by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only. See My Own Prison, the prequel, for author's notes. Many thanks to Dande for constant encouragement with this installment of the series.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, audible even over the roar of the Harley beneath him, and Nathan Summers smiled tightly as he took the next turn at just under a hundred and twenty miles an hour, the bike's tires squealing a protest against the wet pavement. The rain had been coming down in sheets since long before he'd left the mansion, and the roads were a mess.
It didn't matter. He was soaked to the skin, so cold he was shivering, but even if he'd still had the ability to bodyslide, he wouldn't have taken himself back to the mansion. Not for the moon on a silver plate, he thought, letting the wind steal away his laughter.
The mansion. He hated the mansion. It had too many ghosts. He didn't understand why Jean didn't feel the same way, how she'd actually been able to move back into the boathouse. Maybe the way Scott's ghost lurked everywhere was a comfort to her, instead of the rebuke it was to him.
Lucky Jean, Nathan thought savagely, accelerating as he approached a small Honda being driven very carefully in the rain. Sensing the driver's sudden anxiety, he grinned fiercely and waited until the headlights coming at them on the other side of the road had gotten close enough for him to see the minivan to which they were attached. Waiting, timing it just right, he accelerated again, darting between the two cars as they passed and ignoring the frantic blaring of both horns as he sped off down the road, laughing.
By the time he brought the bike to a stop in the parking lot of one of Salem Center's more disreputable bars, that brief exhilaration had vanished and the restlessness was back. He strode through the parking lot towards the door, nudging one of the other motorcycles telekinetically, and smirking as it toppled into the one beside it, setting off a chain reaction. But no one came running out of the bar, and he realized, as he scanned the minds in the building, that the thunder must have been loud enough to mask the noise. Too bad.
Country music. It all but hit him in the face as soon as he walked into the bar, and Nathan scowled. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea. He wasn't really in the mood to listen to someone warbling about lost loves and lost chances and wanting to step in front of an eighteen-wheeler--
"Scotch," he said curtly, walking over to the bar and sitting down. The bartender gave him a wary look, and Nathan bared his teeth at him. "Was that too complicated for you? Do I need to spell it, so you can find the bottle?"
With a sour look, the bartender served him, and Nathan knocked back half the liquor in one gulp. It was lousy scotch, but it was strong enough to warm him, just a little, as it went down.
"You're dripping on the floor, pal," the bartender observed.
"Fuck off," Nathan growled. He didn't need the flonqing bartender to state the flonqing obvious. He hadn't come here for conversation. For a moment, the idea of spilling all his troubles to some unwary bartender and probably sending him or her into therapy for life tickled his fancy, but he discarded it almost immediately. Maybe later.
"Lousy night, huh?"
A surge of sudden, irrational anger rose like bile at the back of his throat, and Nathan slammed the glass down on the bar, giving the bartender his best threatening look. Why was everyone so bound and determined to piss him off today? All he wanted was a drink or seven--was it really necessary to wear a sign announcing that?
#Not really.# The voice seemed almost to float into his mind, the telepathic equivalent of a caress. #You're projecting it strongly enough. Then again, everyone in this bar is headblind to a fault. That might be the problem.#
"Go away," he snapped harshly, ignoring the way that the bartender jumped. If the man chose to believe he was talking to him, so much the better. Nathan shivered as the air began to glisten and sparkle around him, 'special effects' only he could see. The astral plane was overlapping with the 'real' world again.
It had been happening since the High Evolutionary's attempt to save the world by devolving mutants across the globe. By the time the X-Men had uncovered Sinister's involvement and put a stop to it, something had happened to the astral plane. Something drastic--and irrevocable, he thought. He could remember--snatches, bits and pieces from the time he'd been trapped in the techno-organic cocoon. He sometimes thought that if he could just put them all together, he'd understand what had happened--what was still going on.
#I think I've done enough of that.# Black as jet, save for the blazing Phoenix tattoo over one eye, Jean's astral form walked out of the shimmering light and stood behind him, laying her insubstantial hands on his shoulders. He could almost feel her touch. Almost. #Leaving you alone, I mean. There's such a thing as giving a person too much space.#
"Everyone's entitled to their opinion," he said savagely, pushing wet hair out of his eyes and downing the rest of the scotch. "Don't push me."
#I'm not trying to push you,# she said, a bit of iron creeping into her voice. #And would you kindly use your telepathy? You're scaring the locals.#
Ignoring her, Nathan gestured imperiously at the bartender, who came over, a little wide-eyed, and refilled his glass. "Just leave the bottle," he snapped when the man would have withdrawn. "I'm going to be here for a while."
#Why are you doing this?# There was honest curiosity in the question, as well as worry. Neither went very far towards making him give a damn.
