Being undercover was nasty work. And he should fuckin' know it, too. You compromised your soul for the greater good. Did things you'd never even consider in a million years in the real world. But the undercover world...Now that was a different beast altogether. That was a world where you did whatever it took to survive. Whatever it took to keep going and get the next bit of information, find out the next move.
Whatever it took to stay hidden. To stay safe. To complete the mission.
Logan was about to blow all of that to hell by crossing over the threshold. What the fuck was he playing at, putting her, and the mission, at risk?
Rogue moved away from the window, letting the sheer curtain move slowly and subtly back into place. It was only coincidence that she'd been looking out onto the discrete street entrance below when she'd seen his familiar form come striding up the road. At first, she thought she was seeing things. A ghost, a premonition, brought on by exhaustion and stress, signaling what could come if she was successful. The X-Men would descend on this place with the fury of ten thousand men, seeking justice for those wronged, burning it to the ground. But as the form got closer, and was illuminated by one of the street lamps, she knew it wasn't the X-Men checking on her. The line of Logan's clenched jaw was highlighted as he passed under the lights and she understood exactly how furious he was. Someone must've told him, spilled the beans about where she'd gone, what she'd done.
She took a deep breath in, inhaling the cool humid summer air seeping in from her window, as she considered what she would do next. If she hadn't been so concerned about the bio monitors, she would have let her first instinct of fear bubble up within her at the first sighting of Logan, making his way closer to the building she was held in. As it was though, she practiced her breathing, and tried to remain calm as she heard the distant musical jingle of the small set of chimes above the front door sound from four floors below, signaling a customer.
It didn't really matter, she ceded, she didn't really have any choice in what would happen next. She would do as she'd been told, as she'd been forced to do; remain in her room and wait for the Parade of Menageries to begin. It was simply how it was done. There wasn't anything she, or any of the other mutants held here, could do about it. If they didn't comply, a nasty shock would be delivered to them via the inhibitor collar each of them wore around their necks. It was a slim ring of metal, no thicker than a pencil, which once locked into place, couldn't be disabled physically. Its appearance was subtly deceptive when it came to how much power it exerted over them. It was a mutation inhibitor, tracker, bio monitor, and punishment, all wrapped up in one thin little line of metal. It allowed their every movement, every action, to be monitored and controlled. The only way it was coming off was if you were dead. Then the collar would be more valuable than the useless flesh it encircled.
The humans in charge of this place were entirely that; in charge. They controlled everything and everyone inside the walls, including the customers, or patrons as they were called. All patrons were given a tour of each room of the building, where each mutant was forced to display their unique gifts, like a dog doing a trick to please its master. If they hesitated in performing, the quick touch of a slick handheld control pad could deliver a shock of 4,000 volts instantly. Enough to drop someone to their knees with the force of the pain it caused. Enough of those excruciating shocks could make even the most stubborn mutant comply.
A single bell is what signaled the start of the Parade. It could be rung at any time, day or night. Just as long as the patron who came into the place had enough money. The bell was also the signal to make yourself ready for the patrons. You abided by the bells, or you were shocked. It was that simple.
Rogue could feel the tension running through her body as she anticipated the start of the Parade. She tried to calm herself with amusing thoughts like, It isn't really a parade of menageries if the animals can't actually go anywhere. It didn't at all have the effect she intended.
It was late, she decided, and must have been close to two in the morning by her best guess. She couldn't be sure. She didn't have a clock in her room. No clock, watches, or phones. Indeed, no electronic devices of any kind were allowed. Except for her collar.
Tonight hadn't been much different from the others in the three weeks since she'd been here. She hadn't been able to sleep, not with the noises of the other occupants around her. She hadn't been selected. Again. A fact which she was still thoroughly relieved at. But she was also aware that her usefulness, and her chances at getting to the bottom of what was really happening in this place, were swiftly coming to an end. If you didn't make money, you were a waste of space. A waste of a room. A waste of a body.
The words of one of their handlers came back to her as she waited, impatiently, for the sound of the bell. Because if the bell didn't ring, that meant that Logan was here to cause trouble. And she couldn't afford for him to ruin this.
