Professor Xavier wheeled himself quietly through the sliding white doors and into the hall of the medical bay. His face was grim, and he pressed his fingertips together thoughtfully. Just outside the doors, hands clenched behind his back, Logan checked his pacing. With one hand, he rubbed the back of his knuckles, as if itching a desire just beneath his skin. His furrowed brow bore a more brooding, glowering look than usual. His head was bent so that his jaw, set and badly needing a shave, was almost pressed against his chest. He turned to face the Professor.
"Well?" he growled. "She going to make it?"
"It's difficult to tell," the Professor replied somberly. "Things would be easier if we knew what happened. Ordinarily I could just get inside her head, probe her mind, but I can't touch her. I can barely get near her. It's like getting near a live wire."
Logan clenched his teeth, his arms folded now across his broad chest. "When I find who did this to her," he muttered.
"There will be a time for that later," Professor Xavier cut it. "Rogue is a very strong person, and in more ways than one. Right now I don't know if the problem is entirely physical, or if it's also psychological, emotional; or both. We're doing everything we can to get her through this, but we can only do so much on our own. We need her to be fighting, too, but in the state she's in…"
"Let me see her, Chuck." Logan followed the Professor as he wheeled around and headed back into the hospital room, through another pair of sliding doors. As the doors slid shut behind their backs, Logan's eyes sped to the hospital bed, where Rogue lay atop white sheets. Her jeans, cut-offs that stopped above the knee, were torn and dirty, and the seams in her sleeveless shirt were ripped. Her arms and legs and feet were bare, which was unusual. She wore no gloves; she had been found, no gloves, no shoes, shivering, barely conscious. Bringing Rogue back to the mansion had been difficult because touching or even getting near her had proven incredibly and unexplainably dangerous.
There were no tubes, no needles, no wires; nothing attached to her. A heart monitor stood in the corner of the white room, silent. An IV pole and bag stood uselessly at the foot of the bed, the needle melted and misshapen on a tray a few feet behind it. No one had been able to get near to Rogue long enough to draw blood or administer any drugs. The only people able to do much had been Jean and Professor Xavier, and now only the Professor.
"It's difficult to reach her from afar," Professor Xavier began. Logan remained silent and stern, arms folded, facing Rogue with a set expression. "If somehow I could get closer, I might be able to see into her mind and find out the source of the problem."
"Chuck," Logan said. "Use me." He turned his face to his friend and gestured with one of his hands. "If she can absorb even a little of my healing ability, maybe—,"
"No, I can't allow that. Not after what happened to Nightcrawler and Jean." He shook his head slowly, closed his eyes. He opened them again when he felt Logan plant a hand firmly on one of his shoulders.
"Listen to me, Chuck," Wolverine's muscles were tensed; Charles could feel it in the hand on his shoulder. "I know what happened to Nightcrawler and Jean, but they don't got what I do. Even if I get hurt, it's nothing I can't handle. Worst case, I'll end up in one of these beds myself and be no help at all, but that's where I'm at right now anyway." He took his hand off the Professor's shoulder. "I'm not talking a prolonged touch here; just a brush, if I can get close enough."
Charles put his head in his hands and sighed. "It doesn't seem there's much point in arguing with you, Logan. I know how stubborn you can be." He chuckled wryly. "Anyway, you might be right."
Logan's clenched teeth loosened a bit as a grin lifted one side of his mouth. "No use arguing at all, Chuck. I made up my mind long ago. It's about the only thing anyone's thought of yet." He let his hands drop to his sides. "You might want to stand back. If something should happen—well, don't worry about me. Just worry about Rogue. She's in rougher shape than I ever could be."
Wolverine walked over to where Rogue lay. Even from several feet away, he could feel the heat-like energy emanating from her white skin. As he reached out to brush her forearm, with the back of his hand so as to ensure minimal physical contact, Wolverine felt like he was reaching through fire. When he brushed his hand over Rogue's skin, a violent charge, hot and searing like electricity, coursed through him, flinging him off his feet and back away from the bed.
