There. Back in my own skin.
The moment we stepped out of my head – or, in my case, allowed Professor X to settle my mind into the driver's seat of my body once more – we heard a startled yip from the corner. Turning as one, we advanced on it only to find-
"Kitty!" Jean yelped.
"AIEE!" she screamed, sliding backward and halfway through the wall. "I m-mean... is everyone okay now? Logan's on his way up, he was the first person I thought to-"
"We're fine, Shadowcat," Charles assured her kindly. "Just... on a bit of an adventure, that's all. No cause for alarm."
"No cause for- you guys!" she whined, stamping her foot. "I ran in here after Jean to see what the deal was, and you're all standing around like scarecrows! What was I supposed to do, throw ping-pong balls at you until you woke up?"
"Glad you binned that notion," I muttered.
"Miss Wilde was burdened by a small problem," the Prof went on. "I attempted to handle it without reinforcements, which was my mistake, and Jean came to our aid. And I'll trust you not to press the matter."
Kitty frowned grumpily and folded her arms over her chest. "Oooh, alright, but you'd better not be lying!"
I couldn't help but laugh. "It's the truth – or as much of it as you'll be privy to, dear Katherine. Now, if you'll allow us a few moments?"
Glaring into each of our faces in turn, Kitty turned on her heel and stomped through the wall, leaving us to regroup.
I took a great gulp of oxygen. It's amazing how much cleaner the inside of my cranium felt, as if layers of grime and mildew had built up and we'd just scoured them with industrial-strength degreaser. The air was sweeter, colours more vibrant. I was at peace with having been Mystique's puppet now that it was literally all in the past. No more modus vivendi for me; I was queen of Ristytopia.
"Jean, do you know what a life-debt is?"
The tallish redhead blinked. "Uhh... I guess. Why?"
"Because you're now the proud owner of one." And I buried my face in her shoulder for a moment, ignoring the surprised outcry, welcoming her arms around me the next second. Jean Grey had most assuredly landed herself in my Top Eight.
"Shh," she soothed into my hair. "Anytime."
"And you!" I cried out, baring down on Xavier so quickly his eyebrows shot up in alarm. When I started wringing his hand, cheeks aching from the width of my smile, I breathed, "Cheers, you beautiful, beautiful man, you!"
"Well, I suppose I'm not altogether hideous," he chuckled. "But you're quite welcome. For the good of the team, and a friend's serenity."
Standing back a bit, I sighed deeply, too happy to let any one thing bring me down on this, my Independence Day. Not even the dark topic I knew must be addressed before I sallied forth from that circle of contentment. "Well, I'm sure the both of you have become fully aware of Mystique's true attachment to our favourite Rogue."
"I'm afraid so," said Jean. "I caught a glimpse from both you guys earlier, but I had to move and store so many memories of Mystique raising her that... it's kind of hard to forget any of them now."
"Quite unprecedented," Charles agreed, guiding his wheelchair over to his usual place at the table. "If I thought we might be able to locate this Destiny, I'd be inclined to pay her a visit. But I'm sure if I marched into Cerebro right now – even if it were operational – I'd come up empty-handed. That shapeshifter has the most creative ways of thwarting me."
"Righty-o." Stretching my oddly-sore limbs, I yawned and said, "Goodness me, but eradicating hidden personas from one's gray matter leaves a gal quite knackered!"
"Go sleep it off," Jean told me with a wink. "I'd say you deserve it after-"
The door banged open and a snarling Logan was in our midst, claws out, hackles raised. "Alright, bub, who needs dicin'?"
Laughing at a berserker-crazed Wolverine is usually a fairly poor idea... but when he heard all three of us start in (even the Professor), at the very least he began to catch on that there was no imminent danger. Which only made him angrier, I think.
I was sitting on the front steps of what was left of the mansion when Risty found me. At that point, I'd rather anybody else walk up and say "hello", but there was nowhere to run.
"What's up?" I replied flatly.
"My apologies, Rogue. I've been a pill, and you've borne the brunt of it. Can you ever forgive me?"
When I finally looked up at her, the healthy glow in her face surprised me. "What are you so happy about?"
"I'm free." She giggled and clapped her hands, teeth flashing as she smiled the biggest smile I'd seen on her mug in a long while. "Mystique has left the building."
That got my attention. "Uhh... I don't get it, what do you mean?"
"I didn't mention it before because I was afraid we might fail, but... I asked the Professor for some assistance with organizing my thought patterns. And it worked!"
