Chapter 23: Willing to Make Sacrifices (X1)

Notes: Events in this chapter take place around events in the first X-Men movie. In my mind, John is always the incarnation played by Aaron Stanford in X2 and X3. Kitty is not any of the three actresses who played her, heh. David Allyne (Prodigy) is a character from comicverse. He appeared in Academy X and New X-Men.

A tender line drawn from you
   To me that lassoes
The moths of       history
Drawn tight
To our light    they get more than they
Bargained for:
          Self-immolation as tribute
                                   As protest

Something was still fundamentally flawed in the argument, John realized, but he couldn’t find the problem. He put down the poem that he had been revising for a month and sipped his coffee. He looked up at the big screen in the rec room to watch the earnest anchorwoman spooling out the morning’s headlines. In general, John didn’t care about the news, but he often found himself sitting with the current affairs addicts who would catch 30 minutes of CNN between breakfast and first class. Maybe he just liked the coffee that they all drank so earnestly, like a badge of their intensity. They had even arranged their own fancy coffee station, complete with antique Xavier family cups and creamer, so they could amp up and get serious about the state of the world.

This morning’s crowd included the usual suspects: Kitty, Jubilee, Mike and Doug. Special guest stars included the albino empath, Clarice and David Alleyne, one of the latest young mutant refugees. Mike, at the center of the couch, wielding the remote, was the unnamed ringleader of the headline kids and the loudest armchair commentator — broadcast news as spectator sport.

“I don’t get it,” he said, running a tense hand through his short Mohawk. “When did the UN Summit become a conference about mutants?”

Doug wiped off his coffee moustache and replied, “It’s about pressing issues facing the world. We’re a pressing issue.”

Mike shook his head. “No, in the lead-up to the summit, it was all economics and the so-called ‘war on terror.’ Now suddenly world leaders are coming together to freak each other out about mutants. Who hijacked the summit?”

Hank McCoy wandered in, tut-tutting over one of the ubiquitous, canary yellow class schedules. John was always fascinated by the way his somewhat goofy, baby-faced demeanor contrasted with the utterly Neanderthal effect of his over-sized hands and feet.

“Good morning, Dr. McCoy,” Jubilee said with a wave. “Are you going back to Washington today?”

“Yes, later this morning, but Mr. Summers has asked me to teach his first two classes while he’s meeting with the Professor. That is, if I can figure out this schedule. Ooh, coffee!”

He sat on the arm of the couch and transferred his papers to his right foot (which was bare and astonishingly dexterous), while he daintily swirled coffee and cream in a china cup, a silver spoon suspended between two sausage-sized fingers. He observed the news broadcast over the top of his half-moon, wire-frame glasses. “Ah, yes, there’s my superior, the Director of Mutant Affairs, in the background.”

“See? Mutant affairs is all over this,” Mike exclaimed. “Dr. McCoy, how did this summit become all about mutants anyway?”

Surprisingly, it was David Alleyne who had the answer. “Senator Kelly also sits on some important international trade committees. He made sure his pet agenda got addressed in exchange for getting some key trade issues on the table for the foreign leaders.”

Hank raised his cup in salute. “I’m impressed, young man.”

“David.”

“David, you seem to know a great deal about the workings of Washington.”

Kitty hadn’t taken her eyes from the screen and they remained there as she said, “That’s just his mutation, Dr. McCoy. He absorbs the expertise of anyone he’s around. You’re impressed with yourself, not him.”

John stifled a laugh as David cringed with embarrassment and explained, “Not permanently absorbed; just while I’m around the, um, expert.”

McCoy nodded in fascination. “How useful! Nice to meet you, David.”

David puffed himself up. “Call me ‘Prodigy.’”

“Oh, are you all adopting code names, now?” Hank asked, stroking his chin. “It’s sometimes so hard to keep track; reminiscent of watching a Chekhov play.”

Kitty rolled her eyes. “I’ll just be ‘Kitty’ if it’s all the same to you.”

“A rugged individualist! Brava.” He took his coffee and walked over to one of the tables to read.

“Liberty Island,” Mike muttered in disgust, absorbed again by the broadcast. “How amazingly original.”

Jubilee grinned. “Nope, nothing symbolic there.”

“Or ironic,” said Clarice in her spacey voice which they had all grown used to surprisingly fast. John considered how quickly the odd became the norm when you lived in a community like this.

John found the banter more interesting than the news, and listening to his friends was a pleasant distraction from his worries. His worries had two names: Bobby and Drake. After Bobby realized that Scott had left for Canada last night, after he realized that it was too late to somehow make his teacher unsee the two of them humping naked in the Danger Room, Bobby had vanished. He hadn’t returned to their room to sleep and he hadn’t been at breakfast that morning. John would have been worried, but Terry had said she spotted him, running laps on the back field at 6 a.m.

It was almost time for class, and Bobby never skipped; so, while John was listening to the news kids debate, he was watching the door for a glimpse of bronze curls. What he would say to Bobby wasn’t clear, because frankly, John couldn’t fathom why Bobby cared so much what stick-up-his-bum Summers thought of him. John knew better than to be so invested in anyone’s opinion. He picked up his pen:

A web of lies that    Trap!
    the moths of history

A series of expletives and catcalls from the group. John look up at the screen as Senator Robert Kelly, who would probably still look like a tow-headed teen at 80, waved to a group of supporters who were wielding a lot of angry signs with the word ‘mutant’ on them. In a voiceover, the anchor segued from mutant affairs and the summit to yet another profile of the charismatic senator whose fame was on the rise thanks to his mutant registration bill. The protest actually looked kind of feeble, but the report made is sound like something significant.

“Oh my God, do you see that sign?” Jubilee asked. “‘Mutants are killers!’ How can they do that? Isn’t it hate crime?”

“Mutant status is not a protected characteristic under any hate crimes legislation,” Mike answered.

‘Take aim against mutants!’  Something’s seriously wrong with that,” Doug said.

“Yup,” John put in. “The preposition should be ‘at,’ not ‘against.’”

“Is Kelly going to speak to them?” Clarice wondered.

Doug shook his head. “No, just passing through, I think.”

“What exactly is the point of this segment?” Mike asked. “Just make some money riling up Americans?”

David’s lip curled in disgust. “Who are those jerkwad protestors, anyway? Friends of Humanity?”

“Probably,” Clarice answered. “I heard they’re having a big national conference in Colorado next week.”

Everybody found themselves looking at Mike who grew stony-faced. The attack that had brought him to the mansion was something of a legend among the students.

Jubilee put an arm around him and kissed his neck. “Why aren’t they declared a terrorist organization? They should all be in jail.”

A rueful smile crossed Mike’s face. “No, FOH is supposedly legitimate. Just a grass-roots lobby group devoted to informing the American people on the dangers of mutants. No one has proven a connection between them and any violent action.”

“I’ll connect them to some violent action,” Jubilee muttered, balling her fist.

“And there he goes,” Kitty said, shaking her head at Kelly as he climbed into the helicopter. “The new Hitler.”

John laughed out loud. “Come on, Kitty! He looks more like the new Tom Sawyer.”

“Hitler didn’t exactly look scary either, John,” Mike said. “That crazy hair? And the moustache? But he made a lot of people believe his lies.”

John was sorry he’d opened his mouth. He hated political discussions. “Yeah, but why does everyone always say ‘Hitler’ whenever there’s a politician they don’t like? It’s not the same situation and you know it.”

Kitty picked up her books. “We’ll discuss it again one night in the concentration camp, after we’re all rounded up. Let’s go to History class.” She didn’t wait for anyone, just turned and walked out.

