"You almost died," she said harshly.
There was a telepathic echo, but he clearly did not hear it and did not want to. His face was utterly impassive as he regarded her.
"She almost died," Phoenix reminded him. "Have you forgotten our mission?"
"Where's Raven?" he cut her off and paused briefly in front of her.
She clamped her lips shut into a narrow line. A wave of intense power pushed further out of her skin, lifting her hair in a sea of telekinesis, but she reigned it in until it hummed quietly under her skin.
"She's waiting for you in the office," Phoenix said softly. "Please don't get yourself hurt." She hesitated, just for a moment. Witness's gaze lingered on her. "We need you."
He took her head in both of his hands. "I'll live."
The words were hard, direct, but it was the only reassurance she needed. If he'd witnessed it...
She let him pass.
Raven would not be so kind.
Phoenix has to force herself away. It would be pointless anyway to attempt to get a read on the most invisible mind she has ever encountered, and so she walks away and lets Witness deal with Raven on his own while she heads downstairs into the team's private area.
She finds Sage in her computer alcove, red glasses shoved on, a light frown on her face.
A hint of disapproval color's Sage's voice. "What is she saying?"
How am I supposed to know? Phoenix snaps sharply. I can't read him any better than you can.
Sage swivels in her chair. Her thick black hair is pulled up in a tight updo, a clear sign she's working. "You can read her."
It's a point, Phoenix has to grudgingly admit, but she's loath to actually do so. If Raven detects the intrusion, the consequences will be severe—and certainly not worth it. So she settles on a small shrug and curls up on the big sofa behind the coffee table.
But it's Witness...
She frowns and reaches out swiftly toward the kitchenette, yanking a mug out of the cupboard with her will and sending it swinging toward the coffee machine.
Sage wings one eyebrow upward over the ridiculously large red shades. "You could always just walk over and pour like a normal person," she says quietly.
Phoenix laughs. A harsh sound. We're not normal, she replies curtly. So stop trying.
The now-full coffee mug flies to Phoenix's hand, and she drinks from it. Dark thoughts swirl about her head like so much detritus. It takes an act of will to hold the objects around her in stillness. She closes her eyes and drifts upward toward Raven.
Raven looks up at the tall, lean man walking into her office. He moves like liquid, deliberately casual, every movement choreographed, graceful, artless. He draws attention only when he wants to. He stops in the doorway, leans against the frame, and she curses his shades that hide those red on black devilish eyes as he studies her.
"Witness." She slams shut the file drawer she was perusing before his entry and drops into the leather chair behind her desk. "Shut the door."
She melds, shifts from a dark-haired, fair-skinned beauty into her natural form. Smooth blue skin, long red hair, sharp features. She knows herself without a mirror.
Witness shuts the door.
He slides the sunglasses into one hand and they vanish into one of the many pockets of his trench coat. Raven is struck with the full onslaught of his knowing crimson gaze. From the time she wrangled him as a child into her custody, Witness has never been a boy. Always a man. Even now with his nineteen real time years, he is already far older. His eyes are like those of her one-time lover, eyes that see, that pierce, that know. He is the one person she cannot fight, the only man she's ever met that has no fear. And even this meeting, this sitting in judgment as his superior, seems to her sometimes a farce, a charade, his humoring of a lesser being.
"Where is the girl?" she asks abruptly.
He raises one eyebrow with that knowing gaze and smirks at her. "You t'ink I'm hidin' her somewhere?" His eyes dance with amusement.
Raven clenches her jaw. "Witness..."
"Quoi?" He raises his hands as if innocent. "I don' have her."
She slams one fist down on the desk. "I gave you a direct order! How hard can it be for you to accomplish?" She feels the brief flickering of her eyes from yellow into a darker, angrier color and yanks back her control, reins in her anger, and fixes him with a warning glare.
The light in his eyes banks and suddenly, she is staring into almost entirely black orbs focused far elsewhere on something else. He comes back to her, tilts his head slightly toward her, deciding...
Her blood runs cold.
He's witnessed this?
The tension in his eyes relaxes and he shrugs, leaning his shoulder against the wall, hands in his pockets. His expression is languid, casual.
"Witness." Her voice carries a faint warning. He's not telling her everything.
"It wasn't time," he says nonchalantly, all casualness and the flash of an innocent smile. That smile does not reach his eyes.
