Our little trip to the burger joint made us all feel a little better. Unfortunately, when we came home to the mansion and remembered the five parasites that were probably rooting around in our fridge that very moment, it brought us back to reality with a sickening thud.
Kitty didn't seem to mind it as much as the rest of us; she hated that they were all suddenly moving in, but it gave her the opportunity to talk to Lance... and boy, did she. I'll never know what they talked about - or how much talking was involved - but as soon as we got back to the mansion, the two of them went off to parts unknown and weren't heard from until the next training run was scheduled to start.
Speaking of the next run, our spirits took another hit there. Professor Xavier, in his state of rabid determination, was driving us harder than Logan ever had; he was focusing mostly on the ten X-Men and Brotherhood members, but the rookies were getting a thorough schooling, too. Compared to this, our self-imposed extra training now seemed like an evening stroll through Bayville Park.
I really hate to admit it, but the Brotherhood bums weren't too shabby; we worked alright together, even though Lance and Pietro seemed to think they were calling the shots. I sure as hell didn't want the responsibility, but even if I did - and said as much - the Prof probably would've spouted off something about inexperience again. Kitty, Kurt, Evan, Risty and I kept our mouth shut on that one.
Risty seemed especially wary of Wanda; the witch didn't talk at all unless she absolutely had to, even when we tried to get her going.
"This sucks ass," Evan grunted, leaping over a ground drone and shoving his spike-staff into one of its optical sensors.
"Wanda," Kitty ventured bravely, "couldn't you just make these guys blow themselves up?"
Her reward was a cold "How dare you speak to me!" look from the introverted nutjob.
Ever since Scott had stomped outta the planning room and vanished, Jean had been cooped up in the Cerebro chamber. The Prof went to check on her now and again, but he mostly kept riding us into the ground. He really was a thousand times worse than Logan.
We all missed him... Scott, too. I had half a mind to barge in on Jean and demand she find Scott first and tell him to get his act together and help us, but I figured she had her hands full enough without my mouth. Besides, the Prof would probably chew me out for disturbing her efforts.
Y'know... despite all the shit that's happened to us since, that day was still one of the worst to be an X-Man.
It had taken some pleading - and elbow grease - but we got a third bed moved into our room for Risty. The teachers weren't too happy with the idea of us being crammed in there like that, but it was obviously safer than moving her back into her old room alone, and much more practical than uprooting another kid to bunk in there with her.
"Phew," Beast sighed as he dropped her mattress into the wooden bed frame. "I do believe your new roomie is adequately supplied, now. Let the acclimation begin!"
"Thanks much," Risty called after him as he lumbered out, waving over his shoulder. She looked at me funny when I started laughing.
"What?" Kitty asked.
"Come and knock on our door..." I sang.
"Oh, please," Risty mumbled, trying to suppress a grin.
"C'mon," I insisted. "You two do the backup!"
They both left the room, not wanting anything to do with the mouldy old theme song. Of course, I followed them out, and by the time we reached the bottom of the stairs, I had them singing it, anyway.
"...where the kisses are hers and hers and his," we harmonized as we waltzed into the day room, pointing at Risty on that last word (much to her annoyance). "Three's company, too!"
"You guys sound cheery," Kurt laughed as his Raiden fried Evan's Sub-Zero onscreen.
"And off-key," Evan added. He moaned when he realized what Kurt had done, which was evidently the cue for Lance, Todd and Pietro to walk in.
"Sweet, Mortal Kombat!" Toad cried, hopping over Lance's head to land next to the Evan on the couch. "Bet we can whip you losers."
"HE can't play," Evan said, glancing at Pietro. "Supersonic speed is cheating, dude."
"You're probably right," the speed freak retorted, suddenly leaning against the HDTV. "You twerps couldn't even touch me or my pixelated avatar."
"C'mon, I got next," Toad insisted.
