At Home With the Mutant Menace

The garage/workshop level smelled like plastic. Which was odd-- usually it smelled of metal. Rogue peered around a corner, where Bertha's spindly lower legs were visible sticking out from under Poppa's car. "Whatcha doin'?"

"Aii!" There was a loud bang, as Bertha started, and apparently banged her head on the underside of the car. She pulled herself out with alacrity, her acne-ridden face and gray tunic smeared with black grease, a deadly glare on her face. "What are you doing down here, boy?"

"That's mah Poppa's car. Ah just wanted to see what you were doin' with it."

"Nothing that need be of concern to little boys," Bertha said, in a bad attempt to adopt her idol's pomposity. "Now run along and play."

"But Ah wanna learn how to fix cars."

"Well, ask your father!"

Rogue rolled his eyes. "If Poppa knew howta fix cars, you think he'd let anyone else mess with his baby?"

This wasn't strictly true. Mystique knew how to fix cars, but considered it beneath him. "We have a capable tech and a person whose powers allow her to fix cars as easily as I change my hair. Why should I waste my time?" he'd say. But he'd also advised Rogue to learn everything he could; no one knew what Rogue's powers would be or when they would come in, which meant that in a organization full of powerful mutants, ten-year-old Rogue was odd boy out. Having an assortment of useful skills would keep him from being pushed around. Rogue wasn't sure this was true-- Bertha, Jasmine and Pietro all had useful skills, and were all getting pushed around to one extent or another-- but he took Poppa's suggestions seriously.

"Are you saying that Mystique doesn't think I can properly look after his car?" Bertha asked, all injured dignity.

"No, no. That ain't it at all." This wasn't going well. Rogue took a deep breath, and grinned at her with a smile he happened to know was awfully charming. "Rene says this place would fall apart without you, you know. He says, if Ah wanna learn about cars Ah should go to the expert."

"Really?" Bertha flushed with pleasure. "Destiny said that?"

"Sure did. And Destiny don't lie." Rogue, on the other hand, lied like a dog when it suited him. Destiny had indeed said that Rogue should learn about cars from Bertha, but not because she was an "expert"-- it was because Polaris' powers gave her enough of an advantage over people without them that she probably couldn't teach, and she was impatient and distant and Poppa and Rene were already too deep in debt to her. However, what Bertha didn't know wouldn't hurt her. "So, could ya show me what you're doin'?"

"Well, I suppose, it being your father's car, it wouldn't hurt to show you some things."

For the next half hour, Bertha taught Rogue how to perform an oil change, in a fashion that was just as obnoxious as she was-- she would forget to tell him something, and then scream at him for not having done it, or insist he was doing something wrong and then do it for him the exact way he'd been doing it. Hell with this, Rogue thought. Destiny said Bertha wasn't really stupid, but she sure acted it. He'd try his luck with Polaris, if he could muster up the nerve. Well, heck, now at least he knew how to do it. Ain't actually the most useful thing I could've learned, but if I gotta put up with Bouncing Bertha one more minute I'm gonna scream.

"Thanks for showing me," he said, trying to sound sincere at least. "Ah wanna start pulling mah weight around here soon as Ah get mah powers, so Ah'm tryna' learn as much as Ah can."

"It's not a problem," Bertha said, smiling at him as if she were trying to be attractive. Think I'm gonna puke. She put a hand on his arm. "You're such an adorable little boy, it's a pleasure to work with you." Gimme a break!

A sudden noisome cloud of burning plastic smell saved Rogue. "What the heck's that?" he asked, pulling free of Bertha and running to check it out.

"It could be a problem! You'd better stay back, boy, let me check it out!" Bertha caught up with him in two bounds and boinged past him, looking like just about the most ludicrous thing Rogue had ever seen as she hopped down the corridor and around into one of the large workshop areas. Rogue followed her, genuinely curious as to the nature of the awful stink.

A metal cradle that looked awfully like the upside-down top of one of the aircars lay on the floor, while a dull steel vat above it slowly tipped liquid plastic into the cradle. Plastic fumes filled the air. Polaris hovered above the cradle, wearing a breathing mask, long white hair tied back away from her face. In place of her usual red and purple chain mail, she was wearing something that looked rather like what would happen if she made a baggy costume out of her cape.

"Mistress, what are you doing? Is there anything I can do to help?" Bertha asked eagerly.

"You can go away and let me work in peace," Polaris said sharply. "And what is that boy doing here?"

"He followed me, mistress! I didn't bring him here, I swear!" She turned toward Rogue. "You, boy, go somewhere else! You shouldn't be spying on the doings of your betters!"

"Ah just wanted to see where the plastic smell was comin' from," Rogue said. "Man, that's foul!"

"And toxic in high exposures," Polaris said. "Either leave, or put on protective-- BERTHA, GET AWAY FROM THAT!"

"I was only trying to help, mistress."

"If you'd fallen into the plastic vat and died, it would have been of absolutely no help to me. Put on protective gear and stay away from the vats."

Rogue put the protective gear on-- there were plenty of breathing masks and smocks hanging near the door, and while he had to tighten the straps on the mask a good bit to make it stay on his head, and the smocks were all too big for a small boy, he'd learned the hard way that if Polaris said you needed protective gear, she meant it. The breathing mask smelled like sweat and stale air, but at least he couldn't smell the plastic fumes anymore. "So whatcha doin', Polaris?"

"Don't disturb the mistress, boy! She's doing something important, and the likes of you don't deserve to question her!"

"Leaper. Be silent. And unhand the boy." The vat tipped back up upright and lowered to the ground, next to several other bubbling vats of plastic. Another piece of metal that looked like another upside-down top lowered from the ceiling, past Polaris, and pressed down against the cradle. It was a mold, Rogue realized. As the metal began to compress the molten plastic, Bertha started coughing.

"Oh for the sake of the all, Bertha. When I give you an order, I expect you to obey it!" Polaris descended, grabbed Bertha by the front of her costume and dragged her over to the protective gear. She pulled a breathing mask off the wall and stuffed it onto Bertha's face, none too gently. "The next time, when I tell you to wear a breath mask, do so. Do you understand?"

"Yes, mistress, of course. I was so foolish, not to pay attention to you! It's just that watching the boy bothering you--"

"He is less of an inconvenience to me than you are. He can ask irritating questions, but on the other hand I didn't need to tell him twice to wear gear." Polaris pushed Bertha against the wall, then turned and focused on what she was doing again. A green water hose unsnaked itself from the wall and uncoiled over to in front of where Polaris stood, pointing toward the mold. Suddenly a torrent of water poured out of it, cascading over the mold, and falling finally into drainage grates under the mold.

