Illyana woke with a pillow between her legs, not needing to touch there to feel how wet she was. In her dream that had been Kitty’s leg between hers. Pressure filled her pelvis, ached against her sacrum, burned in her clit. She needed the release so badly. But—now that she was awake—not enough to imagine Kitty there.
She should swallow her pride, teleport back to the mansion and see if Dani was up. Except last she’d checked, Dani had gotten back with Rahne. But she could at least imagine Dani: the sage and grass scent of her hair, the way her hands always smelled of oranges, the intensity of her fingers and the thought-killing cleverness of her tongue.
Almost there. But the image wavered, like one of Dani’s mirages, and shifted from Dani’s deep, knowing eyes to Kitty’s bright, playful ones.
“Fuck.” Lying on her belly, one pillow between her legs, one under her cheek, Illyana pressed her forehead against the mattress.
Four years had passed since she and Kitty had been “roommates”—since they’d been fourteen and fifteen together—been each other’s firsts in so many ways. First real kiss, first love, first helpless, shaking orgasm in another girl’s arms.
Illyana had slept with five other women after Kitty, had dated three of them, and even now every dream was Kitty. But she’d still take sex dreams about Kitty over the nightmares.
Her nightmares had gotten farther apart in the four years she’d lived with the Stranges and studied under Clea. Some days she no longer remembered what it had been like at fifteen with demons streaming out of Limbo, how close she’d been to killing herself—how much she’d longed to do that. She’d held her sword, her soul, in her hands and known how to cut through the magic, known what it would do to her. She’d told herself she had to do it to save everyone else; that she wasn’t worth saving and they were.
The love of all her friends, her brother, her teammates, her teachers, and Kitty had saved her. And the wisdom of Clea Strange, who’d told her, “This is not what the magic wants for you. Let us show you what true magic is.”
Clea and Stephen, with a host of sorcerers she didn’t know, not all from this time or dimension, fought back the demons, defeated S’ym and N’astirh. All the sorcerers had taken Illyana through the portal, into Limbo, and made sure the demons saw Illyana’s power. Then they’d come home and closed that portal behind them so that once again only Illyana could freely come and go from Limbo.
She’d learned so much from Clea, who wasn’t only a extremely powerful sorcerer, but also knew how to rule a dimension way bigger than Limbo. She’d also learned tons from the therapist that the Stranges insisted she see, even the stupid group therapy that she hated but kept attending. So much that the nightmares became infrequent. But still, somehow, she wasn’t over Kitty.
If her body and her dreams would stop screwing with her, maybe she could finally get that Kitty didn’t want her. Or at least Kitty in this universe.
For the last few days, Clea had been tracking an exceedingly strange train—powered by a dragon and the Phoenix—traveling across the multiverse. As soon as Illyana heard that another universe’s Kitty Pryde was on board, she’d glued herself to the scrying portal.
Lockheed was with Kitty, and Rachel Grey—who apparently called herself Rachel Summers in that universe—and Kurt. So good to see Kitty with these people who loved her. Plus people Illyana didn’t know: Captain Britain, Meggan, some professor, and a sentient widget. They’d already hopped universes twice and didn’t seem to know how to get themselves home.
She should get up and go check on them. What would feel worse: imagining Kitty here with her now or having to go through the whole day feeling this molten heaviness between her legs?
Illyana gave in and remembered Kitty’s breasts against hers, the insistent points of her nipples, the ginger smell of the skin at the base of her neck, the drape of her hair. Felt Kitty’s leg between hers bracing the back of Kitty’s hand, fingers inside her.
“Katya,” Illyana groaned into her pillow and came, almost flooding her own palm with her wetness.
She rolled onto her back and let tears streak her cheeks, having learned not to fight the sadness that swelled inside her with the pleasure. Then she went to shower everything away, find Clea, and see about this train—about this Kitty Pryde from another universe, maybe one where she missed Illyana as much as Illyana missed her.
In which, as usual, almost nothing goes the way Illyana plans.
Although the events of this time in Excalibur are set in the 1980s, I set this in 2019. Apologies to anyone who loves the 80s; I do not.