"Because I can, Jean," he said, aloud again, sensing the growing unease of the people around him and trying very hard not to laugh. So they didn't like him talking to his invisible friend, did they? "Because there's no reason I shouldn't."
No reason at all. He had no mission to carry out, no future to save. Nothing to fill the void inside him except the memory of his own failure. He took a sip of the scotch and didn't feel a thing.
#You really think your life is that empty.# It wasn't quite a question, and the disapproving tone to her voice nearly drove him right over the edge.
"What life?" he snarled. The bartender was turning an odd shade of pale, and Nathan swore viciously. "Don't you have something else to do besides stare?" The bartender's mouth worked silently, as if he couldn't manage to form the words that were struggling to get out, and Nathan gritted his teeth, contemplating ways to make the man forget he was sitting here.
#Nathan, leave him alone,# Jean said sharply.
"I didn't say anything!" the man finally bleated.
Downing the rest of his scotch, Nathan filled his glass again and forced a smirk to his face. "I wasn't talking to you." If anything, that only made the bartender look more terrified, and Nathan snorted, taking his glass and the bottle and heading over to a booth.
Jean followed him. #Have you somehow regressed back to early childhood when I wasn't looking?#
"Everyone's got to have a midlife crisis, Redd," he said, pausing beside one table where a young couple were staring at him, wide-eyed. "What's the matter?" he asked, mock-soliticiously. "Is the crazy man ruining your night out?"
#Nate, stop it.#
"My invisible friend thinks I should leave you alone," he confided, and smiled tightly as he sensed the bouncer moving towards him from behind. He could sense the man's intentions, clear as a bell. "So does my very large friend back there, I think."
He shivered as Jean's astral form stepped right through him and turned, giving him what was unmistakably a warning look. The Phoenix-mark blazed like the heart of the sun. #If you start something--#
"You'll what? Take me over your knee?" A hand fell on his shoulder, and he took a deep breath as he turned to face the bouncer. "There's no reason to be concerned," he said harshly, reinforcing the suggestion telepathically and spreading it throughout the bar. Manipulating people like this was easy enough. He'd had a very good teacher. "Go back to what you were doing, all of you. There's nothing to see."
The bouncer blinked, and looked suspiciously at him for a moment. Nathan shrugged, and the bartender shook his head, wandering back to the seat he'd apparently vacated a few minutes ago. Nathan looked around, his eyes narrowing as he sized up the other patrons of the bar. No one was paying any attention to him at all. The fine art of conversation was being rediscovered all over the room. Nathan retreated to the booth, feeling vaguely unsettled and obscurely furious with himself because of it.
#Is that something Blaquesmith taught you?# Jean asked.
"Of course," he muttered, filling up his glass again. He didn't know why he was bothering. Alcohol didn't tend to have much effect on him unless he drank far too much of it. A bottle of scotch might blur the edges, but that was it. Then again, maybe that was all he could hope for, to take the edge off--everything. There wasn't enough alcohol in the world to let him forget. "You'd be surprised at everything I've learned from him over the years."
#I don't think I would,# Jean said softly. The Phoenix mark was pulsing softly now. #I think you've probably learned too much from him.#
"Oh, please," he said impatiently, and took a gulp of the Scotch. "Don't start. Blaquesmith's got nothing to do with any of this." It had been a mistake, bringing him up. Jean had been completely unreasonable on the subject ever since Blaquesmith had mindwiped her and the others so that they'd be free to go after Nate Grey, that first time. "Next you'll be telling me he's a bad influence on me."
#Next? I'm sorry, was I being too oblique?#
"Very funny." He glared almost accusingly at her shadowy form. "He's never abandoned me, at least. Sometimes I wish he would, but the fact remains." It came out so much more harshly than he'd intended, and the shock and pain he sensed from her made him feel sick, not satisfied. Which only made him angrier. "Just--go away, Jean," he muttered fitfully, drinking straight from the bottle. She needed to go. Before he said something unforgivable.
She was silent for a long, long moment. When she finally answered, her voice in his mind was very quiet, almost sorrowful. #If you keep trying so hard to drive everyone away, Nathan Christopher, one of these days you're going to succeed.#
He flinched at her words, despite his best effort not to, but she was fading away, melting into the shadows, and any response he might have made died half-formed as he found himself sitting alone at the booth. Alone. Just like he'd wanted, right?
Nathan sank his face into his hands for a moment, taking a deep breath that was almost an indrawn sob. What was he doing--what the FLONQ was he doing? For a moment, all the pain and desolation rose up inside him, a towering wave ready to crash down and shatter his carefully created facade to pieces. He reached out with a trembling hand for the bottle, and gulped back more of the Scotch so hastily that he choked, breaking into a coughing fit.
