Notes: Here's the long overdue sequel to "Diamonds, Dames, and Deception." Read that first then head onto this story or else nothing will make sense. I sincerely hope that this series will live up to everyone's expectations! The Phoenix said, "The future ends now and your present begins."
The Phoenix said, "The future ends now and your present begins."
And in the blink of an eye, existence lies in the hands of flawed beings, capable of ungodly terrors and incomprehensible benevolence. As humans and mutants venture into this tumultuous dawn without guidance or manipulation from beings greater than themselves, they will find that the worst catastrophes have no puppeteers, few reasons, and little regard for those caught in its grasp.
In a world without fate...
... without destiny...
... without boundaries...
... choice is the greatest enemy.
The Parity Shift
The sequel to Diamonds, Dames and Deception.
Realities will collide.
Bonds forged in battle will shatter.
Loves will end.
And the X-Men will never be the same.
Jamie Madrox multi-tasked with the best of them. At any given moment, he could be caught sweeping the floors, filing papers, surfing the net, cooking lunch, and hitting on that new, cute secretary... all at the same time.
He didn't assume the name of Multiple Man for nothing.
And given how he could make so many duplicates of himself (then in turn have his duplicates make duplicates of each other), it made sense that he'd be the primary caretaker of the late Moria Mactaggart's expansive Muir Research Facility. Besides being the world's finest multi-tasker, he also had the honor of being Moira's lab assistant for a good number of years, and hence an intimate understanding of the complex's needs, functions, and purpose.
So for all his happy-go-lucky attitude and clown ball antics, Jamie really did try to do his former mentor's legacy proud. He continued her research on mutant genetics, though his own modest academic knowledge and scholastic creativity couldn't come close to Moira's. He welcomed fellow mutants to this place to get a handle their often difficult-to-control abilities. He recruited leading mutant experts, dangling the vast resources, beautiful surroundings, and massive databases as bait. He breathed life back into the Muir Research Facility, life that winked away after Moria died, life that if he didn't sustain would fade away into the unknowns of history.
He wouldn't let that happen to Moria, her work, or her passion.
That's why he gave up the superhero life. The traveling and constant battles took him away from Muir, and when away from Muir, he always daydreamed about its vast shores, maze-like halls, and the lives that depended on him. Moria never forsook her life's goals for Charles', and while Jamie respected the Professor in the utmost, he respected Moria more.
A squawk from the communications panel interrupted his thoughts. Swinging his legs off the massive tableau of buttons, lights, levers, and dials, Jamie glanced at the monitor and saw a big, fat "Incoming Message."
Hmph, wonder who that could be. "Muir Research Facility, Jamie speaking. Is this for here or to go?"
"Jamie," chuckled a familiar voice, "You're still the same screwball I remember."
His brown eyes lit up like candles. "Yo! Alex, what's up, man? Long time no talk!"
The younger Summers brother thickened his amusement. "Same here, buddy. You've got room in that dusty hangar for another plane?"
"Hey, for you, chief? Anytime."
"Good. My ETA is two hours and seven minutes."
"I'll roll out the VIP parking space for ya!"
"See you in a few. Over and out."
-------------In another world-------------
"Do you know what's going to happen when you turn on your machine?"
Dr. Isa Hayes--famed physicist, groundbreaking mathematician, and hallowed engineer--looked uncomfortable under his employer's steely gaze. "We're not certain. You have to realize that this has never been attempted before."
"Humor me with your best guess."
"My best guess is the best case scenario: a spatial disturbance will open and we'll be able to explore it."
"And what will we exactly be exploring?"
Biting his lip, the scientist muttered, "The unknown."
His employer put her hands on the desk and stood. Her shadow fell over him, inciting an unnatural fear into his heart of hearts. "That's not what we agreed upon at the beginning of this project."
"I've heard enough. You're dismissed."
Perhaps a braver man would've took his chances, but fortunately for Dr. Hayes, he wasn't foolishly courageous. He wilted to the invitation out and scurried from the office like a cockroach. The only sign of his passing was the door closing with a considerable bang.
Her aide appeared from behind the drawn curtains. Pale and adorned in a black dress, she seemed more ghost than mutant, her eyes far away and her gait so very graceful like a glide. "Madame, what would you like to know?"