Clea had the scrying portal open in the center of the library, two chairs in front of it. She sat in one but made notes in a bound book instead of watching. Illyana settled into the other chair, a cup of coffee between her palms, and stared at the moving figures in another universe.
“Saturnyne will get them home,” Clea said after a while. “They don’t need our help. Did you want to keep watching until they get home?”
“What about after they go home?”
“I have to close the portal soon. But your summer vacation is approaching.”
Clea smiled blithely at Illyana’s shocked stare. She never suggested that Illyana should hop universes. Especially not to find one where Kitty wasn’t with her brother.
(Honestly, Kitty only ended up with him in a small number of universes, but Illyana just had to live in one.)
She hadn’t seen the others, but Clea had told her, late one night—when she was so not sitting up in bed crying about a sketch of them Piotr had done—that in a lot of universes, Kitty stayed with Illyana, or they broke up a bunch and kept getting back together. That helped but also Illyana wanted to see one of those universes. Maybe she wanted to live in one of them.
“Have you seen their home universe? What happens to me?” Illyana asked Clea.
“You close off Limbo on your own. You made a huge stepping disc and threw the soulsword in.”
“Yes.” Clea chuckled, at the language and also at the fact that Illyana could now fully appreciate what a screwed up move that would be magically. Clea said, “In that universe—I’m not entirely clear—it either reverts you to a child or replaces you with a child version of yourself from … somewhere. But then child-you gets the legacy virus.”
“So I’m basically dead there. I could visit. I won’t run into myself.”
“I wouldn’t have suggested a summer vacation if you were in danger of chaoticizing the omniverse,” Clea said with a smirk.
Days later, Illyana thought she was in a lot more danger of chaoticizing her own personal universe.
Illyana had seen the lighthouse through the scrying portal and it was easy enough to find the nearest town. She rented a room, though she only had a backpack’s worth of things with her. The room lent her the privacy to set up a circle and cast a few spells, figure out how to cross paths with Kitty in a mostly non-stalking way.
Before she’d left her universe, she’d gotten her hair cut even shorter than it had been so now it was mainly a shock of blond falling over her forehead with the sides and back buzzed short. And she’d bought a pair of glasses. Because of course no one would recognize her with glasses on.
Well, Kitty would. Which is why she stayed back when she saw Kitty and Rachel Grey walking into the local coffee shop. Kitty looked very like her Kitty—Kitty at her best—with slightly longer curly brown hair, a year or two younger than in Illyana’s universe. She let a few more people go in and then went through the door, spotted Rachel's very red hair, turned away, and let herself be seated at a small table across the room from them.
It would be creepy to eavesdrop. She just wanted to see Kitty in this world. But seeing her and noticing how she looked at Rachel, Illyana started thinking maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea. She left money on the table, went to the bathroom and teleported back to her room.
She couldn’t get home without Clea’s help, so she was stuck in London for the summer—or at least until her scheduled cross-universe communication with Clea in a month. Might as well catch up on her reading, enjoy the city—and see if it could be easier to get over Kitty if she was with another girl instead of Illyana’s brother.
Illyana did have plenty of sorcerous homework to do. What did she ever do before she could carry around hundreds of volumes of magic on her tablet? She kept worrying one of these days the tablet would learn to cast spells on its own. She should probably prepare for that.
The next morning, after a run and a shower, she went back to the coffee shop. It was the only familiar place in this town. And if she got to see Kitty again, that would be cool. Not that she was stalking her ex. It’s not stalking if you’re from another universe … or maybe it was stalking, but this Kitty wasn’t her ex. Multiverse dynamics got so weird.
One of the small tables by the window sat empty except for a dirty plate, a few napkins, crumped sheets of paper, and an empty mug. Illyana put her bag there and went to get breakfast and so much coffee.
When she returned to the table, someone had bussed it, revealing a textbook that must’ve been under the napkins and paper: Forensic Psychology: Fifth Edition.
Now that was interesting. The University of Manchester was blocks away, must be from a student there. Illyana picked it up and flipped to the table of contents, saw Chapter 11: Psychopaths and turned to it.