Oath--cute, Dayspring, very cute-- he thought, wheezing. He supposed that was what was known as drowning your sorrows. A ghastly laugh somehow escaped, between coughs, but he bit off the one that would have followed. You did not break into maniacal laughter when you were trying to maintain a telepathic cloak. It sort of defeated the whole purpose. Counterproductive. Very counterproductive.
The door of the bar swung open, just in time for a crack of thunder, very close, to rattle the glasses hanging from the bar. Still breathing raggedly, Nathan looked up, and scowled as he saw Rogue walk in. She paused just inside the doorway, pushing wet hair out of her eyes as she looked around, clearly searching for him.
So that was why Jean had left so easily. Rogue finally caught sight of him, and arched an eyebrow as their eyes met. Nathan took a defiant swig of the Scotch, slamming the bottle back down onto the table and glaring at her resentfully as she came over.
She actually chuckled, a rueful smile flickering across her features. "Nate," she said dryly, making no move to sit down, "that ain't no way to say hello."
"Fine. Fuck off, PLEASE." He lifted the bottle again, but Rogue reached out and took it right out of his hand. Nathan felt his eyes widen slightly, but managed to keep the indignation out of his voice as he continued. "What's the matter, Rogue?" he asked instead, nastily. "Lose the coin toss tonight?"
"Coin toss?" she asked, frowning at the bottle as if it had offended her somehow. "Nate, what the hell are you talking about? And how much have you had to drink this time?"
There was something so resigned, so long-suffering about her tone. It put his teeth on edge. "I'm sorry, have you all moved on to 'pick a number'? Whoever's closest to the one Jean has in mind is the unlucky X-Man who pulls Nathan-duty for the night?" He tugged tentatively on the bottle with his telekinesis, but her grip on it only tightened. His temper nearly snapped right then and there. "Oath, Rogue, who do you think you are?" he demanded, not bothering to hide his hostility this time. They all kept DOING this to him, stab their eyes! Lecturing him, judging him--
Rogue sighed. "Your teammate," she said. There was nothing in her voice but weariness, now. If he hadn't been in quite such a vicious mood, he might have responded to it, backed off a little. But he wouldn't. Couldn't. "Your friend, ah like to think."
The frayed remnants of his self-control unraveled a little farther. "Pipe!" he hissed contemptuously. "My FRIEND? Give me a fucking break! Do you think that just because I can't read you, I don't know when you're mouthing nonsense?" Her eyebrows were heading for her hairline, but he pressed on feverishly. "You're getting real good at the platitudes, Rogue--you must be a natural!"
Rogue stared down at him silently for a moment, and then went and set the bottle of scotch down on the table of the booth next to his. "Come on, Nate," she said firmly, turning back to him. "Time to go back home."
"I don't want to go back to the mansion." He tried to state it calmly, firmly, but it came out sounding petulant, which only made him angrier. "Let's see if you can follow me here, Rogue. It's not that hard a concept, so if you really stretch yourself, you should make do." Her eyes hardened, but he continued savagely. "I left the mansion. I don't want to be in the mansion. Thus, I'm not interesting in going back to the mansion. Are you catching on?"
"Ah'm afraid ah wasn't actually giving you a choice, sugah," Rogue said mildly. Her eyes had hardened even further, until they were like frozen emerald. "You're coming back home with me, now, even if ah have to drag you back by the ear."
"Oh, really?" he snarled, rising from the booth. It wasn't going to impress Rogue, of course. Someone who could pick him up by the scruff of the neck and fly him back to the mansion at will wasn't going to be bothered by the fact that he had several inches on her. "Exactly where the fuck do you get off giving me ultimatums, Rogue? I don't remember signing over my right to make my own decisions when I joined up!"
Folding her arms across her chest, she regarded him levelly. Her voice, when she spoke, was cool, almost - but not quite - diffident. "Your own decisions?" she asked, almost inquisitively. "Like what, Nate?" He glared down at her silently, and her lips curved in a faint, humorless smile. "No, really, ah'm curious. Ah'd really like to know exactly what sort of decisions you think you've been making lately."
Instinct made him take a step forward and loom over her. He'd always used his height to intimidate, it was almost second nature--futile or not. "Where's this going, Rogue?" he asked in a low, bitter voice. Deliberately low; he could feel the patrons of the bar sluggishly beginning to try and pay attention to the two of them, and he really wasn't in the mood to expend any more effort than he needed to keep them unseen and unnoticed. "Another lecture about how irrationally I've been acting? If so, save it. I heard the whole thing from Jean this morning, and I'm not in the mood for a repeat performance."
