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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21

The Cast of Shadows - REVIEW THIS STORY

Written by NicoPony
Last updated: 04/17/2007 12:31:02 AM

Chapter 13

When Madelyne woke, she did not know where she was. She blinked in the too bright light as she surveyed her surroundings. She saw nothing. All around her was the same blank bright light, with no sort of landscape or sky. There was earth to stand upon, but it was empty and description-less as the rest of the setting. Madelyne put her hand up to shield her eyes from the light which emanated from nowhere and everywhere all at once.

"Hello?" she called, her voice echoing out into the void. She looked down to see herself in the same mundane and baggy clothes she always wore. Her hands quickly went to her stomach, which was miraculously flat. Her breath quickened with panic, but as sure as she knew her heart was beating, she knew her baby was still alive. She could feel that spark of life somewhere inside and she began to relax.

"Scott?" she called out. "Hello?" Madelyne turned in a circle, searching for some sign of life. Though this place seemed empty, she knew with a certainty that she was not alone. In the great blank expanse there appeared something in the distance, shimmering like an apparition produced by a haze of heat. She squinted at the thing, unable to make sense of the approaching shape. When at last it came into focus, an overwhelming feeling of dread filled her. Whatever it was advanced at a slow and lazy lope, its maw gaping, blood-red tongue lolling. For several moments, Madelyne stood and stared at the beast. Then with a tiny shriek that burst from her throat by no volition of her own, she took off running.

Her tennis shoes scuffed against the quasi-earth, her breath came in loud bursts. She dared not look behind her at the thing. Desperately, she searched out a place to hide. But there was nothing, nothing at all in this place. She had no idea if she was, in fact, moving at all. There was no frame of reference to tell her how fast she was moving, save for the sound of her feet pounding on the ground.

"Help!" she cried out. "Someone help me! Scott!" But there was no answer. The thing behind her let out a dry chuckle, which prompted her to run faster.

Miraculously, there appeared before her a forest on the horizon. She ran with all her strength towards it. Though the black, bare trees ahead seemed to be some distance away, she reached their cover in no time at all. The dark and gnarled roots of the trees buried themselves deep into the non-ground, the branches reached up like grasping skeletal hands at the non-sky. Madelyne darted through the trees, zig-zagging her way in an effort to evade the beast that ran so effortlessly behind her. She could hear its breathing, which came in quick gasps of laughter. It seemed to be playing with her.

Madelyne took a sharp left, darting towards a thicker copse of trees. The thing continued to run straight, as it did not expect her feint. It swore under its breath as it turned to follow her. Madelyne darted behind one of the thicker trees.

"I need a weapon," she thought frantically to herself. On the ground appeared a stout branch, about the size and heft of a baseball bat. She grabbed it and, with her back pressed to the trunk of the tree, readied herself. The thing ran past, then suddenly stopped, its jaw clamped shut, ears pricked as it looked about for her. Madelyne lifted the branch above her head and brought it down onto the creature’s head. It grunted as the forced knocked it flat. The thing was instantly on its feet and turning with a snarl in Madelyne’s direction. She swished the branch at it and smashed the monster in the jaw, a spray of blood and saliva spattered in red droplets on the grey, colorless earth.

Madelyne spun and began to run while the monster recovered. It let out a bellow of anger and pain. Her heart lurched when she heard it speak for the first time.

"I was going to make this painless for you, pet," he said. "But on second thought, I might rough you up a bit before I take you."

She pressed her lips together to keep back the cries of fright that fought to escape. "No!" she cried instead. "Go away! What do you want from me?" Her eyes searched the surrounding forest for some means of escape. Up ahead was a tree with a branch that extended just above her head. She aimed herself toward it, and with a leap, launched herself at the overhanging branch. She managed to scramble up the branch just as the beast ran below her. Its jaws snapped at her heels as she reached up for the next branch.

The tree seemed to have been made for escape. Each branch was perfectly spaced and acted as a ladder, taking her higher into the tree and away from the reach of the monster. When she felt secure enough to look down, she saw that the thing was quite a ways below her, pacing the earth around the base of the tree. Madelyne straddled the thick branch and held tight. The thing looked up at her and bared its vicious teeth.