The student must’ve read most of the book already because the margin notes and underlines extended through the psychopathy chapter. “Descriptions of psychopathy exist in most cultures,” had been double underlined. A handwritten margin note asked, “What compels groups of good people to evil?”
Illyana studied the looping handwriting. It seemed young for college, reminded of her of Amara who’d only learned English handwriting after she joined the New Mutants, but it could easily be a guy’s writing. After all, Piotr had neater cursive than Illyana. Best not to get too into this unknown note writer. But still Illyana stayed in the little booth by the window, finished her coffee and switched to herbal tea, read all twenty-two pages of the psychopathy chapter.
The student had made a lot of underlines, asked a lot of questions about individuals and groups, but only double-underlined a few passages: “Antisocial personality disorder refers to a personality disorder in which there ‘is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood’” and “psychopathic individuals report lower levels of parental care (i.e., warmth, attachment).” Next to the first, they’d written “H & S” and the second “N.S.”
Initials? People this student worried about or feared?
She searched in the front of the book for a name, but it was blank. She should walk over to the university and turn the book in at the psychology department so they could make an announcement in class. Instead she turned the pages, reading more of the margin notes. The section “Biological, Sociological, and Psychological Theories of Crime” had so many notes they spilled into the margins of the following pages.
The reader seemed frustrated by theories that explained crime as only biological or social or psychological.
“You’re reading my textbook,” a familiar woman’s voice said. Slightly deeper than what Illyana had heard in her home universe, a bit more Phoenix.
She looked up into the hazel eyes of Rachel Grey/Summers and froze. Rachel’s forehead wrinkled, a frown crossing her lips. How often had Rachel met Illyana in this universe? From the look on her face, only a few times, only enough that the girl in front of her seemed vaguely familiar. Or maybe Illyana was getting that look because Rachel couldn’t read her mind.
“Sorry,” Illyana said. “It’s fascinating.”
“Do you go to Manchester too? What do you study?” she asked, pointing at Illyana’s tablet. That meant her thin disguise was working—or merely the disguise of being someone not currently alive in this universe.
“Magic,” Illyana blurted out. “That is, the history of the occult in Russia. Do you want to sit?”
Rachel pulled out the other chair and settled into it, asking, “There’s a class in that?”
“Russian major?” Rachel asked and Illyana nodded. Rachel said, “I’m majoring in Forensic Psych, but you probably figured that out. I’m Ray.”
She went by “Ray” here? That was … cute. The name “Illyana” was much too recognizable. The Americanization of her name was either “Gillian” or …
“Elisha,” Illyana said. “But friends call me Ely.” Okay only one friend had called her Ely—and they were very good friends at the time—but she’d liked it.
“What do you do for fun, Ely?” Ray asked and Illyana had the dizzy sense she was being flirted with.
“Well I recently picked up the hobby of reading other people’s textbooks.” She stalled while she worked out what a normal nineteen-year-old college student would do. Not magic, not swordplay, well, maybe swordplay. “I run, I like music and movies, and I’m pretty good with a longsword.”
“Wow, that’s specific, not other kinds of swords?”
“Also good with sabres and great swords, not bad with arming swords, absolute trash with a rapier.”
“Bad at stabbing?” Ray asked, smirking.
“Same. I’m more of a burn-it-down type when I have to be.”
“Effective. And it leaves less evidence. Is that why you’re in Forensic Psych?”
Ray stroked her fingers across the textbook’s open pages. “I need to understand people,” she said.
“I’m still working on understanding myself,” Illyana said.
“Aren’t we all?” Ray asked. She closed the psych book and tucked it under her arm. “Thanks for finding my book. I’ll see you.”
As she left, Illyana stared after her wondering if that’d been a casual good-bye or did Ray know something she didn’t?
The next morning, Illyana went to the coffee shop and Ray was sitting at that table by the window, book and notebook open.
“Join you?” Illyana asked.
They studied and chatted. That afternoon Illyana walked over to the university, found the Russian Studies department and talked her way, mostly in Russian, into auditing “Russian Literature and Society from Pushkin to Putin.”
If she was going to keep studying with Ray in the mornings, she should have a real class to go to.
Plus the anti-mutant sentiment in this universe was worse than in hers—officially being a student gave her a good cover story for any magic-related research she wanted to do.
