The bag swung back down at me; I spun and kicked it again, sending it flying back up.
I caught the bag to stop its advance. I didn't really need to see who it was, but I turned around as I replied, anyway. "Hey, Scott," I said, wiping my forehead.
"Kitty told me you'd been... 'testing' Risty a lot, lately." He followed me over to the bench. "She said you're pretty convinced she's a mutant now, and that she almost told you?"
"It's the only explanation." I plunked down and took a swig of Gatorade before continuing. "Seriously, I arm wrestled her barehanded... not even a spark. Either she's one of us, or I'm havin' some pretty damn convenient power outages." A sigh escaped my lips. "How do you ask somebody that kinda thing? Can you ask that kinda thing? I'm stumped."
"Is that why you're wearing yourself out in here? Kurt says you missed lunch." He sat next to me, making me a little nervous. Our arms were only an inch or two apart... and I knew if they touched it wouldn't result in the type of "sparks" I wanted, but since when did my heart listen to my head? "It's not really healthy to skip meals."
I gave him a mock-salute. "Yes, sir!"
I could tell he was rolling his eyes behind his sunglasses. "Cut it out."
There he was, intruding on my thoughts again. "What is it, Professor?"
'You have a visitor.'
'Yes, as a matter of fact. She's approaching the gate now.'
"Thanks... I'll meet her at the door."
Scott stood, shoving his hands in his pockets. "She's here?"
"I'll let you hit the showers, then."
"Heh, no time for that, now, I guess; some spray-on deodorant oughtta hold out for an hour or so." The instant I realized I'd actually said that to Scott, I turned brick-red and bolted for the safety of the locker room. Great; now he'd think of me as "that smelly girl I can't touch anyway". Like I wanted him to have more reasons to steer clear.
Risty smiled when she spotted me coming down the steps, back in my normal gothwear. "Hey, girlfriend!"
"'Sup, Risty?" I brushed a stray white forelock out of my eyes.
"Just wanted to ask if you were up for a film. 'Mexican Cyborg 2' has just arrived, and he's ready to terrorize Guadalajara!" She idly pretended to fire off several devastating blasts of energy.
I couldn't help but laugh - especially because there were several non-cyborgs in the mansion at that very moment that could do much worse. Speaking of worse, I wasn't sure my deodorant would last through an entire movie. "Sure, just let me run upstairs and change."
The world's quickest shower and twenty minutes later found us barreling down the road in Risty's '89 Escort. It was missing the right wing mirror and the color was something you'd find in an airsick bag, but it got us from A to B, which is what counts.
As the speedometer hit fifty, "Great Big White World" was blaring over the radio (it's really too bad Risty didn't have much of a system in that car, yet - I mean, Manson with no bass?), and I was singing along contentedly before Risty turned it down.
"Hey, I like that one!"
"Rogue... we need to discuss some shit."
I looked at her nervously, trying not to let on that I'd been waiting for the bomb. "Is this serious shit, or the garden-variety fertilizer?"
"Definitely not garden-variety," she said with a slight laugh. "As you could probably tell, I was gonna tell you yesterday, but... I guess the food court isn't a proper confessional."
"If you're talking about Kitty, I'm sorry, she shouldn't have-"
"No, no, not just her... it simply wasn't private enough."
I was fussing with my fishnets absentmindedly. "Well, go on."
She took a deep breath. Reasonable explanation, here we come. I could tell this was hard for her, and I made a mental note not to freak out, even if she told me she was Juggernaut himself. Funny how you can be so close to the mark, and yet so far... "Rogue, do you recall those two instances when I sort've... disappeared for a bit?"
"Yeah, of course. When you went back to England."
A pained look crept onto her face as she glanced at me. She didn't want to do this, but felt like she... owed it to me? Was that right? "I was in a very peculiar accident. This was back when I had the Dynasty. Remember my Dynasty?"
"Boy, do I." I couldn't help grinning at a memory of us sleeping in that car before getting in line for A Perfect Circle tickets - it wasn't very long after we first met. "What ever happened to it?"
She took in another breath. "I was driving toward the Institute; y'know, to see you. It seems like I was returning something of yours... I can't even remember what it was, now. Anyway, this old man was lying on the side of the road. I stopped to look the beggar over, just to see if he was okay, but before I can even step out of the car, he lunges at me. I fell back into the passenger's seat, and the sod jumps in and starts driving my damn car! I tried to shove him out and take control, but he was a stubborn old codger. Then, he... well..."
"What, what?" I said - probably too urgently.
"He turned into a woman... a lanky tart with blue skin."
My eyes flew open. "Mystique."
