Disclaimer: The X-men, as if often the case, belong to Marvel and not to me. I'm using them without permission but, given the fact that I'm making no money from this and that imitation is, they say, the sincerest form of flattery, suing me would be both financially unrewarding and petty. This story takes place shortly after the Inferno storyline and is set somewhere between UXM #s 243 and 244 (although after X-Factor #39). Precisely where, I'll leave up to you :). Feedback of any nature, so long as it's constructive, is welcome and actively craved, and should be sent to Latex1@tinyonline.co.uk. Enjoy.

by Latex

Rogue sat, legs pulled up and arms wrapped around them, chin resting on knees, and looked out from the hilltop as the dawn spread its gentle fire over the horizon, the rosy light washing across the land and creating a warm glow around the edges of the buildings of the remote, ramshackle town in the Australian Outback that the X-Men were calling home. This was a preternaturally calm and still time of the day, cool but not uncomfortably so, although within a few hours the heat would become oppressive. Rogue had half expected to find Gateway there, the old Aborigine keeping his customary silent vigil over the town and the X-Men, but had found the hilltop deserted when she'd arrived. Not that she was unhappy about that, as she'd come there to be alone, but Gateway had been there long before any of them and she could hardly expect to have a greater claim on the land or that time than him.

If she were being honest, she'd come there not so much to be alone as to think, to brood. Right at that moment, though, she was content to observe the sunrise, allowing her subconscious to order her thoughts and feelings while her eyes took in the majesty of the dawn's illumination of the vista laid out before her from her vantage point on the mountain. As the growing light brought contrast to the world, at once illuminating and adumbrating, Rogue's eyes took in the town, settling briefly on the basketball court, peopled with the ghosts of memory.

Improvisation had been the watchword for the X-Men's time here, used as they were to the comforts of the mansion in Westchester and the luxury of the Danger Room (although more than one would have debated the applicability of that particular term) and it had been Logan's idea to utilise the court not only for recreational purposes but also to help Peter refine his control and his fine motor skills, trapped as he was in his metal form. Peter's ability to judge his own strength had improved considerably since they'd first started the games, and they lost far fewer balls to his enthusiasm, although the road to control had been arduous and one littered with the corpses of basketballs which had literally exploded when Peter's zeal met the court's surface with devastating results.

In her mind's eye she could see Longshot bounding about the court, sailing through the air with an almost peerless grace matched only by the simple and unadulterated joy he took from the game, scoring basket after basket but happy just to be playing, victory or defeat being of little consequence. There had been little enough joy in the X-Men's lives of late, adulterated or otherwise, so even those brief moments of carefree activity were to be cherished, where nothing more than a few beers were at stake and a mistake might not cost a teammate his or her life. Recently it seemed as though life had been nothing but a succession of battles against various foes, one blurring into the next. The Reavers, the Brood, Genosha, Inferno, one trial after another for the team to endure both individually and collectively, with no time in between the separate events to catch their breath, lick their wounds, or be anything other than mutant superheroes, feared and hated by the world they would die to protect but never seemed to be part of.

Thoughts of Longshot inevitably became thoughts of Longshot and Alison, prompting something not entirely unlike jealousy. When Alison had first joined the X-Men, more out of necessity and a sense of self-preservation than any genuine desire, there had been a considerable degree of awkwardness between the two women as a result of their prior history of enmity when Rogue had been part of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants under the leadership of her foster mother, Mystique (not that any of them had genuinely considered themselves evil, the name was merely a dig at the perceptions of the world at large and, ironically, the X-Men in particular). Over time, they'd worked through that, becoming teammates if not exactly friends, but Rogue could not suppress a twinge of envy at Alison's relationship with Longshot, a relationship she could never have-with Longshot or anyone-because of her uncontrollable ability to absorb others' abilities and personalities merely by skin-to-skin contact. Not that Longshot had the faintest idea of the competition between the two for his affection, of course; he went through life blithely oblivious to such nuances, taking everything at face value with an innocence that would have been exasperating had it not been so endearing.

