Time passed. Don't know how much, don't really care. We cleaned ourselves up as best we could, laughed at the absurdity of life, reassured each other that we'd find true love one way or another. Kitty very tactfully informed me that if I did go after Risty that it wouldn't be the end of the world or anything, and that she'd still be my friend if I was a... if I "defected" is how she worded it. Even though I tried to deny that I wanted anything like that, she insisted until I told her I got the message loud and clear. Then we walked back to the hole-in-the-ground where we lived holding hands, just to take a little more comfort in the fact that somebody else got what we were both going through.
But we broke apart the minute we saw another person in the hallways. Guess we were both kind of jumpy about being caught doing that with another girl, since it was kinda the topic of the hour, right?
It wasn't until lunch when I saw Risty again. She was leaving as I was showing up, and we said "hi" and talked about pointless stuff for a minute, and then she skipped away. It was the ugliest, most shallow exchange I'd ever had with Risty, because it felt so... fake. Making nice. Keeping up appearances. All those things suburban housewives do, pretending they don't hate the neighbors but trying to maintain peace by putting on a good show in public. And it tore me up inside.
So I ended up eating with Shadowcat and Spyke and Beast. Evan and Mr. McCoy eventually left, and then Kitty hugged me.
"This isn't a big deal," she whispered, so low that even a mutant with super-hearing would have needed to be hiding under the table to pick it up. "I'm no Dr. Phil, but I'd probably guess she's just wigged the same way you're wigged."
"Now you're gonna notice all this stuff, ain't ya?" I sighed hopelessly.
"So I wasn't imagining it, huh? That was a messed-up conversation."
She snickered. "If you could call it that when it only lasts two seconds. No, don't worry so much. Give it some time; you'll get back to normal."
"Kitty, we're mutants. There's no such freaking thing as 'normal' for us."
"Yeah," she admitted wearily. "There sure isn't."
I had a healthy dollop of downtime ahead of me.
Rogue was absent from our utilitarian bedroom. Lucky thing, that, because it was there I was waiting on tenterhooks for Charles Xavier to contact me with his decision. Would it be in person, mentally, or via messenger boy? Only time would tell.
Out of desperation for something to do (and to avoid bumping into the source of my current anxiety), I had run to the library following lunch. My dependable Escort still managed to take me to locations beyond the borders of Xavier's Institute for Gifted Miscreants, and therefore I abused this privilege. I hit the books and finished my homework like a good lass, flipped through a few that I had no intention of checking out, then fled the premises and ingested mass amounts of calories at some local burger shack. Oh, it was delish – I can't even recall the name of the place or if it still exists, but they had this milkshake with puréed toasted almonds and- well, it's almost cruel to describe it without offering a sample, so I'll spare you further details.
There I was, sitting on the cot I shared with my bosom companion, stomach full and contented... while the rest of me was a quivering jumble of nerves. There was nothing else to do. Wasn't this bleeding America, where all avenues of entertainment were open to a citizen (or foreigner on a student visa, or resident alien, or whatever I was by now since I was technically deceased)? Yet I was bored. Television never held my attention for more than a few minutes, so that was out. Wasn't much for reading, either, as I proved in the library. I was more for doing – doing bad things, for one, but anything that sounded like a blast was fair game. Sitting on my hands is the opposite of a blast, which was not kosher to my way of thinking. Unfortunately, that was all I could do.
'Sod this', I thought to myself. 'Time to go raise a ruckus. Somewhere there's got to be an outhouse to tip over... or at the very least, an open arcade.'
Wouldn't you know it? The moment I stood, the door banged open and there was Rogue, rubbing her face with her free hand and generally looking like she wanted to expire.
"Hey," I began bravely.
"Oh," she said, startled, a bit afraid. That's how it was now. "Uhh... hi, Risty."
"We'll, I'm just on my way out," I told her cheerily, making for the door – the sweet, blessed door that promised safe haven from this palpable tension... "Need anything while I'm in town?"
"Can we talk about it now? I think I'm ready as I'll ever be."
I flashed her a wide smile. "Perhaps when I get back."
My palms and temples automatically commenced sweating at great speed. "You're sure it can't hold off for an hour or so?"
"Very well," I sighed, leaning back against the cold wall. "Fire away."
The fingers on her left hand were pinching the second knuckle on her right middle finger, as if it ached. Probably just a nervous twitch. "Um, okay. So... okay."
"You're going to have to do this faster," I blurted. "Or not at all."
"You know I love you."
My blood had probably turned to steam inside my veins. "That right?"
"Come on, you know that," she said, eyes widening, imploring me to understand her. "Maybe we don't usually make such a big deal out of it, but we're tight."
"We are," I conceded, looking away, staring into the corner, mind blank.