"You makin' an aircar, Polaris?" Rogue asked.

She turned to look at him, surprise on her face. "You're very astute, boy. Yes, indeed, I am making an aircar."

"How come you're not makin' it outta metal, though?"

"It's not your place to question the mistress' doings, boy!"

"Will you put a lid on it, Bertha? Ah figure if Polaris don't wanna answer my questions, she can just tell me to shut up herself. She don't need you to talk for her."

"The boy is correct, Leaper." Polaris glared down at the smaller woman. "I will dismiss him if his questions become troublesome. Your loyalty is admirable... but at the moment, your actions are merely irritating me."

"I'm sorry, mistress. The last thing I want to do is irritate you! You know I'm only concerned for you-- your work is so important, and you certainly don't need some impertinent little brat questioning you while you're in the middle of such an important task--"

"You have no idea what I'm doing. What makes you think it's so important?"

"Well-- everything you do is important, mistress!"

What a suckup. Polaris was awfully powerful and scary, but Rogue could never bring himself to be fully convinced to be as scared of her as he probably should be, just because she couldn't seem to see through Bertha. The ugly woman said things that Rogue would've figured out was just sucking up when he was five, for god's sake, but Polaris fell for it every time. This time her face softened slightly. "Well, of course you'd think so," she said, almost indulgently, as if she believed Bertha really thought that. She turned back to Rogue. "Plastic is a much lighter substance than metal, even with all the metallurgic transformations I can perform on it. Less power would be required to drive a plastic aircar, and it would likely be faster and more maneuverable."

"But why's it matter that it takes less power? Ah mean, if it was metal you could just move it around yourself, right? An' if it was plastic, you couldn't. An' you gotta do all this stuff with the plastic molds instead of just wavin' your hand an' it builds itself."

"All quite true. But it's hardly a test of my engineering skill to design and build an aircar whose parts are all ferrous. If I build an aircar with no magnetic parts at all, that will demonstrate that my intellectual gifts in this realm exist independently of my magnetic powers." She smiled very slightly. "Consider it a challenge to myself."

"Can Ah drive it when you're done?"

"Do I let you drive any of the metal ones?"

"Well, no, but Ah figure they're heavier and they don't maneuver as good, like you said."

"They are also far easier to repair if a small boy drives them into a concrete wall."

"Ah guess that's 'no', huh?"

"You guess cor-- LEAPER, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

"I was just checking the readouts for you, mistress. To see if the plastic had hardened yet."

Polaris took a deep breath. "Did I tell you to do that?"

"No, mistress--"

"When I ask for your help, Leaper, I will expect it immediately and without question. When I do not ask for your help, it is because I do not want it! Now stay away from my equipment, you pathetic klutz, before you ruin everything!"

"I'm sorry, mistress, I'm so sorry! I only wanted to help-- I know I ruin everything, I know I'm no good, I shouldn't even try to think I could possibly be of any use to someone as skilful as you--"

"Stop sniveling, Bertha... oh, for all that's holy. Don't cry. Don't cry, Bertha. You are useful to me, you know it. I simply didn't want you wrecking something I hadn't trained you to handle properly... no, stop crying. Rogue, get her a handkerchief."

Rogue ducked into the nearest bathroom and came back with a handful of toilet paper, which he handed at the wailing mutant and then beat a hasty retreat. Poppa's training had equipped him to see egregious manipulation when he saw it, and he knew perfectly well Bertha was only crying to make Polaris feel sorry for yelling at her. If Poppa had been here, he'd have given Bertha that "I know what you're doing, and you're really pathetic at it" look, and drawled, "Oh, pity party for poor, poor Bertha." Poppa, however, could get away with that. Rogue couldn't.

He headed upstairs, away from Bertha's histrionics and Polaris' stiff attempts to get them to stop, and into the kitchen.

The chores list on the magnetic bulletin board over the oven had been updated. The computer printout part hadn't changed; Poppa was still down for cleaning out the refrigerator-- sure, that's gonna happen-- but someone, it looked like Wanda's handwriting, had put at the bottom of the list "Building robots to do these menial chores for us so we don't have to waste our time: Polaris." Underneath that, Polaris' handwriting assigned herself "Disciplining mouthy children: Polaris." Pietro was down for cleaning the kitchen, and he'd done a spectacular job, even washing the metallic floor. Not like Polaris was going to notice. Rogue looked over at the refrigerator, and giggled. There were magnetic letters on the fridge, which had migrated there from the bulletin board. Last week they had said "THE REFRIGERATOR WILL NOT CLEAN ITSELF." Three days ago they'd said, "WE WISH TO RECRUIT MUTANT LIFE FORMS, BUT NOT OUT OF OUR REFRIGERATOR. CLEAN IT." Today they said "CLEAN THE REFRIGERATOR OR SEE IT MELTED TO SLAG-- P."

Rogue opened the refrigerator and peered inside, wondering if Polaris really would melt the refrigerator to slag just because Poppa hadn't cleaned it, and if maybe he should clean it instead to cover for Poppa. Naah. Poppa shouldn't be down for stupid jobs like that any more than Polaris herself ever was; her contribution to the chores list was generally repairs, sometimes adding a new wing to the base or acquiring supplies, but she never actually did any of the cleaning work. She kept putting Poppa down for chores, and Poppa kept not doing them on principle. So far someone had covered for Poppa every time. Rogue searched, but it was impossible to find something actually edible in amidst the piles of ancient leftovers. He moved to the cabinet, but there was nothing there-- almost literally nothing; lots of spices and things like cans of olives, but no real food, no tuna fish, no vegetables, no soup. There was a box of elbow macaroni, but that wasn't exactly snack food. A forlorn box of Wheaties sat on the shelf. Rogue examined it and determined that there were maybe three Wheaties flakes in it. Yum. The freezer was empty except for a bag of frozen green beans.

"I could have told you there'd be nothing in there," Jasmine said. Rogue started-- he hadn't seen Jasmine in the room. She was sitting at the kitchen table, munching on a slice of toast. "Polaris has been far too concerned with this X-Factor to worry about such mundane concerns as grocery runs."

"Where'd you get the toast?"

"Last slice, boy." Today she looked like a really, really pretty blonde lady with big bazooms practically hanging out of a low-cut dress. "If you brave the refrigerator, you'll probably find something that hasn't rotted yet."

"This totally sucks." Rogue went back to foraging through the refrigerator. Hmm, here was something promising. He managed to acquire a still-pretty-okay chunk of steak from between the toss-the-leftovers-in-a-stewpot leftover stew from yesterday and the moldy remains of peas from two weeks ago. The steak was from three days ago but it was probably good.

