Chapter Ten

Rogue stood in the darkened hallway, staring at the door in front of her.

She had held the same position for something like five minutes, only moving to flinch at the occasional crashing sound coming from within. If there had been any doubt in her mind about the conclusion she had reached outside, it was gone now. Had she been mistaken, John's reaction would never have been this strong.

Another random object banged against the wall, directly in front of her. The door vibrated slightly, and Rogue winced. Squaring her shoulders, she opened the door and stepped inside.

John stood before her, resembling nothing so much as a train-wreck personified. His left eye was already showing signs of bruising from Bobby's well-placed jab, and his lip reflected just as much damage. Mussed hair, heavy breathing and fisted hands all combined to make her hesitate at the doorway, now-gloved right hand lingering on the brass knob as she again contemplated the wisdom of coming to the bedroom before he'd had a chance to cool down properly.

His lip curled in an obscene imitation of a smile. "What's the matter, Rogue? Scared?"

She bit her lip, and he grinned, lighter slipping from his pocket to his hand in an fluid, practiced motion. He examined the sleek metal intently, flipping it lightly into the air in a repeated motion as he raised his eyes to fully meet hers. "You are, aren't you? You shouldn't be. There's nothing to be scared of. Not anymore, anyway."

The last was finished on a light chuckle, and Rogue cringed as his expression changed--forming a wordless snarl as the lighter left his hand, shattering the single window across the room. She stepped back, and he smiled again. "No worries, Rogue. It's not as if I need it, you know." His expression went black, and he strode forward, stopping only a few paces away from her. "And you do know, don't you?"

Her hand tightened on the door, and she fought to keep her expression blank. "You know that I do, John."

The breath left him in a humorless chuckle. "Of course you do. Isn't that cute? You know." He shoved her lightly, just enough to loosen her grip on the handle, and then slammed the door violently. The noise reverberated throughout the room, and a vase fell from the table closest to them. John's booted foot pushed the loose fragments from his path, and he examined them with a pleased expression. Then his attention returned to her, and he shook his head. "You don't know anything, but this you know. Isn't that rich?"

She didn't say anything. Couldn't say anything.

After a terse silence, John raised a brow. "What, nothing? No screeching or whining, or excuses about how pitiful your pathetic little life is--and how dare I, in all my insignificant glory, say a harsh word to an abused little princess such as yourself?" At her continued lack of response, his eyes narrowed. "Or maybe that's it: Maybe you figure that you've finally met someone worse off than you. Am I right?"

She looked away, and John's hand came up to her chin, forcing her to make the eye contact she so desperately wished to avoid.

"My God, that is it. You've got in your head that I'm as pathetic as you are, haven't you?" he chuckled loudly as his grip tightened, and Rogue winced. Sneer firmly in place, his hand fell to his side. His eyes blazed, and it seemed wrong somehow; Wrong that his gaze should be so filled with fire, when he...she couldn't finish the thought.

"Get this straight, Rogue. In no way am I anything like you. Whatever I've lost, I didn't give it up willingly. I fought every second. I kicked and yelled and spit. When I was tied up so tight that my wrists and ankles bled, and I couldn't move a muscle, I bit. I did everything I could. And when that fucking bastard came at me with that needle, it took three of them to hold me down--chains or not." He stepped closer, hand locking on her wrist and pulling her in, face mere inches from his. "I may be a lot of things, but I'm not fucking pathetic. So keep your pity to yourself, where it belongs."

Tears had gathered in the corners of her eyes as he spoke. Not at the insults--she had expected those when she had started after him. Knew John well enough to ignore them...or, perhaps that was a lie. To ignore them for now, rather, and then dwell on them later in solitude. Instead, she was fixated on the vibrant images conjured by his words. A memory of him on that first night suddenly struck her, and she remembered all too clearly the scars and bruises, and the prominence of his bones beneath pale, almost translucent skin and a painfully thin frame. It was his eyes, though, that she was most struck by. The strength behind them, mixed in with the hatred and anger and betrayal.

