Man, I felt horrible for him. I mean, sure, he's Logan; he can take a few licks better than anyone I know. But those army guys were really pounding on one of my friends! I knew they wouldn't kill him - even if it was possible, they wouldn't dare - but it was almost too much for me to handle, and I certainly couldn't watch anymore.
"Rogue," a kind voice uttered, "are you going to be okay?"
"No, Mr. McCoy. Can't you see what they're doing to him?"
"Yes, I know... quite a harrowing sight, despite the resilience of our compadre there. And I share your frustration - these seemingly ineluctable circumstances are driving me up the proverbial wall, also. But you can't give up just yet."
I hugged my knees to my chest as I glanced over at him through the glass. "Why not?"
"Our compatriots will liberate us," he said earnestly. "A little faith and a lot of patience is all we need. And hey, even if they don't, I'm sure we can break out on our own. Army or no Army, I didn't sign on as an instructor at the Xavier Institute just so Uncle Sam and a robot could turn me into an exhibit at the Bayville Zoo."
Even though I nodded, Beast could probably tell his words didn't help much. I was never gonna get outta there! I would never moon over Scott again, or bunk with Kitty, or give Jean grief, or even eat the nasty school pizza. But what really got my goat was the one thought that kept kicking me in the stomach with all its might - that this turned out to be the most frightening prospect of them all.
I was never gonna see Risty again.
"You just try that one more time!" Logan was snarling.
My mind went back to obsessing over my best friend - not just the last few days, but all the shit we'd been through from the beginning. How'd I become so attached to the Brit? There hadn't really been a chance to stop and think about it in a long, long time, and there's no better opportunity than when you're rotting away in a glass cube.
Why did I remember the day we met so clearly? I walked into the gymnasium to hear stupid Kelly's "I'm your new principal and I kick ass" speech, just beginning to shift into apathy-mode, and there she was - purple mop and class schedule in tow, perched anxiously in the front row of the bleachers. Back then, I thought she looked solid - cool, relaxed, in her element. When I really thought about it hard in the corner of that sterile prison cell, though, the little things came back to me... things I'd noticed but hadn't considered remotely important. After knowing her for so much longer, the signs were obvious: the way she'd blinked too often, the pitch of her voice, how she kept running her fingers through her hair... it had taken every last scrap of her courage to look at me steadily and force out a simple, "Excuse me, how long do these assemblies usually last?"
It got the ball rolling, and by the end of the day it was like we'd known each other since kindergarten. I don't even think she was trying to warm up to anybody; she just needed information, and I was in a decent enough mood to oblige. Still, out of the hundreds of students in that gym, why'd she ask me?
"Can we get some chow in here?" Evan suddenly called through the airholes.
"Shut your yap," his guard snapped.
"You eat food?" another one laughed. "You sure you don't just absorb sunlight or somethin'?"
As they guffawed and Beast blinked in a highly-affronted manner, I realised I already knew the answer to my question, which slapped me in the face. I'm a freak. Not in the "ooh, power-sucking mutant" way, but the "ooh, anti-social goth chick" way. Everbody else in the gym that day was pretty much wearing polo shirts, Gap jeans and Vans, chattering with friends and probably glancing at the new girl, whispering "Who the hell is that?" Then, I stalk in alone - in my spiked choker, combat boots and crazy white bangs - and she instantly spots a kindred spirit; at a glance, we were both outcasts that didn't really have anybody, so maybe she could ask me one little question without getting that harsh, uncouth "Why are you talking to me?" look.
Of course, I had the X-Men, but Risty didn't know that... and neither did I, for that matter. I was just beginning to stop hating my new team - especially Kurt and Scott - but I wasn't at the point where I could trust them completely. Really, I was still adjusting to being a mutant, nevermind part of a mutant family! Meanwhile, Risty was giving the whole "tabula rasa" thing a shot. Not willingly, of course, but what else could you do with the horrifying experience of being shipped overseas to an alien land but try and make the best of it?
What a pair. I was a spooky-looking loner with the poison touch, and everybody back in England wrote her off as a wasteoid slacker. When the two of us were hanging out, we were just Rogue and Risty. I think that's what we both needed more than anything else at that time: someone that could appreciate us for who we were, not what.
I vowed then and there never to bring up Risty's sordid past again... to her or anybody else. She'd earned her clean slate.
"Ya pansie!" Logan bellowed. "C'mon!"
I glanced up to see Logan being removed from the table to be replaced by Beast, whom was already being herded out. Personally, I thought the tranquilizer dart, ropes, guns and cattle prods were overkill, but the Army dipwads didn't ask me. As I watched Logan being pitched into Beast's now-vacant cell, I somehow knew that if he survived this, he'd never mention Risty's little relapse, either; he got what it was like to wanna forget the past.