"Fair enough," she said, squaring her shoulders and still looking him right in the eye. That faint smile grew, just a little. "Ah'll save it for another day, and we'll go back to the mansion instead. Sound like a plan?"
Nathan glared at her, and then, very conscious of what he was doing, sat back down. Rogue stood where she was, one eyebrow heading for her hairline again. Nathan smiled tightly, and levitated the bottle of Scotch from the neighbouring booth back to his hand, keeping it out of Rogue's reach. "Care to join me?" he invited. "You really need to let your hair down more often, 'sugah'. You're going to go gray before your time if you keep causing yourself needless stress."
"Needless stress," Rogue said, as if mulling the words over.
"Like running herd on me." He gave her another smile, this one showing considerably more teeth. Better. This was better than blustering. Blustering didn't do any good, and at least this let him feel something besides the anger. "Doesn't it bother you, just the tiniest bit? You finally get your shit together and stop acting like the mutant version of Blanche Dubois, but instead of being able to play fearless leader in peace, you get relegated to Nathan-watch."
Her eyes had flashed with anger at the Blanche Dubois comment, but she seemed almost amused, now, a wry smile playing on her lips. "Well, ah do like to take my turn. It is getting to be a full-time job." Before he could respond to that, she went on, a wicked gleam in her eyes. "Say, if ah'm Blanche, does that make you Stanley?"
He stared back at her coldly. "You got the literary allusion," he said icily. "I'm impressed. And surprised." He lifted the bottle, but Rogue stepped forward smoothly, her hand closed around it before he got it more than a few inches off the table.
Pure, irrational rage surged up inside him, rising like bile at the back of his throat. If he'd had the slightest chance of doing anything except bruising his hand - and his pride - he would have hit her. Instead, he eyed her for a long moment, and then let go. He had enough dignity left not to play tug-of-war with Rogue over a bottle of scotch.
"Ah said we were going back to the mansion," she said, her eyes never leaving his. Somber, now, and all too direct. "Ah didn't mean after you'd finished the bottle." She straightened, her mouth twisting for a moment, almost angrily. "You never struck me as the type, you know."
"What type would that be?" he asked as drolly as he could.
"The type to try and forget his problems by drowning them in alcohol," she said sharply, putting the bottle aside and then turning back to him. "That's the coward's way out, Nathan, and that was the one thing ah thought no one would ever be able to accuse you of being. Was ah wrong?"
Harsh words, meant to provoke. He knew that tactic. Something of a novelty to be on the receiving end of it, though. He gave a harsh laugh, relishing the flinch she barely managed to cover. "You don't have any idea what you're talking about, do you?" he said scornfully. "You think one glance inside my head gives you any particular insight into what I'm thinking, how I'm feeling?"
"Then tell me!" Rogue said, still quietly but more urgently. "Or tell someone, damn it. You can't go on keeping all of this to yourself--"
"Right, sure. Spill my guts to one of you, or all of you, so that you can tell me how it's not my fault. How I did all I could, so I should just get on with my life!" The words flowed out seemingly of their own accord, laced through with bitterness, acid with self-loathing. "Why the HELL should I do that, Rogue? The only possible thing it could accomplish would be to make the rest of you feel better, and I don't give a shit if the way I'm acting bothers you, Jean, or anyone else!"
Rogue's lip curled. "You selfish son of a bitch," she said, her voice low, but seething with biting contempt. He met her eyes unwaveringly, part of him wondering dully why the disgust in her eyes felt so good - so right - to see. "Ah see now why Jean can't deal with you. You really don't give a damn, do you? This is all about you. You don't care who you hurt--"
"Now you're catching on."
She slapped him. Not nearly as hard as she could have - she could have taken his head off with very little effort, after all - but hard enough to send him sprawling backwards in the booth, seeing stars.
"That's it," he heard her hiss as he tried to straighten. She'd grabbed his arm, pulled him to his feet, and hauled him halfway across the bar before he managed to shake it off.
At that point, there wasn't really much point in digging in his heels. He'd lost the telepathic cloak, so the rest of this was probably better conducted outside. Only practical, and he still had his pride--
They emerged out into the parking lot and the driving rain just as lightning hit somewhere very close. The whole sky seemed alight for a moment, and as Rogue looked upwards instinctively, Nathan took the opportunity and lashed out with his telekinesis.
The block knocked her to the pavement at the moment the thunder hit, so loud he could almost feel it rattling his bones. Rogue got up again almost instantly, and Nathan took a long step backwards, throwing up a hasty shield as he saw the furious expression she was wearing.