"If your father would only clean the refrigerator as he was supposed to, even Polaris wouldn't be able to overlook the fact that we have nothing to eat in the base. She probably thinks we can live on leftovers for the foreseeable future."

"Probably." Polaris was fanatic about not wasting food-- it was how the refrigerator got so crowded in the first place, as no matter how disgusting dinner ended up being, any food that wasn't eaten had to be stored for later. If anyone actually ate the stuff after it was put in the refrigerator, Rogue would be surprised. "But Poppa ain't cleanin' no refrigerator. Ah wish Polaris would just stop puttin' him on the chores list, 'cause he ain't gonna do it."

"Why? Does your father think he's so much better than the rest of us?" Jasmine asked nastily.

Yup. And he's right. "He's Polaris' second-in-command. He shouldn't hafta do this junk any more'n she does."

"I think he simply thinks it's too menial for him to be doing women's work. And I notice you do very little work around here, yourself."

"Ah do all the chores Ah'm supposed to!"

"You haven't even got any powers yet. You should be doing all the menial work. At your age, that's all you're good for."

"That ain't true! Ah'm tryna' learn as much as Ah can, so's I can pull mah own weight soon as Ah get mah powers. That's mah job right now-- to learn."

"As decided by your father, of course."

"Polaris agreed with him!"

The argument was cut short by Wanda racing in and flinging herself at the cabinet. "There's nothing to eat in here!"

"What a shock," Jasmine said dryly. "Someone's clearly been too preoccupied to feed her underlings."

"Someone could probably live off her body fat for a few weeks without starving," Wanda retorted. Rogue wondered what she was talking about-- Jasmine wasn't fat. All her forms were really pretty. "Is this refrigerator still a pigsty?"

"Sure looks that way," Rogue said.

Wanda glared at him. "When was your father planning to clean it?"

"Never," Rogue said honestly.

"Well, it certainly seems that way. I've been patient, I've given him every opportunity to do his duty, but no. He's only managed to infuriate Mother to the point where she well might destroy the refrigerator, which would make the second one lost in two months--"

"--since your brother cast that unfortunate hex on the last one, and the thing exploded," Jasmine said.

Wanda glared at her. "Mother made him nervous. It won't happen again. And that is not the point. I for one do not want to go another week without a working refrigerator, so..." She sighed heavily. "Be vaguely useful, boy. Get me a bucket of soapy hot water and a sponge, and then get out of my way."

"Yes ma'am!" Rogue bounded off, grinning. Sooner or later Wanda would do it. Sooner or later Wanda always did it, boredom and restless energy driving her to finish any chores anyone had left undone. Rogue was amazed she'd resisted the temptation for a week.

It was a great deal of fun to watch Wanda zipping back and forth between the garbage and the refrigerator as a blur, Tupperware flying out and into the sink, emptied of their burden of rotten leftovers. The whole process was accomplished in about ten minutes.

When Wanda was done, it was inescapably obvious that there was nothing to eat in the refrigerator. She had saved only the past four days' leftovers, and due to the dearth of anything else to eat in the base, people actually had been digging into that. Wanda promptly tossed the stew from last night into a Tupperware container and stuck it into the microwave.

"Can Ah have some of that?" Rogue asked.

"No," Wanda said shortly. "Get your own."

"There ain't anything!"

"There's creamed spinach casserole, some sort of stomach-corroding sauerkraut and bratwurst thing, and a piece of liver."

"Like Ah said, there ain't anything. Anything edible, anyway."

Jasmine snorted. "Don't let Polaris hear you say that, or she'll make you eat all of it."

"Ah ate more than enough of it the first three times she made it, thanks." Cooking was one of the few chores that Polaris would actually assign herself. Unfortunately, the chore roster for cooking, as opposed to any other chores, usually had the same person down for it for a week, and Polaris had a truly inordinate fondness for liver and spinach. The reason no one had managed to dispose of the liver and spinach yet was that they'd started with three days' worth of leftovers from it, as Polaris had simply made it for three days in a row. Fortunately, Poppa was up for cooking duty tonight. So if there was anything for him to make, which there wasn't, it'd be better than liver and spinach.

"Or, you could just wait long enough," Wanda said, "and Jasmine will eat it."

"Thank you, no. I have discriminating taste buds. I would simply feed it to the dog."

Rogue frowned. "We don't have a dog."

Jasmine smiled maliciously. "Oh yes we do. Haven't you noticed Polaris commanding Leaper to fetch recently? Or tossing her a bone?"

Rogue snickered before he could stop himself. That was cruel, but so true. "Maybe her code name oughta be Fido."

"Or Toady," Wanda said. "I swear if I have to hear her snivel about 'showing proper respect to the mistress' when I stand up for myself to Mother one more time..."

"Toady's good," Jasmine said. "Or Bootlicker."

Wanda laughed, and said something in Yiddish. "Means the same thing," she explained, "but Bertha herself wouldn't get it."


Rogue spun, to see Rene standing in the doorway. "Hey, Rene. Poppa back yet?"

"Not for another two hours. Wanda, a word with you as well?"

"Mmmph." Wanda finished bolting down her stew at high speed. "What?"

"Does anyone really want liver, spinach and sauerkraut for dinner, again?"

"You gotta ask?" Rogue said, making a face that he knew Destiny couldn't see, but knew that Rene would get it from his tone of voice anyway.

"Would you?" Wanda asked.

Rene smiled. "No. So we wish to head off that possibility. I've printed out a copy of the grocery list Raven has drawn up." He handed Rogue a computer printout. "I believe that Rogue and Pietro should go on a grocery run, right now."

"Why Rogue and Pietro?" Jasmine asked. "Surely Wanda is more reliable."

"If you think I am going anywhere near the lines at the supermarket, you are sadly mistaken."

"So instead you'll have your brother go in your stead, and undoubtedly get himself and Rogue killed when one of his uncontrolled hexes causes the car to explode?"

"My brother can control his powers just fine!" Wanda shouted. "I'm tired of you sniping at him and putting him down! I hear enough of that from Mother, and she at least has the right to talk!"

"There will be no accident today," Destiny said firmly. "Rogue will go with Pietro as a guarantor that I have verified Pietro's safety. Polaris knows quite well I would not risk Rogue's life if any timelines held the possibility of an accident."

Rogue whistled. He was always impressed by how smart and devious his fathers were. "That's wicked."

"What happens if they don't go right now?" Wanda asked. "Mother would prefer that shopping trips be cleared through her."