She stares at him and her tone is flat. "You witnessed it." Raven sits back in the chair, evaluates him.
He flips out his deck of cards. "What do you want with her, Raven?" he asks.
Her own eyebrow wings upwards. Curiosity. A strange occurrence. Not that the answer shouldn't be obvious.
"We've been over this," she says wearily. "She is an Omega mutant when fully powered, and SHIELD is unhappy with the threat of the Brotherhood. The same Brotherhood that intends to use her powers against international dignitaries, I might add. A double mission that makes perfect sense."
He nods, absently shuffling through spades, clubs, hearts, diamonds. As if he hadn't even cared.
She blows out a sigh of frustration. "Get out of here!" She spits out the words, distasteful as they are.
He stops, stares at her, the faintest hint of surprise flaring in his eyes. Red overtakes black. Slowly, his expression slips into his practically trademarked smirk. He chuckles and slips out the door before she can ask him why.
Why does Raven always think he's playing her?
"Havin' fun yet?"
Phoenix comes out of it with a start, spilling warm coffee towards her lap. It stops midair and pours slowly upward into the cup as she regains her head and her composure. She looks up at Witness.
His dark red eyes burn over the black, eerie glow bright and flickering dangerously. Every muscle is tense. His anger is directed at her.
Phoenix feels herself darken, lets the fluid power pour through her limbs. She narrows her own eyes and feels the coursing raw control ride outward into the air around her, the objects nearby, all burning with the barely contained charge of his powers. Her lips curve wickedly upward. She pulls the molecules under her mental grasp and they seethe within it in expression of his will.
"So you want to play?" she asks, seductive coyness caressing her voice, drawing it out, and making it echo.
His eyes nearly slit. He can feel the edge of her powers feathering his consciousness and his deep shields like shadows on the astral plane.
"Phoenix." He clips the name. It's a warning.
She shrugs and backs off, allowing mental tabs on the elements near her but leaving him space of his own. "Go away then," she says absently and sips on her drink, now tepid. She grimaces.
Sage studies the two of them, the deliberate indifference amid their tension. She too is invisible to Phoenix's telepathy, having turned her own inward and out of the way, but her clear blue eyes are knowing. It bothers Phoenix.
"I have a report to finish." She glides up and out of her seat and towards her quarters.
Raven wouldn't want to be kept waiting.
Darkness surrounds him. He hears something, uncertain of just what.
Then he feels something.
He's up before he even stops to think, claws out against a smooth neck. He stops himself before going further, noting simply that it's a woman, dark skin, thick braids, glasses, white coat, trying not to choke.
Unfamiliar smells and sounds. So much like the labs, and then he's off of her and out into the hallway. An very unladylike curse flits through the air behind him.
Where is he? he wonders. And where's Rogue?
Dip in to taste his mind. It's rough and dangerous and so many things she's imagined that Witness's would be. Darkness bristles in the corners and further back...
A call has been sounded. Skirt the edges of his consciousness, his instincts on full alert, brush over the thoughts of the woman he touched with those pain and claws. There is no fear.
But a soothing voice...
"What is your name, child?" The Professor was a gentle man, hands folded neatly on his lap. He was sitting in a wheelchair.
Jean squirmed a little on the couch but shook her head. She was frightened. She could feel the fear in her parents' minds, see her mother's furrowed brow, the hand clenching her father's arm.
"This is our daughter, Jean," her father said easily. Underneath he said, I'm worried. It's never been like this. He saw cars moving about in their driveways on the street, heard the crashing and whirling of every object in his daughter's bedroom spinning through the air as her body shook and she cried in the throes of a nightmare.
She woke to his fear.
"Jean." The Professor's voice was kind.
She looked up from her crossed arms and met his gaze.
You're not the only one.
He spoke the way she heard and she stared at him in blinking shock. She pulled herself to with a start when she realized he was speaking out loud.
"We can help her learn to control this gift," the Professor said smoothly, still kindly. His smile took her in even as she watched her parents relax slightly. "Jean is very talented and I believe she would do well."
"She's our only child," her mother began.
"I assure you," the Professor answered, "I will care for her as if she were my own."
"I've got him, Cece," he says, as calm, as gentle as ever.
A hiss of anger. Phoenix fires burn. Clamp down hard. You're here to observe. You're on a mission. Reeling back into herself.
Glide out, circle cautiously, just brushing the edges of a dozen minds. Tumbling through the empty gaps. Rogue...
