"What to do?"
"Hmm?" I replied as I handed over my money.
"Are we supposed to sit there, now?" Risty elaborated, pointing to a table where several of my fellow X-Men sat. Sorry - our fellow X-Men. Even though a few days had gone by, I was still getting used to the idea of Risty being part of the team.
"Why would we?" I hefted my lunch tray and headed to our usual spot.
"How should I know? I'm still adjusting to this whole 'Homo superior' thing."
"I'm one, and I never sit there."
"I thought that was because you couldn't do without my company," she said smugly.
"Right. As long as you ain't conceited or anything."
"You couldn't have invited me over there, of course."
I blinked. "Why not?"
"You know..." Her voice lowered conspiratorially. "The whole mutant bit."
"Oh, yeah." It had never really hit me that Risty couldn't sit at the "X-Table" since she might overhear some sensitive information. "Guess I couldn't have."
"Why are you so stand-offish with them?"
"I'm not." I got situated on my bench before continuing. "They're like family. And I don't know anybody that wants to hang out with their brothers and sisters all the time."
"Point there," Risty muttered. "Clive used to drive me bonkers."
"Your older brother, right?" It always caught me off guard when Risty mentioned her family, since it seemed to happen annually - if that often.
"Right. You wouldn't believe how long it took for the teasing about my hair to get old. He'll probably still call me 'Barney Brains' when I get back to England... well, if I do."
"Well, I'm a 'gifted one', now, aren't I? I thought we were supposed to live at the Institute permanently."
"You can still visit your folks," I managed around a mouthful of lime jello. "Christmas, and Summer vacation. Most kids do."
"But what about the danger?" She flicked an anchovy off her pizza. Yeah, I know... and no matter how many petitions get passed around, Bayville High still makes it that way. But enough about gross school food... "What about the Brotherhood, and all the other bogey-men?"
"Forgot about them," I admitted, glancing over at where Lance and Pietro were throwing pickles at each other. "Well, maybe they could come here?"
Risty's bitter laugh surprised me. "Not bloody likely. My parents think of America as 'the land of over-paid, overweight tourists'. I don't reckon they'd be too keen on flying over just to pet the black sheep a few times."
Even though she was talking about herself, I felt a very real pang in my chest. "Hey, c'mon..."
"Oh, it's true. Their beloved Clive is in law - law, mind! Mum and Dad are both physicians, and Jenna is studying to be a realtor. They think I have no direction because I haven't already latched onto astrophysics or some other equally-'noble' career path."
I filed that away for further contemplation. Did Risty really feel like her family thought she was worthless? "Yeah, well, what do they know? I like you just fine, even if you don't have your 'compass', yet."
She flashed me a smile before she sighed. "It's wonky... they post me over here, a place they loathe, hoping the experience will 'sort out my priorities'. Well, if their goal was to prove to me just how awful it is in Yankee Country, they may be disappointed."
"Glad our borders still have something to offer the British."
"It was all you, y'know." For some reason, she was acting really shy. "If I hadn't met you that first day, I probably would've been absolutely miserable."
"Miserable, but alive."
Her eyes snapped up, boring into me. "Now you stop that. I never want to hear you blame yourself for what happened."
"How? You said so yourself, you were on your way to-"
"Stop it!" she repeated, grabbing my shoulders. "Who bloody cares where I was going or what I was doing? You're not being fair to yourself!"
"But I don't see how I can just act like- like it's not-"
We were both horrified to realize we were crying again. This subject had to get easier someday, didn't it?
"Rogue," she said, trying to steady her breathing, "that's enough. If I had everything to do over again, even knowing what would happen, I'd have done just the same. No regrets, luv."
If we hadn't been in the quad at Bayville High School, surrounded by a sea of onlooking gossips, it might've been a repeat of the gas station. As it was, Risty glanced around at the sea of eager faces, wide-eyed with rapt attention; she hesitated a moment, then threw her arms around my neck and cried out, "I LOVE YOU, MUFFIN-TOP!"
Quick as a flash, the first person we heard retching sounds from got a face-full of Risty's pizza. I think the ensuing food fight pretty much commandeered the gossipers' attention.
"Quit it, already!"