They all stood and brought their cups back to the sideboard. John found his foot twitching nervously. “Is she serious about that stuff?” he asked Doug, though he was still scanning the doorway for Bobby.

“Rahne told me Kitty’s been up late, reading all her Holocaust books again. She’s writing about it for her History term paper.”

“Bobby! There you are!” cried Hank McCoy who leaped casually over the back of his chair, landing almost silently despite his size. John spun around and watched Bobby enter the room. “Could you please help me? Are we following grid ‘A’ or grid ‘B’ today? I’m not sure whether I’m covering Scott’s Mathematics or Engine Repair class, neither of which I’m the least bit qualified for.”

John was stupidly nervous as he sidled closer. He noticed that Mike and Jubilee were watching him, sensing that something was up.

“Grid ‘B,’ Dr. McCoy. You should be in classroom 4 at 10 o’clock.” Bobby was his usual confident self. He seemed well-rested and impeccable in his new blue-green plaid shirt. He must have gone back to our room after I left, John realized. Bobby was looking in every direction but his. This shit had to stop and soon.

Everybody was in motion now, clearing the rec room and heading for first period. He had to catch Bobby before class, find out what he was thinking. As John was leaving the room, he spotted himself in a mirror. He had gone into Salem for a haircut on the weekend and assessing it now, he realized Jubilee was right: it was too cute by half. He ran a hand through it, erasing the part in the bangs. He straightened his new red sweater. What was that thing on it anyway? A salamander? He wondered if Bobby would like it... Fuck! he thought as he raced down the hall after Drake, Who the hell am I? I don’t even recognize myself!

The first class was held in the Arboretum — History with Ms. Monroe. Bobby was using his long legs to great advantage, pulling away down the hall so that John had to sprint to catch up. He’s trying to get away from me!

He grabbed Bobby’s arm just before he went through the big doors into the greenest of the classroom spaces. “Bobby, can you cool your jets for a minute? I want to talk to you.”

Bobby turned and stared at him with so blank and unruffled an expression that John was caught off guard. He had been prepared for anger, for panic, for anything other than this impersonal curiosity?. “What about, John? We don’t want to be late.”

Jubilee caught John’s eye as she walked past and he had a desperate desire to ask her to stay and help. But that was ridiculous. He stammered, “Can we... I mean, just for a minute. About last night.”

Bobby’s eyes grew hard in warning. Clarice passed them and he grinned. “Hi, Clarice. Everything going good?”

She smiled back warmly, “Great, Bobby,” and entered the classroom.

The smile switch was summarily snapped off and he lowered his voice. “John, this isn’t the time. And there’s nothing to discuss, anyway. We made a mistake. The whole thing was a dumb idea. Now let’s go in before we get in more trouble.” He turned on his heel and followed the others inside, leaving John confused and directionless.

“Wait, a sec... What do you mean ‘the whole thing?’” He ran after him. “Bobby, cut the bullshit!” But now he was in the Arboretum and people were turning to look his way curiously. Ms. Monroe was writing notes on the blackboard and he had no choice but to take his seat and swallow his confusion for the time being.

“All right, students,” the elegant, white-haired teacher began. “Let’s recap the events around the Battle of Antium. The Roman Senate had voted to —” She stopped and looked up over their heads. “Oh, good morning.”

Everyone turned in time to see Dani walking into the room with a stranger.

Rahne leaned over to John and whispered, “That must be girl the X-Men rescued last night.”

Ororo called to her, “Please take a seat anywhere. We are studying the Roman Empire.”

“There were two of them, I thought,” John whispered to Rahne as he sized up the newcomer. Her eyes were dark and bugging out a bit with nerves, her long hair falling down to cover the pretty face as she sat shyly. She was dressed simply in black but the outfit was oddly accessorized with a long sparkly scarf around her neck and tight brown leather gloves. Weird.

Sam, sitting on his other side, answered the question. “The other one’s still in the med lab. I hear he’s some kind of monster or something.”

John sneered. “Frankenstein or Cookie?”

The new girl found a seat behind him, beside Jubilee who reached out an enthusiastic hand to shake, but the girl backed away as if afraid. Someone been beating on you, sweetheart? John wondered.

John noticed Bobby watching her with interest. The new girl turned his way and he threw her a Drake special smile. Resist him, John thought at her, hoping maybe she was telepathic. He gets under your skin and then you’re fucked. But John could see that she was charmed, compelled, smitten. Just like everyone.

He suddenly felt competitive. He might not have the smile that kills at 50 paces, but he wasn’t without his own arsenal. He reached surreptitiously for his lighter...

In the hall after class, people were anxious to say hello to this “Rogue.” John watched for a while, taking note of the girl’s social strategies. She did the shy flirt thing, inviting guys to take care of her because she was a flower; but there was a core, too. Someone who knew herself. Maybe someone who’d lived a bit more than she had bargained on.

“Of course he’s not a monster,” Rogue was telling Sam with a laugh. Her laugh was definitely on the musical side. “Maybe a bit of an animal. Calls himself ‘Wolverine.’ But he’s honestly kinda sweet. Frankly, I never expected to meet another mutant in the wilds of Alberta!”

“Is that where you’re from?” Fred asked. “Alberto or whatever?”

“No, no, I was passing through. I was hitchhiking to Alaska.”

Bobby was suddenly there. Maybe it didn’t feel like such a big moment to everyone else, but for John, his presence filled the hall. “You were hitchhiking by yourself? All that way? Wow. Where did you start?”

John could see that Bobby’s arrival meant a lot to Rogue, too. She blushed as soon as she saw him.

“Um, from Mississippi, actually. That’s where I… where my family lives.”

John didn’t like the intensity of her stare. Jealous much? he taunted himself. He stepped forward.

“Yeah, Fred, you dumb-ass. Does she sound like a Canuck?” He put on his best ersatz Southern gentleman’s accent, puffing out his chest and bowing graciously. “No, she’s a delicate belle of the South.”

Rogue laughed at his clowning. “I’m anything but! You’re John, right? And Bobby, of course.”

John persevered with his pantomime. “No, no my gracious flower. He is Beauregard the bachelor. And I am the young widow Ivy Lerre de Poison, also known as the Lady in Red.” His body language morphed into something drippingly feminine, but tragic and hard. He had no idea from what deviant brain cell this bullshit was hatching. He had some vague memory of a romance novel in his mom’s bedroom — some cheap tale about a showboat on the Mississippi River, the daughter of wealth in love with the show’s quadroon baritone. The book featured a half-naked hunk and a girl in lace and crinoline on the cover (John had been intrigued by both), and was full of engorged parts and lots of swooning.

In any case, Rogue was amused and the other students a bit astonished — all except Bobby who was fixing him with the coldest look he had. “Yeah, that’s John, all right. The big clown of the mansion. You all settled in your room?”

“Yes, Dani and Terry have been just so sweet. I’m... kind of amazed to be here. Sorry if I’m acting like a retard.”

“Don’t worry about. We all feel like that on our first day at Mutant High.”

Mutant High? John’s eyes went wide. No one calls it that!

“Do you know where Math class is?” Bobby asked.

“I’ll show her,” Kitty offered.

“Great,” Bobby said, the best of big brothers. And as everyone disappeared around the corner: “Hey, John. Talk to you a minute?” His voice was every warm family movie there had ever been. Why wasn’t John relieved?

As soon as they were alone, Bobby’s whole body changed, like chains connecting his balls to his ears were being pulled tight by unseen torturers. “What the hell was that? ‘The Lady in Red?’”