"You can’t stay up there forever," it told her. Its face was black and hairless, like a baboon. It had hateful bright eyes beneath a thick brow. The creature put its front paws up against the tree and scored the trunk with sharp black claws. Madelyne comforted herself by observing the creature’s body, which was shaggy and wolf-like, did not seem to be made for climbing trees.

"Go away!" she cried. "Shoo! Bad doggie!"

The creature snarled menacingly. Madelyne tore her gaze away from the creature to look up at the limbs of the tree. She saw exactly what she was looking for only a few feet from where she lay. Hanging from the dead branch was some sort of fruit, shriveled and rock-like. She reached out and plucked it from the branch, then chucked it at the creature below. It darted to the side as the fruit hit the earth with a heavy thud. It sniffed the fruit and looked back up at her. She scowled at it. There was another of the hard fruits a little further away from the first. She reached out to grab it. Her fingers just brushed the leathery surface of the fruit. Madelyne leaned out a bit more, straining to reach. Her hand grasped it, but it refused to break free from the limb. With a yank, the stem broke. The snapping twig threw her off-balance, and with a shriek, she slid sideways off of the branch. She hung upside-down from the limb, which bowed under her shifted weight. Her tennis shoes offered no traction on the smooth bark of the tree and her legs swung free. Madelyne dangled precariously from the tree, kicking her legs ineffectually. The thing below began to laugh with greedy expectation, dancing about on its hind legs and leaping up while snapping its jaws.

Madelyne was by no means unfit, but she had no more than average strength in her upper arms. She panted as she struggled. She was tired from her long run and harrowing climb. She could not pull herself up.

"Oh, help me," she sobbed into her chest. "Someone help me." But there was no one but herself.

There began a strong wind, which shook the limbs of the trees, sending the bare branches clanking against one another. She cast her gaze upward to the naked sky. A dark shape filled the sky, flying just above the tops of the trees. It was red, which stood out in bright contrast against the black of the tree limbs. The shape flew from her line of vision.

"What now?" she whispered to herself. Her grip on the tree was loosening. She grunted with the effort to regain her grip. The shape flew past again, sending the trees waving in the breeze created by its wake. Madelyne swung back and forth in the wind, helpless to buffer herself against the breeze. Her palms were sweating with her efforts, the skin on her fingers tore against the bark. She was slipping, slipping; her fingers cramping. The monster began to laugh, a deep threatening laugh like the sound of distant thunder. With a cry of despair and pain, she lost her grip and began to fall.

A spray of twigs flew about her, and the sound of cracking sticks filled the air. The wind grew suddenly stiff and blew her hair and clothes about as she fell. Her arms flailed, reaching out to grab hold of something, anything that might stop her fall. There came a great screeching cry, and Madelyne found herself landing on something. Instinctively, she clutched at it, finding herself holding fistfuls of large, red feathers. She could feel the stiff, hollow quills amidst the soft plumes. A pair of enormous red wings spread out to either side of her, flapping furiously as the giant bird struggled to hold itself aloft under the canopy of trees. Below stood the monster, looking just as surprised and shocked as Madelyne herself. The bird, comparable in size to a Cadillac, gave another cry and began its ascent. Branches flew and twigs scratched at her arms and face. Soon they were above the trees and flying away. The black monster screamed his fury into the sky, the sound reverberating in her head. Madelyne lay her cheek against the bird’s back, holding fast to it with her arms and legs. They flew up into the empty grey sky.

And for the moment, Madelyne was safe.

Moira MacTaggert pushed her bifocals up onto her forehead, causing her unkempt bangs to stand on end. Leaning forward, she peered into the microscope. For a long while she was still as she studied the specimen through the microscope. Without looking from the lens, she reached out until her fingers brushed a second specimen. She exchanged it for the first, and continued her observation.