"Hey, kid," he grunted. "How ya holdin' up?"
"Alright, I guess." I wiped my eyes in an effort to make that seem more sincere, and I probably failed. "We missed you, y'know."
"I missed you runts, too." Only Wolverine could lean back against the cell wall and light a cigar, puffing contentedly as if he was in line at the DMV instead of the brig. "Sorry I couldn'a been there to help you guys beat up on th' damn Sentinel, but I's kinda... unconscious."
"The Sentinel," he hissed. "Big damn purpley hunka metal?"
"Oh, that." I sighed, almost wishing I had something to smoke, too; no point abstaining if you're just gonna die soon, anyway. "This really bites. I hope our friends are okay."
"Don't you worry 'bout that, Rogue. Between Ororo, Chuck and Slym, I'm sure they're doin' fine."
My eyebrow darted up. "Slim?"
"Oh... well, Scott's not exactly there; when Professor X let the Brotherhood kids join the team, he kinda disappea-"
I blinked, recoiling. "W-what's wrong?"
Honest, I swear to you right now, he bit clean through that blunt. "He let who join what?"
Oh, if only all the X-Men were telepaths - maybe then we could avoid conversations like that. But the General had heard Logan's outburst, and he was tromping over to stare into our cages. "Now, what's got into your shorts, son?"
"Burned myself on m' Cuban," he said, holding up the still-burning cigar.
The man scrutinized him. "That really a Cuban, or just- now wait a cotton-pickin' minute." He folded his arms. "That shout wasn't about any goddamn stogie. What are you two lovebirds jabberin' about over here?"
Okay, that made me uncomfortable. Me and Logan? As if! He's a really great guy... if you're looking for an ornery uncle or something.
"The weather," he growled. "Looks like a snowball's chance in-"
"Get him back out there," the general said to one of his henchmen, then turned back, grinning like a cat that finally nabbed the canary. "You really had me goin' there... had me convinced you didn't know anything, but obviously I jumped the gun. Let's see if we can't make a more honest citizen out of you..."
"Iceman: third door in the next corridor. I'll cut the motion sensors."
There should've been an easier way to block out that annoying tramp's voice when I didn't need to hear it - easier than ripping the transceiver from my ear, that is - but at least we knew what the others were up to; everything had gone off brill since we'd infiltrated Area 51, and my confidence was rising steadily with each step. This was going to work - we were going to pull it off!
Next second, almost as if the Fates were aware of my emotions and were chomping at the bit to flout me, we heard a man's voice, followed by a thud and a few grunts of pain.
"What was that?" Scott hissed into his mouthpiece.
"Nothing to worry about," Mystique replied hastily. "However, I think we should hurry this up before something comes along I can't handle so quickly and quietly as-"
"Raven, dear," I breathed into my own mic, "are you still at the console?"
"What business is it of yours?"
"Well, luv, it's just that our teammates might need you looking out for them; we're inside a United States Military Installation, after all, and we can't afford not to have you-"
"Don't bore me with details I already know, you parasite," she spat. "I have everything under-"
The klaxon went off and we all tensed. The sound of doors flying open and boots thudding against metal reached us from nearby - too nearby.
"Oops," Bobby said via our earpieces. "Sorry, guys."
"You were saying?" I snapped.
"Damn!" was her only reply.
"Perfect," Kurt wailed as he glanced up at the flashing red lights and a sign blinking "ALERT" importantly, "so much for the stealth portion of our plan."
"C'mon!" Scott barked.
We dashed about twelve feet before we met a few soldiers with lethal-looking firearms leveled at us; turning around only granted us the same sight.
"Guess the 'Ghandi Escape' is out, too," I whispered.
With a sweep of her hand, Jean knocked several of them to the floor; Avalanche took care of the rest with an isolated tremor. It seemed too easy, but I wasn't about to complain, and thus we continued on the path to our teammates. As we came to a branching corridor, Mystique pelted out, stopping short when she spotted us.
"Hello," I panted merrily. "How about a brisk jog with us?"
She chose to ignore my mouth, which was probably just as well. "You four hold them off - we'll get the prisoners." She motioned to Kurt before turning down the hall. "Come with me, that way!"
"Oh, no you don't!" I shouted, following them.
"This isn't the time nor the place for your adolescent indignance!" she protested as we kept pace with her. "We need-"
"Don't be thick," I screamed over the loudspeaker announcing our presence. "You two'll need an extra hand. Besides, it's an even split this way; half stay, half go, right?"