John quickly forgot his intention to stay calm. “I was joking around, asshole. After all, I’m the mansion clown, apparently. Are you going to act like a complete psycho today, Bobby? Because it’s only 9:57 and I’ve already had my fill.”

“What did that mean, anyway? You’re some kind of drag queen now?”

“Oh my god, he’s lost it. Bobby, please. It was fucking shitty luck what happened last night, but it happened, okay? Happened to us, not just you. Did Summers say anything this morning?”

The Amazing Transforming Bobby changed yet again, losing two inches of height as he curled in on himself, his hands twisting up bunches of shirt. “No. I-I have to go look for him. Try to explain...”

“Explain what? That we slipped on a wet patch, flew out of our clothes and landed naked in a pile? Good thing there was a brass bed handy to catch our fall.”

Bobby gave a horrible, tiny moan and took off, his long legs pumping again. John spent the next five minutes folding curse words into obscene origami. This was a going to be a bad day.

To make matters worse, he realized he was now late for Summers’ Math class. He began sprinting through the halls, hoping he could get in before the man in shades locked the door.

John hated feeling cowed by that big bully who twisted Bobby into knots, and he wished he could fry his ass with a well-aimed fireball. But he couldn’t. He needed his life at the mansion. He needed the friends, the support of Xavier with his writing, the sense that he had a future. And he needed Bobby Drake, which he should have seen as weakness. Somehow, though, he felt stronger for having this need. He felt completed by desire, by the chance to care for someone.

He pulled into the foyer and stopped short as he remembered a crucial fact: Summers wasn’t teaching this morning; Dr. McCoy was taking his place!

He would skip Math. The idea of sitting there with Bobby grinning at Rogue and avoiding his eyes... it was too fucking much. He headed for the side door and ran out into the sunshine. Another beautiful spring day mocked his misery.

 

***

 

Scott had appeared in the last 15 minutes of his math class and taken over, much to the relief of Hank who was crumbling under the weight of questions from the confused students. As Scott took his place by the whiteboard, Bobby saw him do a quick scan of the class. He was noting John’s absence, Bobby knew. Scott turned to look at him. Was he blaming him for that, too? It wasn’t fair! John always got him in trouble.

He stayed behind after class at Scott’s request. Sitting alone in a sea of desks, waiting for the teacher to lecture you was a special kind of humiliation. It made you feel bad even before he said anything. Not that Bobby could feel worse than he already did. Maybe if he could speak first…

“Scott, about last night. The whole thing was just a dumb kind of accident. I never intended —”

“Bobby, I want you to return the subbasement key.”

Bobby felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. “But… I have responsibilities there. You need me to —”

“Clearly I can’t trust you with those responsibilities. The Danger Room is not your private playground. I told you that you could not bring other students down there without staff permission.”

“But Scott, you need me! I’m your… your assistant and stuff!”

“Don’t get too full of yourself, mister. There are other students here who have proven their reliability. Now, bring me that key.”

Bobby got up and walked to Scott who stood as still and unforgiving as a gallows. Bobby reached into his pocket and pulled out the electronic “key”, the sleek, X-branded box that had been a sign of his teacher’s approval. The outstretched hand opened in front of him and Bobby stared at it. For a moment, deep inside him, anger bloomed. It had no words or reason attached to it; it was an animal thing, a monster roused in its cave. More than anything, it wanted to leap free and strike. Bobby clamped down hard on the feeling, afraid of its sheer irrepressible power. He watched in shame as cold mist flowed out of his hand, covering the key in frost. He pulled it loose and handed the freezing object over. Scott scowled as the cold metal bit his hand and rubbed it vigorously across his shirt.

Bobby turned away in humiliation but before he could walk out, Jean entered the room. She smiled for a second when she saw him, but he couldn’t hide his feelings fast enough. Her smile vanished and she looked with concern from him to Scott.

Bobby was stuck between them as Scott spoke again, this time to his back. “I warned you about John Allerdyce. When you choose your friends, Bobby, you make serious life choices. I think you’re starting to realize that. You still have time to become the man I believe you can be, but you have to be willing to make sacrifices!”

The animal anger stirred in him again. He was afraid of it. He didn’t dare look at Jean, couldn’t believe she had to see this. Did he have to lose the respect of all the staff in one day? “May I go now, sir?” he managed through gritted teeth.

“Yes. After dinner, I will let you into the subbasement again. I want that bed returned to wherever you found it.”

He couldn’t stay there another second; he pushed past Jean with a barely audible “excuse me” and hurried out the door, pulling it closed after him. He threw himself against the far wall of the corridor and tried to survive the wave of rage and misery that threatened to drown him. His frozen breath formed a fog around his face.

A voice caught him by surprise “Why are you beating up on that poor boy?!” It was Jean, angry and dismayed. Bobby looked up and realized that the door had bounced rather than latching. It stood open a few inches, letting their fight escape into the hall.

“What am I supposed to do, Jean? I put my trust in a student and then find him being mounted like a dog… in a restricted area! I’m telling you, it was all I could do not to grab that punk Allerdyce and throw him out the front door naked!”

Bobby found himself moving back towards the door. He had to close it, shut off the voices; but he stood just outside, unable to move without being caught. Leave! he told himself. And then, It wasn’t John’s fault!

“Here’s a tip, Mr. Assistant Headmaster,” Jean continued, her voice tight with anger. “Don’t hang your problems on your teenage students!”

“What’s that supposed to mean? That wasn’t Bobby I saw last night! That was a good kid losing his direction. Once that happens, it’s over, Jean. You don’t know, you didn’t see that kind of ugliness from your privileged neighborhood?, not the way I did on the streets.”

“So why doesn’t John deserve more of your compassion, since you know how hard the streets are? What makes you superior to him?!”

“I didn’t give in, that’s what. They wanted me to, but I never — NOT ONCE — peddled my ass!”

“And that’s why Bobby’s not allowed to make love to his boyfriend in your school?”

Screaming was not an option, but the effort it took to restrain himself almost killed him. He’s not my boyfriend! I’m not like that! He tricked me!

Then Bobby panicked; she was a telepathic. Was he broadcasting? He took off down the hall, falling through the void into a place without mercy or respite. He wouldn’t survive; he had to find his equilibrium again. He ran to the end of the corridor and burst out through the fire door into the sunshine.

He ran around the back of the school and across the sports field, coming to a halt in the small glade that surrounded the pond. Here he hoped he could find some peace. He realized he wasn't alone — sitting in the gazebo by the water, staring into its green depths was John. Bobby knew him well enough to see that something was troubling him, and he couldn’t stop himself asking: “John, what are you doing here? What’s wrong?”

John’s head snapped up and he stared in shock, as if Bobby had risen from the dead. “What are you doing here, Drake?”

“I-I just needed to be alone.”

John got to his feet. “Me too. Fine, I’ll go.”

“No, I’ll go. You stay.”

John's face hardened. “If I say I’m going to go, then that’s what I mean. Don’t be an argumentative bitch!”

“Fuck you! If I want to go, I can go!”

“But that’s stupid! I won’t be here! You can stay!” John got up and left the gazebo.

“Fine, I’ll stay!” Bobby shouted, exasperated. He stepped into the structure and dropped down on a bench, his arms folded on his chest.

“Good.” John said and Bobby could see him in his peripheral vision, hesitating, waiting for something more to be said. Bobby wouldn’t return his gaze and John finally gave up and took off, stomping away through the tall grass until the silence returned.

Bobby looked down into the water just where John had, as if he would still see his roommate’s reflection caught in its depths, as if he could see a version of their life together where things didn’t have to be a disaster.