Hank McCoy entered to find Moira still silently studying. He smiled at her hunched back. He cleared his throat, causing Moira to start. She turned in her chair to see who had disturbed her, blinked, then pushed her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose.

"Oh, hello there, Henry," she said with a smile.

He nodded to her and proceeded over to a terminal, where he inserted a disk into a drive. "Moira," he said. "Find anything interesting?"

Moira shook her head. "Nae really. Just keeping meself occupied until Emma recovers." She looked away from his penetrating gaze. Hank turned back to the computer terminal to see the image that had appeared on the screen. An undulating mass of green, red, orange and yellow illuminated the dimly lit room. Moira approached to stand behind Hank.

"D’ye mind?" she asked. "I know I hate when people stand over me shoulder."

"Not at all," he replied, beckoning her closer.

"What’s this?" she asked. "An MRI scan?"

Hank nodded. "One of the students was complaining of a persistent headache," he told her.

"Migraine?" she suggested.

"She isn’t symptomatic of migraine," Hank said. "Which is why I decided to test her. I wasn’t sure if the scan would even work, given her mutant physiology. But here we are."

Silently, the pair watched the colors change as Hank moved slowly through each image taken by the scan. "I don’t see anything out of the norm," he finally admitted. "Maybe it is just as she said, and she hasn’t been getting enough rest."

The final image appeared and Moira put a hand to Hank’s furry shoulder. "Wait," she said, pointing at the screen. "What’s that?"

Hank leaned forward to study the screen. He fumbled for his glasses which sat beside the monitor. "Where?" he asked squinting.

"Here," Moira’s finger traced an area at the very base of the image, an area that was entirely black.

For a long moment, Hank was silent. "I don’t know what that is. Perhaps a flaw in the image?"

"That’s not natural," Moira said. The black shape was perfectly rectangular.

Hank leaned back abruptly and pulled the disk from the drive. "There must be something wrong with the scanner," he said as he stood. "I’ll have to run another test."

Moira watched as the blue-furred man hastily departed from the room. He was obviously very agitated. She sighed and returned to her chair before the microscope. There were four blood samples before the centrifuge, taken from the last three visitors to the medical lab: one labeled Rogue, another Kitty, then Madelyne and Emma. She noticed that while Rogue, Kitty, and Emma had all been tested for the mysterious mutant virus, Madelyne’s sample had gone untested. Moira shrugged, and picked up Madelyne’s blood sample. While Hank was busy, she decided, perhaps she could make herself useful.

She then put the sample into the centrifuge and began the test.

Rogue struggled with her bag and guitar case. It was unfortunate that she had forgotten to remove her guitar from the back of her scooter, and she felt more than a little guilty about it. She now was trying to shove both carry on bags up into the overhead compartment above her seat.

"Let me help you with that, dear," said a voice from behind her. She turned to see a middle aged man standing in the aisle holding his own bags in his hands. He was taller than she, with a head of greying hair and heavy, un-stylish glasses on his face.

"Sorry," she said, trying to move out of the man’s way.

"It’s all right," he said, as he smiled. He leaned over her, much to her discomfort, and pushed her bag and guitar case into place. "There you go." He then put his bag beside hers.

Rogue gave the man a watery smile and took her seat beside the window. The man sat across the aisle in the seat opposite. Other passengers filed past, and to Rogue’s relief, none sat beside her. The bus was barely half-full when the bus driver, after crushing out his cigarette, boarded the bus and pulled the crank to close the door.

"This is it," Rogue thought to herself. "Here I go on my own."

The man across the aisle gave her a smile. "Are you going very far?" he asked. The bus began to pull out of the station.

Rogue shrugged at him. "Ah guess. Mississippi." She turned away from him and pulled her portable CD player from the pocket of her jacket.

"Is that so?" the man said, raising his eyebrows. "Why so am I. Going home are you?"

She suppressed a frustrated sigh. "Mm-hm," she said, by way of answer. She then put on her headphones, hoping he’d get the point.

"Will you have a ride waiting?" he asked. "I’d be happy to give you a ride home, if you need it. It will be pretty early in the morning when we get there."