Back in her own universe, she’d never spent much time around Rachel Grey. Hadn’t really formed an opinion of her. She knew in some universes Kitty dated Rachel. In some, she married her. In some they had a bunch of telepathic, phasing, hyperactive, genius kids.
Somehow in a matter of days, sitting at the little coffee shop table, talking about psychology and swords and magic (but not real magic), Illyana had forgotten this snarky, darkly funny, incisive girl was Rachel Grey and gotten used to having a new friend named Ray who liked shopping, fried foods, and profiling strangers then deciding their perfect fictional romantic match.
Plus Illyana had started to get stories about Ray’s roommate Kitty. Cute stories. Because Ray thought Kitty was still fifteen years old. No wonder they weren’t dating.
Having seen Kitty in this coffee shop the first day here, Illyana knew Kitty was not fifteen—same as in Illyana’s home universe, this Kitty was a couple of lived years older than her age on paper. Hopefully for the same reason: time travel with Illyana, months they’d spent together in other cities, being teens. Maybe also because of space travel.
At a guess, this universe’s Kitty had turned seventeen a few months before her fifteenth birthday. But Ray didn’t know that—impossible to tell since she hadn’t seen another Kitty at seventeen to compare—and fifteen was a world away from nineteen.
And Illyana wasn’t about to tell her.
In the middle of their third week of studying together and talking, Illyana had started to think maybe she should see if Ray wanted to hang out somewhere else. Like a movie and then a restaurant and then Illyana’s bedroom. Except if Ray wasn’t dating Kitty, maybe Illyana should be spending every morning in a coffee shop with Kitty instead. If she could figure out how.
She couldn’t show up being Illyana, especially since this timeline’s Illyana was due to return in a few years. But if she showed up as Ray’s friend Ely … Kitty had undoubtedly heard stories from Ray about these coffee shop mornings. Illyana couldn’t spend three weeks flirting with one girl and then just switch. Plus, she’d started to like Ray a lot more than she’d expected to.
Maybe the best answer was to do wait, gather more information. Illyana went back to trying to read her tablet while Ray, sitting across from her, sipped coffee and scrawled questions in the margins of her textbook.
A breeze blew across the table. Illyana glanced up as a guy held the door open for his friend in a wheelchair. Before she’d wheeled over the threshold, a ruddy figure the size of a monkey leapt into her lap and through the open door into the coffee shop.
Demon imp! Illyana surged to her feet and the imp saw her. It pointed excitedly, face splitting in a huge grin. What the literal hell?
Ray stood so fast her chair smacked into the window. Her hand filled with fire. She threw the ball of phoenix fire at the imp at the same time that Illyana opened a stepping disc behind it. The fire spattered against its chest and dropped it through the portal.
Wow, I hope it went into the right Limbo, she thought. She’d have to check with Clea. But not right now.
Everyone in the coffee shop stared at them with varying degrees of alarm and terror. The barista had her phone in her hand.
Ray’s hound tattoos showed, lines of furious black ink on her face, eyes white, flickers of fire around her hand. Illyana couldn’t remember if this was a country with an anti-mutant police force or any number of, much worse, anti-mutant vigilante groups.
Illyana wrapped her fingers around Ray’s forearm and tugged her into a hug. She put her other hand at the back of Ray’s head, pressing the taller woman’s face into her shoulder, intending to hide the tattoos until Ray got herself together again, to keep the coffee shop from erupting into panic and anti-mutant rage.
But Ray turned, her cheek brushing Illyana’s, her lips finding Illyana’s. Reflexively, Illyana brought her hands to Ray’s cheeks, to hide the tattoos. But of course that also made it seem like she was deeply into this kiss, which … she … was?
Ray’s lips burned in the best way. Her tongue tasted Illyana’s lips and found the tip of her tongue. Illyana wanted more of that strong tongue on hers, but not here. She broke the kiss and put Ray’s face against her shoulder again.
“Your tattoos are showing,” Illyana whispered.
Ray jumped back from her, face gone smooth and unmarked. “You know who I am?”
