The Other Side

by Diamonde

Okay, I started out wanting to write about what Christmas is like here in Australia. It changed fairly quickly into something a bit more stressful. (So it may well suck, but was interesting to write.) Just warning you, if you're looking for seasonal joy you're in the wrong place. There are some acts of kindness, but the general feeling is pretty sad. Come on, the man's dying, I can't pretty that up very much. Apologies for any gross mischaracterization, I'm working with someone I don't know very well. Just part of my devotion to villains, I guess. :)

Oh yeah, and there's bad language. F word even. You have been warned.

They all belong to Marvel. No money, no sue. It's Christmas, I've got enough problems. The story and the happy feelings I get from finally posting something are my present to myself, Marvel can't have 'em! :) Byron Bay belongs to the people who live there, sorry for mutilating some of the geography.

Feedback can be sent to [email protected], no flames please. Ask before archiving, no MST or pop-up.

"Hi Boss." Pyro was only slightly interrupted by a deep cough.

"Nice to see you again, Pyro. You look..." Mystique paused for a moment as she waved him inside and over to her couch. "You look good for a dead man, that's for sure."

Australia's best known supervillain laughed. "I look like shit, I know. Legacy'll do that to yer."

Raven smiled wryly. "Fairly shitty, yes. How do you feel?"

"Weak, cold, sick of coughin', sick of setting things on fire by accident, and sick of..." He sighed. "Hey, ya aren't here to listen to me whinge. Catch me up on the news instead."

"You've probably heard most of it." The last few weeks had been very busy for mutantkind on both sides of the moral fence, and details had spread around the world with impressive speed.

"A few whispers is all." He shrugged. "Don't get out much anymore, and there aren't that many people who wanna spend much time around me now."

Golden eyes narrowed. "Bastards."

"They're scared, boss. Can't say I blame 'em." He took a long drink from the wineglass Mystique had just filled. Beer only made him cough now. "Doesn't matter that much."

"You sure?"

"They gave me a week or two six months ago. I'm getting philosophical about it, why should I care if people are paranoid?"

Mystique nodded and watched her old teammate thoughtfully. He'd always been small and slight, but he seemed to have shrunk even more since she had last seen him. Emaciated, skin too hot to touch stretched tightly over bone. The quick efficiency of his movements had faded too, becoming slow and painstaking.

For all her selfish attitude, Mystique did care about him. Pyro had been a loyal follower, an intelligent ally and a good friend for a long time. When she'd tried to protect Graydon he'd calmly put personal prejudice and sickness aside to help her, trusting her judgement. X-Factor hadn't.

"You might be, but I bloodywell am not! Shut the hell up."

Mystique started. "What?"

The radio playing softly in the corner was angrily pointed at. "If I hear one more wanker whine about how he's dreamin' of a White Christmas..." He sighed and flopped back against the couch's cushions. "I don't like white Christmases. Give me a hot green one any day."

Mystique turned the radio off with a flick of the remote control. "Homesick?"

A cracked laugh, also not what it used to be. "They spray fake snow in shop windows in Australia. Foam and cotton wool and stuff that looks like roof insulation everywhere. But that's just commercialism, nothing to do with it really."

"What's it really like?" Mystique asked gently.

Pyro smiled. "Hot. All this..." He waved vaguely out the apartment window at the street below. "It doesn't really mean anything to me, it's just what Christmas is in stupid movies. In Australia it's all blue skies and bad television. And hordes of kids on summer holidays. I remember that... you could just see weeks of nothing stretching out in front of you. They're all over the place, all hyperactive... Especially in shopping centers - malls to you Americans - 'cause they're air-conditioned. That's where everyone's frantic, I don't like it. Better off lazing around near a beach or a pool or on a boat. A little sweat never hurt anybody, and there's all those good-looking women in lycra..." He sighed. "And the food... prawns and mangoes and peaches and huge boxes of cherries so you just eat and eat until you're sick." Pyro blinked and smiled apologetically. "Sorry. I just feel like I'm supposed t' be eating fruit salad with ice-cream."

Mystique's heart squeezed. The man was dying and he was apologizing for being homesick? And he was in New York because she'd asked him. _Big softy. Some supervillains we are..._ "You feeling up to a little trip, Pyro m'lad?"

He coughed again. "Not really... I know what yer thinking, and don't. They aren't gonna let me on any planes like this, and right they are. I don't want to go down in some flaming box any more than they do."