"The chances of Hayes' success."
"A considerable 42.7."
"His design is sound?"
"More sound than expected thanks to our teams. We made modifications he is unaware of."
"Good. So you are saying we can cross into other dimensions?"
"Will... She be there?"
The dark haired woman shrugged. "Not as we remember Her. She may require an acclimation process before She resumes Her rightful place amongst us."
"We're running out of time, Tessa. There are those who forget what She means to civilization. They're losing sight of what our purpose is."
"Xavier does not have the resources-"
"I'm not talking about him or his pitiful X-Men: the Sentinels can deal with them. I speak of people in general, the masses who forget so easily. I speak of the simpleton who sits in front of his computer and wastes the day away with mindless typing and clicking. Her legacy is greater than their sum and must not be left to their whims."
-----------Yet another world, different but the same---------
Emma burst out of bed. The covers violently tore aside revealing her alabaster skin, heaving breasts, and sculpted thighs. A sheen of cold sweat broke out all over her, droplets running down from forehead to neck. Her blue eyes stared into the ceiling of her room while her opened mouth worked for the next breath like it would be her last. Hands burrowed into the sheets, Emma tried everything to settled her heart and calm her fractured mind.
The images she saw, the emotions she felt, the power coursing through the cosmos--these things couldn't happen.
From the other side of the bed came Jean, her flaming red hair tangled and frazzled from sleep. She too was equally nude but the sweat and fear didn't coat her.
Ever so gently, she touched Emma's bare arm and whispered, "Honey, why are you shaking?"
Emma wanted to answer; she just couldn't. In her mind's eye, she saw universes ripped apart, entire chains of destiny fractured, and death. So much death. She saw sacrifice and how no amount of sacrifice would help, how something... somewhere... sometime... reached beyond the limits of time and space to annihilate this world and the next.
All the sacrifice and it just wasn't enough.
She saw flashes of sadness, then, nothing. The Phoenix in her stirred, awakened by these disturbing visions
"Can't you feel it, Jean?" A fiery aura glazed over the blonde, her mind hot as coals but her skin still cool to the touch. The blue in her eyes faded to a milky white. Her voice became brittle and small. "It's so unnatural and foreign: I can't even describe it, only feel it. Jean, tell me you can feel it too."
Emma only shook when she was scared. Emma never lost her confidence, at least, she never let it reflect in her speech. The change wiped away the last of Jean's grogginess and put a panic into her, panic for her lover, panic for what her lover saw, and panic for what was about to come.
As the years together showed, Emma's sixth sense for trouble was never wrong.
Jean focused on their powerful psychic rapport and the frightening specters Emma spoke about. The red head tried to internalize the visions, to feel them for herself and make them understandable, but somehow, the visions eluded her. Despite how open Emma was, despite how strong their bond was, despite how much Emma projected her current state of mind, Jean simply couldn't feel it.
All she felt was panic.
Disturbing to say the least--what kind of event could ever hope to block off the Phoenix? And especially from the other half of itself?
Jean pulled the still shivering Emma into her arms. "Talk to me," whispered Jean, "Please Emma, anything."
Moving her mouth but making no sounds, Emma curled tight into Jean like a scared child.
That's when it happened.
------------Back to the world we know and love---------
No light pushed back the room's darkness. The comforter's warmth blazed through Kitty, but even with her day's worth of exhaustion, she couldn't find sleep. Perhaps it was the fear in her, the nagging voice which told her to keep an eye on the door against intruders. Perhaps it was the unease of past months, the massive deaths which had colored her days and occupied her nights. Perhaps it was the maternal worry, fed by the sudden arrival of a baby Illyana and the ever-present baby monitor which became a fixture on the nightstand.
Whatever it was, Kitty couldn't sleep. As she rolled onto her side, a soft sigh forced its from her soul. Too much energy, too many things to set right, and not enough hours in a day--these pressures were what drove her from this life to begin with. For not the first time tonight, all she wanted was to be back in Chicago tending a preppy bar and working on her PhD. Life was so much simpler and easier then when no one expected "grand" things of her. She didn't have to be part of a team or a shining beacon of mutant goodness.
She didn't have to be a mother.