"Really?" I suppressed a nervous gulp, standing and brushing off my knees and seat. "You mean... her memories are gone, just like that?"
Risty shook her head, still grinning. "Nothing that clear-cut, alas. But they're... how do I explain? Instead of feeling like I've lived her life, they're more like scenes from something I watched on the telly. Rogue, I'm back in control. 'Cured' may be overstating it, but I'd certainly prefer it this way to how it was before."
Now I couldn't help but smile, even if I didn't completely get what she was talking about. "Obviously it's got you giddier than a pig in slop."
"Let me put it another way."
When her palms trailed up my arms to my shoulders, I felt my pulse quicken a few notches, my legs turn into jelly. Whatever she was going to do, I was afraid, I was so afraid I was going to hate what came next. But then she hugged me, warm and constant with no fear, none of that hesitation and weirdness that she'd been so full of the last time. I leaned into it, yearning to get as close as possible, and she let me. She didn't stop me when my hands slid up her back and pressed against her shoulderblades. She didn't flinch when I moaned into her ear. She didn't push me away when I rubbed my cheek along the side of her neck. When was she going to call a time out?
"Risty, doesn't this scare you anymore? It still scares me. It scares the living shit outta me."
"It's as you said," she whispered. "As long as I can have you in my life, the rest is window dressing."
The edges of my vision sparked and my stomach started floating around in outer space as I pulled back to stare into the red sunset reflected in eyes that met mine steadily. "Then prove it."
A tiny laugh sounded deep in her throat. "As you wish."
Her nose was brushing past mine...
Both of us turned, nearly falling over in our haste to break apart. Who the hell thought they had the brass balls to kill the mood? An asshole who was gonna find himself missing a few parts soon if I had anything to say about it.
Some old guy was headed in our direction. He wasn't that much taller than us, and his white mustache looked strange next to his sandy brown hair. The three-piece suit was like something the Professor might wear if all his other suits were at the cleaners. In one hand he had a briefcase, and in the other was the handle of expensive luggage on wheels. His half-moon spectacles were perched on the end of his nose, and I had a feeling they spent most of their life there.
"What is the meaning of this?" he burst out, waving a piece of paper he had in the briefcase hand. "You were supposed to be with your host family! What are you doing at this breeding ground for freaks and instigators?"
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Risty's body language completely transform, and it wasn't in a good way. She squared her shoulders and called out, "Hello, Father. Had a pleasant voyage?"
"Father," I breathed. How fun was this gonna be?
"I've had the taxi driver all up and down the entire bloody city looking for this accursed hovel," he grunted as he stomped over to us. "It's bad enough I wasn't informed of your change in living arrangements, but now I arrive on your doorstep to find that... that it has no door! Where on earth are you really staying?"
"How's Mum?" Risty said brightly. "Probably halfway through her fifth vodka-tonic by now; it's a late enough hour in the motherland."
"None of your mouth, young lady," the man panted as he came to a stop in front of us. "And who's this? Seems to be of the same class of lowlife scoundrels you cavorted with before. You couldn't have been bothered to try to better yourself?"
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell when you're being trashed to your face. The guy was a total dick.
"Dad," she said through her teeth, "this is-"
"Anna Marie, Sir," I told him meekly, extending my hand. After a moment of glaring at it like it might bite, he put down his briefcase and we shook. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Listen to that awful Yankee accent," he muttered as he picked up the briefcase again. At the same time, I noticed Risty shooting me a questioning look and I figured it was because I'd used my real name. I shook my head and shrugged. What else was I supposed to do? He already hated the look of me, so I figured telling him I had a name like Rogue would only alienate the guy even more. Not a great first impression. "At least she seems to have a tentative grasp on manners, I'll give her that. Now, where's this Xavier chap? I'd say he and I are about to have words."
"Right this way," she sighed, defeated.
Dr. Wilde griped and complained the whole way down the hidden elevator to our once-secret base of operations that now doubled as our home. In the hallway, he blustered and jumped like a grasshopper every time one of the students barreled past, saying stuff about "no discipline" and "impropriety". I'm glad nobody stopped to talk to us before we got to the War Room; Risty knocked, a voice told us to come in, and we did.
"Ah, a guest," Professor X said pleasantly. Miss Munroe was there, too, sitting in another chair and going over what looked to me like a budget. "Whom do I have the pleasure?"