"You will abide by your handlers. You will abide by the bells," the handler had said as he slowly walked the line of a dozen or so other mutants, a leather whip dangling from one hand. Rogue couldn't help but glare at the man who'd introduced himself as, "Handler Gideon" as he continued pacing in front of the terrified men and women who flanked her. He stopped his slow pace and pushed one man's head down slowly, until his chin touched his chest, and he could no longer make eye contact with anyone.
"A single bell indicates you are to make yourself ready for the Parade of Menageries", Handler Gideon continued, his sharp-edged voice echoing along the empty corridor. At his signal, another handler swung a rubber mallet at a medium sized bronze bell. The sudden ringing made everyone in line jump. "A menagerie is exactly what the lot of you are. Animals. Exotic animals. Expensive exotic animals, even. And as animals in this menagerie, you will obey or you will be punished. Comply and you may be rewarded."
Rogue had audibly scoffed at those words, unable to help herself. It was highly unlikely any of the mutants here would be rewarded. Unless your definition of reward included not being beaten and tortured to death. Handler Gideon had jerked his head in her direction, pivoting back on black soled leather dress shoes. They didn't make a noise on the polished floor of the long hallway. She didn't lower her eyes as he approached. A mistake which would cost her.
Rogue didn't know exactly where they were at that moment. The drugs were still working their way out of her system, and she wasn't sure how long she'd been unconscious. She felt faintly dizzy and detached, as if nothing was quite real.
Handler Gideon stopped as he neared her, and smiled coldly as she looked back at him, unafraid.
"I don't believe I gave you permission to make any noises."
"You didn't need to," she shot back without thinking.
His smile deepened as he made a nodding motion. Before she could react, or maybe her reaction time was still affected by the drugs, a third handler had grabbed her by the arms, while Gideon raised his right arm and delivered one hard slap to her left cheek. As far as injuries go, she'd had far worse on other missions, especially before Carol'd happened. She looked back at Gideon and raised an eyebrow. Apparently, he didn't much care for her gesture, because he nodded again and the handler at her back kicked out her legs from underneath her and she landed hard on her knees. This time, she got three swift hard kicks to her ribs, with what she now knew were steel-tipped dress shoes.
Mother fucker, she thought violently as the breath exploded from her lungs and pain blossomed in its place.
"No talking. No noises," Handler Gideon barked at her while motioning for her to be brought back up to her feet. Once she'd been steadied, he looked her in the eyes again, while slowly pushing her head down toward her chest.
Rage burned inside her and she relished the thought of being free of the inhibitor collar to crush his windpipe in her bare hands.
"A single bell," Handler Gideon intoned, "indicates you are to make yourself ready for the patrons, and ready for the demonstration that follows. Upon hearing the single bell, you are to remove all clothing and stand in the doorway, hands behind your back." Without warning, the whip in his right hand cracked across the clasped hands of another woman to Rogue's right. The woman stifled a cry of pain and kept her gaze at her feet. "Two bells signifies the Parade has ended. If you were not selected, then you are to remain in your room until the next Parade."
Rogue shuddered as a loud groan from a few doors down met her ears. After three weeks, the sounds of the place were starting to wear on her. She was also starting to worry if she didn't get picked by one of the patrons soon, then all of this would have been for nothing. After three weeks at this house, and another three weeks in the training camp, she felt the only lead they'd had begin to slip away. She wasn't worried about herself. She could handle the danger and violence of this place. But she didn't think Jubilee could.
The single bell toll reverberated throughout the house and Rogue closed her eyes in resignation. You were only exempt from the Parade if you were otherwise spoken for or engaged. But even then, the right client, with the right amount of money, could overturn the normal rules of engagement in this place. She wasn’t engaged. She would have to appear.
Rogue knew he wouldn’t stop until he got to her door. Not if he’d been mad enough to track her all the way here. She still didn’t know exactly where she was, though the scent of the air at night and the voices of the patrons seemed to imply she was somewhere in the south. It couldn’t be a big city like Atlanta or Charlotte. The sounds of the city weren’t busy enough for those places. Rogue thought maybe she was in Raleigh, or Savannah. After the training center, she’d been drugged again, and had woken up in this room, the feeling of cotton in her mouth and a dizzy fog in her brain.