"What are you, Pryde? A vampire?"
The brunette felt an arm graze her naked body under the sheets. She responded to the touch with a strained moan and a rubbing of her thighs. Memories (panting screams) from hours ago (sweat and saliva covered breasts) came back with an uncontrolled strength (pounding heart nearly bursting, muscles gone ridged, hands grasping at the sheets). Those were happy, lustful moments: they made her forget about her troubles and responsibilities. They made her feel rebellious and childlike, indulging in something the parents didn't want her to be exposed to.
A palm stroked the side of her leg while sharp fingernails scratched whimsical patterns on her back. Behind the rebellion lingered revulsion, revulsion at her body's response to the heavenly hellish ministrations, revulsion to the person who did this to her, and revulsion to be doing this behind the closed doors (not to mention in the home) of her nearest and dearest friends.
Against her basest needs, Kitty wrapped herself in the comforter, the thick fabric forming a protective cocoon.
"That was dirty. It's cold in your room, you know that?"
She concentrated on breathing evenly. Just because she couldn't sleep didn't mean she wanted to talk, and well, talking to Mystique seemed odd.
Mystique herself was odd.
Till now a lifelong enemy of the X-Men, the metamorph seemed to enjoy hanging around the rebuilding school and its denizens. She forcefully integrated herself into the group, not put off by cold shoulders or annoyed grumblings. In that way, Mystique reminded Kitty of Emma, all aloof and detached but at the same time so deeply involved despite the nonchalance.
Around different people she became different things.
To Storm and Emma, she was a mischief maker.
To Gambit, she was a stern disciplinarian.
To Forge, she was a lover scorned, though who did more of the scorning Kitty couldn't tell.
To Rogue and Kurt, she was a dotting mother, much to Rogue's delight and Kurt's dismay.
And to Kitty herself...
Red hair, blue skin, and yellow eyes crested the brunette's vision. "Stop pretending you're asleep, lover."
Those lips Kitty now knew so well turned up in a smile. "Are you what?"
Mystique scrunched her forehead and tapped her chin. "Let me see," she purred, throwing a leg over the pile of comforter, "You're not a one night stand."
Even through the layer of cloth, Kitty felt Mystique's toned, sinewy body weigh against her.
"You're not a fuck buddy."
Amazingly gentle fingers brushed aside unruly brown hair. "Then again, you're not quite the spouse material."
Kiss on her temple, kiss on her cheek. "So I guess 'lover' fits the bill."
Lover. That's what Pete called her too. Lovers were good enough to go home to, pretty enough to bring to parties, and enjoyable enough to have during good times. Apparently, lovers were to be left behind in favor a liquor bottle and a government job with death splattered all over it.
Lover. There to be loved then left. Mystique only had one true Love and Irene was dead. Anyone else afterward? Lovers. Toys. Favored though they may be, but toys nonetheless. That's what lover meant, wasn't it?
Activating her powers, Kitty disincorporated and left Mystique to plunge into a tangle of bedding. Before walking through the wall, she unphased long enough to snag an armful of winter clothes. It was only a few seconds, but in the time it took for Mystique to reorient herself, the one she called lover disappeared.
The baby monitor on the nightstand blared, sounds of a girl's cries dashing away any and all erotic thoughts from Mystique's mind. With a frustrated sigh, she gave the wall Kitty disappeared behind a scowl, threw on a robe, and went to see what the baby needed.
The Canadian Rockies. To be sure, they were tall and majestic, covered with Nature (yes, with a capital N) as far as the eye would care to see. Rolling hills peaked into dizzying mountain heights, bases and valleys dotted by mighty evergreen trees and scuttling wildlife. Streams wove through the land and ran parallel to the trails beaten down by avid hikers from all over the world.
Birds soared higher here.
The air smelled cleaner.
And according to Logan, it was damn cold too. The snow and rain, mixed into a barely tolerable slurry, came down in buckets. Churned up mud lasted long enough to freeze into brownish potholes of danger. Water soaked everything; ice covered everything else. For all its beauty, the bone shivering land turned a blind eye to its inhabitants like a harsh master, present but removed.
But this was the Canadian Rockies, home country. This was the land of his birth and many rebirths. This was home, and being home, it felt right even when the weather was shitty.