"Yeah..." She looked over at me; her expression was impossible to read. "She sure has been a right bother to everyone, hasn't she?" Seeing I was too stunned to answer, she continued. "I couldn't get rid of her or take control of the car, but I succeeded in being enough of a nuisance that we went straight off a cliff. Pretty bleedin' sharp of me, eh?"
"So... how did you survive?"
"Technically, I didn't. However, I was lucky enough that we landed in a ravine that some conglomerate or other used to dump their more, er, iridescent wastes. I'm still not sure how it happened, and I may never know, but... Mystique absorbed me."
I could feel my eyebrows shooting up a few more centimeters. What the heck was Risty telling me? That she was Mystique? That I was sitting in the Escort with both of them right there, occupying the same driver's seat? You call that a reasonable explanation? It's cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs is what it is! But I had promised myself I wouldn't panic or overreact. Clearing my throat, I somehow got out the words, "Come again?"
"We were the same person... but I was just a spectator. I guess her being a mutant meant she got 'dibs' on pushing all the buttons of our collective body."
Before either of us said anything more, Risty swerved off the road. Just for a second, I thought we were going off a cliff (which would be the second time for her, I guess), but then I realized she was parking in an abandoned gas station.
"Wh-what are you d-"
"I promised myself I wouldn't blubber like a child." Tears were rolling down her cheeks unbidden. I'd never seen her like that, and I didn't really know what to make of it. "I was gonna be a tough little bird, I- I wasn't going to-"
"Hey, it's okay, Risty..." I put my hand on her shoulder - almost a reflex action. "I'd say you've earned a good cry, right?"
Then her arms were around me and she was sobbing into my shoulder. It almost seemed like that was the first and only time she'd ever allowed herself to feel the pain; to come to grips with what happened back then, suffer through the bitter memories. I rubbed her back gently, "Shh" the only thing I could think of to say, until the bleak, racking sobs gave way to quiet sniffling. It'd been an outlet she'd desperately needed, and she'd probably needed it for a long, long time.
"So," she said brightly while wiping her eyes. "Betcha wanna know how I came to be everyone's favourite ray of sunshine again, right?"
"Oh, do tell!" I replied with equal false bravado.
After a deep, shaky breath, she continued. "I'm not sure what exactly gave, but one day, I just realized that the control wasn't entirely out of reach anymore. Maybe her half of the brain was especially tired that day - who knows? But for that instant, she actually had to put some effort into suppressing my will, and for her, that was consternating. Of course, she immediately had the Mighty Mystique Power Rangers over to thwart me or whatever."
I was a little frightened, even though she obviously got through it okay. "Go on, go on."
"Well, first they tried purging my soul in all sorts of interesting, arcane ways, but the day Risty Wilde goes willingly into that black night is the day John Lennon returns on a white stallion. Finally, her cronies cooked up a fiendish plan to split us into two people again. Something to do with experimental mass rubbish... and a man named Igor. Anyway, I guess you can see their shining success!" She swept her arms wide in a "ta-daah!" fashion.
I wanted that to be the end of the story. It all made sense, Risty had come out of it more or less unscathed, and everything was hunky-dory. Still, there was a question that just wouldn't leave me alone, and I had a hunch that if I just flung it aside for now, I'd probably never find out why Risty was so upset about events that had an apparently-happy ending.
"Risty... how'd you get away? I would've figured they'd kill you on the spot - you know, to keep you from revealing Brotherhood secrets and plans and stuff."
"Well, they would have, I'm sure... but I daresay there wasn't any need."
I blinked. "Huh?"
"Put your ear to my chest."
That wasn't exactly a normal request, but I could tell she wasn't joking around about this. Hesitantly, I lowered the side of my head to her bosom and waited for something to happen.
And it was taking too long. Way, way too long.
"Risty..." I pulled back and gaped at her. "There's no heartbeat..."
She smiled, but it was the most hollow smile I've ever seen. "Kooky, huh?"
Okay, so now I wasn't making so good on my promise not to freak out. Even though she was my best friend, there was nothing I could do to stave off the cold sweat that broke out all over me. "But... but what-?"
"Keep your ear there."
I obeyed, too confused and terrified to think of a course of action independently. For five seconds, there was complete, ghastly silence. Then, without any sort of warning, I heard the rhythmic beating of a pulse, steady and loud as it should be. I was so startled I almost whacked my head on her chin as I flung myself away from her.
"I can do that now: stop my heart at will. It was stopped when the split was completed, so Mystique And Co. just threw me out... like chucking mouldy cheese in a dustbin." She folded her knees under her chin. "Eventually, I woke up, lying in a ditch in the middle of no place in particular. I wouldn't even recognise it if I saw it again, I'm sure. I wandered back to civilization, found my exchange guardians... they'd been frantic when I'd gone missing for a few days, especially when the bobbies couldn't find me. I was a right state for at least a week, I'm sure. But I got over it, readjusted... reintegrated back into my life, or whatever you'd call it, now."