Risty sighed, placing her hands on her hips. "I thought I was supposed to be honing my 'heebie-jeebies', and here you tell me to stop!"
"Sorry, but you're gonna have to find another guinea pig! If you ask me, it works fine, already!" Kitty stomped out of our room, rubbing her arms and shivering.
"Guess she can't take the cold," I laughed.
"Blegh." Risty sank into Kitty's now-vacant chair. "I still don't see the point in sharpening such a useless skill."
"How is it useless? If you can distract opponents with it, they'll fall like dominoes under your physical attacks."
"Oh, get out of it."
"Aww," I cooed, getting up and patting her on the head. "Did I crash Lazarus's pity party?"
"Oi!" She knocked my hand away. "You'll dishevel the 'do!"
Before I could follow through with my snide comment, a knock came at the open door jamb. I glanced up to see Kurt peering around the corner.
"I vanted to talk vith you, just for a sec." He shifted uneasily when he spied Risty. "Oh, sorry, I didn't know you vere busy, I'll-"
"No, it's okay. Is this private, or..."
"Actually..." He seemed to think that over. "Vell, maybe more opinions vould help." After closing the door behind him, he sat gingerly on Kitty's desk. "It's about Amanda."
"What, did you knock her up?"
A glare. "Seriously not funny. No, no, I just... vell, she knows vhat I am."
"She does?" Risty flinched from my outburst.
"It's okay, she says she von't tell," he continued hurriedly, waving his hands. "She thinks it's 'cool', or something. And she still likes me, even vith the fuzz. I..."
"You?" Risty prodded impatiently.
"Vell, I've never had a girlfriend before. For obvious reasons." He clicked off his image inducer for a moment to allow the blue fur underneath to reinforce his point. "I just... I don't know vhat to do."
I shrugged. "The movies are always a good start."
"No, no, no!" Now he was pacing. "I mean, do I start calling her, or vait for her to call me? Vhat sort of presents do I buy her? Should I make my image inducer dress me in sharper threads, or vould that be too superficial?"
"Relax, son," Risty said, laughing. "You're fine the way you are. Of course, coming from me, that's probably not much of a... of... what are you two gawking at?"
"Vhy do you sound like..." Kurt said slowly, his eyes narrowing before they shot open. "Mein Gott, I completely forgot!"
After a moment of confusion, Risty's hand shot to her mouth. "Christ, I- did I say what I think I said? Why did I say that?"
"Um, Risty, please don't do that again," I said shakily. "It's freaky hearing you channel her like that."
"I'm sorry, Kurt," she pleaded, reaching toward him. "I'm sure you don't want to be reminded of- of-"
"I just asked my MOTHER for dating advice!" he wailed, slumping to the floor.
"I... I should go," Risty whispered. Before I could form a thought, she was out the door and running through the halls.
"That was so vierd," Kurt mumbled. "Are you sure they actually split bodies?"
At the moment, I wasn't sure of anything.
A lump formed in my throat as I widened the door, afraid of what I might find. Even now, I'm not sure if I was more relieved or shocked when I spotted Risty in the corner of her room, face buried in the knees of her oversized khakis.
"Hello? Any budding mediums in here?"
"Please," she sobbed. "Don't."
Anybody in that hallway could've heard my heart shattering if they listened close enough. I moved across the room and knelt next to her, reaching for her arm. "Listen-"
"I want them gone," she choked out. "All of them. Maybe Xavier can do it, he has-"
"What are you talking about?"
"That tramp's bloody memories. I don't want to carry them around any longer. I want them OUT!" Suddenly, she started beating her fists into her temples; I grabbed her hands as quickly as I could.
"Stop, Risty! Don't do that, you might really hurt yourself!"
"I do!" When I felt her arms go limp, I released her wrists. "For my sake... don't ever do that again, okay?"
She looked up blearily, and I could see her eyeliner was running a tad. "Why me? Why was I in the wrong place at the wrong time? Why did that bitch have to single me out?"
"I'm sorry, Risty... I wish there was something I could do, I-"
"So do I." She held her knees closer. "Not that it's your fault; I don't blame you, and I never will. I just..."
"I wish she hadn't been there... then maybe we'd still be friends, and I wouldn't be so eerie, and Kurt could talk to me without worrying about his mum's ghost."