His beaten leather hat offered no shield from the wetness. His coat--drenched to every thread--provided no warmth. That olive green satchel he loved so much weighed as much as a mountain, the icy water giving it unwanted substance.
He put out his cigar long ago, just as he smelled the storm brewing. Couldn't keep a match lit in these conditions let alone a good cigar. With the smooth calm of the tobacco gone and the rhythmic quietus of the falling slush tapping away, Logan let his body continue his aimless trek while his mind dug deep into itself. Soon enough, the cold felt so far away like white noise. Nature disappeared, the evergreens rounding out into Jean's green eyes.
Everything reminded him of Jean, so much so he didn't try to fight her image anymore. Splashes of red from foliage became her hair; rivers flowed like the muscles on her back.
Fuck. He wasn't suppose to be thinking about her, dreaming about her, wondering about her--that was One Eye's job--but he couldn't stop it. Jean, Scott's wife, another man's woman, Jean, and after all was said and done, having Jean gone was like having a part of himself gone. No matter how much he walked and how far he traveled, he couldn't get further from her. He couldn't shake her ghost, couldn't get the smell of her out of his mind, couldn't help but see her blood caked over his hands.
He couldn't get closer to her either. People like Jean went to heaven; people like Logan went somewhere else.
A lesser man would've gone insane from the shadows and grief. A weaker man would've run from the past. Logan faced the phantoms of yesterday the only way he knew how: he fought them. Here, away from the hustle and bustle of X-Men and friends, away from life but closer to Life, he battled with himself and his decisions. He owned up to them, acknowledged them, then wrestled with them for control of his heart and soul. Others thought he was an escapist for disappearing so often on these little "trips" of his, but they couldn't have been more wrong.
Facing one's conscience required space and solitude.
As if having punished him enough, the ashen sky paled with shielded sun. The black storm clouds moved aside, present but no longer angry at the ground below. The ground itself remained as soaked as ever, the pelts from previous moments not that easily forgotten.
With this kind of weather and this kind of cold, neither man nor land was going to dry.
Behind the fresh air, behind the musky post-storm smell, behind the pine needles' minitness, a metal twang jabbed against Logan's nostrils. Immediately, he melted further from the beaten track. There, upwind and just a little to the left of that crest--something was there.
He sniffed again. The distinct sourness of refined metal clicked in his mind. Yeah, metal he could see here, maybe a gold lump or some kind of heavy mineral deposit, but refined metal? Refined metal wasn't suppose to be here. Actually, no one was suppose to be here, not in this kind of weather on this kind of terrain.
He took another whiff. Gasoline, but not the normal kind either, rather the kind worldwide militaries used to power their heavy yet nimble vehicles.
The pragmatist in him wanted to leave the scene alone. No good could come of this, sinister plot or no. Best decision was to go the long route, head elsewhere in this forsaken territory, and continue to find his inner peace.
Yeah, like he ever listened to the pragmatist in him.
-------------And in the Otherworld------------
The sky bled here. Everyday, every night, every second, the livid red sky frowned on life itself. This place wasn't safe, the shadows holding things torn from the worst nightmares and the sky... the sky was just red.
And yet in this ominous land, a lone woman walked. Her clothes ripped and spackled with brownish stains told of countless battles and equal victories. Long, jet black hair from many moons unkept spilled over her shoulders and languished in the biting wind. She carried no weapons, no physical protection, just her body.
The nightmares in the shadows shrank away from her.
She walked like she owned everything under the blood red sky. She walked with a purpose, each step deliberate and measured. She had places to be, worlds to connect with, and most importantly, revenge to be exacted.
-------------Only to return again-----------
"Chere, trust Remy, he ain't gonna do you no harm."
Rogue tugged at the colorful blindfold covering her eyes. "He betta not if he knows what's good fo' him."
The Cajun thief let out a hearty chortle as he led his beau through the student dormitory's corridors. They walked forever, winding down hallways, descending stairs, and brushing past the places' other occupants. Anticipation and giddiness welled up in the brunette, so much so that the temptation to use her absorbed telepathic powers rose to unbearable heights.
"Voila, mon amour, c'est ici."