He wasn't positive what she was going to do next. Shouting at him seemed like a definite possibility. Flying off in a huff, while infinitely attractive from his point of view, was probably pretty unlikely. Attractive, though. Definitely attractive--
Before he could think of a third option, Rogue took a step forward and somehow--grabbed his shield, with both hands. Nathan swayed, biting back a curse. You always felt the impact, when something hit a shield of your creative. But this was sharper, somehow, almost like knives driving into his brain, as if he could feel each of her fingers digging into the shield. How the hell is she doing this--?
"Put it down," Rogue grated, her voice barely audible over the storm. He rallied and glared at her through the rain-hazed golden glow of the shield, but her expression only hardened. "Put it down, Nate, or ah swear ah'll tear it apart and then kick your sorry ass from here to Florida!" She clenched her fists, as if to drive home her point.
Pain seemed to explode behind his eyes, and he staggered backwards with a groan. "Flonq you, Rogue," he managed through gritted teeth, and visualized the shield folding in on itself, glowing brighter as he poured more energy into it, as much as he dared--
And let it all go, right at her. He heard her gasp as the impact hurled her back through the air and onto the hood of a car, the windshield shattering with a crash as she landed. Nathan straightened, swallowing past sudden nausea as the world whirled around him. It was the feedback, had to be, so it would pass--
Rogue was suddenly rising off the car, bits of glass cascading from her clothes and hair. "Ah'm getting sick of this shit!" she cried, and dove at him.
Nathan stood his ground until the last possible moment and then threw himself out of her way, hitting the pavement hard. Rolling, he came back to his feet, just as she started to turn towards him, and hit her with a left cross augmented with as much telekinesis as he could muster with his head still spinning It was like hitting rock--something harder than rock. Rock, at least, he would have had a chance of breaking if he'd hit it that hard.
All Rogue did was shake her head once, glare at him, and then return the favor.
The next thing he clearly registered was the wet pavement beneath him. The noise of the rain seemed inordinately loud, and he raised his head, blinking dazedly. Must've blacked out for a second--Bright Lady, can she ever hit-- His jaw hurt. Given that it was half techno-organic, that was something of a novelty--
He heard footsteps, turning his head to see black hiking boots in front of him. Before he could react, she reached down, pulling him effortlessly back to his feet and twisting her arm up and behind his back at an agonizing angle. Swearing, he tried feebly to pull away, but she tightened her grip warningly.
"Now you listen to me," she all but hissed in his ear. "And don't even think about trying to use your telekinesis on me again, Nate, because if I feel anything - ANYTHING! - ah am going to break your fucking arm. You understand?" She pushed his arm up farther, until he heard bone grate on bone.
"Perfectly," he growled, trying to keep the pain out of his voice. He wasn't going to give her the satisfaction.
"Well, color me surprised," she snarled. "If all it took to get you to stop and listen was threatening to break some bones, ah'd have done it weeks ago, sugah."
"Not my fault you have to do things the hard way. Get to the point." Her grip hadn't eased even slightly. Between the pain in his shoulder and the headache that was still shredding his brain, he was beginning to feel a little shaky on his feet.
"Shut the hell up, smartass!" She pulled his arm up just the tinest bit farther. He felt something tear, a hot flash of pain, and he bit back another curse, his breathing growing ragged despite his best efforts to keep it steady. "My point is that ah ain't going to put up with this anymore! Ah've had it up to here, you understand me? Like it or not, ah'm calling the shots these days, and even those that don't like it sure as hell ain't going to object if ah finally buckle down and do something about you!"
He laughed weakly. "Do something about me?" he rasped. "Give me a fucking break, Rogue."
"You don't think I will?" she asked, her voice very low now, only audible because they were so close.
Thunder rumbled above, as if in emphasis, and the rain only grew heavier. Cold, it was so cold that he wondered how it was still rain, and not ice--"You were shouting at me earlier about how ah didn't know you, Nate. Let's not pretend it doesn't work the other way around, too."
"So you're going to--solve the problem," he managed, forcing himself to smile, even though she couldn't see it. "Good for you. Too bad--we're nowhere near Antarctica, eh?"
He felt her freeze, go as rigid as a statue behind him, and for a moment, savage satisfaction seethed inside him. Even if she regained her composure and tore his arm out of its socket for such a low blow, he'd drawn blood. There'd be that consolation, at least.
"You son of a bitch," she finally breathed. Not letting go. Not breaking his arm, either.
That was all the reaction he got? No. No, he wanted more, stab his eyes. "But it's such an elegant solution," he said, putting as much of a mocking tone as he could into his voice. "Just--drop me somewhere, forget I exist. Let Mother Nature kill me instead of getting your own hands bloody--"
She pushed him away, so hard that he hit the pavement face first and actually bounced. Everything went hazy around the edges for a moment, but he shook it off and pushed himself back up, spitting blood as he got unsteadily to his feet. Rogue was just standing there, staring at him, her face white and set and utterly without emotion.