Swallowing so loudly I could hear it, she took a single step forward. "So last night... last night was mondo bizarro, but compared to all the other stress we've been through, just in the past few weeks... who cares?"
"Alright," she sighed. "You're right, I can't pretend it's nothing. But then again, I'd rather be trying to figure this out than be out fighting Sentinels while you try disarming a self-destruct sequence."
That made me smile, it really did. "Point to you, luv; this is a fair sight better than our lives being in mortal peril. And yet..." I expected her to say something, but she simply waited. "And yet, that doesn't make it easy. I know I make light of my capricious youth, but even I am straying into new territory, Rogue. My ex-boyfriends are exes because I... because I've never been one to let anyone get close. Not this close, and not for this long."
"Really?" she asked, tone a tincture of pride and terror.
"If you were one of my long string of dating disasters, I'd have shoved you away ages ago." Then I let out a tiny chuckle. "Listen. Listen to that: I'm talking about you as if we're already going out. Doesn't that churn your stomach? It's barmy, it is!"
"Risty, I'm not too interested in defining our relationship," she told me, chest heaving. "All I need, bare minimum, is to make sure we still got one!"
Now I looked up at her. "Of course we do. Don't be daft; it's going to take more than a near-miss to shake us."
"Good, then," she said, forcing herself to take deep breaths, fighting back the flare-up of emotions that had almost sent her into hysterics. "I... okay. That was top priority. Now for the other stuff."
"No 'other stuff'," I warned. "I've had my limit."
"I'm sorry about last night. That was... I'm really not sure what I was doing, but I didn't mean anything by it. It just happened."
"Said the spider to the fly," I muttered.
"Hey, no fair." Her voice grew stony, and I could tell it was mostly anger directed at herself instead of at me. "I swear, it was just a random action, I didn't plan it. And when you stopped me, I stopped, didn't I? I listened to you."
"And what would we be talking about right now if I hadn't?" Her cheeks swelled with colour, and I fought down a similar reaction. "Crap."
"Had to make my mind go there, didn't you?"
"We were doing so well!"
"AAH!" she cried out in frustration, laughing slightly as she ran her hands through her white-and-auburn hair. "Why does this gotta be such a chore? There's a thousand hung-over sorority girls all over the country right now having the same conversation."
"Quite likely," I laughed.
"C'mere." And then we hugged. It was warm, tender... and so was she. The first few seconds were perfectly innocent, and I was happy. But then, I think in the same instant, we felt something shift. Twenty fingertips stabbed desperately into two backs. Breath came faster. And this time, it was me who overstepped. My lips that pressed into her neck, me tasting the salt on her skin...
"Enough!" I barked as I shoved her away. "N-no more, I can't stand this!"
Her gloved hand was pushing into her mouth, eyes round as dinner plates as she realized what had just transpired. "Fine, so... so that didn't turn out so great. Does that mean we gotta give up?"
"In a word – absolutely!"
"No!" she shouted. "Don't be a chicken, we can get past this!"
"Obviously not, if all it takes is one friendly embrace for me to start in on- for- urgh, I can't even articulate it without wanting to hide under the bed!"
Her fist lashed out and pounded into the wall. "So what? I don't care if we do or we don't, as long as we can talk it out! As long as we can be together!"
My eyebrows knitted. "What do you mean by 'be together', precisely?"
"Not what you mean," she snapped impatiently, teeth grinding. "All I mean is friendship. Seriously, Risty; that's all. As long as I got that part, I'm sittin' pretty, no matter which way the rest of this shit goes."
That moved me. It honestly did – even if I couldn't admit it then, if there were other things I had to say that prevented me from enjoying it with the sheer abandon I longed to. "Are you out of your gourd?"
"You don't care if we start doing unspeakable things?" I growled. "That must be nice. You really don't mind that we're both women, that... I'll never be... and that, Almighty, we certainly couldn't..."
"Dammit, Risty!" she burst out, furious. "Are you actually this slow?"
"You really haven't got there yet in your limey brain?" She let out a hollow laugh, this demented, resigned look creeping into her face. "You're all I got. There's nobody else – literally, nobody on the planet. So why should I make a big deal outta you not being a boy?"
Instantly I knew what she meant. "Right..."
"When a lady's list of possible suitors is a list of one, she can't afford to be picky."
"Red card," I whispered, ice creeping into my marrow. She only spared an instant to be confused at my sports reference before shrugging it off. "J-just because you can touch me, doesn't mean you should touch me. Please, I can't be that, it's too much responsibility for any one person!"
"I don't want you to be, either," she told me with such a baldness that I felt the shock ripple down into my core. "But... can I tell you that I wouldn't mind?"
"Christ," I breathed, striving not to faint dead away.