 

***

 

John kept trying to make himself scarce as the day went on, but no matter what he did, he kept bumping into Bobby. They both went to the cafeteria for lunch at the last possible moment, hoping to avoid each other, and had to collect their food side by side, in forced nonchalance, each staring at some random moronic spot on the wall.

Their next class was together (Xavier’s advanced Physics seminar) and there was no point in avoiding each other on the short walk to the classroom. So, they walked together, each trying to do outdo the other’s cool.

“Anthropic forces. What a mind fuck!” John said as they walked, almost whistling in his feigned calm.

“Seriously,” Drake returned with a bored yawn, and John could swear they almost cracked up. Maybe then things could have gone back to normal, like the last 24 had never happened. But they didn’t crack up.

Halfway through the seminar, the Professor suddenly spoke telepathically to the five students.

*There is a man on his way here. He is confused and reacting largely on instinct. I do not wish to alarm him further, so please remain calm when he enters. I will disable him if he becomes in any way violent.*

The students glanced at each other in surprise, but the Professor turned to Dani with a smile and asked her to explain the diagram on the whiteboard. It was as if he had never sent the mental warning. It was as if he was playacting and inviting them join in the fun. And when the door burst open seconds later, they all managed to react like it was nothing out of the ordinary that a barefoot guy with crazy mutton chops was running around in X-sweats.

John found it hard to return his gaze to the Professor. This was clearly Rogue’s “Wolverine” and he was, not to put too fine a point on it, insanely hot.

After they were dismissed, they gathered excitedly in the corridor to discuss the bizarre invasion. Kitty seemed to have stayed behind. Would she have any more information on the stranger? But she phased out through the door a few seconds after later, looking disgruntled. “The Professor reminded me that it’s not polite to spy,” she muttered in annoyance.

Thinking about Bobby just hurt his brain, so John spent the afternoon hoping for another glimpse of Wolverine’s hot hairiness. Among other things, he couldn’t forget the way the guy’s junk had been swinging in the sweats. Guess he couldn’t find any X-underwear, he thought with pleasant shiver.

Wolverine was the big news of the day, but the only one who saw him before dinner was Roberto, who was on a bathroom break during fourth period when he spotted the mysterious mutant with Dr. Grey, disappearing into the subbasement elevator. He had run back to class, whispering excitedly, like he was a naturalist who’d made a big discovery in the jungle.

The students were already eating dinner when Wolverine entered the cafeteria with the doctor and Professor Xavier. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared. This seemed to make the man very uncomfortable; in fact, he looked ready to bolt. The moment was smoothed over when Rogue jumped happily to her feet and joined the group at the door. John watched her bouncing around the guy and realized he wasn’t the only one who would happily get Wolverine horizontal. In any case, her hair flipping and ass wiggling seemed to do the trick and he agreed to come in and eat, which he did at the teachers’ table, his back to the students.

John was seated with a group that included Bobby and Rogue, but he had placed himself at the end of the table, far enough away that he could watch them without getting too involved. Rogue made a point of including him in the conversation from time to time, but he found he could just throw out a quip, make her laugh and then be left alone again. Bobby was working hard, he noted, setting the girl up with different students to get notes for all her new classes, promising to go into Salem with her on the weekend to buy essentials. John squinted his eyes at Bobby’s cheerful demeanor. Something’s off, he thought. Bobby’s freaking out and he won’t let it show.

He got to his feet and Rogue looked up. “No dessert for you, John? Bobby says there’s cherry pie tonight!”

“I thought you’d prefer peaches, sugah!” John drawled in his fake accent and she gave him the finger with such ladylike discretion that he almost said, “you got to be kidding.”

He scowled his way across the room and dropped down at another table with Mike, Jubilee and Doug. “I need information,” he declared.

Jubilee nodded as if she had been expecting his arrival. “Me and Doug have been piecing it together.”

“Is this a gossip session?” Mike asked and got to his feet. “Because I don’t like gossip sessions.”

John smirked. “Why don’t you go watch some pre-summit programming. I hear Joan Rivers is doing the red carpet tomorrow.”

“And a ha-ha to you, too,” Mike said. He kissed Jubilee on the cheek and left.

“Bye Mike,” Doug said brightly. As soon as he was gone, the three dropped their heads into conference mode, lowering their voices, their eyes darting around the room.

“Something’s up with Bobby,” John started.

“Yes, and we suspect you’re involved,” Jubilee said pointedly, “but we’ll interrogate you later. We think he had a fight with Scott some time around lunch.”

“He lost access to the subbasement,” Doug said.

John bit a hunk off his thumbnail. “Shit, how do you know?”

Jubilee nodded minimally towards Peter who was in some serious discussion with Neal. “Terry saw Scott teaching the big guy how to use the key gizmo.”

Doug nodded, adding, “And Jones and me accessed the permissions log. Bobby was removed from alpha status at 1415 hours.”

John turned and watched Bobby and Rogue carrying their dishes off to the clean up area. With gallant flair, he took her tray and tucked it in with the dirties. “It all makes sense. He’s in good boy overload — compensating. What about the hairy guy with the hairy attitude?”

Doug shook his head. “Not much yet. We found a Canadian travel article from a few months ago that mentioned the ‘King of the Cage’ as the only attraction in this small town. Sounds like he’s been basically a circus act up North.”

They looked at Wolverine, hunched over his food, eating ravenously and not looking like much of a conversationalist. The Professor studied him in silence; Jean was shifting uncomfortably in her chair. Scott was nowhere to be seen.

Jubilee gave John an appraising look. “What do you think about him?”

A sly smile crossed John’s lips. He reached over and grabbed Doug, pulling him under his arm in a headlock. “Hey! Quit it!” the boy squealed, unable to see anything but the floor.

John held him firm as he mouthed his opinion of Wolverine to Jubilee: “Wow!”

“Really!” she said, her eyebrows going up. “I guess I can see it.”

John’s let his eyes go droopy with lust. He ran his tongue obscenely around his lips and she let loose one of her barking laughs. John released Doug who popped back up like a jack-in-the-box. “What? What did you guys say?”

“Sorry, kid, no admission under the age of 17.”

“Did you know,” Doug began, undeterred, “that wolverines are loners? They’re fierce hunters, but they’re so rarely seen in the wild that one researcher who’s studying them has only made one partial sighting after, like, seven years in the field.”

John sized up the mysterious beast who was now managing to make monosyllabic conversation. “So, bagging one would be a feather in the old hunting cap, huh?”

“I guess,” Doug said.

“Thanks for the download, kids,” John said, getting to his feet, wiping his hands on the thighs of his jeans and leaving his tray, knowing full well that Doug would return it for him. “I have appointments to keep.” He marched from the cafeteria, pointedly ignoring Bobby and Rogue, though he would have liked to know if they noticed him ignoring them.

Jubilee caught up with him just outside the door. “Hold it! What are you up to, Allerdyce?”  Now that she asked, he realized he didn’t actually know. He just needed to do… something! She looked him over as if she was assessing the best angle of attack. “Are you and Bobby breaking up?”

He snorted. “Is it possible to break up if you’re not together? Bobby seems to think our entire relationship was some kind of mistimed mini-golf tournament.” He meant it to be funny but it depressed them both. “How many people know, Jubilee?”?

“About what? You and Bobby? That worrying you?”

“I don’t give a shit what they think about me!” he said and cracked his neck. “I’ll dance around in a red dress if I feel like it. But yeah, how many know about him? About us?”

“Me and Mike, obviously. Terry suspects and Kitty’s a fool if she doesn’t.”

“That one keeps her cards close to her chest.”

“Stuck up.”

“Nah, she just thinks it’s the end of the world,” John replied. “But whatever. And Doug knows. Jones busted us twice so Doug must know.”