In the weeks she’d been inside these walls, she’d learned very little about this particular operation. She’d knew the backers of the organization had to be both well-funded, and well-connected. You couldn’t hold forty mutants illegally in a house in the middle of a decent-sized city, without having some decent cachet with the local government or police. She’d figured out the levels of the building were ranked. The first floor was for patrons who couldn’t afford too much kink in their hired sex, so they were relegated to the mutants with weaker abilities, minor deformations of bodies. The mutants on that floor were the ones most often selected, and the most abused. The higher the floor, the more exotic the mutant, the more impressive their abilities, the more costly the night. Rogue was on the fourth of four floors. Only those patrons who could afford the strange array of talents of mutants on this floor were permitted to witness them. She secretly hoped that Logan hadn’t brought enough money with him to get to the fourth floor, that she could continue her mission in relative peace.
She stepped out of the simple cotton shorts and tank top she’d been in and folded them neatly as she placed them on the small nightstand next to her bed. Her room wasn’t unpleasant. It was furnished comfortably, if a bit cheaply. She had access to a queen-sized bed with plain cotton sheets and a dark blue comforter, a small wooden nightstand, and small attached bathroom with a white-tiled shower. No bathtubs in here. Too much temptation to drown yourself. No mirrors either, for a similar reason.
As she assumed her proper position at the door, she tucked the long loose strands of her platinum and chestnut hair behind her ears, then let her hands fall at her sides, clenching reflexively into fists as she waited. She’d grown comfortable with her body, especially since Carol, but that didn’t mean she wanted to appear naked in front of any of her teammates. Sure, missions went wrong. Uniforms got burned and torn away, sometimes in areas which you would prefer your fellow X-Men did not have the opportunity to see. But they were professionals in those situations. If there was bleeding, you staunched it, as quickly and discreetly as you could. If a teammate was unconscious, you covered them if possible. Shit happened, and it happened to all of them at one point or another.
But this wasn’t a mission where her uniform had been burned up by a stay spray of fire from Pyro, exposing her left breast momentarily as she swore and ripped a piece of leather from her sleeve to tie around her chest. This was being forced to appear naked in front of someone. Someone she’d known for a long time. Someone she would be forced to perform like a dog in front of.
She couldn’t stop the sudden hitching of breath as a thought raced across her mind. What if he selected her? Her knees almost buckled at the thought. He couldn't. He wouldn’t. Surely, he would understand what that would mean; what the rules were. What she would have to do.
What he would have to do.
Several minutes went by and still the double bell didn’t ring. What, was he viewing every single fucking room on his way up here? Knowing how damn stubborn he could be, he probably was. He wouldn’t have been able to step foot in this place, and not check every room. Jesus. What was he thinking as he went from one room to the next? The combined scents of fear and sex must be nearly overwhelming to his senses. Rogue was glad she couldn’t smell what was happening in this place. It was enough she had to hear it.
She closed her eyes as she waited, straining her ears for a hint of what was happening. It was rare that the Parade went on as long as this one had. Her nerves were stretched thin, imagining what his reaction would be to seeing her. What his reaction had been to learn of where she’d voluntarily gone. She wondered who had told him. Probably Bobby or Remy. She could see it easily; Bobby would have been too nervous around Logan, he always had been, and would have blurted it out without prompting. Remy would have been more subtle, more vicious. Would have let it slip at a precise moment, just when he thought it would cause the most pain to Logan.
Rogue’s body twitched as she heard the first sounds of the Handlers nearing her door. The muffled sounds of words describing each of the other nine mutants on her floor. She knew she was at the far end from the stairs. Second to last mutant in the entire house.
It was torture waiting for them to get to her. She could feel a constant shiver running through her, and no amount of concentration on her breathing could still it.
The words were getting clearer now. Slips of words and sentences were emerging. The familiar script of the Parade was getting louder. “...Particular...Tastes...We call this one...Powers include…”
Her eyes flew open as the floorboards creaked with the weight of at least one individual outside. Her door was about to be opened. She swallowed. And waited.
The metal door slid open smoothly and quietly, disappearing into the wall, and Rogue did as she’d been told. Her eyes were down, hands clasped behind her back. She heard a quiet, but swift inhalation from the person she assumed was Logan. All she could see were the person’s shoes and pants, and a small glimpse of a sleek control pad clenched in one hand. Logan was clad in a pair of comfortably worn dark brown leather boots, and dark blue, nearly black jeans. They were nicer than his usual worn pair. She wondered if he’d been told to dress up for the occasion.
