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For as long as I can remember, I've searched for things to worship - bits of rock, storm fronts, bugs with turquoise glitter on their wings. But rocks chip, storms churn themselves out, and bugs can be crushed with a heel or a raindrop. Gods change colors and spin themselves new garments every day. The most we can hope for is to be allowed to watch. I have learned that the products of worship are always two-fold. If you study the moon too hard for too long, it'll fall down luminous upon you. And with moon in your eyes and moon anchoring your feet, you can never see the stars again. I'm looking for the place where worship finds balance, where it does not debase me or exalt me so high that I cannot return. Gods change colors and spin themselves new garments every day. I want to be able to stand in awe of them, one at a time.
~ Sheri Reynolds, 'Bitterroot Landing'
The child had been walking through the forest for what felt to have been a thousand years. Time had lost all meaning for her, as had distance. The trees had merged into an amorphous mass of green without a landmark to break them or distinction between them. The only difference, in fact, between when she had first set out and then, was the frequency of the pain that lanced through her legs and belly. An average folkloric heroine might have taken the endless walking and the diet that consisted primarily of apples, roots and nuts in their stride, but a small, scared girl was physically incapable of it.
Against her better judgement, she knew she had to make camp. Preferably somewhere sheltered and hidden, when a fire would not be seen by the townsfolk who still searched for her. A fire was essential, she realised. Although hunting had depleted the woods of a great deal of both predators and prey - Caldecott had been a center of the fur-trade in days before animal rights - there was still said to be everything from bears to wolves in the woods by certain venerable citizens, whose main motive was probably to prevent children from roaming in them. She suddenly saw the wisdom of their words, although her flight into the forest had not been by choice so much as from necessity.
Sinking down against a tree for a brief rest before she found a suitable site to sleep, her mind returned as it always did to Cody Robbins. The reason that she had been . . . encouraged to depart her hometown. He had been her only friend, the sole person who had talked to the skunk. Her lips tightened in a strangely adult gesture at the memory of the deprecating nickname. Their insults had been without too much imagination, but still stung in a way that defied logic, until they had picked up some new words from a Friends of Humanity rag that Creed had distributed. Mutie. Genejoke. Freak. Cody had been her staunch defender against them, saying that she was as human as he was, that the trick streak in her hair was just a birthmark like the blotch on Adam's arm or the moles that freckled Leanne's back. He had been the golden boy of the class - son of the town's doctor, class-captain for four years running, baseball star and mathematical whizzkid. She had not known why he had bothered with her. He should not have bothered with her.
The answer to that particular question had come on one sultry Sunday afternoon, when the soup-plate blossoms of the magnolias had been kindergarten stars against a paintbox-blue sky. Stubborn and proud as always, she had been determined to show him that she was capable of swinging on the boy's rope better than he was. For all his fine qualities, Cody was a patriarch in the making and had more than once made a comment about 'girls not being able to use a boy's rope'. In her flimsy, white dress, gloves and church-going shoes, she had quickly demolished that particular fallacy by all-but-flying over and over the broad river (1) at the end of the rope. Finally, convinced that she had put him straight in that regard, she had jumped lightly off it to land on her feet and grin triumphantly at him. She had expected him to make a suitably insulting comment but had found that he was watching her with a strange intensity that had made her feel uncomfortable and strangely gooey at the same time. The conversation still rang in her mind like the bells that had sounded far away on that day.
"Tain't no such thing as a boy's rope, Cody! If'n Ah wanna swing on it, Ah'll do as Ah please." (2)
"A' right, so ya proved how brave ya is. Now get down 'efore ya fall inta the river," then the words that had been so sweet and wonderful at the time: "If'n anything ever happened to ya, sugah, Ah'd up an' die."
She had been nervous, scared of their relationship changing: "Why . . . why'd ya call me sugah?"
He had seemed lost for words - the golden boy whose show-and-tell efforts were epic sagas to rival any bard and held their class rapt: "Ah guess, 'cause underneath all yer tough words an' even tougher wrasslin' yer just a sweet li'l thing. At least Ah reckon ya are. 'Course, only one way t'know for sure . . . sugah!"