She shook her head definitively. “Nope. Not a clue. Guess Jones can keep a secret.”

John was surprised and impressed with the kid. “And of course, all the teachers.”

“Yeah, I guess they must.”

“Oh, you’re so fucked, Drake,” he said and let himself slide down the wall until his butt hit hardwood. He was suddenly very tired.

Jubilee joined him on the floor. “Poor Bobby. He won’t even talk to Mike about it, will he? Boys are incomprehensible.”

John banged the wall with the palm of his hand. “This is such bullshit. You know what I should do? I should fucking just tell everyone! Write ‘Drake is a Fag’ in lipstick on a mirror in the boys’ washroom.”

She clucked her tongue reprovingly. “And that would help how?”

John stared into her eyes and all the anger, fueled by secrecy and lies, flared up in him. “He’d have to stop fucking hiding! He’d have to admit who he is to everyone!” He felt his breath catch on something sharp. “He’d have to tell them what I mean to him.”

Footsteps and voices. “We have a room prepared for you, Logan.” It was Doctor Grey and the Wolverine. Logan?

They passed by. Wolverine didn’t spare the two students a look, but Dr. Grey gave them a brief smile.

John felt his energy return. He was on his feet in a second and moving after the pair who had vanished around the corner.

Jubilee called out behind him. “Yo! Allerdyce! Where do you think you’re going?”

John spun around and smiled as winningly as any Drake. “Me? I’m going hunting.”

Jean walked the visitor up the stairs to a guest bedroom, and John trailed them, staying one turn of the corridor behind. He was pretty sure Wolverine was checking out her ass, which she was practically serving up in her tight red skirt. She vanished into the room with the man and John waited a long time for her to emerge. Hanky panky? he wondered. Summers showed up after a while and John ducked into the shadows. He hoped there would be some entertaining trouble. He liked the idea of someone pissing in Scott’s presumed territory.

Finally, both teachers were gone, back to their room to fight or fuck. John felt his heart begin to beat faster. It had been a long time since he’d felt this particular kind of excitement, and he forced himself to act before he lost his nerve. He knocked decisively on the door and waited just a moment before Wolverine swung it open. The man’s every movement was coiled energy. John almost turned and ran as the dark eyes took his measure. The sheer energy of the physical presence was absolutely intoxicating.

“What do you want?” the man said with no pretense of politeness.

“Hey, just welcoming you to the School for Gutted Roosters, Logan,” John said with a smooth smirk and pushed past Wolverine into the spacious room. “Nice digs. The Ikea mirror is a bit cheesy, but I’m sure you’ll make the place your own soon enough. I’m John.”

He turned and found the man with his arms crossed on his chest, not looking terribly amused. John felt sweat dripping down his side. He watched as Logan sniffed the air and made a low growl.

“Forget it, kid. I’m not going to fight you.”

John turned his real surprise into a show of surprise. “Fight you? Why would I want that? You could snap a guy like me in two.”

“Exactly. You don’t strike me as the tough-guy type, but there’s always someone who thinks he’s man enough to take me.” He sniffed again, audibly. “And you got the scent on you.”

John dared move towards him, letting his hips slide like he used to when he approached a customer’s car. “No, Logan, you’re confusing your pheromones.” Now he was standing close enough that he could smell the Wolverine in return. Earth, fur, fire. “I was just wondering if maybe you could use a nice warm blowjob before bed. Help you sleep…”

The growl, at close quarters, was bone-chilling. Suddenly strong hands were on his shoulders and he was being pushed out the door. He stumbled a bit, but regained his balance. He turned, panting, eyes bright and, as Wolverine slammed the door, John called out, “Offer good anytime!”

John could smell himself now. Arousal and fear. He rubbed his hard-on through his pants and then reached inside to adjust it. A chill went through him, and then he started to laugh, ever louder and wilder, until he was boogeying down the hall, howling like a coyote.

 

***

 

Night descended on the mansion.

Bobby walked the halls, thinking, avoiding contact whenever possible. He wondered if he would return to his room to sleep.

He had spent the previous night in a spare bedroom, feeling a kind of pride in his right to come and go anywhere in the mansion he pleased. He had been the first of the new students and the first favorite of the teachers. Of Scott’s. Now, he no longer knew who he was. Just one of the crowd. Not the most powerful, not the brightest, not the most trusted. His room might have been a place of sanctuary in this trying time, if it didn’t contain the the nuclear core of his troubles: John Allerdyce, St. John, Pyro. The poet whore. The burning valentine.

So he walked the corridors without destination, long past curfew, resting one place or another, trying to read a textbook only to find himself drifting off, and then awakened again by the acid memory of Scott in the Danger Room, Scott taking away the subbasement key.

There had to be a way out! He found himself thinking of Rogue. He saw something of himself in her. Like the girl from Mississippi, he had fled home when his powers manifested. She’d put her boyfriend in a coma; he had taken out the neighbor’s dog. They had a bond; something to build on. A way out.

John sat on his bed, taking stock. He had reached for the light when he came in, but decided darkness was safer. The crazy stunt with Logan had faded into a dull ache of regret. He was scared he’d only be able to soothe that ache with further acts of desperate escalation. He knew he had it in him to become something terrible. The thought filled him with excitement and sick fear. Better not to go there. Better to take stock, ground himself in what he already had.

To begin with, he took stock of Bobby Drake’s body, seeing how much of it he had memorized over their six months of being lovers. There was the golden brown hair, which he loved to run his fingers through as they talked absently in the middle of the night. There were the perfect teeth which sometimes dared bite him. There was the shoulders and neck, like a work of Classical antiquity, carved from the finest marble, flexing and straining above him at the moment of orgasm. There were two balls and 10 toes and eyes which skittered like cornered animals when challenged, before they grew soft and brave and gave up their secrets. And that was where he found the true Bobby, the one that maybe no else in the world knew. Even the memory of the eyes hurt tonight, so he snapped on his bedside lamp to extinguish their intensity.

Mountains of paper, notebooks and scraps were piled on the floor beside his bed. He picked up the piles and arranged them carefully around himself, taking stock of his poetry. He asked himself what it was finally worth? Why did he bother capturing the moments of his life in words, like trapping flies in amber? What were words compared to lives? Merest imitation at best; at worst, an insult. He could destroy all his words in a moment and that would show Xavier, would show them all. Show them what? That he was willing to make sacrifices. He turned the pages under his fingers with great delicacy. They were his history and he couldn’t help it; he loved them.

Will Bobby return tonight? he wondered.

Like the others, Bobby ran when the Wolverine shouted for help. He remembered the helplessness he felt, standing in the scrum of students, watching the terrible wounds on Rogue’s back, watching them heal, watching the scary mutant man fall unconscious at her touch. He was ashamed to admit it, but in that moment he thought of her as a monster. The students huddled close and he wondered, Where is John? Is he okay?

John had fallen asleep in his clothes. He started awake and sat up when he saw the silhouette in the door. The figure didn’t move until he called its name, until he turned out the light and opened his arms.

There was no way they could have reached each other with words that night; the only words they had left were recriminations, accusations, slanderous truths; but their bodies could still speak the secret language they had invented together. All the tenderness their words had forgotten, their bodies remembered. And it was like a memory, even as it happened. Like something whose time was already past.

 

***

 

Rogue was gone and Senator Kelly was at the mansion. These two facts weighed heavily on Kitty’s mind. She hadn’t spoken much to Rogue — in fact, Kitty wasn’t talking a lot to anyone lately — but she thought the girl was okay; tougher than she seemed under the Southern belle shtick. And now she was gone. Poof.