My eyebrows knitted. "Wait a minute, what do you mean, 'still be friends'? We are... aren't we?" A sinking sensation began to form in the pit of my stomach. Did I do something?
"We're not; now we're comrades-in-arms. Everything's so confused; before, I knew we could count on one another for support, to share tales and have a laugh... but now..."
No response. She was too busy biting her lip, struggling with inner demons.
"Risty, none of that's changed. We're still 'mates', as you'd say. Well... I'm still yours."
"But what if..." Those hazel eyes were looking at something I couldn't see. "What if something happens? What if we're facing down some villain and I botch everything? What if I make a mistake, if I'm not strong enough, or fast enough, and..."
I waited patiently, my hand on her shoulder. She still couldn't look at me.
"Rogue, what if you die? What if I misstep and it costs you your life? I don't want to be responsible for sending my best friend to her grave!"
Anguish choked me as hard as it had been choking her. I couldn't believe she was so concerned about me - that anyone was, really. "Oh, Risty..."
"Worse yet, what if... what if Mystique's personality resurfaces - and it's not her motherly side? I could attack you!"
"That won't happen!"
"How do you know? How can you be sure I won't go berserk and-"
"You won't! I know you won't, 'cause you're you!" I took a second to swallow hard, to slow my racing pulse. "Risty, Mystique's not pulling the strings anymore, and even if you start to think like her, you're in control! You can kick her dusty old memories to the curb! She's your bitch, now!"
A half-laugh, half-sob issued from her knees. What else could I do but keep my hand on her shoulder? This was not a burden anyone should bear, so I was gonna make damn well sure she didn't bear it alone.
"I'm not worthy of being an X-Man. I can manage a few kung-fu moves, and a decent imitation of Morticia Addams. What good is that against sods that can move rocks with their minds?"
"Hey, at least you have your own powers; I have to get mine on loan."
She smiled up at me - a genuinely grateful smile. "Cheers, Rogue. I'd be lost without you."
"I know." After a few seconds, I reached toward her face. "Your make-up is kinda smudged..."
"Oh, sorry," a voice from the doorway said. "Did I interrupt a tender moment?"
The look of combined nervousness, excitement and alarm made me realize what it must have looked like to Lance Alvers. I lowered my hand, and Risty scooted away an inch or two.
"What do you want?" I spat.
"Hey, easy," he said hastily, backing away a step and holding up his hands. "I'm not here to judge; just lookin' for Kitty. Seen her?"
"She was up here a while ago." I tried to wipe my eyes nonchalantly (and probably failed). "Probably in the pool, now."
"Hey... you guys okay?"
"It's none of your beeswax," I said.
His arms folded over that ugly brown vest of his. "Well, excuse me, princesses. Anyway, I better go find Kitty. Uh... carry on!" He ran for the stairs before I could throw anything at him.
"The nerve," Risty mumbled.
"You were in the Brotherhood house a lot... right?" When a grumpy frown was her only response, I pressed on. "Is... tell me, is Lance just a big jerk, or is Kitty smarter than I thought?"
She seemed to consider this for a while. "No, Kitty's definitely an airy one." We both laughed before she continued. "Lance... he's not as bad as the other boys. There's a good heart buried underneath all that angst and thickness."
Before I could go any further with that, Kurt poked his head in. "Mom?"
Risty blanched. "Look, I said I was-"
"Kidding, kidding," he laughed nervously, walking inside. "But I am sorry for freaking out before... it vasn't fair of me. I'm sure if I vas inside someone's head for a vhile, I'd probably pick up a few personality traits."
"Got that right," I muttered.
"Let's just start fresh," he said, extending a three-fingered hand. "Forget this whole mother-son episode, Ja?"
"I can live with that." She accepted the offered appendage with a grin.
We glanced at the doorway in time to see a brown-and-yellow blur. "Pizza dude's finally here!" Evan exclaimed as he thundered toward the stairs.
"Let's take the shortcut to the kitchen," Kurt said in a low voice, "or else Pincushion there vill get all the pepperoni and bacon!"
"Shortcut?" Risty asked as he grabbed our shoulders. "I don't-"
And a puff of acrid smoke was the room's sole occupant.
••••••••••••••••••X••••••••••••••••••END CH VI