The blindfold came off to reveal a window in the commons. Granted the commons were much better decorated now since X-Men and not students took refuge there. Granted the large window to the outside showed the new, improved, and almost complete Xavier Institute in all it giant, white splendor, looking so very much like a venerable university's centerpiece than a simple "school for the gifted." Granted the cloudless night and pale moon bathed the room in a rather romantic glow.
Rogue blinked, confused. "Ah'm missin' somethin'."
"Dat would be dis." Remy snapped his fingers, and like that, the rebuilt Institute's wall lit up.
Well, it didn't exactly light up like a conflagration or one of his snazzy kinetic cards. On closer inspection, the lights peppering the structure looked a lot like the Christmas lights they'd taken down months ago when Magneto gutted the mansion. Snaking up and down the place went the lights until Rogue took a step back and realized the illumination spelled out something. She tilted her head to gain a new perspective.
U... No, that wasn't a U. That was a W. W... I... L... L...
The message hit the southern belle and caused her jaw to drop. Will you marry me. It read, "Will you marry me?" Outside, Ororo flew to and fro, finishing the final touches on the question mark. Hank waved from the base of the giant marriage proposal, part of an extension cord in his meaty paw. Behind her in this very room gathered the X-Men, or at least what remained of them.
Kurt was there, bible held tight to his chest. Forge and Bishop stood sentry in opposite corners. X'ian beamed and clapped her hands together. Bobby came with a giant ice sculpture of a heart. Warren and Paige, arm in arm, eyes glimmering like diamonds, each looked on in envy. Speaking of diamonds, even the diamond bodied Emma showed up with her standard issue shit eating grin. Jubilee lay claim to the entire couch as she blew a bubble with her gum. Sam appreciatively tipped his bottle of beer at Remy.
And a frowning Mystique brought up the rear, baby Illyana nestled tight. Her face gave no indications of joy, not that Rogue expected any less from her mother. The woman had always been action driven, more prone to show her feelings than let them stew. She made no misconceptions about not liking Remy, always taking every chance to cast a sharp barb at the Cajun. In a testament to Remy's fortitude and devotion, he took said barbs with his southern sensibility and natural aplomb.
Which, in Rogue's not-so-humble opinion, was what made Mystique dislike Remy even more. The metamorph couldn't find wrong in her daughter's love, couldn't find a reason to break them up. But Mama was still Mama, loving in her own twisted way. Beneath the disapproving scowl, if a person knew where to look, those yellow eyes fluttered with grudging pride while those lips curled slightly at the sides to show more amusement than anger.
It was Mama being Mama, stubborn till the very end.
Her heart pounding, Rogue turned back to Remy. In his gaze was nothing but childish curiosity, no pressure or worry or demand. His laissez-faire countenance hid his usual intensity, and for the meanwhile, comforting Rogue.
Marriage. This was a huge step, but where the step lead she had no idea. Her powers still remained as frightening as ever, separating their bodies. The school was slated to reopen in its doors in the summer, and if the pre-enrollment numbers were any indication, mutants all over the world wanted to descend upon this safe haven protected by the X-Men. That translated into more work and less together time. To worsen matters, Storm still headed up the globe trotting X.S.E., a team Remy was part of but Rogue herself wasn't.
The coming days promised separation, obstacles, and strains on their relationship. Maybe this was why other than Scott and Jean, no X-Men could ever make this odd arrangement work. Marriage was commitment of the heart and soul, but when one's crusade for peaceful coexistence already took up a person's core, marriage fell to the wayside.
"Chere," rasped that sexy, husky voice, "Never met no woman like you, don't think I will 'gain. Ain't no one easier on the eyes or heavier on my mind. Ain't never seen no one with your fire, your heart, or your love. Ain't ever met no one I didn't have to touch to feel close to, to be intimate with. Roguey, I don't know if you want me to make an honest woman outta you, but I do know you've made an honest man outta me. What do you say, mon amour? Will you marry me?"
If Jean and Scott could make it work for as long as they did, she and Remy could make it work. Love conquered all, didn't it? Raven and Irene made it work despite the world against them. As long as the couple sacrificed, love would be enough, wouldn't it?
Perhaps a new chapter in their romance wasn't so out of the question.