"Oh, of course," she growled, making a face as she paused to kick open a door. "Trying to prove you're not just a shiftless burnout after all by rescuing your precious little Rogue, eh? Is that what you want, Risty dear?"
My fingernails itched to dig themselves into her face. "Not half, y' bloody slag. Probably as much as you, but you'd never admit-"
"Dammit, would you keep quiet about that?" Her eyes flicked to me briefly as our feet devoured the distance between us and the hostages. "I swear, one more slip of your forked tongue and I'll-"
"Oh, save it," I snarled viciously. Christ, it would've been gratifying to stop and take the mick out of that tart for an hour or two - and boy, do I know some right corkers - but Rogue... "Let's just get this sorted and argue the details when we're not fleeing for our lives, savvy?"
She gritted her teeth, but decided to keep her mind on the task at hand.
"Vell," Kurt muttered, "don't I feel like a third vheel."
I couldn't help feeling just a mite confused. Even hearing the sirens, noticing all the GIs scrambling around, seeing Evan launch a bonespike at Logan's wrist restraint, witnessing him slice his bonds into scraps before throwing the table at the Army and tearing the door to Evan's cell apart... it all seemed like a very intense dream. It wasn't until Spyke and Beast shattered the front of my crystal prison, freeing me, that my brain seemed to catch up with the flow of time.
Jailbreak. Freedom. Just like Mr. McCoy said, our comrades were saving us!
Freddy broke the remaining green gunk around his enormous form with a mighty flex, and when he took in his surroundings he didn't seem too pleased; he immediately lifted the walls of his roomlet and hurled the giant Plexiglas cylinder across the room where it embedded itself in the floor, blocking one of the exits. Wolverine and Beast were making quick work of all the soldiers, and once most of them were unconscious (or at least unarmed), Blob and Beast started tossing them in the ersatz cage Blob had just accidentally created. Once the haughty general was in there, Blob threw a makeshift lid atop it, patting his hands to rid himself of the unclean feeling he no doubt picked up from touching the enemy.
Okay, so maybe I didn't do much to assist in our escape, but they seemed to have a handle on things. I was just glancing around nervously to see if any other unpleasant surprises were going to show up when I heard a familiar crack! from across the room where Logan was.
"'Bout time you got here, elf," he growled. "We were-" He growled louder. "What's she doing here?"
"It's... a little complicated," the elf replied. "See-"
"He'll send you a memo," snapped a dishearteningly familiar voice. "Now let's go, all of you! Rogue, wake up over there!"
Evan and I glanced at each other, shrugged, then sprinted toward the doorway the voices had come from, Mr. McCoy and Freddy on our heels. However, as I turned the corner, expecting (and dreading) a view of Mystique's blue butt receding down a hallway, I was instead greeted with the most beautiful sight that could have been there.
Arms folded in a would-be casual fashion, Risty didn't fool me for a moment; she was on tenterhooks, and when I came into view, her face positively lit up, hands fidgeting absentmindedly at her sides. My heart bounded into my throat as I ran toward her, one arm reaching out and snagging her to me, the other hand drilling holes in her scalp as I held on for dear life.
"You!" she sobbed into my shoulder. It was only for two seconds, but I felt her face smashing into my neck as hard as she could push, heard her long, sharp intake of breath – was she smelling me? I think she was... trying to use all of her five senses to make sure she'd really found the genuine Rogue. "Sweet God Above, I've felt so lost without you..."
But then we stepped back, laughing giddily and swiping at our eyes, trying to pretend we weren't as excited to see each other as we were because there wasn't time to sit down and have a good cry over it. My hand clapped to her shoulder as we took off down the hallway, good old Lazarus keeping pace alongside me.
"Fancy meeting you here," she panted. "What're the odds?"
"Pretty good when you're the one springing us."
"S'pose so," she chuckled as Evan caught up with us and pounded her on the back. "Oi! Alright, Pincushion?"
Those few precious seconds before everything got crazy again, before the world started crushing down on us; that frantic and hurried reunion... My best friend had risked life and limb to snatch me from the jaws of the military, and it worked. There aren't words to describe how good that feels.
"Time to clear out!" Mystique shouted from a few yards ahead, motioning us to the left as she spoke to unseen persons on her right. "This way!"
"We still got company," I heard Lance say as we poured into the intersecting hall.
"Then bury 'em!" she growled, turning to follow us.
I felt the ground tremble slightly, but didn't spare a look backward; we had to find an exit, and surely Avalanche and whoever else was with him could catch up after dispatching a couple guards. I idly watched Mystique's blood-red locks whip around corners, trying to spot our quickest and easiest way out.