It was merely that Rogue had not felt this attracted to anyone for a long time, and the fact that she could do nothing about it even if Longshot were available just brought home to her once again how isolated her powers made her. Most of the time, she took it almost for granted, avoiding physical contact having become second nature over the years, but every so often she was reminded -hard- of her enforced loneliness. More worrying was the fact that Carol Danvers, for so long relegated to Rogue's subconscious, had begun to make her presence felt more forcefully, especially since the incident in Genosha. Logan and Rogue had been stripped of their powers and Rogue's helplessness exploited by a group of Magistrates, the unaccustomed sense of powerlessness and the accompanying panic forcing her to retreat deep inside herself and allowing Carol to take control of the body they shared.

Rogue had thought that after all the years since she'd accidentally absorbed Carol's psyche permanently, and the guilt she'd carried around with her for that mistake which effectively cost another person their life, a balance had been reached, but Genosha had upset that obviously precarious balance and Inferno had reopened the wounds. Carol's voice was becoming louder, more insistent in her head, and harder to ignore. Rogue feared that, should she allow Carol freedom, in so doing she would lose herself. More worrying still, there was really no-one she could talk to about her concerns, as so many of the X-Men had known Carol and considered her a friend, Logan especially, and she feared she would receive little sympathy, that they would blame her as she blamed herself, leaving her feeling even more isolated and friendless.

Inferno had affected them all to a greater or lesser extent, all with the exception of Peter whose physical form made him more-or-less impervious to magic; they were all just dealing with it in different ways. Logan and Ororo seemed least affected, mainly she suspected because they'd already come to terms with the darker sides of their natures. In that sense Longshot had been the most profoundly changed, feeling himself tainted-maybe for good-by the malevolent forces and demons behind the spell. Still, he had the support of the team, and was not inclined to hide his feelings, his natural openness ensuring that his emotional needs would not go unrecognised.

Rogue's eyes and attention were drawn from thoughts of Longshot to the motion of an object at the edge of her vision. Turning her head slightly, she focused and realised that it was Alex, out for a run, taking the opportunity before the sun rose too high. That, however, was only part of the reason. Alex, like Rogue, had been unable to sleep, and sought to exorcise his emotional problems through exercising his body, pushing ever harder and punishing himself for all the transgressions, all the failures real and imagined, whose weight he took on his shoulders. Madelyne's death weighed heavily upon him, but he wasn't talking about it and, when Alison had tried to broach the subject, he'd clamed up completely. Rogue watched as he drew nearer to the outskirts of the town, the light growing with every pace and Alex himself glowing both from the exertion and the corona lent him by the rising sun.

Brooding was getting her nowhere, Rogue decided: she couldn't even concentrate sufficiently to do that. Not entirely certain whether she was doing the right thing, or what kind of reception she'd get, but knowing only that she couldn't stay on the mountain forever, Rogue stood. She stretched, working the kinks out of her spine and hearing that vaguely disturbing popping sound from her joints and tendons and, fixing her gaze on Alex once more, lifted gently off the cliff and headed through the air toward her teammate, leaving only a small puff of dust to swirl and settle in her wake.

Some sixth sense warned Alex of Rogue's approach, although the passage of her body through the air made next to no sound as she was not travelling that swiftly. Without breaking stride, he turned his head to see what had intruded on his focused solitude. Raising his hand in acknowledgement, he continued to run. Rogue was too far away to see his expression, and couldn't be sure if he genuinely welcomed her presence or whether he was merely being polite.

Nevertheless, he slowed as she neared, although it was as much because he'd reached the town proper as because of her. She touched down a short distance from him and walked toward him as he stood, hands on hips, breathing deeply and raggedly, head turned slightly to survey the horizon as the sunlight seeped into the world.

"Mornin', Alex."

"Rogue," he panted, returning the greeting.

"You're up early." Obvious, but an opening conversational gambit rather than an attempt to impart information. He nodded.