Rogue fiddles with the edge of her glove, staring at it as she listens to the woman's explanation. She was introduced as Storm. She seems nice. Calm, caring. Professor Xavier is upstairs teaching a class. Rogue's mind swirls with all the faces she's seen in the last twenty-four hours, the things she's been told. She clamps her hand down tight over her wrist for a long moment, breathing in. Words flit around her. She catches a few, glances at them.
Will she ever shut up? a male voice pleads from the back of her head.
Rogue's eyelids grow heavy. She soothes and hushes the voice, the personality.
He hunches over, annoyed.
Guilt wars with pain and fear, squeezing at her insides. She can't breathe. All these clothes... She has to get out of here.
"Rogue?" Storm asks with gentle concern.
Rogue's eyes come open and she stares at the dark-skinned, white-haired mutant goddess standing before her. She's so beautiful and Rogue aches for something as beautiful as the weather within her power to make her special and different.
Not this poison skin.
She swallows in a dry mouth and works out the words. "So he can't cure me?" she asks, faint drawl still with her from the south. She wishes she could scrub it out of her mouth as easily as she scrubbed away her name from her own mind. In time, it will fade—like the voice in the back of her head.
Storm's eyebrows furrow and her mouth troubles about the edges. "It doesn't work like that," she says softly. She too wears an accent, one Rogue does not recognize.
What does it matter? Rogue turns away.
In a blinding moment, she remembers the white card hidden in her clothes and has to catch her breath.
"Control f' service."
Rogue shrugs one shoulder, pretending to sulk. She has an ace up her sleeve, a real bona fide card from a real player.
Tempted to smile, she coaxes out that voice inside her head and, warily, he comes forward. He stretches a little. She encourages him. In a moment, he fills her and the bitter, aching sadness at all he lost when she kissed him all those months ago turns her tempted smile into a bittersweet frown.
"Thank ya, Storm." She stands up from the chair across from the older woman with those caring eyes. "Ah just want ta go to mah room now, if that's okay."
Of course, it is.
Of course, she doesn't want to go to her room. She wants to see Logan. Now. To ask him what in the world he thinks she should do about these people who offer no hope and a devil-eyed man that offers her service. She quells at whatever veils those remembered eyes, the darkness and fire blazing from them.
She doesn't know who to trust, but she sure as anything isn't going down without a fight.
A taste too familiar to ignore. Forget them, Phoenix. You're not that girl anymore. You're Phoenix.
But it's not so easy to forget.
The mansion was large and frightening at first. Her footsteps echoed and strange thoughts skittered around her own. Long words that had no meaning.
Galactosemia. Phenylketonuria. Mucopolysaccharidoses. Neurofibromatosis.
Short words she could not even pronounce came swirling down from somewhere above.
"You will understand better when you have learned to listen to the thought itself and not the words," the Professor said.
She didn't understand. She hugged herself in the cold, large hallway, walking beside his rolling wheelchair.
I miss my brother. Is he even alive? What's going to happen?
Hypophosphatemic rickets. Incontinentia pigmenti. It's the X. It has to be. Chromosomal heredity.
Images of the rolling breeze, the strength of the earth beneath her, tides moving out...
Jean closed her eyes.
She didn't want to be here.
She doesn't want to be here.
It's not that it isn't nice and all the easygoing talk around her isn't nice and not being looked at as a freak isn't nice and being flirted with and smiled at and told she can take off her gloves if she wants isn't nice. It just...isn't right.
She moves off the couch in the big media room Jubilee showed her into, declaring it was way too early to be hiding away in her bedroom. Who would want to anyway? Who wants to be alone?
But what she really wants is Logan. He was hurt and they're not letting her see him. She wants to know what he thinks. He's tough and smart and he can probably survive anything her skin can do to him—not that she's about to test the theory.
Nobody stops her from leaving and moving out down the long, branching hallways, hoping against hope she'll actually succeed at finding her bedroom even without the bubbly firecracker's help.
Better yet if she can find Logan.
She has another half hour before the bell rings again and she'll have to be in another class with Storm. What kind of people put girls into school within twenty-four hours of watching their only companion thrown from a vehicle and just about gutted on some mutant feral's claws? What kind of people won't let her see him?
They're nice. They are. She should be grateful for their rescue and, in a way, she is.