The terrifying rumor was that Magneto had taken her, though the teachers weren’t telling the students anything. Kitty was frustrated at how they were being treated like kids. After all, it was one of them who had been abducted. But the X-Men were in bunker mode and she had to gather clues where she could. The Wolverine guy was especially pissed off; he looked ready to take anyone or anything apart to get Rogue back. Kitty wondered what it would be like to have a guardian like him.

And Kelly! The idea that he was there with them was so surreal, she had to keep reminding herself it wasn’t a horror scenario she had dreamed. How could her ultimate boogey man have stepped out of the news and entered her sanctuary? It was too bizarre. It was infuriating!

“Yes?” came the voice from the intercom by the subbasement elevator.

“It’s me, Ms. Monroe,” she said.

“Come down, Kitty; I’m in the office off the med lab.” The elevator door slid open and Kitty stepped in. As she walked the shiny corridors below, she observed everything with careful attention. She had always been fascinated by the existence of a high-tech world beneath the stodgy pretension of the mansion. She wished their classes were all down here. She phased her head through random doors to see what lay behind them, but the lights were all off and Ms. Monroe would notice if she took too long to get to the med lab.

Kitty found the beautiful, white-haired teacher in an office littered with Jean’s notes. Ms. Monroe was marking history papers on her laptop. “Hello, Kitty. I’m sorry to make you come down here for our meeting, but as you know, we’re having a very hectic day.”

“Any news about Rogue?”

“We’re working on it,” Ororo said, signaling that the matter would not be discussed further. “I want to talk with you about your proposed topic for your final paper.” She scrolled through a directory until she found the document. “‘A Mutant Holocaust?’ Provocative title. As I understand it, you want to compare circumstances in the early days of Nazi Germany with what is happening now in America.”

“Right. I guess I’m asking if mutants are being as blind as the Jews were to what was coming.”

Ororo crossed her hands in her lap and sat up very straight, thinking. “Already I see unfounded assumptions in your thinking. Were the Jews blind? Some were aware that genocide was part of the Nazi agenda. But how easy was it to leave, and what countries had opened their doors?”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know, I’m just pointing out that you have be clear on all your facts before you state your thesis. The dissection of history requires a sharp scalpel.”

“Med lab influencing your choice of imagery?”

Ororo smiled. “Perhaps. Tell me the areas in which you will focus your research.”

“Well, I have questions I want to answer. Was the anti-Jewish propaganda similar to the anti-mutant propaganda we’re hearing now? Was Hitler’s rhetoric similar to that of...” She paused. They both turned their heads in the direction of the dimly lit ward beyond the glass. Kitty could just make out a form on one of the examining tables. Why had he come here? Was it a trap? If it was true and he was somehow hurt or in trouble, why did the Professor take him in? She would have kicked his ass down the driveway, naming all the mutants who had been tortured and driven from their homes by his followers.

“Please continue, Ms. Pryde,” Ororo said, pulling her attention back.

She realized her heart was pounding. She forced herself to concentrate. “Um, what about Magneto and his manifesto? Was there a similar figure in Poland or Germany? Perhaps a resistance leader who came to symbolize the fight?”

“Those are all very interesting ideas, but I think you need to focus. There’s enough scope there for a Masters thesis. Why don’t you find the one area you are most passionate about and build your paper there?” Ororo paused and looked at her with those large, warm eyes. “Are you sure this is a good topic for you take on, Kitty? You’ve seemed troubled, lately. Did your family lose relatives in the Holocaust?”

Kitty dropped her eyes to the floor. “That’s not why... I mean, yes, but that’s not why I want to study this, I...” She looked up at her teacher again. “I can’t stop myself thinking about it. What would happen if... if they came for us? There would be no one to stand up for mutants. I have these dreams that they’re here, in the mansion, and we realize we acted too late.”

Ororo put two hands on Kitty’s shoulders and Kitty could feel her strength. “Listen to me, Kitty. The X-Men will defend their students, and believe me, we can. Furthermore, it is not true that no one will stand up for us. America is slow to change, that’s true, but it does change. Think of the Civil Rights Movement, think of the growing acceptance of lesbians and gays in our society.”

“Think of the blacks and gays who are still murdered everyday.”

“My child, we have to learn to both fight and believe. It is only with hearts and minds working in tandem that we have a chance. I give you permission to do this topic, but you must narrow your focus. Furthermore, you must be clear-minded. Do not use your studies as an excuse to reinforce your fears. You must also look for hope in the lessons of history.”

Kitty felt the wall of skepticism grow within her, but she would fight it. She wanted to trust her teacher. “All right, Ms. Monroe. I’ll try.”

“Thank you. Now, please go to the elevator and let yourself out. I have to remain on duty here.”

Kitty walked out into the corridor, her mind buzzing with all they had discussed. She walked slowly, fingertips tracing the cool aluminum of the walls.

Then she stopped, suddenly seized by an impulse that she could not resist. She looked back towards the door and, seeing no movement, phased through the wall and into the ward of the med lab. She ducked behind an empty bed and then rose slowly, looking out to where the figure lay.

You could do it, she thought. What if this was 1935 and Adolph Hitler was lying there on that bed? Imagine if you... stabbed him, or cut his throat or something. Sure, it would be hard, but how many would have been saved?!

She was sweating now. She noticed a tray of scalpels on a rolling table just by her right hand. It was as if destiny was prompting her. Would she know where to cut? What if her hands were shaking and... and he grabbed her? No! She would have to be strong! Quick!

But she wasn’t a murderer! This was absurd. Still, history was made by the bold, the ones who weren’t afraid to strike! But what about the peacemakers who didn’t get their names in the books? Ms. Monroe always said they were just as important. All the women who continued to feed their children as bombs fell, all the people who hid the persecuted…

A voice rose eerily from the darkness. “Hello?” Senator Kelly called out. She froze. “Is anyone there?”

He sounded frightened, alone. Ororo appeared and talked gently to the man. He was the same Robert Kelly who had stood in public only yesterday and called for mutants to be tagged, marked as the Jews had been. How could she be kind to him?

Kitty looked down at her shaking hand and found she was holding one of the scalpels. When had she picked it up? Shocked, she replaced it on the tray, concentrating so the blade wouldn’t clatter. She crawled back to the wall and phased through.

She ran to the elevator, crying, unable to believe she had even contemplated the deed. What have I become? she wondered. What’s going to happen to us?

 

***

 

A week of beautiful weather had given way to a weekend of rain in Westchester. Perhaps it was appropriate in light of all that had happened in the last 24 hours. Mike sat in the unnatural quiet of the rec room, reading through all the big national papers, shaking his head in disgust.

“It’s not good,” he told John who sat beside him, reading Chuck Palahniuk. “Maybe the X-Men should have had a press conference… told everyone that they were the ones who stopped Magneto.”

“Doesn’t matter,” John answered without looking up from his book. “Whether mutants are the good guys or the bad guys, we still get all the blame.”

This answer infuriated Mike. First of all, he felt slighted by John’s use of “we.” Was he deliberately excluding Mike? Didn’t he know that Mike cared just as much, even if he wasn’t genus homo superior? But worse, it seemed like John didn’t even give a shit about public opinion and its effect on the lives of mutants across the country. Maybe he was depressed. Jubilee said that Bobby was messing with his mind. Mike knew he should say something, but he still didn’t feel like gay relationship counseling was something he could handle.

Of course, everyone was depressed today.

Andi Murakami entered the room, carrying a bright yellow raincoat over her arm. Other than that point of cheer, she seemed as sad and grey as the weather; as them all. She came and sat with the two boys, managing to produce a sad smile. “Hi Mike, John. How are you guys doing?” John grunted a minimal reply without looking up.