"Ah, but if she sees that we have food in the refrigerator already, she will insist that it must be eaten before anything more is brought into the base. If, however, there was already a shopping trip by the time she sees the refrigerator, and Raven has already begun cooking the meal, we'll have an edible dinner." Rene smiled again. "So, Rogue, you have your mission. Will you accept it?"

Rogue snapped a salute. "Yes, sir!" he said, grinning. "What's Poppa gonna make?"

"Chicken fried steak, home peas, and potatoes au gratin."

"Oh man! Sounds great!"

"Mother will not like that. She's trying to watch her cholesterol."

"Liver is hardly a low-cholesterol food," Rene pointed out.

"It has iron in it. And it isn't exactly fried in pure lard."

"Polaris has inflicted her tastes in food on us often enough," Jasmine said. "I rather think she'll live."

"Besides, if Polaris objects to Raven's dinner, there's some very attractive leftovers in the refrigerator she can have instead," Rene said blandly.

Jasmine cracked up. "Oh, my hat is off. My congratulations, Destiny. You're far more devious than you look."

"How much time we got?" Rogue asked.

"Two hours, and it's a large list. So I'd get Pietro and go now if I were you."

"Right!" Rogue pelted off, up the stairs into the residential wing of the base, with the grocery list printout in hand. "Pietro! Petey, we got a job to do! Get your butt in gear!" He pounded on the locked door to Pietro's room.

Pietro opened the door to his bedroom. "What?" He looked as if he'd been asleep, his dark reddish-brown hair jutting out every which messy way from his head.

"Get your butt moving. Destiny's just asked us to go grocery shopping, before your momma makes us all eat liver again." Rogue struck a pose. "Quick, Wizard, to the Menacemobile! The fate of dinner lies in our hands!"

"You read too many comic books," Pietro said, "and I think you're clinically hyperactive."

"So's your sister. Maybe Ah'm gonna get super-speed powers too?"

"God help us all if you do," Pietro said. "You're not driving, are you?"

"No, dumb butt, do Ah look like Ah've got a license? We're going grocery shopping. That means we check mutie superiority at the base door an' go play nice li'l humies. So you get to drive! Ain't you excited?"

"Is Wanda coming with us?"

"Well, sure she is, if you whine an' cry an' go 'But Ah can't drive without mah sis holdin' mah hand!'"

"Shut up, Rogue. Destiny wants me to drive you? What if I have an accident?"

"You ain't gonna. Would Destiny let me go if we were gonna have an accident?"

"That is actually a good point. I don't know what the world is coming to, that a twerp like you could make sense, but it is a good point." Pietro grinned, the apprehension leaving his face. "All right, Rogue, let me just run a comb through my hair and we're off."

"Looks like it needs a blowtorch instead."

"Rogue? Shut up."

It did need a blowtorch. After Pietro tried and failed for five minutes to get his hair to lie flat, during which time Rogue bounced from foot to foot impatiently (prompting the comment "If you've got to piss, please go do it for God's sake", which Rogue thought was inordinately funny), he finally threw his hands up in the air. "The devil with this. Let me try something."

Pietro gestured at the mirror. A reddish glow encircled his hand for a moment, then lanced at and struck his hair. In an eyeblink, the hair had changed, spontaneously restyling itself to lie neatly combed against his scalp, parted at the left temple. It had also developed a white streak at the part.

"Ach, scheiss."

"Hey, Ah think it looks cool! Can you put one in mah hair too?"

"Not without your papa killing me. Let's go. I want to be out of here before Mother sees how I screwed up."

"You didn't screw up. It looks cool."

"I wasn't trying to do it, though! I just wanted to make it neat."

"Well, now it's neat."

Pietro sighed. "Add hair dye to the list. Maybe I can fix it back so Mother doesn't notice."

The aircar could do speeds of 500 miles an hour, and when Wanda drove it, it did. Riding with her was like being on a roller coaster, as she would test the limits of her own superfast reflexes by slaloming around trees, staying well away from roads and civilization.

Pietro was a much more boring driver. He immediately set the aircar down on a back road leading into town and switched to highway mode, lowering tires and changing the car's configuration to look like a nondescript Ford with the mere flick of a switch. When Rogue complained, Pietro just gave him a look. "I don't have Wanda's reflexes," he pointed out. "And I'm not going to risk getting in trouble."

"Old guys in cars Ford himself built are passin' us."

"So the police won't stop us."

"Maybe they will for bein' a road hazard."

"Maybe you should shut up."

"Maybe Ah don't wanna shut up."

"Maybe I'll just pull the car over and noogie you till you shut up."

"Maybe you ain't gonna 'cause Ah'll kick your butt."

"You and what army?"

"The army that's gonna whup your butt."

"Your momma."

This brought Rogue up short. He considered. "Does 'your momma' still count if you don't have a momma?"

"I don't know. It's your language. I know 'your momma' in Russian never means anyone's actual mother anyway unless you want to start a serious fight."

"Well, Ah don't think that counts in English. Ah think you have to say 'your poppa' in mah case."

"Well, you had a mother, didn't you?"

"Yeah. She's dead, though." Dimly Rogue recalled drunken screeching and a hand out of nowhere slamming across his face, a harsh shrill voice calling him a devil boy, Satan spawn, better off dead. Poppa-- his first poppa, Psychophage-- had told him that woman was dead. Rogue hoped so.

"Do you know anything about her?"

"Nope, not really." Not that he wanted to talk about, anyway. Pietro was his best friend, and the closest thing to an older brother he had, but some things, Rogue didn't want to tell anybody.

"Same with my father. All I know is, he's dead."

"Hey, wouldn't it be funny if mah Poppa was really yours too?"

Pietro shook his head. "Couldn't happen. I remember when Raven came to live with us. I guess I was three or four. I'd never seen anyone blue before."

"He met you in his real form?"

"He was sick. I don't remember what, but Mother had to save him from a mob because he couldn't change shape, and he was tired all the time. Anyway, it was clearly the first time Mother had ever encountered another mutant. I remember her laughing and smiling all the time, and when I asked her why she was so happy, she said it was because we weren't alone, that there were other mutants in this world."

Rogue tried to imagine Polaris laughing and smiling all the time. He couldn't. "But he could be your Poppa."

"No he couldn't. Do the math, Rogue. If Mother met him for the first time when I was four, he couldn't have been my father. Besides, my father was human. That's all I know."

"Yeah, but he could've been in a different form, so Polaris wouldn't know..."

Pietro shook his head. "No. Mother was married to Father for several years. She had another child with him, my older brother Ari."

"You have a brother? What happened to him?"

"Dead too." Pietro shook his head. "He was murdered by a man who wanted to kill Mother for being a mutant. I guess my father must have died then too, but Mother never talks about him." His voice went bitter suddenly. "This was while she was pregnant with us. It had to be, because if I'd been born yet, I'm sure she'd say that it should have been me who died instead of Ari."