"Security breach, code red!" thundered the P.A. system. "Sealing all exits!"
"Spiffing," Risty breathed as a door slammed shut inches from Mystique's nose. Scott and Jean (where'd they come from?) made for two other doors a moment too late, as well. Logan pounced on a nearby aperture, trying to force it to remain open with his claws, but it was no good.
"Hey," Lance said nervously, glancing around at all the closed doors, "we're trapped!"
"Good eye, brain trust," Evan shot at him.
We followed the voice to a tiny room and spotted Bobby and Kitty standing at the base of an innocently-forgotten ladder. Once he saw we'd found them, Iceman scrambled up and onto the roof, Kitty close on his heels. We all started hauling ourselves up the ladder (Kurt teleported Jean and Evan up to shorten our escape time) while Mystique and Scott stood in the doorway to the closet-esque room, covering us.
Just as Blob's sizable caboose got stuck in the trapdoor, Risty asked Mystique, "So, after this is over... are you going to talk to you-know-who about you-know-what?"
"I don't know what," Mystique spat distractedly. "Stop playing coy, it doesn't suit you."
"The small matter of a poor foster parent. That ring any bells?"
To my bewilderment, she glanced at me before whispering heatedly, "I told you to drop that!"
By this time, Kitty had phased Blob through the ceiling, and I had followed him up and onto the roof. I heard Risty sigh and say "Fine" before she climbed after me. Mystique took one last glance up and down the hallway as Cyclops emerged on Risty's heels, then began ascending as she grabbed for her mouthpiece.
"Storm, we're going to need pickup service; building five!"
I was just turning to clap a hand on Risty's shoulder, ready to congratulate her and the others on a job well done (and thank them for managing to get us out in something besides body bags), when I heard the slam of metal on metal.
"What are you doing? Out of my way!"
All of us wheeled around to see there was a grating over the hatch; Scott, one hand still propping open the heavy exterior door, was squatting over an infuriated Mystique, his jaw set, teeth bared. "Where is Professor X?"
"Are you INSANE?" she bellowed. "Let me pass, or you'll never see him again!"
Even as she said that, we could hear shouts beginning to grow louder from under her, and she glanced over her shoulder anxiously. Lance's hands were curling into fists, Risty was shifting uncomfortably, but Scott allowed himself a grim smirk. "Door's closing; you've got three seconds. What's it gonna be?"
Mystique's eyes widened in fear and she began shaking the grille desperately, her voice just beginning to lose its ever-present edge of arrogance; somehow, she seemed to know instinctively that he wasn't bluffing. "L-let me through! You- you haven't got the-"
Scott's features hardened. He stood up.
"NO!" Risty screamed, darting forward and catching the lip of the heavy trapdoor. "Let her out!"
"What?" Scott roared, rounding on her just as the sound of chopper blades reached our ears and our hair was buffeted by their winds. "What are you-"
"Just let her out!"
"How can you stick up for that?" he snarled, jabbing a thumb at the pair of astonished yellow eyes behind the grating, following the verbal tennis match. "After everything she did, after the explos-"
"This isn't the way and you know it!" she pressed. "We'll never-"
"We don't have time for this!" Jean shouted, using her telekinesis to fling the grating aside and drag Mystique unceremoniously onto the rooftop. "You can tear each other apart later; for now, let's all get out of here!"
Bobby, Kurt, Evan, Fred, Kitty and Logan were already aboard the Velocity; Beast's furry behind disappeared through the door, and the rest of us knew we had to get on now or there might be no departure. With a start, I sprinted forward; guess I'd been too busy standing there, dumbstruck by Risty's behaviour, to realise I should be boarding my flight.
But just after Lance and Mystique leaped over the threshold, the chopper took off with Cyclops clinging tenaciously to the open hatch, leaving three of us stranded.
"What now?" Risty screamed, still running toward the aircraft.
Jean took a deep breath, then said, "Here we go."
In retrospect, maybe it was a fittingly spectacular farewell to my stay at Area 51, but it was downright scary at the time; Jean hauled Risty and I through the air after her, dodging around a government helicopter and soaring as fast as her brain could carry us. Unsure of what else to do, I grabbed Risty's hand and held it fast; she glanced over at me, startled, then smiled weakly as she squeezed back, returning her attention to Jean just as she was disappearing into the doorway, safe and sound.
Unfortunately, I saw her collapse after she got inside. And Risty and me weren't yet.
••••••••••••••••••X••••••••••••••••••END CH XVIII