“You read the news,” Mike said. “Did you come to see the Professor?”

“Yes, I was just down in med lab.” She sighed. “Jean says he’s completely unresponsive, even telepathically. But she’s trying to reach him. She says not to give up hope.”

Mike watched John begin to bite his nails and realized that he was only feigning his indifference. Xavier was practically a father figure to him.

Andi looked around the empty room. “Wow, I’ve never seen the mansion this quiet.”

“I think mostly people are hiding in their rooms.” Mike said.

John gave a bitter sneer. “Listening to emo tunes on their iPods and eating comfort food.”

“Your cynicism gets old pretty fast,” Mike snapped. John shrugged, picked up his book and went to lie on one of the couches. Mike’s head sagged. “I just feel so dumb, Andi.”

“Why ‘dumb?’”

“I don’t know. I guess with all the shit going down, I feel like I don’t belong here. It’s like I don’t have the right to worry about the Professor because I’m not a mutant. I feel like everyone’s looking at me and saying, ‘Why exactly is that flatscan here?’” He dropped his head into his hands miserably. “Did you know I have to go back to Boston in September? The Professor let me stay this semester, but my parents want me home for senior year. I’ve been here six months and I was no help at all. I feel like a tourist.”

“Look, I wish I could say you’re being ridiculous, but I know exactly what you mean. I worry that I look like some condescending anthropologist studying the natives.” She leaned in closer. “But, Mike, it’s not true. Everyone here wants the same thing: peaceful co-existence between mutants and non-mutants. They all know how far you’d go for the cause.”

“Yeah, except I don’t shoot lasers out of my fingers or anything. I just make big speeches.”

Andi laughed. “And I just make questionnaires that no one fills out. What a joke, huh?”

Something began to tickle at the back of Mike’s brain. “What if you, like, went all over the country and met mutant teens. They could fill out your questionnaire and you could, um, do a sort of traveling youth group.”

Andi shook her head. “It’s been hard enough to keep one going in New York City. But in Salt Lake or Fort Worth? I doubt mutant youth there would take the risk of being seen.”

Points were connecting in Mike’s synapses. “What if… What if it was a concert? A concert by a mutant musician! My friend, Xeno is this amazing performer. He could, you know, do a performance at a community center wherever and the kids would be inspired to show up. And you could be there to survey them.”

Andi was blinking fast and Mike could tell his idea was catching fire in her brain. “And maybe we could give them the basic skills of peer counseling… Find a few youth in each city who would help form a local group.”

“Sure! We’d be seeding the idea around the country, city by city!” Mike could see it clearly in his head: shy kids, daring to be seen in public as mutants for the first time, to meet each other, to find strength in numbers. Like the students at the mansion, like the ones at the Spiderhole in Boston.

“Oh my God,” Andi exclaimed. “What if we got Tonio and Derek to do their act as well? It would be more like a festival. A traveling festival of mutant music!”

Mike’s enthusiasm hit a wall. “Wait, no! They completely suck! They were a joke at the network protest!”

“The audience liked them! Besides, it was their first performance! I’m sure if they practiced —”

“They’d only suck 90 percent.”

“What if your musician friend helped them? Worked on the music with them!”

“But their rhymes were terrible!”

“John! John could help rewrite them.”

From behind the sofa back came a voice of protest. “What? No! Leave me out of this!”

Mike jumped to his feet. In his head, the festival already existed and he wasn’t going to let one cynical jerk with a broken heart fuck it up. He descended on John. “C’mon, this will only work if we pull together! Think of it as an exercise in poetry! Think of it as a chance for your words to find an audience.”

“Get out of my face, Haddad!” John said by way of encouragement and stormed out of the room.

Mike nodded and said to Andi, “It’s cool. Jubilee will make him do it.”

Andi got up as if she were about to dance or leap in the air. “I can’t wait to tell the Professor our idea!” she enthused and they both froze, slowly descending back into their chairs. “When… when he’s better,” she said.

The rain fell against the windows.

 

***

 

John stormed through the halls, clutching his book like a crucifix against any other vampires who wanted to feed off his life juices. He just wasn’t in the fucking mood for anyone’s good news future. Writing rap lyrics? C’mon! He wouldn’t be able to show his face in front of Xavier again. Not that it would be any of the old man’s business…

He thought of the Professor lying unconscious in the med lab. Jean had let John down early that morning but he hadn’t stayed long. He could barely look at the sunken figure lying on the bed, hooked up to machines that seemed to be stealing more from him than they were giving back. Fuck, he looked like death! John thought. He knew his own dad had died of cancer when he was still a little boy, years after the man had left John and his mom to fend for themselves. John had gotten a bit obsessed about his dad’s death when he was 13, pestering his mom and the biology teacher at school with questions. “Does the cancer eat you like an alien? Like from the inside? How bad is the pain? What does morphine feel like?”

All these morbid thoughts were irrelevant, though. Xavier wasn’t going to die. Simple as that. John could only take so much betrayal all at once! He climbed the stairs towards the dorms.

Of course, some rap sort of pricked his ear pleasingly… the way the rhymes would go off-kilter, stacked up like a hundred plates carried by a waiter on roller-skates. He could see the appeal. Maybe he could look at Derek and Tonio’s performance on Youtube, see what the chances of humiliation were if he got involved. He was walking towards his room when he heard a commotion somewhere behind him.

“Get the fuck out of my face or I will rip yours right off you!”

Goosebumps ran down John’s back when he heard the voice. It sounded familiar, but the cadences and the voice itself were utterly wrong together.

“Rogue, listen…” Bobby’s voice, full of false lightness, like when he was trying to talk John down from a black mood. “Hey, you’re just a bit confused… why don’t we go sit down…”

They were coming his way. John ducked into the bathroom and opened the door just a crack to peer out.

She burst around the corner with Bobby in hot pursuit. Rouge spun to a halt and glowered at him in a fighting stance. Despite the fact that he had 10 inches on her, she looked formidable. She wasn’t the same girl he had known for the past three days: she was someone else, someone you didn’t mess with. She was Wolverine. “I’m warning you, bub,” she growled. “You’re this close to getting some fresh holes in your torso!”

She raised a fist as if it had long claws growing from it and Bobby flinched, but held his ground. His bravery was kind of impressive, actually.

“Rogue, honey,” he cooed. Honey? “It’s me Bobby. You don’t want to do this. It’s just ‘cause you absorbed so much of Logan, right Marie?”

Marie? John wondered. Is that her real name? And HONEY? But hearing her name seemed to have the intended effect. John watched as her posture changed completely. She reached out for Bobby in a gesture of apology or misery and, when he jerked back from her lethal hand, she dropped her head into her hands and cried. There were mutations John envied, but hers wasn’t one.

Bobby gathered the weeping girl into his arms, being careful only to touch clothing. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she moaned and he cooed at her that it would be okay, that everything would be okay. John watched this drama with confusion. This was the Bobby he admired — ready to help with a generosity and open-heartedness that John could not imagine in himself. At the same time, he didn’t like it. Why wasn’t it him in Bobby’s arms? Why wasn’t it Bobby saying “I’m sorry”?

Bobby steered Marie towards the girl’s wing with his arm over her shoulders, her head resting on his chest. So fucking cozy, John thought and cursed himself for a jealous fool. Hadn’t Bobby returned to his bed last night? But it wasn’t warm, was it? It had been a desperate explosion of need, each one trying to find solace in the other’s body, two storm-tossed ships tied together, but still at the mercy of the waves. And Bobby had been gone again when John awoke the next day, already doing laps around the back field like he was still trying to outrun that storm.