"Best time of the day for a run, now or sunset. At least at this time, you don't have to worry about losing the light." Rogue wasn't quite certain whether that was meant as some oblique metaphor or not, so she took the statement at face value. "What brings you here?" he continued.

"Couldn't sleep. Y'know, when your brain just won't shut off an' all the thoughts're whirlin' round your head?"

"I know." He paused. "So, what's on your mind?"

"Guess Ah'm just feelin' sorry for myself." She smiled self-consciously. "Y'know, wallowin' in self-pity an' stuff."

"Anything you want to talk about?"

"Ah could ask you the same question, Alex," she replied, neatly avoiding the issue. "Seems like you got somethin' on your mind recently an' Ah don't wanna pry, but if you need to talk Ah'm happy to listen." He looked at her for a moment, considering. Wiping a hand across his forehead, he said

"You want to go somewhere, spill our guts? Do that whole bonding thing?"

"Where you got in mind?"

"I hadn't planned that far ahead," he admitted with a wry smile. "Just thought we could both use some time away, and nothing seems to be threatening existence as we know it right this moment."

"Okay," Rogue responded, inclining her head with a half smile, "but you can have a shower an' change first. Ah ain't goin' nowhere with you lookin' an' smellin' like that."

By the time they reached the hilltop they found Gateway sitting there in cross-legged, sunlit serenity, as if he'd known they would have need of him at that time and in that place. Rogue was about to speak, to ask Alex their destination or request that Gateway help them, when seemingly unprompted the old Aborigine began to swing his bull-roarer in circles around his head, his bonfire flared to life and a portal blazed into existence, just hanging in mid-air a few inches off the ground. Alex looked at Rogue.

"Seems Gateway knows where we're going already," he observed. "Thanks." This addressed to Gateway, although the man gave no sign of having heard him or even that he'd observed their presence there at all. It was rare that he acknowledged any of the X-Men; he just served his purpose, transporting them to and from their various destinations, in some uncanny and unfathomable way always knowing where they wished to go, and when they wanted to come back. Most of the rest of the team had just accepted it as his way, Logan and Longshot first among them to reach that conclusion, although for different reasons, but Rogue still felt the occasional urge to reach out to him, to ensure that his service was not taken for granted, to extend him at least that courtesy. Not that he seemed particularly concerned either way, but she did it nevertheless. It was *her* way. Echoing Alex's sentiment, she followed him through the portal.

The sunlight as they stepped out of the other side of the portal was less bright only because they'd stepped out into an alleyway. Emerging onto the street, they were once again dazzled by the glare and glad they'd brought sunglasses. It was not even immediately apparent where they were, although by the accents of the multitude of people crowding the streets and the tumult of their voices, they were no longer in Australia but rather back in America.

By the time they'd located an establishment that served food, was not too crowded and offered booths and therefore a modicum of privacy, it was clear that where it was early morning for the rest of the X-Men, it was early evening here. Bright though it was outside, the interior of the bar was dim, and they both had to take a moment to readjust to the decreased illumination, Rogue pushing her sunglasses up onto her head to hold back her hair while Alex merely hooked the arms of his over the neckline of his T-shirt. Given that neither of them had eaten breakfast, the timing was fortuitous and so they located a booth near the back and ordered, the silence between them tense and pregnant with unspoken words and unexpressed anxieties.

Drinks came while they waited for their food and sat on the scarred wood between them, beads of condensation running down the sides of the bottles and creating moist rings around the bases. Rogue toyed with her beer bottle, picking at the label, tearing pieces off. Alex watched her impassively for a while, the shadow of a smile on his lips. Eventually, he spoke.

"Ready for that soul-baring we talked about, or are you just going to carry on destroying Budweiser's distinctive likeness?" Rogue looked up at him, smiling sheepishly. "What's been on your mind, Rogue?" he prompted more directly, raising his own bottle to his lips. Rogue sighed.