Wolverine didn't even feel the wall when he crashed into it. His head was awhirl with abstract thoughts, notions, emotions, none of them his own. His insides burned. He felt pain, anguish, frustration, and fear like he'd never felt before. It made him want to scream, to rip something apart; to unleash all his futile rage until everything was gone—all the names, lives, memories, all gone, and nothing left but he himself, alone in the dark, alone in the ruins.
"Logan!" The Professor's voice sounded strange and flat now in the quiet room. Wolverine remained as he was, crumpled against the wall. His claws had been unleashed, and remained so, even as he leaned unconsciously against the wall, his eyes closed tightly, his brow knit in a deep frown, as if he were in great pain. Several moments passed, then Charles heard the sound of Logan's deep breathing, and knew he would be all right. He turned his attention to Rogue.
The current-like energy emanating from the girl, still deep in a coma, had ebbed, and it was much easier for the Professor to get near her. He wheeled himself close to her head and snapped a latex glove onto his hand before placing a finger to her temple. She still gave no sign of cognizance; her eyebrows remained bent downward, her eyes scrunched closed. Her dark, dry lips were parted slightly over her teeth, the corners of her mouth pulled downward slightly in what almost looked like a concentrated frown. Her drawn face now was dotted with beads of sweat. Her breathing, shallow, uneven, made a rushing sound through her nose and teeth. Her dampened hair fanned out behind her head and neck on a white hospital pillow. "Well now, Rogue," Xavier whispered gently, closing his eyes; "why don't you tell me what happened."
Pencils. It'd begun with pencils. Those stupid No. 2 pencils with their breakable lead—so useless. Couldn't be sharpened without breaking the lead again. Ground them down to a stub. Jammed the sharpener. Shouldn't be used by anyone.
"Hey Rogue, can I borrow a pencil?" Zachary hissed, turning in his seat to face her. Rogue lifted her eyes from her paper. "My lead broke." He held up his pencil to indicate the missing lead.
Rogue had seldom spoken to Zachary before. He was a cheery, likeable fellow; got along with everyone. Brown hair and a dazzling smile. Tall, wiry, but not thin. Easy-going. Got good grades. It wasn't that Rogue was shy or into him, but new acquaintances tended to make her nervous. The few times she'd tried with others—tried simply joining in on the conversation around her—she'd found that conversation stopped and she received odd looks. The last time this happened, she'd gotten so fed up that she burst out, "Yes, Ah can talk! Ah just choose not to most days."
That had left an impression. Their surprised expressions had an abrasive affect on her already rising temper. Slamming her locker and violently slinging her bag over her shoulder, she had stormed off, feeling eyes on her back as she retreated. Who were they to judge her? Why did they have to determine who was fit to interject on conversation and who wasn't? Obviously they had placed her in the latter group. 'Just ferget it all,' she decided. 'Ah don't need friends. Ah don't need anyone.' She knew it wasn't the silence—it was the distance. She couldn't truly be comfortable around people when she knew she could not touch them. The gloves, the sleeves, the ever-covered skin, it all contributed to the sense of distance, the sense that she ought to be kept at arm's length. And beneath her skin, Rogue's blood boiled.
"Yeah, sure. Ah hope you don't mahnd mechanical," Rogue murmured back, leaning sideways out of her seat to rummage through her knapsack. Amid the books and loose papers, her gloved fingers curled around something smooth and cylindrical, and she pulled it up from the depths of her school bag. "Here you go," she said, extending her hand and the object in it toward Zachary.
Zachary reached out to take it, and stopped halfway, a crooked grin quirking up his mouth. "That a highlighter," he stated, and leaned back amusedly.
Rogue looked at her hand, embarrassed. Yes, it was indeed a highlighter; a purple one. "Oh, Ah—Ah'm sorry. Jus' gimme a sec." She dropped the highlighter on her desk. "Stupid gloves," she muttered; "can't feel worth anythin' with these things." Quickly ripping the glove from her right hand, she plunged again into her knapsack, feeling around. But she could not find a pencil. Blindly she groped, leaning even further sideways, straining for the bottom of her bag until she felt the tip of a pencil. She stretched, curled her fingers around it—and fell out of her seat.