The X-Men versus Brotherhood digital deathmatch lasted a good two hours. Despite Evan's protests, Pietro had a few turns, and it turned out his speed was more of a handicap than an advantage; he'd get too excited and the poor console couldn't keep up with his blazing thumbs. Toad was a decent player (that's probably what he did at Mystique's house when he wasn't eating flies), and Lance was a total tenderfoot, but he started to get the hang of it after a few rounds. I'm no great shakes, but I held my own, and every now and again I'd pull a special move or Fatality outta my ass at just the right moment. Kitty mostly sat back and observed, though she did make an attempt or two... only to be blown away and go back to watching. The boys all enjoyed some good-natured trash-talking, but when tempers started rising, Kurt would offer to bamf into the kitchen and grab some sodas to cool them down.
Of course, Risty dominated. Nobody could touch her - not even Pietro when he kept his speed in check. The Brotherhood guys seemed to take it personally; they couldn't believe they were being trounced by some girl, and they challenged her again and again, claiming she was cheating in increasingly-ridiculous ways.
"I have not got a mystical bond with the PlayStation!" she exclaimed.
"Hey, we heard you got some kinda 'emotion wave' thing," Toad pressed. "You're telling it to slow down our characters!"
"It's a bloody machine!"
"So what? Maybe machines have feelings, too!"
When it got close to eleven, Ororo came in and broke up the argument, sending us off to bed. We needed our sleep, after all; another unrelenting Danger Room session in the morning.
My eyes fluttered open. It took me a few frantic moments to realize there was no dagger lodged in my throat, gushing precious lifesblood; there was only Rogue standing over me, shaking my shoulder violently.
"Wh-" I choked out, my throat dry as a gulch. "I'm... you can't do... eh?"
"Risty, you were having a nightmare."
It finally sunk in as I stared at her that I'd never been in any danger at all. I sighed in relief, nodding as she sat next to me on the bed.
"Wanna talk about it?"
"Not really," I whispered. "It... it's stupid."
Oh, come now - how could I tell her that she'd been trying to kill me again, and had succeeded? The truth is, I was daft for having the dream in the first place; Rogue had never tried to kill me. Moreover, I felt particularly foolish every time I thought about how Mystique had duped me so easily into thinking my comrade would do such a thing - I should've known immediately! Didn't I trust Rogue? She was my closest, dearest friend in all the world, and if I couldn't trust her...
"It was awful, but... I'm fine now." I gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "Really."
In the dim moonlight, I just caught a smile on her lips before she bent down and hugged me. My hands involuntarily clutched at her back, giving her a start. What was I doing, clinging to her as if she were trying to abandon me in the middle of a lion's den - especially when I'd just finished telling her I was alright? I immediately whispered "Cheers" in her ear before letting go, settling back down and wearing a mask of languid contentment.
"Night," she breathed, keeping her hand on my shoulder for a long moment before returning to her own bed and snuggling inside it.
I turned over, but sleep eluded me for quite a while... possibly because I wasn't earnestly seeking it. A realm in which my best friend lurked, waiting for the perfect opening to land a killing blow, was not one I wished to visit.
"Toad, Lazarus, Magma, you take the left," Avalanche ordered. "Kitty, Nightcrawler, Quicksilver, you guys sneak up behind him. Iceman, Wanda, Spyke, take the right. Blob, Rogue, Sunspot, you're with me; we'll come up the middle."
"What about us?" Ray asked, gesturing to Sam.
"Cover us," Spyke barked. Avalanche nodded.
"Fifteen seconds," Pietro said. "Then we strike."
"Go!" Lance hissed.
As he counted off, waiting for our teammates to get in position, Fred looked around and whispered, "This thing is so cool."
"Yeah," I muttered distractedly.
"Kinda sucks that... nevermind."
Before I could ask him what he was talking about, Lance bolted, and we were charging toward our target. A bonespike grazed the fake Magneto's shoulder, and a shuriken barely missed him as he moved to the left. The star turned in midair and began chasing Toad, whom hopped away from it with deceptive ease.