"Just goin' through one of them low periods. With all we've been through recently, all the sacrifices we've made, an' we don't seem no closer to achievin' world peace or harmonious coexistence for mutants an' humans. Kinda makes you wonder whether it's been worth what we gave up. At least back in Westchester, we had some kinda life, y'know? Occasionally mingled with the rest of the world, saw people outside of the team. At least then we weren't livin' in each other's lives the whole time." Their food arrived, interrupting the conversation. As they began to eat, Rogue resumed speaking.

"Only ones seem to be enjoyin' it at all are Ali an' Longshot, an' sometimes it seems that's only 'cause they're too wrapped up in each other to notice what the rest of us are missin' out on."

"Sounds like a touch of the green-eyed monster," Alex observed bluntly.

"Tact like that, sugar, is liable to make a body think you been spendin' entirely too much time with Wolvie." Chiding and teasing at the same time. "B'sides, even if you were right-an' Ah'm sayin' 'if', mind-how could Ah compete with the kinda closeness him an' Alison can have when all Ah could offer would be to steal his consciousness? Kissin' for me, Alex, ain't an act of tenderness, it's an act of theft, even if it's only temporary. Most of the time, anyway." Thinking of Carol, not needing to spell it out. "In his place, who'd you choose?"

"Choosing the right woman isn't exactly my speciality," returned Alex with quiet bitterness. "In case it escaped your notice, my track record recently hasn't been particularly enviable. Lorna got possessed by Malice and was last seen leading the Marauders and we all know what happened to Madelyne, so being the woman in my life isn't really a recipe for happily-ever-after, at least if recent history is anything to go by."

Madelyne's death, his failure to protect her, had hit Alex hard, and his bitterness was exacerbated by the fact that he was unsure how genuine any of his feelings for her had been. Had she just been manipulating him, using him to serve her ends and to get back at Scott, her husband and Alex's brother, playing on the tension and resentment already there? Alex had always measured himself against Scott, the great Cyclops, the X-Men's first and best leader, and had always hated the fact that he did, and Madelyne had known that. He'd failed to protect her, from S'ym and N'astirh, from herself, from Sinister, even from Scott. And now Sinister's discarded experiment, his clone of Jean Grey who'd fulfilled her purpose and given birth to Scott's son, and was then rendered obsolete when the genuine article returned from the dead, was gone, leaving nothing but a sense of waste and failure.

Her son, hers and Scott's, renamed Nathan by his mother, was well and with his father, but the child's life had never touched Alex's to the extent that Madelyne's had and so that success was, for him, overshadowed by the failure represented by Madelyne's death.

"It wasn't your fault, Alex, what happened. Ah don't think anythin' could've saved Madelyne. We don't know how long this whole Goblin Queen thing'd been goin' on, how long she'd been manipulatin' us all, but in the end all she was interested in was gettin' her own back on Scott an' Jean an' the whole world. An' to do that she was willin' to sacrifice her own son. Whatever Inferno did to her, Alex, she wasn't the woman we knew any more."

"And that makes it okay? Rogue, she was screwed over from day one! Sinister created her to be a baby factory and once she'd served her purpose he tried to dispose of her. Scott left her, and no matter why he left, whether it was Sinister playing with his mind or not, she was still just as abandoned. She looked to us to protect her, and we failed. I failed.

"So yeah, maybe she used us, but she'd been used all her life as a substitute for Jean, by Sinister, even by Scott. She never had anything, Rogue; everything she believed she had was a lie, or taken away from her. Is it any wonder she was so full of anger?"

"You angry for her, or at her?" Rogue asked. Alex paused.

"I don't know," he admitted quietly after a moment. "Both, I guess. She used all of us, Rogue, but she used me in a very personal way. I needed to feel like I could be relied on to protect her, like I couldn't protect Lorna, and Madelyne played that role, letting me be the white knight to her damsel in distress. And I still don't know if it was just a role, or whether it was real. Were my feelings for her genuine, or just something she needed me to believe in so I'd play the role of her protector? How much was me and how much was her using what was already there and amplifying it, twisting it for her own ends?" He shook his head, a rueful yet entirely humourless smile on his lips. "She used me, manipulated me, so how come I feel like the bad guy?"