"Yes," Rogue breathed, knees weak and body lost in the moment, "Oh my gawd, yes."
The cadre of friends burst into applause and (for Bobby) cat calls. Instead of sealing the promise with a kiss like a normal couple, Remy enfolded the woman of his dreams in his arms and basked in the warmth, the touch. The part about no skin on skin contact registered as a minor blip, now not even much of a concern. That's how much he loved Rogue, and if the tears of joy spilling out of her eyes meant anything, that's how much she loved him back.
"Like a hand with that?"
As she hefted her heavy suitcase from the baggage claim belt, Betsy turned around to see a strapping, handsome man behind her. The stubble around his cheeks and chin produced a rugged aura; the polo shirt bursting at the shoulders told of his sculpted physique. A rakish smile and a movie star's hairdo made the surrounding women swoon, yet he only had eyes for the exotic Asian before him.
Betsy stifled a tired sigh.
London's Heathrow Airport always had an excess of guys like this looking for an easy score. The airport which played host to famed dignitaries and international rock stars was also the site of many a sexual rendezvous, most ill-conceived. Any seemingly single woman was bound to be hit on by these meddlesome vultures who came from far and wide to "get a taste of the foreign varieties."
Unbeknownst to the poor playboy, Betsy was neither foreign nor single nor oblivious nor alone. "Brian," she drawled, her eyes suddenly lustful as they peered straight through him.
"That's not my name," the man said, bewildered.
From behind him came "It's mine."
Though not many could claim so, Brian Braddock was an Adonis. Built like brick house yet boyishly good looking, the blonde haired man with sky blue eyes sported a brilliant mind and an abnormally dry wit. As brave as he was just, he possessed gaudy titles like Captain Britain, leader of Excalibur, and Ruler of the Otherworld, none of those a small honor in and of themselves. In fewer words, he was God's gift to the world, to the ladies in particular. Many times in his younger years he'd taken advantage of his physique and reputations, but that was before he met his wife, his soul mate, the most wonderful woman in the Omniverse, his Meggan.
Meggan, petite and elfish Meggan, Meggan who looked as beautifully innocent as a winter morning, Meggan who turned heads and incited verses of song with her wild magnificence, Meggan who had an arm around the Adonis, her husband, Brian Braddock.
The lecherous man looked between the exotic Asian, elfish maiden, and statuesque Adonis. He resembled a fish out of water, an image intensified when said exotic Asian dropped her suitcase and threw her arms around said Adonis. The act attracted stares, snickers, and envious glances, the former two directed at the floundering man. Hoping to salvage whatever dignity he had left, he ducked away back into the crowd, there to lie in wait and strike at another more inviting target.
"Sis, I know you love me, but that was uncalled for." In a quieter voice, he added, "Meggan might get jealous."
While Meggan was innocent and perky, she wasn't oblivious or cruel. "Mean doesn't described what you did to that poor man's self-esteem."
"He deserved it," grinned Betsy, untangling herself from her twin brother's hug and picking up her suitcase, "Being hit on by a greasy lowlife isn't my idea of a jolly 'welcome home.'"
"Oh, and you think giving me your best 'come hither' look is a good substitution? What would Mum say if she was alive?"
Betsy stood straighter, perked her lips, and proceeded with her best imitation of her mother. "Brian, you big lug, didn't I tell you to keep those boys away from your poor, defenseless sister? Hmph, children these days never listen to their parents!"
That stopped the male Braddock in his tracks. "For what it's worth, that's pretty dead on... except for the poor, defenseless part."
"She's my mum too," groaned Betsy, resuming her normal voice, "hence the resemblance."
"Now, now, the two of you," Meggan giggled, "We've got a table for four at Petrus. Knowing Stephen, he's going to be early and I don't want to keep him waiting."
Betsy shook her head. "The good doctor wants to get started, doesn't he?"
Like the gentleman he was, Brian took the suitcase from his sister as they briskly walked to the airport exit. "I wanted him to get started as soon as possible. You've been putting this off for almost half a year, you know."
"I'm fine," Betsy insisted.
"You're fine now, but we don't know the full extent of what Belasco did you. Sis, him checking you over is for your own good." He paused to gather himself. "I don't want to bury you a second time."