"So you can... kill yourself and come back. Interesting, I guess."
At that, her eyebrows knitted. "Y'know, I'm really not sure if I could actually commit suicide and come out of it. I'm not terribly inclined to try, either - I just got my life back!"
"So Mystique probably still thinks you're dead."
"I am dead, remember?" she said with a wink.
"Don't say that!" I didn't realize I'd shouted until I saw Risty flinch. "Please," I said, quieter. "It's... it's too creepy."
"Rogue, I- I'm sorry. I should've told you before, ages ago, but... how do you go about that sort of thing? 'Oi, fetch me a cola, mate! By the way, I'm a bleedin' zombie, so while you're up, grab me some monkey brains to feast on, too, willya? There's a lass!'"
I laughed halfheartedly. "Good point... but, well, I'm kinda scared, now. What if you do that sometime, and you can't start it back up? What if I lose my best friend?"
Risty's mouth opened, and though her tone was confident, I could tell she was fighting back another sobbing fit. "I've been turning it off and on for a bit, now, and it's only been getting easier. I've been testing, just like you have. I promise I'll be dandy, luv."
I nodded. Then her words hit home, and that cold sweat began creeping over me again. "Uh, w-what do you mean?"
She smiled. "Come off it, girl, there's nothing for it. Whether I liked it or not, I was part of Mystique, sharing all her intel." She leaned closer to me. "I imagine it's fun being part of a superhero gang."
And I knew. I knew she knew, and she knew I knew she knew. You know? Nobody'd ever suddenly unearthed my secret, so I had no idea how to deal with this. "I- I-"
"It took me a bit to suss out why you gasped in the locker room. I'd forgotten about your powers of energy osmosis."
"But- but you just said you knew what Mystique knew."
"Bits 'n' pieces, comes 'n' goes. This whole mess has left me with gaps in my own memories, which is a bit unsettling, let me tell you..."
"So... my powers don't work on you anymore... 'cause you're the living dead?"
She shrugged. "Search me, luv."
In addition to feeling uneasy and frightened, relief and disappointment now reared their conflicting heads. I mean, if I'd up and lost my powers, I'd be a normal girl again. Whether or not that would've been a good thing, I couldn't decide.
"Look," she continued, interrupting my inner monologue, "I won't tell a soul. We're mates; peas in a pod." Her eyes shifted to mine. "I was Mystique for a long time, but... I swear, it's really me, now. Even then, I was still there for all those things you and Mystique-slash-Risty went through. And, for what it's worth... I'm utterly, bitterly sorry for deceiving you. I wanted to tell you so desperately, truly I did... oh, dash it all."
As she'd begun apologizing, her gaze and legs had dropped to the floorboard. Her resolve was wearing thin, and every moment I took to make sense of all this was chipping away at her remaining composure. I knew I had to say something, anything, no matter how I felt...
Her eyes flicked toward me. "Really? You're not cross?"
"Oh, I'm cross, all right. What did I tell you about jumping into other people's bodies? I expected better from you."
She smiled warmly. "I don't deserve a gal pal like you, Rogue."
"I think we complement each other pretty well." I wiped away a tear that had escaped my own guard before we embraced again, crying unchecked. The very idea that I'd spent any time at all hanging out with Mystique still creeped me out, but what could I do? Kick my friend to the curb over something that's not her fault? No way in perdition. I was gonna have to deal with that internally on my own time. In the moment, it was a lot more important that I be there for her.
Maybe it was only minutes later - maybe hours, I'll never know - when we heard a car horn. Risty looked over and saw a truck with a bunch of guys in it. She rolled down the glass.
"You ladies need some assistance," a blonde jock asked, once he saw who was inside, "or are you just 'parked'?" His friends chuckled and whooped.
"What's the matter?" she shot back. "Never seen a couple a' puffs in all your travels?"
He scratched his head at that one. "You mean like... Powerpuffs or somethin'?"
The driver threw the truck into gear and they all laughed. "Must be 'rag season'," one of them said as they peeled back onto the road.
"Bloody wankers! Half-drunk and on the weed, I'll bet." I could tell those morons had ruffled her feathers a little. "Gits like that should be drawn and quartered, and the pieces used as chum."
Trying not to laugh, I had to ask her. "Risty, what the hell's a 'puff'? You know, in Brit."
She laughed. "Nevermind, I was only yanking their proverbial chain."
"Yeah, that's what I thought. It's the same thing as 'fag', ain't it?"
She gave me a queer look (no pun intended - on her part, at least). "Nobody was smoking."
••••••••••••••••••X••••••••••••••••••END CH II