"Ah don't have the answers," Rogue replied. "You just followed your heart an' did what you thought was right. You tried your best to save her, Alex, from life, from herself, but maybe she just didn't want to be saved. She committed suicide rather than accept Jean's help, an' Ah don't think you or anyone else tryin' any harder would've stopped her. In the end, all she was lookin' to do was hurt Scott. The rest of us, X-Men an' X-Factor both, even their son, were just innocent bystanders who got caught in the crossfire." Alex looked at her.

"Ironic, isn't it? We save the world on a regular basis, but where our own lives are concerned, we haven't got a clue. Well, here's to us," he said sardonically, raising his bottle in mock salute. "Two of love's losers." Rogue had to acknowledge the sentiment, the glass of her bottle ringing as she tapped it against his.

"Still, seems like all the good we do should count for somethin'," she pointed out.

"Yeah," Alex responded, "but all the good we do seems to benefit the rest of the world at our expense. When do we get anything out of it except a sense of martyrdom? When do *we* get the happy ending?"

"Ah guess you take what you can get."

"Or get what you settle for," Alex countered.

"What do you want me to say, Alex? We deserve more appreciation? It'd be nice if sometimes we got the credit an' not just the blame? Life is unfair, Alex, an' anyone who tells you different is sellin' somethin'. You want to give up because of that?"

"Why not? Let someone else take on the responsibility for a change. Maybe I'm just tired, Rogue. You asked me earlier if it was all worth it: well, maybe it isn't."

"Ah was just thinkin' out loud, an' Ah was referrin' to hidin' out in Australia, not doin' what we do. We stand for somethin', for a dream, an' someone's gotta fight for that dream. That's us. It ain't always easy, an' no-one ever said it would be, but it's worth doin', even when there's a price to be paid."

"Maybe," Alex retorted with quiet venom, "that price is too high, and it's always the wrong people paying it. And maybe the dream's a pipe dream."

"That's what the X-Men do, sugar," Rogue told him, gentle but forceful. "We tilt at windmills an' we fight the good fight an', although it may not seem like it, we make a difference. Maybe it is just a dream, but it's a good one an' it ain't never gonna get any nearer to becomin' a reality if we give up."

"And how does Xavier's dream of peaceful coexistence for mutants and humans get any closer to being reality when we segregate ourselves voluntarily? How is it served by the X-Men living in the middle of nowhere and only emerging to meet the threat of whoever or whatever's threatening the universe this week?"

"Can't argue with you on that one," Rogue conceded. "Especially since Ah been thinkin' much the same thing. Ain't no point savin' the world from the Brood, demons or the Adversary if we ain't gonna live in it an' at least try to enjoy what we've fought so hard for."

The rest of the meal was spent in conversation on rather less weighty topics, such as what to do when they'd eaten. Seeing a movie seemed like a natural progression, although neither Rogue nor Alex knew what was showing. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful evening and the air pleasantly warm, becoming pleasantly cool, and a leisurely walk in order to find a cinema did not seem an unpleasant prospect. So it was that they paid for their food and left in search of a cinema.

The shadows lengthened as they walked, the dying sunlight all the more fierce as the blazing orb sank toward the horizon, and a light, cool breeze had picked up.

"Been too long since Ah did this," Rogue commented. "Just walked on a beautiful summer evenin', like normal folks. Not worryin' 'bout Sentinels or the Marauders or any of that nonsense. Just takin' a moment to enjoy life, appreciate the simple things, an' not concern myself with the next crisis, y'know?"

Traffic, both auto and pedestrian, was becoming sparse at that time of the evening, the rush hour long over and the commuters safely back at home. They saw others out for a walk, like them enjoying the evening, walking the dog, children playing. Signs of humanity, of a normality far too often absent from the X-Men's daily life. Up ahead, a group of children were tossing around a football as they made their way along the street. Rogue watched them for a while, the children -both girls and boys- oblivious to life outside of their game.