There was no suppressing John, she suddenly realized, and her chest swelled with pride and...something else. Some indefinable emotion that, intermingled with all of the helplessness and confusion she was already feeling, managed to nearly knock her off her feet. Through incarceration, bloodshed and torture, John remained standing, and standing tall. Even the one thing that should have killed him more effectively than a shot to the heart--the loss of the most integral part of him--hadn't crushed him.

He was right, of course, just as he so often was. There was nothing pathetic in him. Nothing to be pitied. On the contrary, it was awe that she felt more than anything. She had thought, at one time, that she knew what strength was. Now, she realized; she didn't have a clue.

But, as she opened her mouth to express all of that, she found that she had no words. The thought of expressing feelings such as those she found herself flooded with to any person was incredibly daunting--the prospect of expressing them to John--with whom communicating seemed to veer endlessly between as natural as her own heartbeat, and then as difficult as corresponding with a rock--there was no way. She was doomed before she even opened her mouth. And, knowing that, she found that she couldn't speak. Despite the little voice in her head encouraging her to try; to say something, anything...it was as if she were mentally paralyzed. Unable to say even a word. She just stood there, eyes averted, knowing all the while that she was once again failing herself, and, worse, failing John.

As the seconds bled into long moments of screaming silence, John finally turned with a disdainful sneer, staring sightlessly out of the now broken window. His right hand twitched restlessly, seemingly lost without the distraction of the zippo, and Rogue winced at the symbolism of it all even as she cursed her frozen lips.

"Get the fuck out."

His voice was harsh, but restrained, and Rogue winced. She'd rather have the full blast of his fury than this unnatural impassiveness. It was too disarming; too characteristic of the 'new John'. The one that she'd been seeing flashes of since he'd come back, intermingled with the dynamic, sardonic boy who had left her. And yet, it didn't really matter. She was at a loss as to how to approach either of them.

"John," she whispered, because she found that it was the only thing she knew to say. She stepped forward, lying a gloved hand on his shoulder, and he tensed under her touch. It was the first time he'd done that, and the fact that he was now made her feel raw inside.

"Are you deaf? I told you to get out."

"John, please," her eyes closed, seemingly of their own volition, as she tried to summon the right words and failed again. "Can't you understand that all I want is to help you?"

He turned back, eyes narrowed. "Why?"

She shook her head, lost. "Please don't ask me that. You know why."

"If I knew, I wouldn't be asking. Why?"

When she spoke, her voice trembled slightly. "I care about you, John. I always have. You're my friend. More than my friend."

John nodded, lips pursed as if in great consideration. "Okay. I'll take that. But it just leaves one more question." He looked her over dispassionately. "What makes you think I give even the slightest bit of a damn whether you care about me or not?"

Her stomach churned, and she ached all over at his immediate rejection. And, as she thought about it, maybe he was being truthful. Tacit friendship notwithstanding, an eagerness to kiss her and an obvious jealousy towards Bobby didn't necessarily mean...well, anything. Kitty's earlier words were just that: words. But, she reminded herself adamantly, she'd followed him up here expecting every barb in the world to be hurled at her. That wasn't the important thing right now. The important thing was, no matter how John felt about her, she needed him to be okay.

Rogue squared her shoulders, biting back the hurt and steeling herself for even more. "It doesn't matter. What you feel doesn't have anything to do with what I feel. And I'm telling you right now that, if you honestly think I could ever pity you, you're even further out of your mind than I thought. Leaving me--us--to go fight for Magneto didn't change how I thought of you. If I still thought that you were a good person after that, how could I think you were a weak person after this?"

Maybe it didn't make sense, but it was the best she had.

John didn't move, his expression remaining disturbingly taciturn. "Okay, so you don't pity me. I guess you're a little less stupid than I gave you credit for. Now get out."

Rogue shook her head. "Please, John. Please let me help you. Don't you get it? I need to help you. I want to take care of you. I just don't know how," she finished on a mournful note, talking as much to herself as she was to him.