"That's mean."

"It's what she thinks. I'm sure of it. Ari was her golden child. He never did anything wrong in his life, to hear her talk. And Wanda's the girl, so she's just as wonderful as Ari was, and I'm the only screwup in the family. She'd be a lot happier if Ari had lived and I was the one who died."

"That's plain stupid. How old was Ari when he died?"


"That's even stupider. How do we know he'd've been able to control his powers? He wouldn't've had any yet when he died."

"It doesn't matter. He was perfect, so of course he'd have been able to control his powers when he manifested them if he'd lived that long."

"If Polaris said your brother was perfect, she's full of horse puckey. Ah was in day care when Ah was five. Kids who're five are all little buttheads. Maybe Polaris just don't remember the stupid stuff Ari did 'cause he's dead and she don't wanna think ill of the dead."

"So maybe I should just die in combat and then she'll think I'm worth something."

"Maybe you should just kick X-Factor's butt instead. Then she'll think you're worth something an' you'll be alive to know about it."

"I can't kick anyone's butt. I can noogie you. A kid nine years younger than me. But X-Factor's going to walk all over me."

"They're girls. They can't be that tough."

"Say that to my mother's face. I dare you."

"No way, man. Ah like living."

"See my point? Girls who are mutants can kick butt if they've got good powers and they know how to use them. We of all people shouldn't be underestimating women. And X-Factor beat my mother. Think on that for just a minute. All of us together in the Menace can't beat my mother in a straight-on fight. X-Factor can." He sighed. "We're dog meat. Especially me. Bertha has better control over her powers than I do."

"Bertha has suck-butt powers. How much control do you need to be able to jump real good? You can do stuff."

"Mostly the wrong stuff."

"Yeah, but you're gonna get better! Just keep practicing, man! As for X-Factor, you really think they could beat your momma and the rest of the Menace, too? Mystique'll plug 'em between the eyes before they know what's hit 'em. Dreamweaver'll mess with their minds so they can't see us coming, Quicksilver'll kick their butts so fast they'll think she's got wind powers, hell, even Bouncing Bertha can hop on 'em. You ain't gonna have to take on the whole team. Just take on one of them and kick her butt. Heck, you know Destiny said Polaris was gonna lose, and she went anyway. Destiny'll tell us just what we gotta do to win."

"You keep saying 'we'. You aren't going to be there, Rogue. It's easy to gloat about how easy an enemy's going to be to defeat when you aren't the one who's got to do it."

"Yeah, but Ah got faith in y'all."

The car pulled up to the supermarket. "Okay. No discussing mutant affairs until we're done," Pietro said.


Rogue decided that he loved shopping with Pietro. When he'd gone with Wanda, before, she'd categorically refused to get anything that wasn't on the list. When he went with Poppa or Rene, they would treat him to some extra stuff, but not much. Pietro, however, was a waffle, and could very easily be talked into two tubs of ice cream ("we'll get the fudge ripple just for your sis and then you and Ah can split the mint chocolate chip"), potato chips, pretzels, popcorn, two gallons of Coke, a gallon of grape soda, three cans of Fruit Float, a box of Froot Loops and another one of Trix, strawberry Pop-Tarts, and chocolate sauce.

When they returned in triumph, bearing groceries, Rogue ran ahead to get Wanda while Pietro unloaded the car. "Wanda, Wanda! We need your help!"

Wanda was in her room, reading. At least Rogue guessed she was reading, knowing her-- anyone else, he'd have said they were just flipping through. "What?"

"We need your help unloading the car quick, so's Polaris don't see all the extra stuff we bought. You get a third of the take an' your own box of fudge ripple ice cream."

"What did you get? Never mind, I'll look--" and she was gone, presumably to check out the take for herself while she helped Pietro. Wanda had a severe sweet tooth. Her mother disapproved of the quantity of sugar Wanda consumed, and would not authorize a fraction of the junk food Rogue and Pietro had bought if she knew about it. It was part of the reason (the other being sheer impatience) that Wanda wouldn't buy junk food herself-- her mother scrutinized the shopping receipts when she did it. So Rogue usually weaseled extra junk food out of whoever was buying in order to bribe Wanda into helping put it away before Polaris saw it.

Next, Rogue headed for the kitchen, to confirm that the coast was clear. There was Mystique, leaning against the counter, talking to Rene. "Poppa!"

"Hey, Rogue." Mystique leaned down, giving his adopted son a quick hug. "What did you learn today?"

"How to do an oil change, an' Leaper can't take orders worth beans, an' Polaris is makin' a plastic car, and some stuff about Pietro but that ain't why Ah'm here. We gotta gangway, Wanda and Pietro're comin' through with the groceries."

A sound like the sound a car might make if cars were made of wire and didn't have engines rattled closer. "We would be better off if we moved back to the kitchen table," Rene suggested.

"Right." Mystique, Rogue and Destiny retreated to the safety of the kitchen table as Wanda raced in, dragging a metal cart rather like a shopping cart behind her. The cart was slowing her down enough that they'd been able to hear it approaching and still have time to move before she arrived, but the cart was so godawfully loud that this didn't actually mean very much.

Half the groceries were already put away before Pietro managed to arrive to help his sister out. "Pietro, you get the stuff for the top shelf. I left it all on the counter," Wanda instructed, her voice almost unintelligibly fast.

"Leave out the steak and the bread crumbs," Mystique said.

"Bread crumbs?" Pietro asked, sounding puzzled.

"I'm making chicken fried steak. It's steak in fried chicken batter, which means I need to make some fried chicken batter, which implies bread crumbs. Still having a hard time with the concept?"

"Mother isn't going to like that."

"What Polaris does and doesn't like is rapidly becoming low priority with me," Poppa replied. "Don't look at me like that, Pietro, even she won't blame you because I made food she doesn't like."

"Yes, but--"

"Pietro, if you can't put the groceries away any faster, just get me a chair and I'll do the top shelf," Wanda snapped.

"No, I'll do it."

"Can Ah help?"

"No. You'd get in the way," Wanda said.

"Yes. Take the potato chips and other assorted foolishness you had Pietro buy and hide it in your bedroom," Rene said.

"Oh--" Pietro looked at Destiny. "That's a good idea! Mother won't go rummaging through Rogue's quarters. We can't do much about the ice cream, though."

"The ice cream will be fine in the freezer," Destiny replied. "The rest of it could become a bone of contention."