"I know," said Alex quietly. "I used to have that with Lorna, in New Mexico, before the Brood crashed there and I left to find the X-Men, and then Malice possessed her when I was gone. I had a life, Rogue. Seems like that's one of the many things that got sacrificed along the way for the greater good." Rogue was given a chance to formulate a response as a truck rumbled by.

"We all got regrets, Alex," she said, "but livin' in the past ain't gonna solve anythin', an' you can't bring that time back again. What happened to Lorna was no more your fault than Madelyne, an' beatin' yourself up over it does no one any good. You gotta move on."

The squealing of brakes caught their attention and, looking up, they saw a bus bearing down on one of the children, who'd run into the road to retrieve the football. He stood there, frozen in the path of the bus, and the driver's expression of horror was plainly visible through the glass as he realised he wasn't going to be able to stop in time.

Rogue's feet left the ground as she flew toward the boy, closing the gap as the bus closed on him. She reached him, stood there in terror, clutching the football to his chest like a talisman to ward off evil, a moment before the bus hit. Taking him in her arms and clutching him to her, she twisted in the air in an attempt to shield his body with her own and felt the bus plough into her back.

The force of the impact bounced them down the street, Rogue curled desperately around the boy as they tumbled to a halt, bodies intertwined and cheeks brushing together and, dimly aware of the bus shuddering to a halt mere feet away, Rogue suddenly found herself sharing her skull with nine-year old Greg Doyle as, both psyches together, they stared down at his body cradled in her arms.

And then she began to feel his consciousness slip away, the clarity of the memories which defined him becoming blurred, although they both shared a moment of helpless terror as she realised what the angle of his neck meant, his confusion becoming comprehension and fear as whatever part of him she'd absorbed recognised that it was returning to a corpse. And she knelt there, his body in her arms, powerless to do anything but bear witness to his death as his psyche slipped from her grasp and the last remnants of his life slid away. In the background the screams of Greg's friends, the praying of the bus driver, all of it seemed muted and somehow unreal as tears fuelled by some complex and ambiguous mix of grief and anger and loss and failure rolled down her cheeks.

Then Alex was there, helping her to her feet, prying Greg's body from her arms and leading her away from the rapidly growing crowd of friends, passengers and passers-by drawn by the unerring human instinct for tragedy. The darkness of an alleyway, the bright light of Gateway's portal, arriving unbidden but at precisely the moment required, and Rogue stumbled out into the heat of the Australian Outback, supported by Alex and barely managing to put one foot in front of the other.

Rogue's hand found an outcropping of rock and she leaned on it, retching, as the partially digested components of the food she'd so recently eaten spattered hotly onto the dusty ground at her feet. Once her stomach had been completely evacuated, her dry heaving gave way to wracking sobs as she rolled off the rock and sank to the ground.

"Oh, God," she whispered through her tears. "He died." She looked up at Alex, kneeling beside her and unsure of what to say to comfort her. "Ah felt him die, Alex, felt him slippin' away from me an' there wasn't a goddamn thing Ah could do. He knew. He knew he was dyin', an' Ah could feel his mind tryin' so hard t'hold on, not t'let go, an' he couldn't, an' Ah couldn't, an' he's dead. Ah couldn't save him.

"What's the point, huh? We save a world full of people we'll never meet, who never know an' most likely wouldn't care, but Ah can't save one child from bein' hit by a bus. What're his family gonna think?"

"It wasn't your fault, Rogue. You tried your best to save him."

"Don't make the boy any less dead, Alex, an' you didn't feel him in your head as he died without you bein' able to do a damn thing about it."

"Sometimes, there's nothing you can do. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to save a person, sometimes it's beyond your power. Believe me, I know all about failure."