John went back into the bathroom to take a leak. As he washed his hands, he looked at his froofy haircut in the mirror again. It had to go. Trying to be someone different was Bobby’s game, not his.

He left the bathroom and was heading down the hall to his room when Doug called him. The door was open to the room the boy shared with Jones. The two were huddled like twin Frankensteins of the wired world around the terrifying workstation they had built. Peripherals of all descriptions coiled like mating snakes and met in routers that were duct-taped together and labeled in marker with obscure names (“tinMan07-b1”) and decorated with crude cartoons of chicks with gigantic tits.

Two enormous flat screen monitors showed various consoles and apps John couldn’t even name. On the right-hand screen was a freeze-frame of Bobby in the subbasement.

“What’s this?” John asked warily, remembering when Jones had caught him and Bobby on security cams back in the fall. But Jubilee said he hadn’t told Doug anything…

“Footage of the intruder who freaked Rogue out on Friday,” Doug answered. So far, Jones hadn’t even looked John’s way, he was staring at the screens with his mouth open, blinking windows open and closed.

John was confused. “But it’s Bobby!”

Doug smiled and nodded. “Watch. Jones, play it from 00:15:35:24.” No response. “Jones!”

Jones’s mouth snapped closed and he turned to Doug. “What? Oh, hey, John.”

“Hi, kid.”

“00:15:35:24,” Doug repeated. “And bump up the gamma 9%.”

Jones blinked. The video scrolled back and John watched as Bobby emerged from the elevator, a small figure in the distance, quickly growing as he approached the camera.

“Cam’s above Cerebro’s doors,” Doug explained.

Somthing was wrong with the way Bobby was walking. It was wrong the same way Rogue’s body language had been wrong when she was channeling Wolverine. This Bobby was all poise and economy, his shoulders somehow looser and more sensual. He came to halt, filling the screen from the waist up; and then he changed. The metamorphosis to the blue, fringed body started from below, the head transforming last. Jones blinked and the picture froze.

John felt his stomach lurch. The change was repellant, though the final figure was as gorgeous as she was terrifying. A Cirque du Soleil nightmare.

“Mystique,” Jones said. “She’s one of Magneto’s main people. You can find some cool video of her online, but its crappy quality. I can’t wait to post this!”

Doug rolled his eyes. “You can’t, dummy, it’s secure X-footage. We’d be so busted so fast.”

Jones snorted and giggled. “Hey, hey, watch this!” he said, excited. He blinked and the security cam ran backwards, freezing on the last stages of the transformation: Bobby’s head on Mystique’s curvaceous blue body. All three boys cracked up. John thought how Bobby would die if he saw it, but it was so funny. Especially after Drake had bugged him for camping it up in front of Rogue. Who’s the drag queen now, asshole? John thought.

Jones blinked several times and John watched the image duplicated and re-opened instantly in another window. Text typed itself across the picture: “Playmate of the Year!!!!” Their laughter climbed higher. Then an email client flashed open, a new letter window appeared, complete with the doctored image and, just as fast, it was gone.

John stopped laughing. “Wait... What did you just do?”

Jones was giggling, slurping back a drop of drool that tried to escape his mouth. “Nothing.”

Doug, still breathless with laughter, gave his shoulder a whack. “Jones! That wasn’t cool!”

John grabbed Jones by the shoulder and spun him around violently in his swivel chair. “Who did you just send that fucking message to?!”

Jones’s eyes went wide. “Uh, everyone. It’s just a joke.”

“You little shit! Don’t you know how that’ll make Bobby feel?”

Jones looked like he’d been slapped. “But John… I didn’t mean anything. It’s just so… funny… I thought —”

“After how nice Bobby’s always been to you, you totally humiliate him in front of everyone?! And you know what he’s going through! You know he’s in trouble with Scott and everything!” John watched tears appear in the boy’s eyes, but he couldn’t stop himself. He had been laughing like an idiot, too, enjoying Bobby’s perfect little image made foolish. But he didn’t want this, didn’t want Bobby brought down this way.

Doug tugged Jones’s sleeve. “Get up, let me do something.” Jones got meekly to his feet as Doug spun the chair around and began typing rapidly, cutting and pasting bits of code from a directory named “uSEFUL.” In under a minute, he was finished and John watched uncomprehending as Doug opened a console and typed code with bewildering speed and precision. He hit the “enter” key with finality and stood up.

“Okay, I wrote a virus that should destroy the email everywhere on the server. So, unless someone saw it right away, we should be okay.”

John let go a long breath. “Thank you.” He looked at Jones who was staring at the floor, devastated. He put an arm around him and ruffled his hair. “Kid, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Jones snorted back his snot. “Listen, if I burned this place down as often as I thought about it, the insurance payments would kill us.”

The boys both smiled at him with shy relief, like he was cool. If only they knew how pathetic he was as soon as Bobby figured into the equation. “Still,” he said, “it was a damn funny picture…”

 

***

 

“Ah think the rain’s stopping, Bobby!” Rogue said with a smile.

“Yeah, you’re right, the sun’s even coming out.” They were sitting in the gazebo by the pond, just quietly letting time pass as Rogue found her way back to herself. It was the most peaceful hour Bobby had spent in a long time.

“Do you think there’s a rainbow around somewhere?” she asked, jumping to her feet and running from the gazebo to look out between the trees.

Bobby smiled as he watched her. He felt light. Scott thought he was punishing him, taking away his keys to the subbasement, but he was freeing him, too. His life had become a series of traps, and he had stepped into them willingly. He had broken his back to shoulder Scott’s expectations. And John! With his sneering and accusations, John made him feel like there was something wrong with him, like he should say or be something else. But there wasn’t anything wrong with him! Here he was with Rogue... Marie... and everything was easy.

She turned to him. “I want to take off my shoes and walk in the wet grass. Can we do that?”

“Sure,” he responded and she smiled like she had found an accomplice in crime.

Carrying their shoes, they walked through the field, the sun glinting off the wet grass. She grew serious. “I want to apologize for everything I put you through today, Bobby. When I think of the things I said to you...” She looked away, embarrassed. “But it wasn’t me! It was him! Inside me!

“Please don’t feel bad, Rogue. It’s not always easy having powers like ours.”

“Well, then at least let me thank you. You’re a true gentleman!”

He laughed with pleasure. “I don’t even know what that means.”

She stopped and touched his arm with her gloved hand. This time, he wasn’t afraid. “It means I can count on you.”

“You can. I promise, I’ll watch out for you.” He hadn’t meant the words to sound so serious, but now that he’d said them, he felt their weight. The weight didn’t scare him, though; didn’t make him feel crushed like... like all those other, thornier expectations. It was easy.

He was surprised to see Rogue blush and look down at the ground. “I believe that, Bobby,” she said. “I believe you will.”

They walked in silence. The trees were alive with birdsong and the green of spring was blinding. Bobby looked towards the windows of the mansion and wondered who might be watching, how the story of his barefoot walk with Rogue might spread. Then he turned and looked back at the glade. His eyes had grown accustomed to the sun and he could just make out the gazebo in the shade. It seemed to him for a second that he saw someone sitting there — John, as he had been two days before, watching him, his blue eyes red with fury. And then the gazebo burst into flames, a horrible conflagration that engulfed it in a second, the flames spreading to the surrounding trees.

Bobby’s heart pounded. He closed his eyes hard, and when he opened him them again, the gazebo was still there. Whole, unharmed, deserted.

“Are you coming?” Rogue asked.

He turned back to her with a smile. “Yeah, I’m here.”

Chapter 24

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