"There you are," Risty said as I walked into her room, laying her magazine aside. "Finally over, eh? So what was all that nonsense?"
I shrugged, crawling onto her bed. "Some mutant case study of the Prof's went poof from a mental institution. We're supposed to be on the lookout for her... but he didn't even show us what she looks like, so I don't see the point in calling a meeting."
Risty nodded. "Well, guess- hang on..."
"Hmm?" I sat back up and was a little surprised to see Risty was clutching the edge of her desk, frozen stiff. "Risty, what's the matter?"
"Well, Xavier thinks she was abducted, but he couldn't-"
"Was her name... Wanda, by any chance?"
"How'd you know?"
"Mystique!" Her eyes were wide with fear - and maybe a hint of frustration?
"What, what is it?"
"She's done it. I'll bet my knickers she's the one."
"Uh, I'm still missing something here..."
"Rogue, do you remember the party we had here at the Institute last Autumn?"
I rolled my eyes. "Like I could forget that disaster. Weber almost killed us with our own automated defences - all because he thought Cerebro was the prototype for tomorrow's X-Box."
"I... I tried to stop her, but- but I was so powerless, just a spectator, it-"
"Risty, what's going on? What happened last Fall?"
She turned and leaned back against her desk, sighing. "Before Weber started playing God Of Destruction with the mansion... Mystique asked him to throw all of Xavier's classified dossiers on a disc for her. One of those was Wanda Maximoff's psychological profile."
"What? Mystique was here, and... and we didn't even know it?"
"I was there, wasn't I?" she said bitterly.
"Oh yeah..." Somehow I kept forgetting they were "Siamese twins" for a while.
"She spent a lot of time looking at Wanda's file. I could tell she was plotting something awful, and Wanda was a key part, but..." Her hands tugged at her purple hair. "If only I'd realised, if only I'd remembered and warned someone..."
"Hey, you remembered now," I said reassuringly. "We can still warn the Prof about Mystique, right?"
Risty stood and strode for the exit. "You do it. I don't deserve the honour."
"I'm not an X-Man yet. It's not my place." As she reached the doorway, she hesitated, then told me without turning, "I need time to think. If I concentrate, I might come up with more helpful tidbits. Maybe, just maybe, I'll prove myself useful without it being moot this time."
I wanted to stop her from going, to tell her she wasn't being fair to herself, but I really didn't know what to say or how to say it. I sat on her bed for several minutes after she'd gone, then got up and left the room. She'd asked me to tell the Professor, and that was the least I could do for her.
"Can't go in there," Kurt said, holding out his hands.
"Why not? And since when are you the X-Secretary?"
"I'm not," he said, leaning against a bookcase. "I'm only stopping you because I just tried the same thing. He's in there talking to Beast and Ororo about something, and they told me to come back later."
"What's wrong? I mean, that you wanted to talk to the Prof about."
"Vell..." I only noticed he was wearing a heavy jacket when he opened the front. It was more than a little startling to see Kurt had a sizable pair of mammaries.
"It's the verpissen image inducer," he hissed, zipping the jacket up again. "The Professor did this to it last Autumn, to teach me a lesson... but today, it decided to revisit the past."
"I can't help it," I said, unable to erase my grin. "Do we call you Katrina now?"
"Oh, you're a riot and a half," he grumbled, walking from the library with a sashay of his womanly hips. It's too bad, since the Professor's office door swung open a few seconds later.
"Kurt, you can- oh," Mr. McCoy said when he spotted me there. "Image inducer on the fritz again?"
"Yeah," I giggled, "but I'm not the one wearing it. Kurt just left."
"I see... are you here to drop in on Charles?"
"Oh, uh, yeah... I had something to tell him... about Wanda."
"Hmm," he answered, blue brow furrowing. "Come in, then."
After I said a brief "hi" to the Professor and Ororo, I sat down in a vacant chair. The Prof got down to business pretty quick.
"I'm sorry, Rogue, but you've caught me at a bad time; things are rather busy at the moment. What's this about?"
If he didn't have time to chew the fat, neither did I. "The girl that got outta the loony bin... Wanda? She might have been kidnapped by Mystique."
Eyebrows raised. "How did you come to suspect this?" Ororo asked.
"Well, Risty said something about it. Evidently, she was here at the party last Fall, and she stole a bunch of secret files. Risty said Mystique used to look over Wanda's file a lot - like that girl was the cornerstone of her next evil scheme."
"Risty, you say?" the Prof asked, looking strangely uneasy. "Just when was this?"
"She just told me today."
"And... where is she now?"