She stops around another corner. The hallway branches here again and she comes to the startling, dismaying conclusion that she's totally and utterly lost.
She watched them from hidden places. In her room looking out the window at the yard. On the security cameras in Xavier's control room. In her mind, windowing her own way into their thoughts. He was right. She understood better once she went under the words.
They had headaches when she did that.
But she could not resist the bitter sweetness of tasting another's mind, their thoughts, their feelings. She tasted each of them and learned their flavor.
She liked it.
The Professor introduced her to a young girl with dark skin and white hair swirling around her shoulders, piercing blue eyes that turned white when she played with the elements. He wanted them to be friends. Jean wondered how that would ever be possible when he usually wouldn't let her near them.
She had to work on her powers constantly.
"Try to restrain them," he told her. "Access to another's mind is a grave responsibility."
Like she asked for this! To dream their nightmares, to shriek when she woke to the maelstrom of everything in her room flying over her head, whipped into a windy frenzy, to rip out whole walls of the Danger Room every time he had her practice, to give herself migraines just trying to shut out the voices.
They grew louder. From the distant neighbors. The mailmen. The animals. The suburbs. The far-off city.
Maybe she was going slowly but surely insane.
He doesn't trust them, doesn't like them. The kid was making it fine without him. He's tempted to just leave her, walk away.
"This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
Wolverine heads for the door, only to find "Cyclops" standing in his way. The animosity that springs up between the two men is almost instantaneous.
Cecelia Reyes and Ororo Munroe—Storm—both take a step backward, let them piss off on their own time.
But it's that soothing, calm, friendly voice again.
"How long has it been?" he asks. You're not the only one with gifts.
And for once, someone catches the Wolverine off guard and he looks about as he remembers. "What is this place?"
She clung to the one voice that was always soothing. He built a wall around her mind to shut out the voices.
Then one day, he shut out everything.
The girls found her and laughingly led her to the next class. Rogue can't concentrate. She's worried about Logan, about herself.
"He can't cure me?"
"It doesn't work like that."
Why not? Why can't it?
She tries to bury herself in schoolwork, to answer the gossipy questions of the girls. She tries not to blush at the unfamiliar attention of boys, flaming apples, icy hearts. Tries not to remember the white cardboard rectangle with ten black digits across the center of it. Tries not to see burning devil eyes in the fire. Tries to think they can help her.
No one's offering to take it away.
She smiles shyly at the proffered heart. Bobby is so much like Cody. Boy next door. Sweet. Softspoken.
But over his shoulder, she catches a heart-quickening glimpse of the rough face of a rough loner.
He's looking at her through the door. His eyes say, "I'm okay. Just checking up on you. We'll talk later."
She believes those eyes.
Don't we always believe?
A mere shadow through the inky night slipped out the side door and walked slowly up the path toward tall, wrought iron gates. She lifted her hand and gave a single, sharp tug.
The gates creaked and rattled, but remained shut.
She frowned. Anger forked inside her and she tugged again. Open!
With a shrill screech, the gates swung toward her, stopped on their locks, then suddenly screamed toward her, metal bending and twisting. Sweat broke out on her brow, but they were open. She released her hold and picked her way between them.
Cool interest brushed against her thoughts and she stopped cold, jerking her head up to see.
Directly across the road, a small whip of a girl stood in front of one of the old growth trees. Inky black hair ran down her back. Her skin was so pale it almost glowed in the moonlight.
Jean studied this apparition of the night. I'm leaving.
The girl shrugged. Not much difference.
She had heard this voice, this cool, lucid mind so similar to the Professor's and yet so different. Warily she eyed the girl. Can you bring it back? She never thought she would miss her powers so badly in this dampened state. But it was herself trapped beneath the surface. She could not stay. Not even for--
She couldn't stay.
The dark haired girl turned and walked slowly down the long road. Is it worth it? The thought floated behind her, swelling rather than fading.
Worth what? Something gnawed against the inside of her stomach.
The girl turned and clear blue eyes met hers. There was something so familiar, achingly, painfully familiar in the expression in those eyes. Her stomach lurched. A remembered friend. A similar soul.
Against her better judgment, Jean followed.
She slips out of the classroom. Finally, Kitty, another of the girls who seemingly has a more level head and smaller desire to interfere, shows Rogue where her new room is.
"I'm right next door if you need anything." Kitty smiles before digging out homework books on her way into 'next door.'
Rogue closes the door. She is alone.