"Dr. Regis C. Wilde," he announced shortly, making no move to approach. "And you're Charles Xavier, so I've heard on the news. You Westerners don't even stand to greet your guests, eh? Typical."
Storm couldn't help but clear her throat, but old Chuck merely smiled; he was used to being mistreated. "Well, the heart is willing, but the flesh is weak, I'm afraid."
"Paraplegic, you git," Risty told her father in an undertone. She wasn't willing to cut him any slack, and I didn't blame her.
"Hrmh," the man grumbled, a smidge uncomfortable with having overlooked something so obvious – and he's supposed to be a doctor! "Fine, then, to the point. I'm here to take back my daughter."
"What?" I burst out.
"Rogue," the Prof warned me, and I heard him continue in my head, 'If you can't mind your tongue I'll have to ask you to wait outside; this is fast becoming a delicate matter. I'll do my best to dissuade him.'
"Perhaps you could tell us your reasons?" Ororo asked as he told me that.
"Because this is a colony of Satanic misdeeds," he blustered. "Which is all well and good for your other cultists, but I'll be damned if my youngest is dragged into your world."
Xavier's eyebrow went up. "You seem to have formed a very specific opinion of us already, Dr. Wilde. Our world is the same world as yours."
"I've watched hours of coverage on the news networks. I know what you're up to; these battle arenas underground, the killer robots, strange witchcraft. I'll not have it. You'll not be influencing Risty into becoming more of a terror than she was to begin with!"
"Perish the thought," Xavier said, undaunted. "Our organization extends the hand of friendship to anyone who already displays natural abilities that others do not. We do not 'convert' people or inundate them in any way. This is merely a safe haven for those who wish to better understand what they're capable of and how to control it."
"Oh, I've seen what you're capable of," he laughed harshly. "Speeding about like you're on drugs, firing lethal weaponry from your own bodies! Disappearing into the ether! And you call things like that natural? Bah! You're as cracked as your ruddy organization!"
"Hush, Risty," he snapped, like telling a dog to jump down off the couch. "Professor Xavier, eh? What are you Professor of, precisely?"
The Professor smiled. How could he stay so merry with that blowhard in the room? "I like to think of myself as a renaissance man; I'm well-versed in a wide range of subjects. But in the interests of a more peaceful planet, I've devoted the bulk of my time to what you'd probably dub 'mutantology'."
"So you sit around in here, studying these, these... freaks? Is that any way to live your life?" At last, he banged his briefcase down on the table. "Barking, all of you. This is exactly the environment I thought I might find, and I'm quite ready to prise her out of it forthwith."
"Doctor, if you'll-"
"Save your breath. My daughter was sent to your country to sort out her priorities. It was Lydia's accursed idea; I told her she'd be put right in boarding school, but my ever-loving 'alternative approach' wife thought repotting her in American soil would shake her up. Too right it did – shook her brains loose! How on earth did she even come to be here instead of her host dwelling? No one can seem to answer that!"
Charles Xavier was finally reaching the end of his patience. "That is a longer story than I'm sure you're ready to hear after your flight across the Atlantic. Suffice it to say that she belongs here as much as any of my other charges."
His beady eyes narrowed from behind his glasses. "Are you insinuating that my Risty is one of those abominations? Poppycock! Twaddle! Complete and utter fabrication!"
"Irrefutable fact," the Professor said quietly. "She possesses the X-gene. There is ample paperwork documenting my findings if you'd care to look."
"This paperwork is open to the public, is it?"
"It is not. Public opinion on the status of human beings with deviations in genetic code that allow for mutation is... shall we say 'low', as evidenced by your bursting my door down and threatening to remove her from our 'negative influences'. There are already a myriad of internet pages that were once devoted to lists of felons who may be living in suburban neighborhoods, which now detail lists of known mutants, whether or not they've ever done anything wrong. I shall not add fuel to their flames of hatred."
The man was still breathing hard, but he seemed to be thinking hard, too. Finally, he passed a hand over his mustache and said, "Right, let's see the papers. Might as well figure out if you're a charlatan or only mental."
"Ororo?" When he said her name, she stood, nodded politely at Dr. Wilde and swept from the room. He watched her like a hawk the whole time, as if she might jump on him and start chewing his face off or whatever.
"So, assuming this X-gene whatnot isn't rubbish, why's my little girl kipping with the crazies? You're living in a basement, for Christ's sake – under an old abandoned warehouse!"