"Would you just trust me?"

"No man in his right mind would trust you, boss. Far too sneaky by half." He grinned as he said it, but didn't pretend that he wasn't absolutely right.

"What have you got to lose?"

"True." He sighed again and slid even further down so that he was lying in a reasonably comfortable position. "Wake me up when we get there, then."

* * *

In actual fact, Pyro woke up to find immensely strong and distinctly feminine arms lifting him like a baby. "Wha...?" He looked up and blinked. "Rogue?"

"That's me." She flew slowly out onto the balcony and began to float upwards.

The cold cut through the blanket someone had wrapped firmly around him, and Pyro shivered. "Why're you here, kid?"

"Momma asked me," she said simply.

"I didn't tell her to. Her stupid idea, I don't-"

"Pyro? Shut up and let her do something nice for ya."

He shut up, staying quiet as they slipped through the bottom hatch of the blackbird and back into warmth. Didn't say a word as Mystique and Nightcrawler appeared, but made a face at the smell. _Christ they look alike,_ he thought privately.

Rogue tucked her old teammate and sometime-enemy into one of the seats. "Put this on."

Pyro eyed the collar. "That's Genoshan crap."

"Ah know, but it's safer. Please?"

He gave up. What was the point in resisting? "Whatever."

Mystique looked around the side of the co-pilot's seat. "Go back to sleep. Even in this plane the trip will take a while."

"I'd make some tacky comment about having plenty of time to sleep later, but a little nap sounds pretty good. Try not to hit any turbulence. Or the ground."

At the front of the plane, Kurt broke the awkward silence with a whisper. "How long?"

"Pyro? No idea. He's lasted longer than most people with legacy, but that's probably because he only controls the flames instead of creating them. No power to eat him alive, like Maverick." She snorted softly. "But he looks like a walking corpse, doesn't he? Days, maybe a week or two... maybe hours. None of the 'experts' know, and less of them care."

"That's not fair, Mystique."

"You're right, it isn't."

The silence came back after that.

* * *

"Yuck, it's raining." Rogue grimaced at the enthusiastic storm dumping huge loads of water onto the coastal town.

Pyro grinned and slipped his shoes off. The air floating in the hatch was steamy and soothed his much-abused lungs. And familiar, so familiar... Ducking Rogue's hand, he climbed down the steps and onto the wet sand. "Smell that." He took a deep breath, reveling in it.

"Smell what?" Kurt looked out and grimaced. He hated wet. Didn't like sand much either, but the dunes had been the best place to set down.

"Don't suppose someone who most likely reeks like a damp dog when he gets wet would notice, but that's the smell of summer rain on hot ground, mixed up with the ocean. Nothing like it." Another lungfull of the rich scent made him feel almost alive again. "Which way?"

"About two hundred meters that way." Mystique pointed and hurried down to stand beside him, shifting to one of her more 'normal' looking forms.

"Good." The two of them set off up the beach, leaving Rogue and Nightcrawler to fend for themselves.

It took longer than it should have, but soon he was walking down familiar streets. The concrete was hot and wet under his bare feet, and quite relaxing. The huge wreaths of tinsel and plastic that were hanging from streetlights looked rather droopy in the rain, a banner wishing all passers-by a 'Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!' flapped wetly and dribbled pink-tinged water down the pub's white walls. Skirting that large building as it hulked on the corner, he led Mystique into a small cafe instead.

It was crowded and a little loud inside, full of other people nearly as bedraggled as they were taking shelter from the storm. There was still a small table against one wall free, however, and Pyro sat down with relief. Even such a short walk was tiring.

"Vegan, vegetarian, kosher..." Mystique raised her eyebrows at the menu. "Unusual."

"This is Byron Bay. Place is fulla hippies, ferals and tourists." Pyro looked meaningfully at a waitress in a halter top, cutoff shorts and fake antlers who wandered over obediently.

"What can I do fer yas?" Her voice was thickly accented and friendly.

Mystique quietly ordered a small lasagna and salad, it seemed to be the house specialty. Pyro was a bit pickier. "Is that fruit salad homemade?"

She smiled. "Sure is. Helped do it m'self 'bout two hours ago."

"What's in it?"

She looked thoughtful, and began counting off ingredients on her fingers. "Apple, pawpaw, mango, banana, cherries, orange, rockmelon, pineapple, kiwifruit... I think that's it."