She pulls out a card and turns it over in her palm.
Phoenix opens her eyes and groans at the weariness in her body. She feels limp. Her head throbs. She staggers to her feet, then blinks a few times.
She hadn't felt him enter.
He shrugs one shoulder and casts an odd look her way, some combination of resentment, annoyance, apology, and compassion, but there's an openness in his face as he looks at her.
She accepts it as the truce that it is. "I need more coffee." She gives him a weak smile, but grimaces at the increase in pain it causes.
A smile quirks about the corners of his mouth and the brilliance of red behind his eyes banks into mirth.
She snorts at him. "You try weaving around that telepath in a half dozen heads and making him think you're just part of the scenery."
Witness raises both hands in mock surrender. "Non. Non. 'M sure y're tired."
He laughs and catches her waist, drawing her beside him. "Coffee. Den y' c'n heckle me if y' still feel up t' it."
She leans her head on his shoulder and tightens her arm around his waist, pretending for a moment that this care of her is more than it is and they aren't just teammates, friends, that he doesn't eye her warily from across the room most days, that all this tension between them isn't pain and power and games of manipulation, but that there's something genuine beneath their skins.
He leads her into the kitchen and helps her up on a barstool as if she's a lady and he is a gentleman. She watches as he applies his considerable kitchen expertise to the brewing of a cup of coffee the way she likes it with extra cream and sugar and a dollop of his mystery flavor that she still can't figure out.
She rests her chin in her open palm and simply enjoys the moment.
Sage sits up on the barstool beside her. They don't talk. It's companionable. Raven would like that.
Phoenix frowns. She still has to report.
"Forget about it," Sage says lightly. "Raven's gone to the base. Some ops."
Witness looks up sharply.
Sage nods. "We won't be seeing her for a couple days.
"She'll still want the report," Phoenix insists.
She catches the narrowing of scarlet fire. He doesn't like it when they talk underneath about important things. Sage doesn't seem to notice. Or else she doesn't care.
"It'll keep. Give it tonight." Sage smiles. "Wake her up."
Phoenix scoffs at the bad idea (Raven would hate it), but she smiles in return. "Coffee ready?"
Witness nods once, curt, and slides the mug over the counter to her. "How much I miss?"
"Nothing important," Sage answers and gives a pointed look toward the coffee pot.
He chuckles that rich, rumbling sound and Phoenix revels in it while sipping on her coffee. He pours out another cup for Sage.
It took weeks for Scott to leave her mind. His quiet sorrow. His determination to succeed where once he failed. She had loved his mind, stolen moments to rest in it when the Professor wasn't training her. But it was gone now. She had left and chosen a different path.
She was Phoenix.
Witness had called her that when he saw the radiance burst out of her like a nova sun. Death. Rebirth. Violent wings of fire. His voice held admiration. His touch...
Sage told her it would be like that. They couldn't just bring back her powers. She had to be feeling something.
God, she was.
And it was that shaggy auburn hair, those burning red and black eyes drowning her, that rolling Cajun voice that just got more and more thick with his rich accent that slowly drowned out the memories of what she had wanted with Scott.
Witness never knew. She hoped.
The coffee eases the pain behind her temples and finally she lets out a soft groan.
"Better?" His smirk belies his words.
She lets it go with a hummed affirmative.
The Cajun slides around the counter to stand behind her chair and begins to massage her tense shoulders and neck. She makes a small sound of pleasure.
Sage shakes her head. "Sometimes I think you favor her," she teases.
Phoenix feels the air around him move. His hands don't stop what they're doing though, and she feels no urgent need to interfere.
"Non, chérie," he rumbles out in that rich voice of his. "Y' jus' like diff'ren' t'ings."
What does she like?
Phoenix stiffens and swivels around on the stool, frowning.
Witness gives her that questioning look of his. He knows he has said something that bothers her, but he won't touch it if she won't.
"Let it go," Sage advises.
Phoenix really wishes she would speak underneath. She shoots Sage a glare, but only gets a shrug in return.
His fingers haven't left her shoulder. She slides out from under the warmth of them. He lets her.
"I should go give that report," Phoenix says. There's a slight challenge in her voice.
Sage purses her lips and looks away.
Who would challenge Phoenix?
A flash of anger. Phoenix fires burn. Clamp down. Put them away. You're on a mission.
You know what you want.
Raven hardly knows what hit her.