Rogue finished scooping the chips and other treats into one of the grocery bags, and headed out of the kitchen with it. As occupied as he was with racing to his room, he didn't see Bertha bounding toward the kitchen until she crashed into him. "Watch where you're going, boy!"

"You watch where you're goin'! You're not supposed to leap in the halls!"

"I have every right to-- what is all this?" She peered around her at all the groceries scattered on the floor. "Are you pilfering sweets?"


"Yes, you are!" She picked up the bag of popcorn. "You spent the mistress' money on treats for yourself, and now you're about to hide them in your room! I knew you were a thief and an embezzler!"

"An embezzler?" he asked, outraged.

"You and your father both! Mistress Polaris should never have trusted him! She's given you everything, and look how you repay her!" Her voice rose shrilly.

"Will you shut up? It wasn't like that! And she'll hear you!"


"Shut up!" Rogue shouted, panicking, and tried to put his hand over Bertha's mouth. It was a mistake. Bertha, for all how pathetic she looked, was considerably bigger and stronger than Rogue. She belted him, hard enough to knock him to the floor, then bent and yanked him to his feet by his ear. "Oww!"

"Little thief," she hissed. "I'll make sure the mistress hears of what you've done!"

"What has he done?"

Rogue turned, as far as he could with the cruel hand on his ear, heart dropping into his stomach. Polaris, dressed now in her full body armor, stood hovering in the hallway, surrounded by a faint nimbus of blue light.

"He's stolen food, Mistress! He used your money to pay for this junk food, and then he was going to hide it in his room where no one else could find it!" She waved a bag of potato chips for emphasis. "You have to punish him, Mistress!"

"I don't have to do any such thing, Leaper," Polaris said coldly. She looked down at Rogue, pinning him with her eyes like a bug on display. "Boy. What do you have to say for yourself?"

Rogue's mind raced. He could say it was Pietro's idea, but Polaris would beat the crap out of Pietro then. He could say it was Wanda's idea, but then Wanda might get it-- and besides, Wanda would say he'd lied, and Polaris would believe her own daughter over Mystique's son. He could lie and say Poppa paid for it, but then Polaris would probably check and find out it wasn't true, and then Poppa might even get into trouble. No. He swallowed, more scared than he'd been since his mother was alive. But he had no choice. "Y-yeah. Me an', me an' Pietro were-- were shoppin', and-- and Ah just tossed that stuff in the cart, an' Ah said it was on the list an' mah Poppa was gonna give you the money for it, so, so he didn't know Ah was lyin' so he didn't take it out of the cart. So then Ah was gonna hide it in mah room so you didn't find out an' get mad at Pietro an' me."

"You see? You see, Mistress? He's a liar and a thief! You should punish him!" Bertha said eagerly, leaping up and down in place.

Polaris looked at Bertha. Suddenly light flared around both women, and Bertha slammed back into the wall. "M-mistress?"

"You disgust me!" Polaris shouted, her face twisted with rage. "You sniveling, tattling little wretch, you'd curry favor with me by betraying a boy who's honest enough to admit to his crimes, when he could easily have blamed them on my son?" She slapped Bertha, an open-handed blow that left a red handprint on Bertha's face. "How dare you violate the team's cohesion in such a fashion! I've told you time and again, there is to be no infighting!" Rogue watched in horror as she followed this up with another slap, making Bertha wail and cover her face, cringing. "I should throw you out of this team, you worthless wretch. Get out of my sight. And if I hear you whining and carrying tales again, I will surely rip out your tongue, do you understand me? DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME??"

"Yes, Mistress! Yes! I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'll never do it again, I'm sorry sorry..."

"And you!" Polaris rounded on Rogue as Bertha scurried off. "You're an honest thief, brat, or else you're lying to protect my worthless son, and either way I shall lighten your punishment-- both honesty to your superiors and loyalty to your teammates are admirable traits, even if your loyalty is a misguided one. But what a pig you are! Do you know this garbage has enough empty calories to feed a starving person for a week? And you were going to hoard it in your room and gobble it all down yourself, like an animal. Have you no sense of restraint?"

"Ah was gonna share it with Wanda and Pietro!" Rogue protested.

"Who are in training, and should not be fressing like pigs either. Give me that." The food in tinfoil bags lifted up of its own accord. Rogue piled up the rest of it and handed it silently to Polaris. "This is now declared communal food. Since you have bought it already, I won't see it go to waste. Instead, I want you to divide each of these bags into eight exactly equal portions, one for each of us, and use the bag extrusion machine to seal up the portions in new bags. Each had better weigh exactly the same, or you will be punished, do you understand me?"

"Okay, Ah understand, but-- uh, Destiny ain't gonna want potato chips..."

"Don't say ain't. If anyone wishes to give their portion to someone else, they are free to do so-- I personally have no interest in potato chips myself. But I won't have anyone denied food because you were hoarding."

Rogue blinked. "But... you hide food in your room. Isn't that hoarding?"

She went white, her lips tightening into a compressed line. Rogue backed up a step, realizing maybe it hadn't been such a great idea to say that. "Who told you that, boy? Your father?"

"Ah saw you." In for a penny, in for a pound, and he couldn't let it come down on Poppa. "You were carryin' a bag of pumpernickel an' a jar of mayo into your room at night."

"And what were you doing up that late?"

He'd had nightmares, but he wasn't going to say so. "Ah had to go to the bathroom!"

Polaris let out a controlled breath. "I am the leader of the Mutant Menace. Mine is the power that built the roof over our heads, the money that bought our food, the mind that plans our next moves. I work long hours in my study, and it's convenient for me to have a ready supply of food. If anyone is entitled, I am. And I don't need to justify myself to small children! You will do as I say and share your treats with your fellows because I said so! Do you understand?"

At this point it was time to nod vigorously and say, "Yes, ma'am!" rather than argue the hypocrisy. Rogue did so.

"But give me Bertha's portion. She won't be rewarded for informing on you. If she wants the sweets, she will have to prove to me that she deserves them."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Has your father cleaned the refrigerator as he was supposed to? And is he indeed cooking dinner as required?"

"The refrigerator's done. Poppa drew up the grocery list so we could get stuff to eat, and yeah, he's makin' dinner. Chicken fried steak." At Polaris' scowl, Rogue added helpfully, "You could have the last of the spinach an' liver if you want it."

"Raven is grotesquely irresponsible. When his paramour drops dead of heart disease from the sickeningly fatty foods the three of you insist on cramming down your gullet, he will recall my warnings, too late." Polaris stomped off, back toward her quarters, leaving all the junk food bags in a pile on the floor.

In the kitchen, Rogue wailed at Destiny as he set about weighing out the contents of the bags into eight equal portions. "Rene, how come you didn't tell me Ah was gonna run into Polaris?"