"You don't have the slightest *idea* how Ah feel, mister!" snapped Rogue, tears of shock and grief changing to ones of anger. "You may believe that you failed Madelyne, an' there ain't nothin' Ah or anyone else can do to stop you beatin' yourself up over that, but don't you even pretend to understand what it was like for me! You saw it all from the sidewalk: Ah had Greg's memories inside my mind, blinkin' out one by one as he died, an' that's a kind of up-close-an'-personal acquaintance with failure you can't even *begin* to lay claim to. So don't you patronise me, an' tell me you understand, because you don't, an' you never will."

"Rogue, I didn't mean..." Alex began, startled, but was cut off before he could continue.

"Ah gotta be alone right now, Alex." Brushing tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, Rogue climbed awkwardly to her feet, not even giving Alex a chance to offer her his hand. She lifted off with a swirl of dust and accelerated away through the sky, in moments becoming a receding speck on the horizon.

Alex contemplated the dusty ground before him for a moment, then looked up to meet the gaze of the old Aborigine staring impassively in his direction, if not quite directly at him.

"Guess I didn't miss my calling as a therapist, huh?" he said ruefully, although no response was forthcoming and he hadn't expected one. Rising from his crouch, he set off down the mountain toward the town, leaving Gateway to keep his solitary watch from his vantage point over the town.

On the way back to the residence he'd chosen from the many available buildings left absent by the Reavers' departure, Alex passed by the basketball court where Logan and Alison were teamed against Longshot and Peter in a lively game. The court was in the shade of the buildings, a necessity given the fact that Peter tended to become very hot when exposed to direct sunlight in the furnace-like temperature of the Outback. Alex toyed with the idea of watching the game, but the events of the morning (or, where he had been, evening) meant he was in no mood for company. He returned to his domicile and attempted with absolutely no success to settle to some activity. In the end, frustrated with his own restlessness, Alex changed into his costume and headed off to a spot a little way from the town.

An hour or so later he was still there, headpiece lying discarded on the ground and Alex himself drenched in sweat, laying waste to all around him, his plasma beams turning rock after rock into expanding clouds of powder. His black costume was coated with the dust of the rocks he'd turned to ashes, and Alex's face was streaked with a mixture of perspiration and dust, his eyes red-rimmed from the irritation of both salt and grime. Nevertheless, he continued to fire at rock after rock with a grim determination. As yet another rock exploded in a shower of chips and dust, Alex stood staring at the smoking remains for a moment before sinking to his knees, panting from the exertion. He heard a subdued voice behind him ask

"Is it workin'?" He waited a moment, head downcast, before slowly raising himself up on one knee to look over his shoulder, seeing Rogue sitting on one of the rocks he'd left intact, curled up fetus-like.

"Not really," he responded. "Not much seems to be, today."

"Alex, Ah'm sorry Ah bit your head off earlier."

"It was a dumb thing to say. I didn't mean it to come out like that, like I was turning it into some kind of contest. And, you know, if you want to talk about it, I'm here."

"Not right now. Ah just spent a long time goin' over it an' replayin' it in my head, an' Ah really don't wanna think about it no more." She paused. "You told the others?"

"No. I wasn't feeling too sociable." Rogue nodded her acceptance of his decision.

"You want me to leave you alone?"

"No, that's okay. I think I've caused enough destruction for one day," Alex answered. "It wasn't doing much good anyway. They say time's a great healer, so maybe giving it time's the answer." Rogue wasn't certain whether he was referring to Madelyne or Greg or both, but she acknowledged the sentiment anyway. "It's probably a better solution than blowing rocks up. Any chance of a lift back to town? I'm pretty tired after all this... havoc," he smiled ironically, indicating with a sweep of his arm the desolation to which he'd added. "It failed to accomplish anything anyway. Rogue," he added, "are you okay?"

"No, Alex, Ah'm not. But Ah'm gettin' there. Like you said, maybe what we both need right now is time."

Sliding down from her perch, Rogue walked toward Alex as he bent down to retrieve the headpiece to his costume. She extended her hand and, when Alex gripped it, the action communicated much more between them than the simple need for a solid hold on one another during the impending flight.

"C'mon," she said, squeezing his hand, "let's us two failures go home."


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