1. Target: Wolverine
“I cannot stress how careful you must be. He is the most dangerous individual – human or mutant - you will ever face.”
The pronouncement dangled in the air before landing with a clang. Scott snorted, while Jean and Ororo made quiet noises of dissent that managed to stay respectful. The junior team didn’t even bother to do that, chorusing their confidence with all the sophistication of the playground. The X-men had faced many, many dangerous mutants, and overcome them all. They were well trained, well equipped and ran like a well-oiled machine. Could one man – working alone – disrupt their well-oiled machine?
“We know three things about The Wolverine,” Xavier cut in. “One – that’s what he looked like last week,” he gestured at the pile of photographs scattered around the table.”
“Two, he is one of the most highly paid assassins in the world. He selects his jobs very carefully, but once he agrees, that person is dead. No mercy, and no escape.”
“And three, no one knows who he is. Or what he is. Most people assume he is human,” the table tittered at the naivete, “ but his was one of the first mutant signatures I ever picked up. I was 16 at the time, and he is still the most powerful, potent force I have ever sensed.”
The Professor paused, to let his meaning sink in around the table. “There aren’t many category five mutants out there, but I suspect he is one of them, even though I can’t be sure what his gift is. And he seems to be trained in espionage and combat. That makes him a threat to us. Someone who must be stopped.”
His face was a study in regret. Compassion for his fellow mutant. “I plan to offer The Wolverine the chance to join us. He would be an excellent addition to the senior team.” Xavier smiled, glacial. “Luckily, my money is as good as anyone else’s. And I didn’t ask him to kill anyone. Tomorrow night you will rendezvous with the Wolverine, ostensibly to collect some intelligence he has collected on the FOH.”
“I need you to bring him in as well.”
“Unharmed? Or is a higher level of force permitted?” Cyclops asked, his team leader persona taking over.
Xavier’s smile would have chilled ice. “Do what you must. And I hope you escape unharmed,” he said. “You might – if he decides he wants to come with you.”
The supposition hung in the air, Xavier’s lack of faith in his team’s ability to overcome the target shaking their confidence.
Only one member of the team didn’t seem surprised.
The woman they called Rogue was used to the eyes that followed her. Over time, the expression behind them had changed – fear into respect, suspicion into welcome, jealousy into admiration. Lust … well, that was still lust, not that it bothered her any. Skintight black leather over fabulously honed muscles – not to mention the best rack north of Vegas – tended to do that, and it amused her they all wanted to try. Dancing with death had a seduction all of its own, it seemed.
She could smell the pheromones in the air as she warmed up for her daily assault on the punching bag. The familiar slow glide of Waves Hands Like Clouds drifted into Holding up the Heavens, pivot, Front Kick, hold, Snake Creeps Down … her breathing slowed and mind focused, Rogue could almost taste his presence. Feel his hands as he guided her through the postures, see the bead of sweat making its way down the planes of his back as he turned away from her. She had to blink to chase away the fantasy image: he wasn’t here yet. He might not want to come with them. With her. She had left him for dead, after all.
Six years earlier …
“So, what kinda name is Rogue?”
The stranger mighta been cute, Marie decided, but he was RUDE. Just because your butt was heaven in jeans and your chest made a girl hungry, did not mean you got to be rude!
“What kinda name is Wolverine?” she sassed him back, rolling the R around in her mouth like the sweetest of cherries. And flipping her hair and pouting a little – men liked that, she knew. They went kinda crazy when they saw the thrust and gather of red, red lips, framed by all that hair.
“Name’s Logan.” A smirk, but he looked, too. Ran those gorgeous hazel eyes over every contour of her mouth, she’d have taken bets he wasn’t annoyed or amused right then. His bored look returned in seconds, but for a moment, he’d thought it. She’d been upgraded from silly teenager to something else, even if only for a moment.
She tried to keep it short and sarcasm laden. Smart kid to his exasperated adult. “Marie.”
Fire and volley, barbs and condescension. Food offered, and vacuumed with all the delicacy a near-starving girl could manage. Naked hands, dangerous, jerked back from near disaster.
“I’m not trying to hurt you, kid.” She knew. She’d learnt to mark those men, and stay away. This one wouldn’t try, and she wondered if that was why she wanted him to. Wanted to, full stop. But all she could give him was her trust.
“It’s my skin. That’s my mutation. You can’t touch my skin. It’s dangerous.” It was the first time she had said the words. Owned the truth. She was dangerous. Death in a pretty package. One that could never be unwrapped. One speaking glance and she could tell he’d heard the sorrow and rage she’d never expressed. Eyes soft, face unconcerned, he sympathised, minimised. Lousy deal. Move on.