"Well," he said raggedly, fiercely determined to drive the knife in just a little farther, "I suppose you don't actually need me done away with, do you? I haven't done anything unforgivable. I'm just not--living up to the holy standards of the X-Men. So maybe you should pick somewhere a little closer. Less hostile." He wiped more blood away from his mouth, coughing, trying to ignore the fiery mass of pain that seemed to have replaced his shoulder. "Far enough away that it'll take me a while to walk back out, so that you can all have time to forget me. That's what you do with your failures, isn't it? Out of sight, out of mind. Must've--really thrown a wrench in your plans when Remy showed up again." He spat some more blood, managed a hoarse laugh. "So tell me, Rogue--do you regret not finishing the job?"
She shook her head, her expression shifting slowly into a mask of utter, icy contempt. When she spoke, her voice was still quiet, but he heard every word of it, even over the storm.
"You do a mighty fine Stryfe impression, Nathan," she said, slowly and clearly. "Your father would be so--disgusted with you if he could see you now."
The hot, vicious pleasure he'd been so enjoying vanished like a snuffed candle. Numb, he stared at her, and the contempt on her face faded slightly as the silence between them dragged on, filled only by the rain and thunder.
"My father," Nathan finally said, all the strength in his voice crumbling from within with every word. "My father would--" Anguish exploded inside him like a star going nova, and as another bolt of lightning split the sky, something inside him tore wide open.
And every window in a hundred metre radius blew out simultaneously.
His knees hit pavement, the impact jolting through him. Drawing in a deep, shuddering breath that was almost a sob, he listened to the shards of glass hitting the ground. Falling, in pieces. Just everything he'd tried to do, everything he'd hoped for. His family and his future and his dreams--
This is all about you.
He did let the laughter out, not caring if he sounded hysterical. It was better than crying, infinitely better. No tears--he didn't deserve that luxury. "You're right," he gasped out as Rogue started towards him, her eyes wide with shock and something else, and caution written all over her face. "You're so, so right, Rogue, and you know what? I don't CARE!"
She reached out to him, and he pushed her away telekinetically, the effort so unfocused that it barely staggered her. "Don't touch me," he rasped, and got up on his own. He didn't need her help. Didn't want her pity. "I AM a selfish son of a bitch," he went on feverishly, forcing himself to meet her eyes. "I DON'T care who I hurt, acting like this. It doesn't matter, don't you understand?" His voice rose as he spoke, until he was shouting, hurling the words at her. "Nothing I do matters, nothing I feel matters! Nothing! I--don't--MATTER!" He was just a relic, a flonqing remnant, like the Canaanites had called the survivors of his Clan in the future. A walking shadow who wouldn't admit he had no substance--
"No!" He stepped back out of reach as she stretched out a hand towards him again. Still trying to reach him. Still trying to help him--wanting to COMFORT him, of all the flonqing unbelievable inanities! He could see it in her eyes, feel it--"Stab your eyes, Rogue, don't you GET it? All these years, all the things I've done--all the pain I've caused, and the only difference I managed to make was to get my own flonqing father KILLED!"
He'd said it. He'd said it aloud, at last--at last, and it was agony and release both--
Rogue reached out and grabbed him by the shoulders, her grip like a vise. "Stop it!" she shrieked at him, her eyes wide and wild with something he couldn't decipher. "Just stop it, Nate--LISTEN to yourself!" Were those tears in her eyes, he wondered distantly, or was it just the rain? The sob she choked back as she went on was answer enough. "It would break his heart to see you like this--just STOP!"
Everything was very clear, suddenly, in that eerie disassociated way that should have been alarming, but was oddly soothing instead. Nathan reached up and took her wrists, lifting her handson his shoulders. "Then help me make it stop," he said hoarsely, staring down into her eyes. He didn't know why he was asking her this, didn't quite believe the words were coming out of his mouth.
But it hurt so much, and he couldn't keep it locked away anymore. She'd broken down his walls, made him face it, and he couldn't, he just couldn't--
"You looked inside my head once already. Do it again," he said, his voice breaking. "Take it away--"
And she froze, again. The horror that dawned in her eyes was vast and cold and deep, like the storm. "No," she breathed. "You can't--"
With a cry, Rogue wrenched her hands out of his grip and hit him again. He went to his knees again, a sheer act of will preventing him from going any further, and she stood over him, her hands clenching into fists at her side. "You BASTARD!" she shrieked, and those had to be tears in her eyes, because they were in her voice, too, he could hear them--"How dare you ask me something like that? How DARE you?"