"If it were any of the other X-Men, I might feel worse. But it's you. I know you the best, we're like two peas in a pod." A tiny smile touched her lips. "Some smart girl once told me that, and I believed her."
My throat was arid as the Mojave. "And I meant it. But this, this is something else again! How can you be so certain?"
"I'm not. Everything's bass-ackwards and upside-down. But... I am certain I won't throw away a whole friendship that's this important to me over something as stupid as an almost-kiss."
Dash it all, she just had to use the K-word. I wouldn't have reacted so poorly if not for that. "No, Rogue. I'm sorry, I c-can't. Not with you."
Her eyes turned to the floor. "God, sorry I'm so gross, then."
The time had come at last to lay my cards on the table. "Don't you see, yet? There's another reason it's wrong – and it has nothing to do with your gender or our previous relationship status."
"I could give two shits that you used to be Mystique," she insisted immediately, guessing where I was going with this. Partially.
"Really? You can't see why that would make this more distressing for me?"
And all at once, fear, surprise, revulsion, they were all vying for the upper hand on the battlefield of her face. "Oh no..."
"How am I supposed to survive a liaison with you when... when I can remember raising you from a babe?" My voice was shaking so badly, I had to wonder if she could even understand me anymore. "I can remember doing it with my own two hands. Even if it's a false memory, it's right there, berating me for entertaining the notion of you as anything other than friend. Or daughter."
"Risty, stop it!"
"I hate it, too!" I screamed, suddenly unhinged, impatient to get it all out, to finish what I started so as to have done with it. "I hate looking at you and thinking ridiculous things like, 'My, my, how she's grown!' Do you know what that does to someone who's still a teenager, looking at a girl the same age as her? I feel... old! And I'm not, but I can't make it go away, and I can't stop remembering how you looked when you were a wee thing, and how I used to rock you in my arms when you couldn't sleep for nightmares, and the way you'd always reach for-"
"Shut up!" she bellowed, hands clutching the sides of her head. "I can't hear this from you, I can't! It's too abnormal, and... and sick!"
"Do you have some sort of Oedipal complex?" I recriminated coldly. "Do you... love your mummy?"
We were both glaring daggers at each other, chests heaving, eyes streaming. It was the very first time I felt any sort of resentment or dislike of Rogue. And the instant it was born, I eradicated it; that was incorrect. This wasn't her fault. Disliking my best friend might have resolved the issue expediently, but it would also leave me abhorring everything I've ever been for the rest of my life. There had to be another way.
"I'm going to the bathroom," she said in a deadly quiet voice. "You will be here when I get back. This ain't over."
"What makes you so s-"
"You will be here when I get back."
I gulped and nodded. "Certainly."
The way she was clutching her stomach as she turned tail and ran told me she probably didn't have to powder her nose. I felt ready for a spot of regurgitation myself, but I managed to hold my milkshake down.
Half an hour slipped by as I tossed and turned on the cot, sometimes standing and pacing to purge a modicum of irritation. It was hellacious. I wanted nothing more than to run screaming into the forest, tearing off my clothes and howling like a creature of habit, unbeholden to anyone or anything. What was I going to do now, anyway? How did I reach this abysmal point in my life?
When she didn't come back, I went looking for her in the bathroom. And there I found her, with Jean and Kitty on either side as she had her face shoved halfway inside the commode.
Wide-eyed, Jean was shaking her head at me, as if trying to warn me away. Kitty told me in a carrying whisper, "Now's not the greatest time."
Rogue let out a ghastly noise that I'll try not to describe, then a whimper of pure sadness. I bolted.
Straight out and into the War Room is where I bolted. Professor X, Wolverine, Beast and Storm were seated around the table; a holographic depiction of the mansion as it once was floated in the air beside another, redesigned model.
"Miss Wilde!" Charles said in a reproachful voice. "One might knock before-"
"Please, Professor. I'm at the end of my tether."
Instantly, his face became wooden; I was broadcasting on all frequencies. "Logan, Ororo, Hank..."
All three of them stood and excused themselves. Logan tousled my hair as he passed; I was touched by the random-but-fatherly gesture from the normally stand-offish brute. Then there were only two in the room.
"I'm not sure you intended to open your mind so fully to my own," he said in a hushed voice, "but if what I'm sensing is true, then you have my deepest condolences."
Nodding, I took the facial tissue he was offering me and cleared my sinuses. "Thank you. I... I'd rather you didn't watch the uncensored film, but figured it would save time."
"You needn't worry about me running off at the mouth about your personal problems. I'm rather a staunch confidant." With the patience of Job, he waited for me to calm down a touch before he asked, "Now, then. What can I do to help?"
"Professor, Sir... I have a proposition."
••••••••••••••••••X••••••••••••••••••END CH XXVI