And they had. Small talk, uncomfortable for them both, and then, somewhere between two points on a useless map, they’d become friends. Lost souls blindly fumbling their way towards some place a little less lonely.
She’d slept in the cab, that night, while he stretched out in the back. Second night, they’d hit up a fleabag motel, where he’d stayed out all night and left the big double bed and the shower – the shower! – to her. She wondered, for a moment, if he’d abandoned her, but when he came back smelling of a bar and what she suspected was a woman, she understood. He wouldn’t use her as a convenience, even assuming her ever vigilant skin would let him. That wasn’t what this was about.
He mentioned the cabin on the fourth day. Two more fights would buy him the supplies for a full winter. It would need to, because once the snow came, there’d be no way down the mountain. Holed up like a bear in his den for January and February at least. Probably December too. She was waiting for the crack about Father Christmas, but it never came. Just a question in his eyes that made her realise it was an invitation.
“So, what? You need a cook up there, or something?” She didn’t dare hope it was anything else. She’d given up when he taken to reminding her – sometimes subtly, other times not – of the yawning gap in their ages. She pretended to take offence at the cheap shots, but she could see the sadness in his eyes: it was necessary, he thought, and begged her to respect that.
“You do good eggs, kid. Plus I wanna teach you some stuff. To help you stay safe. So you can wander off in the spring and I won’t have to worry about you so much.”
So they’d moved into the cottage, with his bed at one end and hers at the other. In between, a large cleared area centred on a punching bag, and a rug in front of the fire. Ratty couch against the opposite wall.
Tai chi, he’d said, was the body’s way of preparing for anything that could be thrown at it. You couldn’t relax without it, and you couldn’t fight without it.
She had learnt six postures before the week was out. When she had learned all 24, and was able to flow from one to the next without any conscious thought, he taped her fists and turned her towards the punching bag.
It had been her only request on arriving at the Mansion. The punching bag in the gym went up three days later.
The punching bag blurred red in front of her eyes as Rogue fought her way back to the present. Tears? . She refused to countenance the weakness, and tried to banish the longing that had crept over her with the sense memory. It had always been that way; pain tied to every gift he had given her. But there had been so many gifts …
Pushing aside memories of strong hands and a gaze that made her shiver with want, she snapped into her kickboxing stance and chose to exercise yet another of Logan’s legacies. Kick, punch, swivel. Cross. Jab. Kick. Lose yourself in the action, live only in the moment. Every sense focused, even your skin, kid. It’s so fuckin’ sensitive you can feel the air move across it, so you can feel an attack coming. Use everything you have. Those tits, swing ‘em for me. Show me your ass when you kick. Distract me. Seduce me.
Seduce. Now, there’s a word Logan would never use, she thought, smiling grimly at a phantom visage on the other side of the punching bag. He’d meant it, all right, but no fancy words were allowed between them. He didn’t want to pretty things up.
Distract me. Flaunt it, kid. You got a face a man needs to fuck and a body that will make ‘em do anything just to get there. He had snarled it out, between blows that could no longer be dismissed as sparring. Nothing so structured in The Wolverine’s assault: he fought hard, or he fought easy, and they’d worked for weeks to get her to the point where she could take it either way. Guns or knives, fists or fury. That day, though, the only fury had been hers, the weight of so much wanting and wishing crashing down on her in a red haze.
“Yeah, well, they’re fucked either way, aren’t they? Even if I want them to touch me, they’re dead! Why bother with distraction when all I need is a bare finger? Or even a kiss?” Even in her mind’s eye, the voice was shrill with frustration, and the underlying challenge unmistakable. “Besides, if I’m so irresistible, why haven’t you fucked me yet?”
It had hung between them, the moment pregnant with promise. Disaster. Resolution. Anything, Marie had begged the fates. Anything that would take them forward. A glance at his face had told her nothing; the crude, animalistic goads of the persona he called the Wolverine had given way to the imperturbable mask Logan often wore.
“You’re not ready,” he had said.
He refused to elaborate, and her attempts to get him to explain were as effective as the embarrassing seduction a few days later. He had been kind, stroking her hair and breathing a kiss against her uncovered lips before sending her back to the other end of the cottage.
Maybe it was the faint shadow of him in her head that finally brought the realisation. She was in training. His assistant. His companion. His lover.
She had smiled, then. Just the memory of that girl’s catlike satisfaction hurt now, the naivete an insult to the older, wiser Rogue. If only, she acknowledged, she was wise enough to stay away, get out of there.
But she knew she wasn’t.