If only he had stopped there, she thought, if only he had believed the true-for-once class gossip, believed that she really was a mutie. No good human boy would have kissed a freak, would have been more eager to kiss a snake or a toad. At least the latter would have only given him warts. She shivered as she remembered how the world had stopped making sense, how she was suddenly Cody, thinking that he *liked* her more than anyone else in the world, then becoming scared and confused as he felt . . . the something begin. She did not know what to call the . . . something, did not want to give it a name, because that would acknowledge it existed. That she was a genejoke, a freak, a mutie.
She sniffed, rubbing her eyes angrily with a decidedly grubby hand to stop the prickling. She was no longer a child, could no longer act like one since she had killed her best friend. The three days it took the townsfolk to find them with their shotguns had aged her more than any passage of years could have hoped to do, while the days spent in the wood had honed long-suppressed animal instinct. Woodchucks did not cry, any more than a bird in the tree would mourn the loss of a friend. Tears made one lose focus and in her current situation that was one thing which she could not afford to do. As was, she thought in alarm as the bushes behind her rustled, she had come perilously close to it.
Whispering a quick prayer to the deities of the woodsman - Smith and Wesson - she pointed the shotgun in the direction of the noise. Her hand was steady, her finger resting on her trigger, her mind steeling itself for the kill.
"Ah have mah gun trained on ya," she said, attempting to make her voice deeper and older, grateful for the spaghetti westerns of which Cody had been fond, "Come out 'fore Ah lose patience."
To her surprise, a tall, slender woman, who her former townsfolk would have called el-e-gant with all its connotations of scorn, stepped out of the bushes with her hands spread in front of her. In a purple dress that could only have been Gucci, and looks which were exotic if they just missed being beautiful, she could have been a department-store angel. It was the beginning of a lifetime of worship for the child, although she did not know it then, standing with her piece in hand and preparing to kill.
"You're the one they were talking about in Caldecott, aren't you?" the apparition said with a smile that bordered on the entertained.
"Uh huh," the girl grunted noncommittally, not knowing whether she was a decoy employed by the citizens or another well-meaning social worker, "Who're ya?"
"A woman after my own heart," the hint of sly pleasure had become full-blown, "Gets straight to the point over a barrel of a gun. Well, a direct question deserves a direct answer. As direct as things get with me, mind you. My name is Raven Darkholme, or Ronnie Lake, or anything else I choose it to be. Mystique'll do at a pinch, but you can call me mama or something equally asinine."
She lowered the weapon slightly, "Ya a social worker?"
The statement seemed to amuse the strange woman beyond proportion. She did not understand why her simple question had provoked such hilarity, although she would later when Mystique told her her real calling, which was as far from social worker as day was from night. Laughing, she shook her head firmly: "Absolutely not. I'm an . . . antisocial worker (3), if anything."
"So, why are ya tryin' ta help me?" she did not understand the pun, was confused by the motives and responses of this odd creature.
"I don't know," she replied baldly, "I'll probably berate myself for my stupidity tomorrow. Initially, it was because Irene told me that I had to do it. Now, because, as I said, you're a woman after my own heart."
"Huh," the gun fell limply to her side, green eyes rose to meet hazel ones with a challenge in them, "Bet you'll stop thinkin' that when you discover Ah'm a mutie freak."
For some reason, that made the woman angry. Her lips tightened in a gesture similar to the girl's own, her irises blazed golden. Her fists clenched at her sides, seemingly fighting a psychological battle with some darker part of herself. Her voice was very low and very urgent when she spoke again: "You are a mutant, true, but you aren't a mutie or a freak or a genejoke or whatever ignorant humans choose to label our species with."
A single word in the diatribe caught the child's attention, "Our species? Ya're a gene . . . a mootant too?"
"A shapeshifter, child, to be precise," she nodded her head and, in the time it took to complete the gesture, became someone else. Someone far more exotic with a double-edged beauty that was that of a Hindi goddess. Her blue skin was still flawless beneath auburn waves of hair. Her irises and pupils had both drowned in a pool of yellow light, which watched the child with a question in them.
"Wow. Can Ah do that?" childish awe at what seemed to be a magic-trick had subsumed fear and apprehension. The indigo lips smiled at her encouragingly, but there was a predatory, possessive element to it which the child would only remember and recognise years later on the Golden Gate Bridge while holding the corpse of the world's greatest heroine in her arms.