"Decimated mansion," the Professor corrected him, sounding more tired. "A few weeks ago it was a grand sight to behold. Now, it is a pile of rocks. Believe you me when I say this is a temporary setback; it was insured against all forms of damage, and we are working to rebuild as fast as we can."
"Probably damaged it yourselves," he muttered.
"Just because we are devoted to nonviolence doesn't mean we escape acts of terrorism. The party responsible has paid a dear price for such indiscretion."
That surprised me, hearing him say that. What price had Mystique paid? She pretty much got off free and clear. But then I thought about how alone she was, losing me and Kurt, and I decided she had been punished after all.
"And my daughter's going to be safe here, is she? Where you're attacked by terrorists, where you shoot laser beams at each other and built giant robots? That's lunacy, that is! Who's to say you won't kill her before these supposed terrorists get the chance?"
"Safer here with a caring support network than alone in a world that fears and mistrusts her based on nothing more than how she was born."
Now the man looked angry. Not just full of hot air like before, but seething and bloodthirsty. "She'll have a caring support network. Her family. There is nothing stronger on earth than the bond of blood."
"We are family." The Professor leaned back and slightly to one side in his wheelchair. "A few of my students have been here for several years. We trust each other, depend on each other, the same as any blood relations would."
And then Ororo entered with a stack of papers, which she handed to Dr. Wilde without word. Knowing her as well as I did, I could tell she already wanted him gone, and I agreed. This guy was seriously putting a crimp in my short-and-curlies. The one thing that really upset me was that Risty was just standing there and listening with this sad puppy-dog look on her face. Had the Professor secretly told her to shut up, too?
"Well, this all looks legitimate," he was grunting after he'd flipped through the stack, examining one or two sheets more closely. "But as I'm no expert in the field, you'll forgive me if I don't take your word for it."
"By all means, find another expert in my field," Xavier laughed. "Then bring him around. I'd genuinely welcome his viewpoints."
"I think you're lying about all of this," the man came clean, folding his arms. "Doctored lab results, underground lairs... and does everyone dye their hair in this rat's nest?"
"None of us have dyed hair," Risty spoke up coldly. "Natural roots all 'round."
"It is true," Ororo added. "Mine has been white since the day I was born."
Dr. Wilde glared at Storm for a second – which didn't bother her much – before he turned on his daughter. "Don't play games with me, young lady. Just because you've been dyeing it for ages doesn't mean I don't remember what it used to-"
"It is." She yanked a strand out by the root and handed it to him. "Look. I'd have to dye it brown to cover up the purple now."
He brushed the hair away like it was bothering him on purpose. "Bah, I've no time for this. Go and pack your things. We're out of this cuckoo's nest." Risty said "Dad" at the same moment the Professor said "Doctor", but he overrode them both. "No, enough talk! You're supposed to be learning discipline and respect, not how to sleep in sewers and blow up buildings! So we're taking you back to England and enrolling you in a proper boarding school, where we can keep an eye on you and they can keep you in line! Now let's get going, move it, spit-spot!"
They left the room, Risty shooting me a helpless glance before the doors shut. Instantly, I whirled on the Professor and said, "Come on, don't let him do this! We gotta stop him!"
"How?" he sighed, rubbing his temples. Storm allowed herself to let out a low growl, one I'd bet she was holding in the whole time. "The shortsighted fool has made up his mind, and he is her legal guardian. My hands are tied."
"Hell no," I whispered. "He is not- I won't let him get away with it!"
"Enough," he snapped. "Before you go too far, I forbid you to use your powers against that civilian. We have enough problems to be going on with. It is Dr. Wilde's right as a parent to make staggering mistakes that will ruin his child's future, so long as they're not illegal. He'll not be swayed, won't listen to reason... it's beyond our ability to do anything about it. Soon enough, it will be within Risty's power as an adult to do whatever she pleases, and I can only hope she returns to us then."
My jaw set as I glared at the Professor. The look he returned was pitying and dejected; he didn't like it any more than me. But he was the big man, the only one who kept us a respectable Institute; he had to work within the law as much as possible or we'd lose everything, be forced into hiding in the caves again, or worse. So instead of screaming at him like I wanted to, I excused myself and ran out.
But one thing he'd said was wrong. He said she'd be back soon enough, when she graduated and wasn't under her folks's thumb anymore. Swell.
Except it's not soon enough. Not for me.
••••••••••••••••••X••••••••••••••••••END CH XXVIII