Nathan struggled back to his feet. "Because I--I can't--" The words caught in his throat, and he reached out again. She tried to step away - ironic, that SHE was the one pulling away now - but he caught at her hands desperately. "I--can't sleep, Rogue, I can't even look at myself in the mirror without wanting to break the damned thing--" The words tumbled out and he stopped their flow by biting his lip, so hard he tasted blood. "Please," he almost whispered, his voice breaking again. "I know how--weak this is, but I want to forget, Rogue. Please--"
Rogue pulled away from him again, taking a step back, and then another. Her face was ashen. "Never," she whispered hoarsely. "Not if you got down on your knees and begged me, Nathan." He saw her swallow, as if there was a lump in her throat. "You get to live with it all, just like the rest of us."
"No!" She took to the air and flew away into the storm, leaving him standing there, hand outstretched.
After a moment, he let it fall back to his side, clenching it into a fist to stop its trembling. "I can't," he whispered to the empty parking lot, his eyes stinging with more than the rain. "I can't live with it."
Was that why he was alive? he thought, feeling strangely light-headed. Maybe. Maybe that was it. He was alive so that he could hurt, because death was too quick, too easy. He was supposed to suffer.
The last man standing. That's what he was. That's what he'd always been.
Noises from the bar - shouts, angry voices - drew his attention finally. He supposed he should leave. Before anyone came out to complain about--the mess.
Moving like an automaton, he went over and got on his motorcycle. Thunder rumbled above him, and he looked upwards at the sky, letting the rain hit him in the face.
She was right. All the pain drained out of him, washed away by the rain, leaving him numb, detached. It was inexcusable, what he'd asked Rogue to do. To touch him again, to help him forget--
As if anyone in the world deserved to be saddled with his memories.
She was right. He was a coward. Worse than a coward.
Nothing. He was nothing. A walking shadow.
Nathan opened his eyes again, started the motorcycle and drove out of the parking lot.
#Nathan. Nathan, please listen to me.# A gentle whisper, as if Jean was half-afraid to speak too loudly to him. Her voice was nothing, set against the howl of the storm he was hurtling through on the Harley, but it was almost painfully loud inside his mind. In the emptiness, it could hardly be anything but.
He accelerated, heading down the road at a speed that would have sent a cop lurking in wait with a radar gun into an apoplectic fit. If there had been one out here on this road, in this storm. Which there wasn't. Everyone with any sense was safe indoors, he supposed.
#Nathan, please.# Jean was pleading with him, now. He tried not to listen. #What happened doesn't matter. Just come home, and we'll talk about it--#
Come home. Home to where it was safe and warm, to the careful smiles and measuring looks and wary conversations. To the single place in any timeline where he could even begin to pretend he belonged anymore, and the one place where he couldn't bear to be.
He didn't think so.
Where he WAS going, he didn't know. This wasn't the road back to the mansion, he'd registered that much when he'd turned onto it. That was all that mattered, that it was headed away from the mansion. That he could put off going back until the bike ran out of gas, or they tracked him down--
#Nate.# Something sharper in Jean's voice, now. Worry. Anxiety. He could taste it in his mind. Leaning farther forward over the bike, blinking rain out of his eyes, he winced at the pain in his shoulder. A different sort of pain, that one, than the pounding in his head. Between the two, he felt--
Off-balance. A weak laugh escaped him, and was ripped away by the wind. His balance wasn't just off, it was gone. It had been gone since that day at Akkaba. Nothing in his world was where it should be, anymore, and even though he'd fought nearly his whole life to make it that way, he'd never imagined he'd be around to see the--chaos afterwards.
He couldn't bear it. He wanted the world to make sense. He wanted his life to mean something--
He wanted his father back.
#Nate, you're in pain, I can feel it.#
Redd would know. She'd always been able to tell when he was hurt, or upset. But he didn't want her inside his mind just now. He didn't want her to see it. Any of it. What he'd said to Rogue, what he was feeling--
She'd be so ashamed of him.
Methodically, he strengthened his shields as much as he could, and sped up even more. Maybe he could outrun her. Another bitter laugh escaped him, and was stolen away by the wind. Right. He'd tried running before. Driving fifty miles, or a hundred, or halfway across the country wasn't going to help, not when running two thousand years into the past hadn't worked.
#Nate, damn it, pull the bike over!# Jean cried out in his mind. #I'll send someone out to get you. You shouldn't be driving like this!#
Anger in her voice. His vision blurred. Why couldn't she have been angry with him before when he wanted her to be angry with him? When he would have given everything he had if she'd just stood up and told him, screamed in his face how much she hated him for everything he hadn't done--
They should blame him. All of them should, not just Jean. Why couldn't they understand that? Why couldn't they just hate him, like he deserved to be hated--like he hated himself--
The road was gone. So much rain. There was only water, everywhere within the small half-circle that the bike's headlight illuminated. Everything else was darkness, the cold pitch-black of hte storm pressing in on him from all sides, trying to swallow him whole.