"Uh, no thanks," Rogue said, fumbling in her jacket for her book. "Ah’m fine."

"Sure? A young girl like you, traveling by yourself?"

Rogue opened her book and aimed an icy stare at the man. "Ah said Ah’m fine. Really."

The man nodded and smiled, then gave her a wink. "I get it, the independent type, hunh? Got a boyfriend back home?"

Ah, God, Rogue thought unhappily, is this jerk gonna talk to me the whole way to Mississippi? She shook her head and stared into her book while turning up the volume on her CD player. Finally, the man seemed to give up, and fell silent. The bus slid onto the highway, headed south toward her destination. Soon the street lights grew few and far between, and there was nothing but the bus and the dark road. It was very late, and she was getting tired. She flicked off the overhead light and leaned back in her seat. She felt the knot inside her stomach begin to loosen as the Xavier Institute grew farther and farther away. Rogue wasn’t sure why she felt this way; she was leaving behind her friends for the unknown. Strangely enough, the Institute had felt less like a home recently, though she couldn’t put her finger on the emotions of panic that filled her when she thought of returning. Anyway, she had a plan to find her missing teammate. That was what she had to focus on now.

Rogue’s head was nodding and she soon drifted off to sleep. The music playing on her CD player created a wall of sound against the noises of the other travelers on the bus. The road soothed her. She awoke at the first bus stop, rose and stretched, then tried to avoid another conversation with the man across the aisle. He went on to introduce himself and apologize for bothering her earlier. He asked if she needed any Dramamine, which she refused. The man prattled on, and Rogue did her best to put him off.

"Well," she said, interrupting him in mid-sentence. "Ah think Ah’m going to catch a bit more sleep." She then turned toward the window and resolutely closed her eyes. Creep, she thought.

When she woke again, it was morning. She rubbed her eyes and checked her watch. It was now after six in the morning. Several hours had passed since she had left New York. She wondered if the other students had missed her yet. The bus pulled into a station.

"Fifteen minutes," the driver barked, before pulling his bulk from the worn seat and lumbering down the steps.

The other passengers filed off the bus, to take a bathroom break or grab a quick breakfast. Rogue rose, and stretched. She stood on tip-toe to reach her bag, hoping to find the remainder of her cash and buy herself something from McDonald’s. The man was again standing behind her.

"D’you mind?" she said, not caring if she sounded rude. It was, after all, six in the morning.

"Need some help?" he asked, reaching up past her.

"No," she said sharply, "Ah got it."

He seemed not to hear her, and proceeded to pull down her bag. He was too close to her, and she could smell his rank cologne. "Look," she said, "could you back off?"

"You know," he said quietly, "I could rent us a car and I could drive you home a lot faster than the bus could take you." He then put his hand on her rear.

Stunned, Rogue opened her mouth in an expression of shock and outrage. Her eyes darted around the bus, but the two of them were completely alone.

"You---you!" she struggled to say something while pushing his hands away.

"Shh, shh," he said, trying to hush her, his hands still reaching for her.

"You total pervo!" she shrieked in a voice that wasn’t her own. She pushed him as hard as she could, sending him stumbling. She jumped up and grabbed her guitar case, which fell from its place and clunked the man on his head. The guitar inside gave a discordant complaint. Rogue grabbed her fallen bag and case and ran to the exit. She paused for a second in the parking lot before dashing towards the nearby fast food restaurant. Rogue threw herself through the doors and into the busy waiting area of McDonald’s. Several people looked at her blearily, many still unfocused before their first cup of coffee. Rogue sat herself in a booth and peered out the window at the bus. The creepy man had not disembarked. She found herself shaking.

"Freak! Perv!" an indignant voice in her mind cried.

"I’d have knifed him, if I were you," said another voice. "Cochon."

Rogue shook her head, trying to rid herself of the voices ringing in her skull. Fifteen minutes elapsed, and Rogue spied the bus driver ambling toward the bus, holding a steaming Styrofoam cup of coffee. He got onto the bus and the doors closed. Rogue held her breath as the bus drove away, carrying the creepy man with it. Sitting in the busy restaurant, Rogue was without a ride, still an hour or more from her destination, and carrying very little money.