It was clearly the wrong thing to say. He bristled, eyes flashing as he moved forward. "Take care of me? What are you, an idiot? Do you think that there's any reason I'd want you around me at all, besides the chance to piss off your bastard of a boyfriend?"

"Ex-boyfriend," she interrupted softly, not really sure why, but unwilling to let the point slide.

"I could care less. Now get the fuck out." He grabbed her arm as he spoke, fingers digging into the soft flesh as he all but hauled her to the door.

Rogue dug her feet in, grasping the doorknob. John pushed at the door, no doubt in order to open it far enough to shove her out into the hallway, but she held onto it with all her might.

"Stupid fucking..." He grabbed her wrist, twisting it slightly in an effort to get her under control, and wrenching open the door. Rogue fought back fiercely. When he would have pushed her out, for lack of anything else to do, she wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tight. John tensed up immediately, growling curses under his breath and attempting to dislodge her.

"Stop it, John. I'm not going. You can't make me."

"Don't tell me what I can't do. Get the fucking hell out of my room!" He punctuated it with a hard shove, and she lost her balance, managing to bring him to the floor with her. Rogue took immediate advantage of his surprise, settling on his chest with a leg on either side of him, locking his arms at his thighs. He bucked hard, and she held onto the very grains of the carpet to keep the advantage. Some distant voice in her mind asked her what the hell she was doing, but she hadn't the vaguest clue as to the answer. All she knew was that leaving wasn't an option. And if she was crazy, which was entirely likely, at least she was in good company.

Of course, there was no keeping John down for long. He was stronger than she was, and officially in the 'fight' range of the fight or flight impulse. Like a wounded dog, he latched onto her body, spinning her around until she came to rest on the floor with her hands over her head. He held her there, fists practically cutting off her circulation, and a few loose strands of hair fell across his face as he breathed heavily. "Have you lost your mind?" he demanded harshly. "What the hell is the matter with you?"

Rogue just shook her head, eyes wide. "It's funny; I was just wondering the same thing."

The breath escaped him in a disdainful snort. Rogue winced as his hands tightened, forcing her arms to bend at an awkward angle. He leaned forward, pressing her into the floor. He bent over her, so close that the hair she had just been noticing tickled her cheek. "So, you want to help me, huh? You want to," he affected a mockingly sorrowful look, "Get rid of the pain?"

She glared up at him, amazed to conclude from his expression that he actually expected some form of assent. She refused to offer it, and he shrugged.

"Okay. If you're so desperate to distract me from all of the horribly, gut-wrenching angst...I can think of a few things."

Rogue gasped, outraged, and thrashed her hips in an attempt to shake him off.

"That's the spirit!" he exclaimed, hands forcing her own out and away from her, enabling him to brace himself on his forearms as he leant over her, mouth covering hers in a casual, bruising kiss. She continued to thrash, and managed to get one arm free. She took a swing at him, and he deflected her with one arm as he raised his head. "You're not being very supportive, Rogue. Don't you know that I've been through a lot?" Holding her firmly down, he nipped playfully at her throat. Rogue winced, turning her head away as her nails dug into every bit of spare flesh she could reach. She tried to kick him, but was deflected easily.

It wasn't that she was afraid of him so much. Sure, there was a bit of her that was a bit unsettled by his barely contained cruelty. His manner and his words may be flippant, but aggression simmered just below the surface, apparent in his every motion. It was resentment more than anything that caused her to seek to deflect his half-hearted advances so violently. And it was resentment that finally caused her to fight in a different way, kissing him back.

Lips just as hard on his as he had been on hers, she found herself purposely pushing hard against his bruised mouth, getting a disturbing sense of satisfaction out of the way he jerked back for a moment, muttering an exclamation of pain under his breath.