I rubbed my arm, feeling uncomfortable about how my best friend had left. "Um, I dunno... I don't think she's in her room, though. I'll go look for her if you-"
"No, no, that won't be necessary," he said hastily. "I'll... speak with her later. For the moment, I think we should be using Cerebro to see if we can't locate young miss Maximoff. Hank, if you'll call Jean...?"
"Of course," he said, turning to leave.
"Jean?" I asked, looking between Xavier and Ororo. "Shouldn't you do it, sir?"
"I've been... overexerting myself lately, trying to locate Magnus. I'm afraid I'm not up to another run with Cerebro just now. Besides, this presents a perfect opportunity for Jean to train her telepathic abilities on a larger scale."
"Oh," I said lamely.
"Don't worry, Rogue," he said warmly. "It'll be fine. And I'm sure if Mystique issues a challenge, the X-Men will be able to rise to it."
"Yeah." I tried to sound confident when I said it, and to my surprise, I was. Our abilities and teamwork were really starting to come together, especially the last few weeks - well, except for that incident with Iceman. Then I had a thought; maybe there was a way I could help lift my best friend's flagging spirits.
"Really? You... you're not having me on?"
"Not that I know of." Scott beamed at her enthusiasm. "But either way, Professor X's word is good enough for me. Just talk to Jean and Storm about a uniform; I'm sure you'll want a custom job that doesn't make you look like a 'wanker', as you put it, A.S.A.P."
Risty was grinning - half-elated, half-aghast. "A-alright, then!" She looked from him to Kurt, Kitty and me. "This- well, I'm- I don't know what to say!"
"I do!" Kitty exclaimed, hugging her. "Welcome to the X-Men!"
"How do I look?"
It had taken six agonising days for the costume shop to complete the uniform once they got the patterns from Ororo. Though I could tell she had mixed feelings about being a full-fledged team member, our excitement for her proved to be catching - so much that she almost knocked Rahne over as she raced downstairs when the poor girl mentioned a package from Harlequin Custom Garb arrived.
The Lazarus uniform was mostly black spandex, with purple flames leaping down the arms and back; a vertical gray stripe ran down the front and under the matching utility belt, reasserting itself on the pants and disappearing between the thighs. Of course, she couldn't totally escape the blue-and-gold, which were represented as X-insignia on the shoulders and belt buckle. Black gloves and boots with purple buckles completed the ensemble. She'd also taken the liberty of adding a pair of earrings; little silver skulls with amethyst eyes.
"Risty, that's... it's freaking awesome is what it is!" I meant it; that outfit was wicked-cool. "Love those flames!"
"Thanks," she said, twirling with arms outstretched, cheeks glowing. "Half my idea, half Jean's; she suggested the fire match my hair colour. I wanted a cape, too, but Ororo said that would be impractical, considering my assets rely heavily on quick movement."
"Don't want you tripping yourself up," I laughed. "Anything in those belt pouches yet?"
Risty laughed, then emptied the pockets for me. "Throwing stars and extra-pointy jacks, essentially. Logan's suggested I get better acquainted with such things."
"Huh... Teenage Mutant Ninja Brit," I teased.
"Maybe, but I don't fancy talking to any giant rats."
"It did come!" Kitty shouted as she ran into our room. Evan, Scott and Jean followed her in. "That's major fab, Risty!"
"Can I get one like that?" Evan asked.
Risty laughed. "You really want all this violet?"
"Nah," he said, walking around her. "My flames'd have to be yellow. But you are definitely workin' the purple, Laz'!"
"Very nice," Scott agreed. "I can see the planning stage was time well spent."
"Such a fuss," she muttered, blushing and averting her eyes.
"DUDE!" Jubilee said from the doorway. "Ray and Roberto are squaring off near the tennis court!" Then she was off to the stairs.
Evan and Kitty were immediately running for the door. Scott and Jean followed close behind, Jean muttering, "Again?"
"Looks like you're a hit," I said, nudging her with my elbow.
"Yeah..." When her gaze lifted to match mine, my grin slipped a notch. "Rogue, I still don't know about this... are you sure I'm ready?"
"I think you can kick my ass," I laughed, "and I was already on the team! If anybody should back out, it's not you."
"Right..." She took a few quick breaths. "And I've got my heebie-jeebies... and my audio."
I didn't expect that; I also didn't expect her to open another of the belt pouches and produce an mp3 player.
"Um, Risty... I don't think the others will think of that as much of a weapon in the fight against evil."
"Who said anything about fighting evil with it, luv?" she said, putting in an earphone. "I just wanted to listen to some nice, tranquil Radiohead."
I sat bolt upright in bed. Was that part of the dream, or...