Pyro sighed a sigh of deep contentment. "Give me a huge bowl of that. With ice-cream. And a seafood platter." Another coughing fit hit, making him dizzy.

"Okay." The waitress looked down at him for a moment, then leaned forward conspiratorially. If she knew she was giving Pyro an almost indecent view of her cleavage she didn't care. "You look like you've really been hanging out for this. Tell you what, I'll pop down to the gourmet ice-cream shop at the end of the block and grab you some _real_ ice-cream for that fruit salad. Trust me, it's the best you'll ever taste."

"Thank you." He couldn't say much more as he was still wheezing painfully.

"No problem." She headed back to the kitchen, sun-bleached hair swinging.

"That was... nice of her." Mystique frowned across the table.

Pyro laughed. "Don't worry, I still look like death warmed over and she doesn't recognize me from any of my old books. This town's biggest industry is drugs disguised as tourism, she knows a dying man when she sees one. Probably thinks I've got AIDS or something."

"Oh." Raven poured herself a glass of water and looked into it thoughtfully. "Glad you came?"

"Depends if the fruit salad's any good," he joked. Then he looked back out at the street, through a window with snowflakes stenciled on it. The rain had stopped and the sun was back out, making everything glisten and look clean. People wearing everything from wetsuits to tie-dyed dresses and dreadlocks were back on the streets, enjoying the slight drop in temperature. "Yeah, I'm glad. Thanks, boss. A present I actually wanted, that's gotta be breaking a rule somewhere...."

She grinned back at him. "I think this would be an appropriate time call me Raven."

"What else do I get? Remember, I deserve lots of pity..." He gave a very good attempt at puppy-dog eyes, somewhat devalued by the joking leer.

"Don't even think it."

"Hey, thinking's about all I can manage now. Don't spoil that for me too. Jeez, I'm DYING and I'm still not allowed to be lecherous..."

They both laughed at that. Outside the bitumen steamed, mocking the little snow-bound Santa who waved an electric candle amid piles of shoes. A horde of drunk teenagers stumbled past, laughing with the sincere joy-terror of people who have just struggled out of five years of high school to see real life barreling down on them like a semi-trailer.

* * *

After they'd finished lunch, the two sometime-supervillains ended up on an almost empty beach, watching hordes of seagulls hustle the few remaining tourists with loud professionalism.

"What do you want for Christmas, boss?"

"Dreams or realism?"

"Dreams. You know, if ya could sit on Santa's lap and ask him for anything. Something selfish."

Mystique grinned. "A space station."

There was a soft thump as Pyro slid off his rock to laugh helplessly on the sand. "A space station?!"

"Yeah, a space station. Come on, it's not that silly. Cable had one, Magneto had two and I'm jealous. It's about time a woman got one anyway." She sat down next to Pyro and looked out to sea as she daydreamed. "I want a big silver one with huge guns so that everyone would have to be polite to me... and I could just sit up there in neutral territory and metaphorically moon anyone who wanted to arrest me or make me work for their stupid government."

"Sounds nice. But have you been a good girl this year?"

"No. Whoops."

"That's the problem. Us villains never get a break... except for Magneto, for some reason."

"Guilt. The man could guilt-trip GOD. And frequently tries." She picked up a handful of sand, watching it slip through her fingers like wasted minutes. "What about you, St. John Allerdyce? Been a good boy this year?"

"Nope. If I had the energy I'd rob another bank just to flip Santa the finger one more time."

"So if you could go back and do it all again you'd still choose a life of crime?"

"Hell no," he said softly. "Not the way I did, anyway. Maybe a few smart crimes, set myself up. Do a Freedom Force maybe, we had some good times then. Try to avoid getting this fucking virus, obviously. Then I would have written all those things I never got around to. I'm a good writer, or I could have been. Wrote trash because that's where the steady money was... and now that's all I'll be remembered for." Such a long speech was too much of a strain, he started coughing again. Worse this time, shaking his whole body until Mystique had to hold him up and he spat blood onto the sand.

Her voice was a little huskier than normal, not that Mystique would ever admit to repressed tears. "For what it's worth, John... I'm sorry."

"Yeah," Pyro gasped. "Me too."

Sometimes Christmas causes pain because of what we regret never having. Sometimes it reminds us of what we've lost. Sometimes life just hurts.