"Nothing terrible came of your encounter, did it?"

"No, but it could've!"

"But it didn't. So why should you have needed a warning?"

"'Cause she scared the crap outta me!"

"Watch your language," Raven said distractedly, stirring the peas. "Rene doesn't see everything, you know. And even if he did, you must be able to handle crises on your own, if he cannot warn you. Your natural father died because the humans had technology that scrambled Rene's vision."

"But now Ah gotta give away all mah potato chips."

Raven shrugged. "Polaris was in the right. You shouldn't have bought potato chips for just you three younger ones with Polaris' money."

"So how come we never go shopping with our own money? We have some!"

"And why waste it? Polaris has more, and she doesn't mind spending it. We should save ours in the event we ever part company from the Mutant Menace."

"But you should've seen what she did to Bertha!" This, above all, distressed Rogue. He didn't like Bertha, was deeply angry at her for hitting him and tattling on him, and would have loved to see her get screamed at for tattling if Polaris hadn't hit her. Raven and Rene never hit him, but Rogue had distant memories of a slender upraised hand and a screaming female voice, and watching Polaris hitting people always frightened him, though she'd never raised a hand to him. "She was slappin' her around and throwin' her into walls and stuff!"

"Bertha deserved it. She's a whining little toady and I don't know why Polaris puts up with her."

"Don't say that, Raven," Rene advised, sitting at the table with his hands steepled in front of him. Rogue could see himself in Rene's dark glasses. "Rogue, you are not responsible for what happened to Bertha. Sooner or later she will figure out that nothing enrages Polaris faster than her betraying her teammates, and the sooner she learns, the better off we all will be."

"But Polaris just kept hitting her," Rogue said softly, not sure what his point was, except that that had been a bad thing and Rene should have warned him so it could have been prevented.

"Rogue. Come here."

Rogue obeyed his father, and Mystique gathered him in a hug. "You can't be so sensitive, son," he said gently. "Bertha betrayed you, and paid for it. Next time, she'll know better. And no one but her got hurt."

"Polaris said if the bags Ah made weren't 'xactly equal she'd punish me."

"Polaris knows that if she touches you she'll wake up with a glass knife in her throat, so don't worry about it. She won't hit you. Ever."

"What if she hits you? Or Rene?"

"She can hit me all she likes; she knows she'll pay for it if she does. And Rene, like you, is strictly off-limits. She won't risk losing our services, Rogue; she won't touch any of us. I promise." He let go of Rogue. "It's going to be all right. Polaris is our ticket to power and security for the rest of our lives. What happened to Psychophage will never happen to any of us, so long as we work with her. I know she can be frightening, but she won't touch you. She knows I'm one of the few people in the world who can kill her, and she won't take the risk."

Rogue's eyes widened. "Kill Polaris? How?"

"Never mind how, but rest assured, if she ever hits you, I will."

"I can't help but thing there's something vaguely treasonous about this conversation," Dreamweaver said from the door. She'd changed again, casting an illusion of herself as a tiny, exotic Asian woman in a slinky red dress.

Mystique shrugged. "Report it if you like, but keep in mind that firstly, I've told Polaris this to her face, and secondly, she just apparently beat Bertha for carrying tales. So it might not be entirely advisable."

"I didn't say I would carry tales. I simply find it interesting that you feel free to threaten Polaris' life like that."

"Oh, I'm quite equal opportunity about it." Poppa turned to face Jasmine, smiling broadly, his gold, pupilless eyes glittering in the kitchen light. "It's a simple rule. Anyone who touches my son, dies. Polaris, X-Factor, human pigs... you..."

Jasmine matched Mystique's smile. "Don't threaten me, Mystique. I've no interest in hurting your son... but toss about too many threats, and I might need to take you down a peg or two."

The oven suddenly exploded into flame. Rogue flung himself backward from the intense heat. "Poppa!" he screamed.

"It's all right," Destiny murmured.

Mystique emerged from the flame, sweating profusely but unburned. "Very good, Jasmine, but you can hardly expect your illusions to fool a shapechanger. Not when they're this obvious." The flames vanished, as did the heat.

"That was just a small demonstration. I don't need to be that obvious."

"I already know what you can do, so a demonstration was pointless. Now, I'm trying to make dinner here?"

"Oh, of course. I'd hardly want to interrupt your important work." She smiled. "You do chores around here so rarely, I shouldn't interfere."

Mystique ignored the dig. "Set the table, Rogue, and then go tell everyone it's dinnertime."

"Polaris too?"

"Sure. She can choose if she wants to eat with us or not."

Polaris, as it turned out, had no interest in eating with them-- she stalked in to retrieve her liver and spinach from the refrigerator, and stalked back out again, the microwave oven following behind her like an obedient dog, if dogs could fly. Rogue was just as happy-- dinners where Polaris sat in were always strained.

Not that dinners where she didn't, weren't.

"What did you do to your hair?" Wanda asked Pietro, in between downing her food at an alarming rate.

"I messed up. You think I can dye this back before Mother notices?"

"That shouldn't be difficult," Poppa said. "Polaris isn't the most observant of people-- you should only need dye reasonably close to your own color. Though actually, it's not a bad look."

That confirmed it. Poppa liked it too. First chance Rogue got, he was going to put a white streak in his own hair.

"I think it looks stupid," Bertha mumbled.

"Then it's a good thing that no one asked you," Wanda snapped. "Pass the peas?"

"Four helpings of peas. My. This is a record," Jasmine said.

"Shut up, Jasmine. You merely wish you could eat as I do."

"What I'd like to know," Poppa said, "is what possesses Polaris to think this team will ever be ready. Do any of you have anything better to do than snipe at each other constantly?"

"Thus speaks the voice of warmth and friendliness," Jasmine intoned. Rogue had to choke down a giggle. There was no way he was going to be disloyal enough to laugh at a joke at Poppa's expense, but the idea of Poppa being warm and friendly, and the way Jasmine said it... well, it was funny.

"Yes, Mystique," Wanda said coldly, "it's not as if you contribute much to team unity. You seem to think you're Mother's equal."

Poppa smiled pleasantly at her. "That's because I am, dear child. I choose to work for Polaris because it's convenient."

"Because you're still leeching off her protection," Wanda said. "You don't have the integrity to stand up and fight your own battles."

"Why should I, when she's so very fond of fighting them for me?"

"Please, let's not," Destiny said. "My digestion doesn't do well with arguments at the dinner table."