Oath, how he wished he could let it--
The next turn jumped out of the dark at him, and there was no time to slow down, no time to do anything but react. As soon as he was into it, he realized his mistake.
Too fast. He'd taken it far too fast. The bike skidded on the flooded road, tilting dangerously far to the side--
The front wheel slammed sideways, and he fell. He landed on the shoulder Rogue had almost broken earlier and finished the job, from the feel of it, but forgot it an instant later as the bike came down on his leg and white-hot pain drove any semblance of rational thought from his mind. The impact had driven the breath from his lungs, and it was all happening so fast, the bike spinning off the road, dragging him with it--
The last thing he saw was the tree coming at him.
Thunderstorms didn't bother her, even when she was flying through them. A lightning strike would be a little more troublesome, though, so Rogue kept moving as she flew, never staying on one level too long. Dancing through the air, through the storm, she scanned the land beneath her desperately, looking for some sign of a man on a Harley. She gritted her teeth, fighting a sense of shame so overwhelming that it was like a leaden knot in her stomach, trying to drag her back down to earth.
She should never have left him. How could she have done that? As field leader, as his teammate, as a friend of his parents--as a fellow human being, damn it, she'd had no business flying away from him. Running from him.
But he'd frightened her, so badly, and she'd just--reacted. This was really sort of ironic, she supposed with a desperate attempt at humor. She'd been so determined to get him to open up, fully prepared to pound him into the pavement if that was what it took to get him to listen to her. Everything had gone according to plan, too, hadn't it? He hadn't just opened up; he'd vented, like a damned volcano. All that pain and self-loathing had come flooding out like lava. It had been terrifying, almost--
Then he'd asked her to take his memories away. Such a selfish request, so unbelievably selfish--
But the way he'd begged her. Rogue took a deep, shuddering breath. He'd BEGGED her, all that cold pride of his gone, drowned in anguish. She swallowed, trying to tell herself that this had been a good thing, this confrontation of theirs. He hadn't just let it all out, he'd admitted he couldn't handle it on his own. That was progress, right?
Progress. Progress she hadn't done a damned thing to help along. She'd left, abandoned the opening he'd given her. Her own fears had come flooding to the forefront, and she'd flown off into the storm like a terrified child, running from pain she didn't know how to ease, anguish so ferociously intense that even the thought of touching it, literally or otherwise, had sent her into a panic.
#Rogue!# Jean's cry split the silence in her mind, and Rogue dropped ten feet before she caught herself.
Jean? Did you find him? she thought back urgently. Please let her have located him, Rogue pleaded silently. Please--
#Three miles north of you.# Jean sounded shaky, somehow disoriented. Rogue started to ask her if she was all right, but Jean went on before she could form the thought. #He's--he's had an accident--#
Rogue's mind went blank for a single, disbelieving moment.
Then she was flying, almost at top speed. No, this wasn't happening. It couldn't be--she'd only left him a little while ago, what could have happened? Panic and a deep, tearing guilt swirled through her mind. Nathan-- She cursed herself with all the energy she could spare. Damn him, and damn her for leaving him--
She barely managed not to overshoot her target. Stopping on a time, she took in the situation at a glance, and her breath caught in her throat as she saw three cars; a station wagon, a police car, and an ambulance. The red lights of the latter two glowed in the rain like baleful coals.
All three vehicles were gathered around a bend in the road, and a cry escaped Rogue's throat as she saw the twisted wreck of the motorcycle, half-wrapped around a tree.
And the small group of people clustered around a unmoving form sprawled on the wet grass. Rogue lowered herself to the ground, ignoring the shocked look of the police officer and the gasps from the two children huddled against a woman who might be the driver of the station wagon, for all she knew.
All she could see was Nathan. One of the paramedics working on him moved to the side, reaching for some piece of equipment, and she caught a glimpse of Nathan's face, still and pale beneath blood-matted silver hair.
"Ma'am?" The police officer was at her elbow, looking apprehensive. She forced herself to look down at him. "Ma'am, do you know him?"
Rogue swallowed. "Yeah," she said hoarsely, and stepped forward to give the paramedics what little she knew about Nathan's medical history. Her mind raced, trying to decide what to say about the T-O virus, and what to do about a dozen other considerations. They might react badly, if they knew he was a mutant. One never knew, with Legacy and all--and should she let them take him to the hospital? The others had to be on their way. He might be better off back at the medlab--
She gave them the information in a clipped, emotionless voice as she wrestled with the host of decisions and tried to ignore the tears pouring down her face.
Rain. It was just the rain.
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