"We'll see," she stooped down to the girl's level and took her chin in a gloved hand, "Irene thinks you can, and I don't disagree with her on the principle that she's capable of making me sleep on the couch if I do. In any case, you need to come with me so I can try to teach you how."
"'Kay," the child agreed, knowing that this Mystique was possibly her only chance of escaping the woods, the life of a hunted animal. She seemed to care for her in a strange, brusque way, and was certainly better than the syrupy social workers whose care would last as long as it took to place her in foster-care or a group-home. She had heard stories about what happened to children in those sort of places and refused to become another one. Besides, she argued stubbornly with the part of her that was still cautious, it would be pretty cool to be anyone she wanted to be.
"Now, do you have anything you need to take besides that . . . shotgun?" her wrinkled lip showed exactly what she thought of the archaic piece.
"Uh uh. Wearin' anything else Ah have," she indicated the decidedly tattered, travel-stained and filthy clothes she was wearing.
"So I can smell," she replied without malice, "A bath will be in order when we get home, child. Possibly more than one. Oh, and what is your name? I refuse to continue calling you by that banal appellation. It's positively undignified."
"Sabine Therese Smythe," (4) the girl replied with some embarrassement. She had always hated the name, wished that her mother had had the good sense to name her something plain and servicable like Jane or Sue or Anne. The children had teased her mercilessly about it at school. Mystique evidently was like-minded, rolling her eyes when she heard it.
"Your mother read pulp romances, didn't she?" she commented ironically, "Still, as I told you, we choose our own name and identity in my family. So, what do *you* want to be called?"
The drop of black blood in the girl's veins, the part of her that still saw herself as the townsfolk did, replied: "Rogue."
Mystique raised an eyebrow, "Better than the Daisy May or Isabella Rose I expected from a girl of your age. Should we go then, Rogue?"
The girl paused, knowing that there was nothing left to do or say, but sensing that something was incomplete. She was leaving her life as Sabine the Skunk behind forever, adopting a new identity as a snake did a skin or Mystique did a face. Although she did not mourn the loss, she wanted to commemorate it, as an explorer would the discovery of a new world.
"Yeah, but can we stop off somewhere on our way home?"
When the children next went down to the river to swing over it as a proof of their bravery, they were strangely quiet. Cody had not yet awoken from his coma - the doctor held out little hope for recovery - and their social galaxy was missing its golden sun. Still, they suspected, the rituals of play and fun had to be observed, or else the psychologist would return with his cards and notepad to ask them how they felt. So, after church on a sultry Sunday afternoon, they returned to their favorite spot by the river, the spot where Cody had been struck down by that mutie. In their bright dresses, the girls looked like flowers beneath a sky that was as blue as that in a kindergartener's paintbox. The boys in their suits looked strangely somber, little mourners returning to lament the passing of a friend, but they knew that that would change after a few impromptu games of football and wrestling matches. They laughed and joked lightly, uncomfortably aware that it seemed a sacrilege of some holy place, but even that ceased with the discovery of the writing. Betty Jordan was the first to see the words gouged into the bark of the tree, ten words which cast a pall over even the beauty of the Mississippi morning: "Requiescat in Pace. Sabine Therese Smythe and Cody Freddy Robbins." (6)
2. This story is kinda a rewrite of Unlimited #4, but I've changed one or two details and fleshed out some parts I felt did not make sense. Um, for example, with the furore surrounding mutants, how is it possible that Caldecott would not have picked up on the word to describe Rogue? She would undoubtedly have heard it, and, although not understood it completely, recognised it as an insult. Also . . . hmm . . . if she vowed to stay away from people, how would she know what they called her?
3. Antisocial = against society. Mystique is a terrorist, so she works against society. :)
4. Heh. It's the only way I can explain the discrepancy between Cody's surname being Smythe in one book and Robbins in the next. Rogue's memories are jumbled.
5. Nocenti called him Freddy, but he's Cody in all the rest. Again, explaining discrepancy.
6. Oh, and I'll be very impressed by anyone who tells me the connection between this story and the quote. There is one and it's got nothing to do with the fact that they're both about Southern lassies who are victims of circumstance etc . . .