"Dammit!" I hissed.
"Magneto" carefully avoided Iceman's frigid blasts and a few firebombs from Amara, then turned his attentions to fending off Blob's bulk. As he spared a second to swat me away like an annoying mosquito, Kurt appeared behind him, arms wrapping around the neck as his legs encircled the waist. I picked myself up and ran forward, bare fingers reaching for my enemy's neck...
Okay, well, at least I had Iceman's frost, but in the second it took me to realize what had just happened, Magneto kicked me a few yards.
"Alright, luv?" Risty asked from my left as she helped me to my feet.
"Yeah," I grunted, ignoring the new bruise on my elbow.
"Watch this," she whispered, grinning wickedly. After a deep breath or two, her eyes screwed up in concentration. Just when her skin started to go slightly pale, the eyes flew back open again.
Magneto doubled over, holding his midsection as if he'd had some curdled milk. I wasted no time coating his legs in ice; a small earthquake from Lance toppled the faux archnemesis, and Sunspot took a mighty swing at his helmet, knocking it away and across the ground.
"What the-" Evan gasped.
"Nicely done, Lazarus." Ororo smiled as Magma helped her to her feet, allowing the Magneto cape to fall away. "That's good tactics; distracting your opponent from the efforts of your teammates. Your empathic wave is definitely coming along."
"Thanks, Miss Munroe," she panted shyly, clinging to me for a moment's support; I could tell that wave was one of her strongest, and she'd probably need a few minutes.
"Of course. But, thanks to this turn of events, I don't believe I'll be having luncheon with you this afternoon." She was still clutching her stomach. "I'm feeling a bit ill."
We all laughed as we headed to the showers (dragging along an unconscious Bobby), feeling pretty damn good about finally beating the "Polarity" simulation.
Risty was the unquestionable center of attention at lunch. Before, everybody thought her powers were kinda interesting in a Rocky Horror Picture Show sense, and that she was a good fighter; now, they considered her heebie-jeebies the linchpin in our scheme to defeat Magneto and rescue Wolverine.
"I couldn't have done it without you, Laz," Roberto said earnestly. "You threw the target off her game - I just brought her down."
"I hardly did anything," she insisted.
"Of course not," Lance drawled sarcastically. "I mean, who cares about decisive blows? Next, you'll say Toad saved the day by running away like a wimp."
"Hey!" Todd puffed his chest out. "I was hoppin' for my life in there!"
"Sam says you did pretty good with my freeze ray," Bobby said, pointing at me with his fork. "Maybe you should take it full-time."
"Or not," I laughed. "You know I was going for Mag- uhh, Storm."
"It'll work, I know it," Kitty was saying emphatically. "Kurt gets Lazarus close enough so she can send a willy-wave at ol' Buckethead, and down he goes, just like in the sim!"
"It won't be that easy," Risty moaned helplessly. They all thought she was their saviour, and nothing she could say would change their minds. I caught her eye and shrugged, grinning like a Cheshire cat; she rolled her eyes and busied herself with her green beans.
"I'm not The One," Risty said flatly as she sunk into her bed. "You're going to have to tell Morpheus and The Oracle to keep searching."
"C'mon," I laughed, throwing a pillow at her. "They have a point; if we all pool our abilities - especially yours - we've actually got a shot against him."
She caught my projectile and hurled it back. "Alright, alright. I just hope everything plays out the way it does in Rogue-Land."
We remained quietly sprawled on our beds for a few minutes, digesting and thinking. When I looked over at my desk to check the clock, I was startled to see Risty standing there; I didn't hear her get up or walk across the room.
"Sorry!" she said, jumping back. "Didn't mean to surprise you!"
"It's cool." As I sat up and soothed my rattled nerves, she plopped down in my desk chair, eyes flicking between me and my boots. "What's up?"