She was dying to look at him, to see what he was thinking, but she didn’t dare break the rules. She wouldn’t be the one to ruin this mission.
“Here is the info card,” the handler was saying as he waved his control pad toward the smaller one in Logan’s hands. “Stats are just there,” the handler’s voice trailed off, and Rogue clenched hands into fists behind her back. He’d better not be giving himself away. She’d kill him if he did.
“Sorry,” Logan grumbled, clearing his throat. “Keep goin’.”
She slowly let her hands uncurl, hoping he understood what was at stake.
“Not at all,” the handler said easily. “As you can see we call this one, Death-Bringer. Female, twenty-seven years of age. Powers include poisonous skin, super-strength, invulnerability, and the power of flight. She contains enough power to quite literally suck the life from you.” A nod from the handler was her cue to perform. She felt the buzzing tingle of the inhibitor collar deactivating so that she access her mutation once more. It was always weaker in the first few minutes after the inhibitor function had been turned off, which she supposed was ideal for the handlers. It would be easier for them to subdue any threats if they were still weakened.
“As with all of the others, the collar completely inhibits their talents if you wish. You are in complete control at all times. This is a demonstration of but one of her skills.” The handler was prompting her for the second time. The first prompt was the inhibitor function turning off. If she had to be asked one more time, she would be shocked.
She’d only had to perform like this two other times in the three weeks since she’d been here, the marks of which were still visible on the underside of her left arm. Most patrons found what they were looking for in the floors below, with mutants who looked more like mutants. Her appearance was relatively normal, and in most cases she could pass for human if need be. The patrons who could afford this floor were usually looking for something more visually exotic than her. They didn’t want to spend their money on a mutant who quite literally had the ability to kill them with a touch.
Rogue rolled her shoulders in an attempt to rid herself of the tingling, but didn’t reach for the proffered knife. Somehow, performing this in front of Logan felt...wrong. It was too personal. Too naked. He’d seen her bleed plenty of times in the past. But never had he seen her attempting to hurt herself showing off her abilities while naked. It was demeaning. Demoralizing. She didn’t think she could do it.
The knife was transferred from one hand to the other by the second handler who was offering it to her; it was her final warning. She knew she should take it. But she just couldn’t make herself. Not without showing Logan exactly what was at stake.
She tried to steal herself for the shock. But she somehow seemed to always forget just how painful it was.
Four thousand volts coursed through her forcing her to drop to her knees and gasp with pain.
Fuck. Get yourself together, she thought violently. Jubilee needs you.
She rose on shaking legs and took the knife from the handler. She continued to cast her eyes downward. She didn’t think she could do this if she knew he was watching her. She gripped the hilt of the blade firmly in her right hand and dug the blade against the pale smooth skin of her left forearm. All that left was a thin indentation of where the blade had tried to penetrate her skin.
“As you can see, if for any reason they are not compliant, you have the ability to make them so.”
She knew what was next. The buzzing of her collar intensified until it droned smoothly in its normal electronic whirl, and then it was silent once again. She closed her eyes at the sudden wave of dizziness that always accompanied the switching on of the inhibitor function, and the knife was brought back to her forearm again, this time, by the handler, who’d removed it from her grip as the collar reactivated. She couldn’t be trusted with a knife when the collar was working. She might take the easy way out.
She barely flinched as the fire of the blade drew along her skin, deep red blood welling up in the inch-long cut left by the knife’s razor edge.
The blood pooled and dribbled down her palm to her fingertips, where it fell in several gentle droplets to the polished wood floors beneath her bare feet.
None of this was new to Logan. He’d been through Carol with her. He knew what she was capable of. It was the vulnerability she had to display that left her shaken. The degrading of her body that had her unable to meet his eyes, threat of a shock notwithstanding.
There were several tense seconds where she stood waiting for his verdict. The handler seemed to be on edge. After all, if he didn’t select her, then there was only one door left. And if Logan didn’t find what he was looking for, he would take his money elsewhere.
Finally, the words she was dreading washed over her, in a low gravelly voice.
“I’ll take her."