The class laughed as she cried out with surprise and groaned and rose to a sitting position. She was dazed for a moment, but soon utter humiliation washed over her. Rogue squinted her eyes behind the hair that fell forward over her bent face and sighed through her teeth.
"Quiet! Everyone quiet down!" the teacher waved his ruler in the air, rapped it on his desk, trying to regain order. The students for the most part ignored him, but some tried to quell their sniggering, muffling laughter behind their hands.
Suddenly aware of someone standing over her, Rogue looked up. Zachary was smiling down at her, sheepishly. "Sorry," he said. "I think that was my fault. Here, let me help you," and reached down. Rogue transferred the pencil to her left hand and raised the other to accept his offer, when she saw the white skin of her fingers. Skin! Her heart skipped a beat at the mistake she'd almost made. Startled, Rogue snatched her hand back and replaced the glove with a sigh, pulling it snugly down to her wrist. She decided then there was little point in accepting Zachary's help anymore, and slowly rose on her own, using her desk to pull herself up.
"Here's that pencil," she said softly, looking down at the floor as Zachary awkwardly took it from her.
"Uh, th-thanks," he stammered. "I'll give it back to you after class.
"Uh-huh." Rogue shrugged, and mumbled, "You can just keep it." She hardly felt that she could look Zachary in the face again, not for a long time. Miserably she turned her attention back to her paper and the professor's lecture on algorithms.
It was early May. In the cloudless sky, the late-afternoon sun shone warmly. Spring had come sooner than in previous years, melting the snow in mid-March. The grass already bore a deep green hue, but the trees were still bare, with only a few fine twigs beginning to bud. Rogue stalked down the school steps, her last class having come to completion. She had spent the entire lunch period alone, getting ahead in her history reading; an excuse to eat in the hall, away from everyone. Usually she could sit with Kitty and Kurt and some of the others from Xavier's mansion, but today, she just wanted to be by herself.
It had not been a good day. The story of how she'd fallen in math class, and then snubbed Zachary Carson, had spread. All the rest of the day she'd tried to ignore the concealed smiles and laughter whenever she walked past a group of students in the hall, walking from one class to the next.
Rogue sighed. It was warm, so warm; why had she worn a sweater? She was dressed for winter, not spring, although the mornings were still quite chilly; sometimes there was frost on the ground. Rogue rolled up her sleeves, folding them above her elbow, then stopped, leaned down, balancing her knapsack on her back, and began to roll up her jeans, keeping them below the knees. That was a little better, but she was still incredibly warm. Her hands were sweating. Rogue looked around. She was already on the path that led away from school and to the Institute. No one was around; Kitty, Jean, Scott and the rest had not left yet. They were probably still socializing, or riding back in Scott's car later.
Satisfied that there was no one around, Rogue removed first one glove, then the other, shoving them into her jeans pocket. This done, she resumed her walk, running her bare fingers through her damp hair; her fingers enjoyed the newfound freedom. 'Ah could get used to this,' she thought, but then frowned. She looked down at her bare hands, her long, slender white fingers, her nails neatly polished even though no one ever would notice. Suddenly she felt uncomfortable; almost exposed. 'Don't be ridiculous,' she told herself. 'No one's even around to notice. It doesn't matter!' That's when she heard pounding footsteps behind her.
She turned around, and was surprised to see Zachary running her way. Quickly she turned away and began to walk at a brisker pace, shoulders hunched, face bent to the ground. 'No, not him, not now!'
"Rogue!" he called out. "Rogue, wait up!" She ignored him, lengthening her stride to stay ahead, but she knew he would catch up, and was bracing herself. It was inevitable. She would not run; that would be even more embarrassing. The last thing she needed was another embarrassment.
'Let's keep the tally to two, okay?' she thought.
Soon enough Zachary was beside her. "C'mon Rogue, just stop for a minute, please?" he panted.
Rogue paused, then stopped and asked, "What d'you want?"
"Oh, thank you," Zachary wheezed, bracing himself, hands on his knees, gasping. "You—heh, you really made me run!" He returned to his panting.