Wanda shrugged, polished off her third helping of potatoes, and left the table. The rest of the meal passed in awkward silence. Pietro excused himself almost immediately after Wanda, though he hadn't finished his plate-- Rogue tackled it after finishing his own, so it wouldn't get back to Polaris that Pietro had wasted food-- and Bertha left shortly afterward. Jasmine, as if deliberately trying to be irritating, lingered over her food until both Mystique and Destiny had finished and gone to their room, then started ostentatiously putting the food away as Rogue continued to eat it.

He finished up and ran after his parents as soon as he could. Rene was sitting behind Poppa on the bed, giving him a neck rub. "You have a rotten day or something?" Rogue asked.

Mystique shook his head slightly. "Just a tiring one. I've been dealing with idiots all day, and then to come home to this madhouse... well, I'm going to press Polaris again on letting the three of us move to Virginia. There's really no good reason for us to be living in her bases-- it's interfering with my work."

"How come?"

"I can't do a long-term infiltration of the Pentagon if I don't live anywhere near it," Poppa pointed out, "and I'm not going to abandon the two of you here. If for no better reason than, if I was going to be doing a long-term infiltration, it would be sufficiently frustrating that I would not want to do without backrubs. Yes. Right there."

"You have other means of relaxing," Rene pointed out.

"Yes, but using my powers to do it isn't nearly as pleasant. Ooh. So. Rogue. You said you'd learned things today? Tell me about them."

It was the daily ritual. "Any day is a waste if you learned nothing," Poppa would say. So every day, he asked Rogue what he'd learned.

"Well, like Ah said, Ah got Bertha to teach me how to do an oil change, but she sucks an' Ah don't wanna study from her anymore. An' Ah found out Polaris is making a plastic aircar."

"Why?" Mystique asked.

Rogue shrugged. "She said it's to see if she can."

"That woman wastes more of her time trying to prove herself..."

"It's sensible, Raven," Rene said. "Not a plastic aircar in and of itself, but techniques and ways of thought that don't involve her powers directly. You've pointed out to her far too often that she's vulnerable to nonmagnetic weapons; it's wise that she experiment with nonmagnetic material. If a bit inconvenient for us."

"She still has to sleep. Poison would do it as well."

Rogue stared. "You don't really mean... you're not gonna kill Polaris, are you?"

"No, no," Mystique said. "Merely discussing options. I truly believe our partnership with Polaris will be to everyone's benefit. But if not... best to know all the options." He pulled away from Rene. "Your turn, love. Lay down."

Poppa set about gently massaging Rene's back. "Anything else, Rogue?"

"Well, Ah learned some personal stuff about Pietro but Ah don't think he'd like if Ah talked about it..."

"Oh, come now. You know that your friendship with him is our best route to learn any new information about Magnus family dynamics. Besides, it's quite possible he's already told Rene, so you may as well tell me."

Rogue balked. His first poppa had taught him secrets were important, secrets were sacred. He'd never told anybody, when he was living with his first poppa, that Poppa could make people go to sleep by touching them, and he did it to bad ladies, a lot. Later, when they joined up with Mystique and Destiny, he'd learned even more how important secrets were. "Poppa, it ain't right. He told me that stuff to be confidential and all."

"Don't say ain't. And I understand your feelings, but it's nothing to worry about. Pietro talks to Rene all the time, you know. As I said, he's probably told Rene everything. And even if he hasn't, we might be able to use the information to help him deal with his sister and mother. He's a powerful asset, and Polaris is wasting him completely. It's our job to do all we can to help him, don't you see?"

"Well... if it'd help him..."

"We all want to help Pietro. The poor fellow's miserable under his mother's care. Anything you can tell Rene and myself might help, you know that."

Rogue didn't want to disappoint Poppa, and if it could be used to help Pietro, it wasn't really bad to tell them, was it? It wasn't really breaking a confidence if it was just Poppa and Rene he told. "Well... he was saying how he had an older brother, named Ari, who died before he was born. And his momma was always goin' on about how great Ari was even though he was just five when he died so he didn't have any powers. And he thinks his momma wishes he was dead instead of Ari."

Raven sighed. "The poor kid. He probably looks too damn much like Meir."

"Worth intervention?" Rene asked, his voice muffled against the bed. "Not so hard, Raven."

"Sorry. I don't think so. We can't risk alienating Polaris, or we'll lose the boy as well. And I can't do Meir; she sculpted him once, but there was no color, and she wrecked it immediately, too fast for me to get."

"Who's Meir?" Rogue asked.

"Someone Polaris used to know. Did you encourage him, Rogue?"

"Well, 'course Ah did. He's mah friend and all. He was talkin' like if he died in a fight with X-Factor maybe his momma would love him, and Ah said that was plain stupid, 'cause it'd be better to win the fight an' then his momma'd be proud but he'd be alive for it."

"We're going to have to watch that," Rene said. "If the boy has a martyr complex--"

"Of course he has a martyr complex. He's Jewish," Poppa said, snorting.

"No. He's a sad little boy who thinks his mother doesn't love him, and the tragedy is he may be right. No wonder he wants to sacrifice himself."

"She loves him. I'd consider him far less potentially valuable if she didn't."

"As you say, then, Raven. But he doesn't know it. He'll bear watching, in combat."

"You see something catastrophic?"

"No, but the future is not always so clear."

"You did the right thing, Rogue," Poppa said. "If Pietro really feels that way, he might do something in battle that's too dangerous, trying to be a hero in his mother's eyes. Now Rene and I will be watching out for that." He stood up. "Now, it's time for your tutoring. Go get your books."

Rogue nodded.

Tutoring with Poppa was strict-- three hours a night, and then he had the rest of the night and all the next day to do the homework assignments. He was learning a lot more than he did when he went to school, but sometimes Rogue missed school, missed having friends his own age. Even if they were human, he still missed having them to play with. Poppa was in favor of him going to real school, to learn about how kids his age acted, and he was working on Polaris, trying to wear her down, but she wanted everyone to live at the base and not leave unless they had to.

And then it was bedtime. Poppa read to him-- didn't have to; Rogue could read fine, but it was part of the nightly ritual, the routine they used to help keep the nightmares and the badness away. He was too old to go crawl into Poppa's and Rene's bed when the nightmares came-- he was supposed to be a man, or almost a man, anyways, and tough it out himself. But the nightly tradition-- the bedtime story, the good night hug-- helped to make the nightmares not happen in the first place. He didn't dream nearly so often of his momma screaming at him.

No, he was safe here. Rogue snuggled into his covers, hearing the sounds of Poppa and Rene talking in the next room, their quiet deep voices rumbling through the walls and lulling him, although he couldn't make out a word of it. This was home, this was where his friend was and where his parents who loved him lived, and nothing bad was going to happen, ever again.

Rogue went to sleep.

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