"Luv... there's something I've been meaning to tell you... perhaps it's not my place to, but..."
"Hey," I said, leaning forward and placing a hand on her knee. "Whatever it is, you can tell me. You know that."
A shadow of a smile flashed across her nervous features, and was gone almost before it was there. "I suppose she won't be mentioning this anytime soon, and... well, you deserve to know. I only hope you don't abhor me for bearing these bothersome tidings."
"Spit it out, already!"
She was still looking up at me and biting her lip when the lights began to flicker between their usual fluorescent white and a deep crimson.
"WOTSIS?" Risty yelped, head swiveling this way and that.
I immediately stood and headed for the door. "Time to move."
"Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord..."
"Risty, will you cut that out?" I reached across the aisle and slugged a violet flame-adorned upper arm gently. "You'll be fine."
"Ja," Kurt chimed in from behind me. "Vhat, you don't think ve've had enough training?"
A laugh died on her lips as the Professor boarded the Velocity and turned toward the cockpit. He glanced toward us, did a double take and froze.
"Everything's ready, Charles," Storm said from the co-pilot's seat. When he didn't respond, she turned around. "Charles-"
"What is Lazarus doing here?" he demanded.
"Uhh... she's an X-Man?" Evan said tentatively from his seat in front of her.
"Get off this helicopter, Risty," Xavier said quietly.
"Rogue, now is not the time. Lazarus simply isn't ready for a battle of this magnitude, capable and sharp though she may be."
After glancing around, Jean meekly cleared her throat. "Professor-"
"SILENCE!" She wasn't the only one who flinched at the ferocity of that outburst. The Prof took a deep, calming breath, then continued. "Lazarus will, of course, be in charge of the New Mutants if we are to need emergency reinforcements. Until then, she is to remain at the mansion. Is that understood?"
Without another word, Risty stood and ran down the aisle, almost knocking him from his chair in her haste to leave. I glanced out the window to see her tearing across the hangar at breakneck.
"Secure the hatch and prepare for takeoff," the Professor barked as he moved to the pilot's controls. We were about to start whispering about how outrageous and dumb he was being when we heard Ororo do just that... to his face.
"What about Scott?"
"He still hasn't returned," he replied as he buckled himself in. "We cannot wait for him any longer." He glanced up, and I guess Ororo's eyes must've been boring straight through him - I couldn't see her too good from where I was sitting, but I sure could watch his reactions. "Storm," he sighed, "you know as well as I do that if the boy's lost his confidence, he'll only be a liability."
"This is a mistake, Charles. We need him. Lazarus, as well. Are you-"
"Velocity to X-Jet," Xavier said as he put on the headset, brushing aside any further comment from Ororo. "All systems are go."
"Copy that," Beast's tinny voice came over the speakers. "See you skyward."
I turned to the window in time to see Risty's weak little wave from the edge of the hangar bay. Helplessly, I waved back, and I could only hope she saw it before she disappeared through a door. Just as the chopper's blades started to turn, Amara ran in through the same door, shouting and flailing her arms.
"Professor," Jean said, "Magma wants something."
"Hmm? Oh, yes... she probably wants to come along," he replied dismissively. "I'm sorry to disappoint the girl, but this is not a pleasure cruise."
I had gone beyond crestfallen to enraged. Unable to check it completely, I kicked the seat in front of me without restraint. Its occupant jumped, but didn't say anything; she was too busy gazing wistfully at Scott's empty seat. Evan had his arms crossed and was glaring at the floor, almost as if he would pick a fight with the landing gear just to release some of his resentment.
"This sucks rotten eggs," Kurt whispered to me. "Ve're down two very valuable soldiers, here!"
"Sure you don't wanna rethink a mutiny?" Evan hissed through gritted teeth.
To be honest, that was starting to sound less like a joke and more like a plan of action.
••••••••••••••••••X••••••••••••••••••END CH XII