Rogue waited, a sour look on her face, for him to catch his breath. At length, Zachary stood up, still breathing heavily. "I wanted to give you your pencil back."
"Ah told you that you could keep it," Rogue reminded him, frowning, her eyebrows knit.
"I know, but I think you were mad at me after what happened."
"What? N-no, Ah wasn't mad," Rogue exclaimed, surprised. "Ah just—it wasn't your fault. Ah'm not mad at you."
"Sure it was my fault. You wouldn't have fallen out of your seat if it weren't for me." He grinned. "I'm just glad you weren't hurt." Rogue remained silent. "Oh come on, Rogue, it wasn't that bad, was it? You've got to admit, it WAS kind of funny."
"Whatever!" Rogue burst out, and spun and started away again.
"Rogue, wait! I, I'm sorry! I didn't mean like that!" He ran after her. "I just mean…well, never mind. I'm sorry. It was my fault." Rogue didn't answer, just kept walking. "Won't you talk to me?"
Zachary stopped. Shrugged. "All right, if that's what you want. But first," he held up her mechanical pencil in the air; black, purple eraser, "I'm going to return your pencil." Rogue still didn't respond. Zachary jogged to catch up to her again, keeping pace beside her. Rogue kept her gaze forward, tried to pretend he wasn't there. "I insist!" Zachary was in front of her now, so Rogue, rather than try to dodge around him, finally stopped.
"Fine." She held out her hand for him to place the pencil in her palm. But before she could yank her hand back, Zachary had reached out with his other hand. "No! Don't do that—!" but it was too late. Zachary grabbed Rogue's bare fingers, in an attempt to pull them forward and dramatically place the pencil in Rogue's palm. A surprised look, as if he had been shocked, flashed across his face before he crumpled to the ground.
"Zachary!" Rogue cried out, but her head was reeling. She was not prepared for the sudden absorption. She squeezed her eyes closed. Memories, thoughts, feelings, swirling in her mind, coursing through her being. She put both hands to her head, falling to her knees. Everything was bright, like brilliant flashes of light, one scene after another, one feeling, thought, ability, washing over her; and it was so hot, so unbearably hot; it burned; she was sweating, drenched in sweat; burning up, on fire, too hot, couldn't bear it…
The professor yanked his hand backward, ripping off the glove that had begun to melt around his fingers. "What's wrong, Chuck?" Logan's voice came from behind him. He was conscious, but sounded weary. Nevertheless, the professor was relieved.
"I don't know. But I think I was getting some important information. It began a couple days ago, at school. It seems Rogue had a bit of a rough day. Remember that boy, the one she accidentally touched?"
Logan nodded his head. "The one just released from the hospital?"
"Yes. I can't be sure, but it seems things started with him. No, he didn't do this to Rogue," Xavier said quickly when he saw the anger flash through Logan's eyes. "But he might have inadvertently started something. I can't know for sure."
"Are you going to go back in?" Logan asked.
"Not yet. I think it would harm her right now. She's at a delicate stage; I don't know just how awake her mind is right now. It seems to be playing scenes over and again. So many conflicting notions; it was hard to find a steady stream of thought. No, I'll let her rest."
Logan's frown deepened. "Is she doing all right?"
"Yes, for now; it seems she absorbed only the smallest portion of your healing ability. I don't know why she didn't take more, but I think it was enough." Silently he added, 'For now.' The professor turned to Logan. He was holding himself against the wall, rubbing his head with one hand, massaging his temples with thumb and forefinger, eyes closed. "Are you all right?"
"I don't know, Chuck. There's stuff in my head that wasn't there before. But I think I'll be fine. Don't worry about me. Let's just focus on the girl."
Xavier nodded. "We'll have to wait for a little while. I know I'm getting somewhere, but I don't want to do any damage."
Logan assented with a nod. But he was only half-listening. Something was pricking at the back of his mind. A thought, a memory—he wasn't sure. He couldn't focus; whenever he did, it slipped further back as if to avoid discovery. Frustrated, he turned his thoughts away.