"Crap," she said.

Tired and unkempt, Rogue plodded down the road. The town the bus had stopped in was very small. It had little more than the McDonald’s, a couple gas stations, and more than its fair share of bars. She hadn’t enough money for another bus ticket, even if there were a place to purchase one. Rogue left McDonald’s, only after being asked to leave because she hadn’t bought a thing, and had been sitting in the same booth for over two hours. She went from there to a gas station where she bought a map and several candy bars. There was nothing left to do now but walk in the general direction she had meant to be going.

"Gahdamned freak," she muttered to herself. "Cost me my ride. Sonavabitch." She angrily masticated a mouthful of candy. A car blew past, raising a cloud of dust. She coughed and had to drop her bag to wave away the dirt. The town stretched down one main road, each bar and greasy spoon growing more decrepit than the last. The only cars driving past seemed to be leaving the town. Rogue was positive she was going to be in deep crap when Professor Xavier found out she had run off on her own. It looked to her that she had no choice but to call home. "Ah’m such a loser," she told herself. Still, she put off finding a phone, and continued down the road.

Hours later, she had reached the far outskirts of the town. There was nothing afterwards but cow fields and barns. There was a haphazardly hung sign pointing to the next town. Rogue took out her map and studied it. The next town was represented by an even smaller dot than the town she was currently in. She trudged across the road to the dusty brown clapboard building which proclaimed itself to be "EAT."

"Mm, ’EAT?’ Perhaps I can get FOOD and DRINK at EAT," she thought cynically. There were a few cars parked in the sparsely graveled lot, along with an unmarked van with its back doors open. Two kids sat in the back, smoking. One of them nodded at her. She walked over to the door and entered the dimly lit restaurant. The interior was lit mostly with neon beer signs and dusty lights on ceiling fans. There was a long, worn bar with two dusty farmers sitting at it, drinking beers. Alongside the wall were several cracked vinyl booths with Formica tables. At the back of the restaurant was a small stage and jukebox. Currently, Louis Armstrong’s ’On Blueberry Hill’ was rolling out of the jukebox. Rogue sat herself at one of the booths, eyeing the rusted chrome napkin holder and ketchup bottle with dried blackened ketchup on the cap. She set her bag on the booth opposite, and rested her guitar case by her side. A woman with a whiskery upper lip approached and put a basket of popcorn down before Rogue.

"Somethin’ t’drink?" the woman asked.

"Iced tea?" Rogue replied.

The woman nodded and shuffled away. Rogue took a piece of popcorn from the basket and put it in her mouth. It was chewy. Soon the woman returned with a glass of iced tea. Rogue nodded her thanks to the woman and took a sip, washing the grit from her throat.

"What’ll y’have, sweetheart?" the woman asked, snapping her gum. Rogue looked around for a menu, but found none.

"Uh..." she began, then looked to the woman for help.

The waitress grunted, then pointed her pen at the blackboard behind the bar.

"Ah’ll have...the Big O...?" she answered uncertainly. "The Big O?" she looked at the woman speculatively. The woman smiled a brown-toothed smile and gestured to herself.

"I’m big Shirl Osborne," she said, then sauntered off.

"Ew," Rogue said, then took another sip of her drink. The two kids from the parking lot entered, carrying a pair of amplifiers and a pair drums. They passed her and walked toward the stage, where they set the equipment. A third boy came stumbling in next, holding a guitar case. Rogue’s Big O arrived, which turned out to be a mediocre hamburger with curly fries. She ate slowly, figuring it to be her last meal before almost certain death. Her eyes went to the pay-phone by the bathrooms. "Ah can’t do this," she thought. "Ah failed. Ah won’t ever find him." Tears pricked her eyes. "Shit."

