, drop by drop. Even Logan seemed heady with the sense of belonging, fresh from his success leading the team, and that was what reminded Rogue of who she was. She was a runaway, a traveller, an outcast, a rogue: promises of belonging lasted only as long as she, like Logan, was willing to be domesticated into agreeability and obedience.
A battered white Honda pulled up at the bus stop, and an elderly woman in sunglasses rolled down the passenger window.
"Hello, Marie...I'm sorry, I should say Rogue."
Rogue glared at her, until she realised the woman was wearing the dark glasses because she was blind. Another woman, very tall and much younger, leaned across from the driver's side, resting her hand on her passenger's thigh.
"Oh, don't make Irene go through the whole explanation. In six months, you'll either be working illegally on a building site in Portland or you'll be doing something useful with your life."
Rogue hitched her bag high on her shoulder, ready to walk away. "Yeah? Like what? Joining another cult? Been there, done that."
Irene laughed, her oversized sunglasses slipping down her nose a little. "Of course you have. The X-Men like to think of themselves as a family, don't they? And you're some kind of prodigal daughter."
"How do you know –"
"Time to grow up," the younger woman snapped. "The Brotherhood didn't live up to much, either."
Rogue looked closer. "Mystique?"
Mystique's face twisted in something close to contempt, but it wasn't directed at Rogue. Her skin didn't shift in colour, and the eyes that met Rogue's stare were a clear blue. "Well spotted."
"Last time I saw you, you were laughing at my hair. The time before that, you were helping Magneto kill me. I should trust you now that you're a mere human?"
Mystique didn't lower her gaze. "Don't presume I'm any less than I was, and I'll do you the same courtesy."
"That's the best offer I've heard in a long time." Rogue hauled open the back door and climbed in. "So. What have you got to show me?"