Straining my ears, I caught the faint sound of a door closing over Kitty's quiet snoring. It obviously wasn't part of the dream.
I walked over to our door, quietly eased it open, and peered out into the hallway. I could just make out a shape moving toward the stairs. Then, there was a loud thump, a muffled groan, and the shape jumped and wobbled about.
"Bloody son of a..."
It was barely a whisper, but it carried like a shout in the silent mansion. The figure hobbled down the stairs and out of sight.
I quickly moved back to my bed and grabbed my sneakers.
"Risty, is that you?"
I heard coughing, then some kinda clanging around. As I rounded a corner of the garage, a pungent odor hung in the air... around Risty.
"What are you doing out here?"
"Er," she started, hands behind her back, looking like she'd been caught with them in the cookie jar. Then, in a flashback to that APC concert, I recognized the smell.
"I needed it," she pleaded with me, not even bothering to hide the joint in her hand now. "I... my insides are jelly from being thrust into the mantle of X-Man, and... I've been trying to sleep for hours, and it's not working. I needed to calm myself."
"Don't preach," she said tersely. Then her features softened. "Not because I don't care what you think, just... I know. And you're right, it's the coward's way, revisiting old stomping grounds in the face of the unfamiliar." Contrary to her words, on she puffed.
"Y- th-" Yeah, I stammered. This was a side of Risty I had suspected back when we first met, but when I never saw it I just figured my early suspicions were wrong. To step outside one night and find out I was right all along was shocking - and disappointing. "What- when- Why are you outside?"
She blinked, not expecting that one. "Er... come again?"
"Why not just do it in your room? Why walk all the way out here?"
"I... well, don't we have smoke alarms?" She dropped her gaze and took another drag.
"Hand it over!"
I ran a hand through my white bangs. "C'mon, Risty, this isn't you! You told me you hated drugs!"
"This isn't 'drugs'," she protested. "This... this is a remnant from a former life." She sighed and dropped the joint on the ground, stomping on it with malice. "Oh, what the hell am I doing? I don't really want this."
"Old habits die hard, luv."
We both stared up at the streetlight-obscured stars for a few long moments before she spoke again. "I used to be quite a different person before you met me, y'know. You'd hate the old me... you'd recognise her, vaguely, but you'd hate her."
"Oh, come on, I would not."
"Dangerous fun was the name of the game. Cheap thrills and reckless stunts. It was all worth it to spit in my family's over-bearing eye, to put dents in their all-encompassing geas of responsibility and dedication and blah blah blah. I mean, not that I'm a model student now, but in those days..."
"Is that the real reason they sent you over here?"
She smiled weakly, nodding and staring at her boots. "Like I said, they sent me over here to sort out my priorities. They thought some time away from my strung-out friends would place 'getting wasted' a bit lower on the chart."
Her expression went through a thousand changes in a few seconds. Then she sighed, grinning snarkily. "Yeah. Like you said, I hate drugs, now. They were responsible for me being sent off to this miserable country, weren't they?"
"Well, it's what I thought when they told me," she said, shrugging. "I'd never been to America, I didn't know a damn thing about it, other than New York City, Mount Rushmore and Smashing Pumpkins."
"Don't forget hot dogs and apple pie," I added. We laughed, then Risty handed me a blue woolen cap. "What's this?"
"My stash." She couldn't look at me as I unrolled it to stare at the paraphernalia. "Just... just do something with it. I don't trust myself to actually bin the stuff, I've had it far too long."
I pushed the bundle firmly back in her hands. "I'm not gonna do it for you; that's cheating. You can do this yourself, girl."
"You're right." She stared at it for a few more seconds, then put it back in her pocket. "I've got to if I want to let go of pre-Rogue Risty."
My eyebrows arced a bit. Nobody had ever defined the time periods of their life in respect to me before. "You really think of that as-"
Now, most people would probably be scared shitless if they were leaning against a garage door at 2 A.M. and it suddenly started opening. Risty and I were no exception.
Logan blinked at us, helmet halfway to his head. "Eh? What're you two doin' out here?"
"Going for a walk," I lied. Risty glanced at me, but I didn't glance back. "We couldn't sleep."
"Yeah, well get back in there." He finished jamming the helmet over his head and lifted the visor so we could still hear him. "School bright 'n' early in the mornin' and all that crud."
"Where are you going?" I asked, genuinely curious.
"Huntin'," he said shortly, straddling his motorcycle. "And you two insomniacs are throwin' off the scent."
Risty blanched. "Sorry, Sir."
Then he sniffed, and I knew we were dead. "Speakin' of 'scent'..."
••••••••••••••••••X••••••••••••••••••END CH VIII