The light outside grew dim, then dark. A few more bar-flies wandered in, taking their seats at the bar. Another basket of popcorn appeared before her. She blinked up at Shirl as the woman replaced the first basket with a fresh one. Rogue hadn’t realized she’d eaten the stale popcorn. Shirl nodded at her then looked over at the three boys gathered by the stage. "Look at them idiots," she shook her head before turning to her other customers.

Rogue looked at the boys, who were only just older than she was. Two of them were trying to set up the drums, the other was sitting on the edge of the stage. His head nodded sleepily. She ate her popcorn as she watched the trio. The amplifiers squealed unhappily, and one of the boys dove at it, trying to cut the feedback. Several of the people at the bar shot them angry looks. Rogue smiled. Finally, the nodding boy fell over to one side. His companions looked down from the stage at the fallen boy. One shook his shaggy head unhappily, the other leaned down to shake his comrade. The kid on the floor was passed out stone cold, and one of the band-mates, the one with the goatee, was nice enough to drag him to an empty booth and sit him upright. Rogue sipped her tea and pulled out her worn paperback book. The shaggy haired boy stomped past her and up to the bar. She watched him from the corner of her eye. He asked for a glass of water, then walked over to the other two. Shaggy-haired boy then dumped the water over the passed out kid. The kid did not stir. The kid with the goatee looked about, as if looking for help that would come from above. His eyes landed on her, and she quickly looked away, back into her book. Not fast enough, he had caught her eye and was now approaching.

"Hey," he said as he stood over her table. With the toe of his boot, he pointed at her guitar case. "You play?"

She looked up at him. "Uhm, kinda," she said.

"I’m Jake," he told her.

Rogue half-shrugged and gave him a weak smile. "Rogue," she gestured to herself.

He nodded at her. "So, Rogue. We kinda don’t have a guitar player. And if we don’t play, we don’t get paid."

She shook her head and waved him away. "You want me ta play? Forget it," she laughed. "You’ve got to be joking."

"No," he told her. "If you can play a chord, you’ll be more than twice as capable than that loser," he gestured toward the passed out kid. "Drunk off his ass...If you can help us out, we’ll give you fair share. Thirty bucks."

Rogue nibbled her fingernails. "Ah...Ah dunno." The money would be enough for a ride to Caldecott. She glanced back at the phone. "Ah’m not that good," she said as she stood.

Jake shrugged his bony shoulders. "Don’t matter. Do you read music?"

"Ah play by ear," she told him. "But Ah can manage. What d’you play?"

"Nothin’ good," he said with an awkward smile. "There’s nothing these guys wanna hear ’cept for Creedence and Skynard."

Rogue picked up her guitar case and gave him a withering look.

"This is Chris," he said, gesturing at the shaggy hair boy. Chris nodded at her.

"You can play?" he asked.


"Good enough," he said, and climbed up onto stage and sat himself behind the drum set. Jake walked over to his guitar and bobbed his head at her.


Rogue took a deep breath and set her case onto the table to open it. She took the guitar by the neck and walked up onto the stage. No one was looking at them.

"So what do you guys call yourselves?" she asked.

He tilted his head and looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "I think today we’ll call ourselves Goth Girl and the Burnouts." He grinned.

She scowled at him, but her mouth quirked into a smile.

Jake leaned toward the microphone and tapped it. "Uh, hi," he said. "Good evening everybody."

"Play Freebird!" someone in the bar heckled.

Jake rolled his eyes. "This is ’Runnin’ Down a Dream’, by Tom Petty," he said and began to play. Rogue followed along on rhythm. Jake smiled and nodded at her appreciatively. They continued on through several other songs, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ’Heard it on the Grapevine’, The Animals’ ’Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, and then they begrudgingly played a Lynard Skynard song. Rogue was happy to note that a few of the restaurant patrons were nodding to the music.

After several more songs, Jake said into the microphone: "Hey, we’re going to take five. And Rogue wants to sing you a song." He smirked at her.

Rogue felt the blood drain from her face. "Shh!" she hissed at him. "Ah do not!"

He beckoned her to the microphone, but when she remained frozen on the spot, he picked up the microphone and set it in front of her. "So what are you going to play for us?" he asked.