Sensing her sibling's distress, Betsy gave the mountain of a man a kiss on the cheek. "You won't have to. I promise."
"Ray, I don't know if I can handle this anymore."
Rachel Summers brushed her tussled red hair back and grimaced at her cell phone. "Kitty, it's..." She glanced at the clock on the DVD player. "It's midnight in New York. What's going on?"
"This, me and Mystique, I can't handle it."
"Well duh, what did I tell you from the very beginning?"
"Right, like Frost and Logan are trouble. There's just some people you shouldn't hang around, and Kitty, you manage to hang around all of them."
"It's not like that. Mystique's been fine. It's... It's me."
Sitting up on the couch in her father's Anchorage home, Rachel put more of her attention into the conversation. She shook her head to get the images of E! and VH-1 out of her mind. "Never blame yourself when you're dealing with Mystique. Both of us know where I stand on this relationship: it's wrong, it's not going to last, and the lady is going to hurt you. Get out before she decides to make the first move."
"Need support, not a skewering."
"What do you want me to say? I don't like her. I don't know what she says or does to you, but whatever it is, it can't be good. That's the way she is."
"And she's been perfect. She's great with Illyana, she doesn't force me to do anything, she's always funny-"
"And she's going to stab you in the back. Don't tell me you're not afraid of that."
Kitty's troubled sigh breezed into the receiver. "I am and I shouldn't but I am."
"End it," Rachel pressed, "This started as your little stubborn way to stick it to Ororo but the joke's gone on long enough. Why are you torturing yourself like this? Kitty, that woman is ruining you."
"I love her."
The three words sucked the life out of Rachel. Her back thudded against the couch as she switched ears with her phone. "You don't say that much. Heck, you almost never said it to Pete."
"I think I love her."
"You think or you know?"
"I think. It just... just... happened. Started small when I first realized how much I enjoyed the teasing that went back and forth. Then, I started to appreciate the corny romantic surprises she'd cook up out of nowhere just to see me blush. Now, it's gotten out of control. I mean, when I wake up in the morning, not seeing her feels uncomfortable."
"You sure there's no weird, psychic vibes coming out of the mansion?"
"Ray, it's complicated. I see her so often now and none of what I see is bad. Illyana absolutely lights up when she's around. She says all the right things to me and knows when I'm stressed or angry or happy. She understands me and doesn't treat me like a kid. Then when I think about us breaking up, I don't want it to happen. I... I can't leave her because she's one of the best things going on in my life, but I don't know if she feels the same way."
"I can answer that for you: hell no. Why don't you call up good ol' Pete? Bet he's itching to get back with you."
"I can't use him again, Ray, I hurt him too much the first time around."
"Then ditch Mystique."
"Doesn't mean you love her."
"Doesn't mean I don't."
The front door to the Summers home opened admitting one Scott bundled up in a turtleneck and a scarf. He resisted the urge to call out to his daughter when he saw her lounging on the couch and on the phone. Instead, he gave Rachel a little wave and disappeared into the kitchen.
"Dad's home. I'll call you some other time, Kitty. Remember, stay away from that woman."
"What's going on over there? Does he have you under a curfew or something?"
"No, for your information, we're going out to watch a movie. And I mean it, Katherine Pryde, she's bad news waiting to happen."
"Even after talking with you, I think I still love her."
"Geez, you always do that."
"That! Take whatever I say and do the opposite."
A downtrodden chuckle escaped Kitty. "Maybe it's because you don't give very good advice?"
"Hey, watch it. We might not have seen each other for six months, but trust me, my powers haven't gotten a bit rusty."
"Speaking of which, when are you guys coming back? The school's about to reopen and we could really use the help."
"When Dad's better."
"And that's when?"
"When he's better."
"Just problems everywhere, isn't it?"
"Life of an X-Man, Kitty, haven't you been doing this longer than me?"
"Yeah, but I don't have the genes like you- Whoa, what is that?"
"Ray, I'll call you later, a bunch of Christmas lights up lit up out of nowhere."
"Kitty, they're Christmas lights. Any villain using holiday props to attack the mansion isn't worth stressing over."
"Even if the lights spell out, 'Will you marry me?'"
- To be continued...