She took advantage of his distraction to free her arms, using the momentum to spin them so that she was once more the one holding him down. "Damn it, John," she grit out, words coming out slowly as she inhaled furiously, exertion wearing at her just as, by the looks of it, it was effecting him. "Why can't you just accept the fact that I care about you, and you care about me, and we need each other?" At his disdainful snort, she let her nails dig furiously into his wrists, glaring at him mightily. It slipped her mind that, in all fairness, up until about ten minutes ago she had been much more guilty of that particular sin than he had. She opened her mouth to speak again, only to find herself once more with her back to the floor.

With one difference.

In the upheaval of their struggle, they had finally managed to drift from the section of the room covered by the heavy wool rug to the uncovered flooring. The sound of Rogue's head connecting solidly with the bare hardwood echoed harshly in her ears, and she winced, bringing suddenly liberated hands to shield her face as the pain spread ruthlessly.

John released her immediately, still breathing hard as he rose to his knees beside her, freeing her body. He helped her to a sitting position, wincing when she immediately shoved him away. With some effort, she raised her knees to her chest, resting her face on them as she encircled them with her arms. She closed her eyes, relieved, as the little black dots dancing across her line of vision immediately disappeared.

John hovered over her anxiously, and, after a moment, she reluctantly opened one eyelid to survey him. He looked utterly, pathetically contrite, for which Rogue was unremorsefully thankful.

"Well," she finally murmured after a few enjoyable moments of watching him squirm uncharacteristically under her chastising stare. "Are you going to help me up or what?"

He moved quickly, practically dragging her to the bed, and Rogue sighed as her aching head came into contact with the soothing fullness of a pillow.

"Are you okay?" John asked, not meeting her eyes. "You want something? Aspirin, or something?"

Rogue gazed up at him, and had to bite back an inappropriate smile at his expression. He looked so utterly ashamed of himself. But, despite her initial irritation, she couldn't bring herself to be angry at him. If he had forgotten who had tackled whom first, she certainly hadn't. And, as the sheer ridiculousness of the last few minutes began to catch up to her, she bit back a giggle.

John looked up sharply, and she smiled, stretching a hand out to him. He looked at it suspiciously, and she raised a brow. "It's called a wordless gesture, John. You, of all people, should know that. And I'd advise you to take it. I may be willing to keep on trying as long as it takes, but it's just going to be so much simpler on the both of us if you take me up on it the first time."

He quirked a brow, and she saw his hand move slightly. Then he stopped, eyes momentarily going cold. "Why now?"

Rogue sighed, frustrated and utterly discouraged by his refusal to let go of a question that, frankly, she had no idea how to answer. "Would you believe me if I told you that your caveman antics have left me gasping for you?" John opened his mouth, and she cut him off with a loose gesture of her hand before dropping it to her side, slumping back on the pillow. "Never mind. You probably would."

The bed shifted, and she opened her eyes to the realization that John was lying next to her, surveying her steadily. Without knowing how it happened, she found that her lips had begun to move. "Okay, I'll try again. I want to be with you now because I want to be with you now. I don't know why, and I've got no idea when it happened. Except that now I do, and it's been coming on for so long that, if I actually had a brain, I would have noticed it a month ago. Or maybe a year ago...I don't know." She ended on a sigh, and closed her eyes. "And that's the best I can do. Blame the head trauma if you want."

Whatever reaction he might have had to that, she couldn't be sure of. She was too busy berating herself for her lack of clarity, both inside and out. All she heard was the bed covers shift as John's hand came to rest on the pillow, not far from her own. "You know, I much prefer your wordless gestures. You really suck at this."

She opened her eyes, glaring at him resentfully. "If you don't like it, you're more than welcome to find somewhere else to sleep."

"This is my bed."

"And I was here first. So--"

He cut her off, yawning as his eyes closed. "You little idiot. Do you even see where my hand is?"

She looked, startled. And then--despite the fact that there were still a million words left unsaid and a zillion problems left hanging...despite the fact that her head hurt and her thoughts were as muddled as her words had been...despite the fact that, though John was already pretending relaxation, the crease between his brow and the scars along his body told an entirely different story--her lips tilted into a slight smile.

Wordless gesture.

Right.