She slapped him away. "Get bent, loser!" There was a smattering of applause from the audience. Rogue turned, horrified, to look out at the restaurant. Everyone was staring up at the stage now, looking at the antics of the two teens with amusement. Jake and Chris jumped down from the stage, leaving Rogue alone.

"Uh..." she began, her voice sounded loud and hollow when amplified. "Uhm..."

She looked around to find Jake miming the act of strumming a guitar. Then he pointed at her and mouthed: "Play!"

Dumbly, she nodded. "Th-this is a song...that Ah know. It’s called ’The Other Side’ and it was by--I mean, is by, David Gray." She smiled at the audience, but they didn’t react in one way or another. It was just a sea of blank faces.

Her voice started out tremulous and soft, mostly out of nervousness. The instrument in her hands played gently, with beautiful simplicity. "Are you so scared to look within?" she sang. "The ghosts are crawling on our skin. We may race and we me run. We’ll not undo what has been done...or change the moment when it’s gone."

She didn’t think she was doing too badly. For a group of apathetic barflies, they didn’t seem to be reacting negatively. Rogue thought about that night at Harry’s Hideaway, during the talent show. Hell, for all she knew, she might have won that stupid contest, if she’d only tried. "I know it would be outrageous, to come on all courageous, and offer you my hand...to pull you up on to dry land, when all I got is sinking sand..."

The voices in her head were strangely quiet, as if they were holding their breaths until she finished. "Meet me on the other side...I’ll see you on the other side...Honey, now if I’m honest, I still don’t know what love is." The song ended as quietly as it began, if not with more confidence. She found herself smiling when several people clapped. "Th-thanks, thank you," she said.

"Good job," Jake said as he got back onstage.

"Can we be done now?" she asked him.

"One more set," he replied.

"What, and Ah don’t get a break?"

He winked at her. "Look, about the thirty bucks, make it forty. For being such a good Samaritan and saving our butts."

She rolled her eyes and turned away, but she couldn’t help the blush that was creeping up her cheeks. By the time the second set was over, Rogue was swaying on her feet, exhausted from walking all day. She helped Jake and Chris load their equipment back into their van, then re-entered the restaurant to get their passed out band-mate.

"I don’t think you’ve been properly introduced," Jake said to Rogue, gesturing at the boy snoring on the table. "Shane, Rogue, Rogue Shane."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," she told Shane’s prone form.

Jake and Chris picked Shane up by either arm and started to carry him from the restaurant. Out in the parking lot, they put Shane into the van with the other equipment. He rolled over and belched.

"He’s not gonna puke is he?" Rogue asked.

Jake put his hands on his hips and stared at Shane. "I hope not." He then turned to Rogue. "You got a ride?"

She shook her head. "Ah’m kinda stranded," she replied.

Shirl, the restaurant owner, pushed herself out of the front door of the restaurant. She waved Jake and Chris over and handed them each several bills. The big woman nodded at Rogue, and waved to her. "Here ya are, sweetheart," Shirl said to Rogue and put some money into her gloved palm. "Y’take care now."

Rogue smiled and pocketed the money. "Thanks."

Shirl returned to the restaurant, leaving Rogue alone with the two boys.

"So what’s this about being stranded?" Jake asked.

"Ah guess Ah got off at the wrong stop," she said, knowing her explanation was lame.

They didn’t seem to notice. "We could give you a ride home, if you want."

"Where Ah’m goin’ is quite a ways away," she told them.

Chris shrugged. "We’re goin’ south. We’ve got another gig."

"Gig?" Jake said, raising his eyebrows in amusement.

"Shut up," Chris replied.

"C’mon," Jake said and walked toward the van.

Chris opened the door to the passenger seat and bowed genteelly to Rogue. "Shotgun, my lady?"

Rogue grinned and hopped up into the cab. Jake started the engine while Chris climbed into the back. They pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Rogue relaxed into the seat. She was back on track, she hadn’t failed. She smiled to herself. Soon, she’d have some answers. She was on her way to meet with Destiny.


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