Illyana wanted to teleport them, but she couldn’t get both of them and their backpacks, books, notebooks, tablet—not without taking the whole table and part of the wall. Theft and property damage would only make the anti-mutant hate worse.
Illyana shoved her tablet and notebook into her bag, then did the same for Ray’s book and backpack. She shouldered her backpack, held Ray’s in one hand and used the other to grab Ray’s hand and pull her toward the door. She did not like the way a table of big guys near the back had risen to their feet.
She had to drop Ray’s hand to get the door open, but Ray followed her onto the sidewalk without being pulled.
“Keep walking,” Illyana said. “This way.”
Illyana turned into the alley beside the coffee shop and went halfway down its length, then took a few steps back toward Ray. She pressed the backpack into the other girl’s hands and teleported them up to her room.
Too late, Illyana realized she should’ve told Ray she was going to teleport them. When they arrived, Ray’s face was angry tattoos again, her hands full of fire.
“You’re safe,” Illyana said, and—telling herself this was only to de-escalate the situation—caught Ray’s face between her hands and kissed her.
That tongue stroking hers, Ray’s no-longer-burning hands on her waist, Illyana pressed closer, knees not quite as strong as they’d been. She tried to steady herself against Ray’s shoulders, but her backpack dragged at her. She took a half step and Ray stepped too, trying to keep their mouths together, but her shoulder hit the dresser, turning her, her foot striking the side of Illyana’s boot.
Falling, Illyana twisted so she wouldn’t land on her backpack and tablet. She hit the bed with her side, at an angle, rolled forward off it—and landed on Ray who had fallen on her back in the space between dresser and bed.
“You okay?” Illyana asked, while working out how to get up in this narrow space.
“How do you know about my tattoos?” Ray asked. “When are you from?”
“Same time, roughly. Different universe, though.”
Ray was trying to lever up on her elbows, which only pressed her chest into Illyana’s in a very distracting way.
“Wait, just, wait.”
Illyana pushed up on one arm so she could rest her palm against Ray’s cheek. She moved forward slowly, in case this wasn’t going to be okay, and put her lips on Ray’s, just to feel her mouth one more time, the energy rising between them.
Then she broke the kiss and crawled backward off Ray, who immediately sat up.
“What was that for?”
“In case we don’t get to do it again.”
“Who are you?”
“Illyana Rasputin. From another universe.”
Ray stood up and glared at her. “You …? How? No, why? You died. I sat up with Kitty so many nights while she cried about you.”
That wasn’t something to be happy about, Illyana told herself. Or bursting with joy. Except she was—because it meant this universe’s Kitty had loved her the way she loved Kitty. Except she’d just been making out with this universe Kitty’s roommate.
Cross-universe magic was supposed to be complicated because of the magic, the probabilities, the timelines—not because of feelings!
Illyana stood up and shrugged off her backpack, set it on the bed while Ray said, “It took Kitty so long to get over you. She does not need an older, hotter version of you here.”
Illyana’s heart did inexplicable quantum things involving multiple states and a lot of entanglement.
“Hotter?” Illyana asked, then shook her head. “I mean, no. Kitty. I haven’t. She doesn’t know I’m here. That’s why I used my nickname with you in the coffee shop. I didn’t want you to tell her.”
“Then why are you here?”
“It’s my summer vacation and I wanted to see Kitty. And Clea Strange saw some rifts in the timeline from that cross-universe train ride you all took, thinks we could maybe tap some things back into place.”
“Then why didn’t she come?”
“She rules a bigger dimension than I do, couldn’t get away. And hey, I can handle a few timeline rifts by myself, thank you very much.”
Ray jerked the door open and stomped into the hall. Illyana caught the doorframe to steady herself and watched Ray walking away.
Except she stopped, turned, came back. She put heated fingers on Illyana’s cheeks and kissed her until Illyana thought her knees might really give out.
“In case we don’t get to do it again,” Ray said and went down the hall without looking back.
Which was good, because Illyana really needed to focus and figure out what a demon imp was doing in Manchester.
Illyana spent the next day restlessly walking parts of the city away from the coffee shop and the university. She caught herself staring in store windows, first at a jacket that would look so cute on Kitty. Maybe now that her cover had been partially blown, she should show up at the lighthouse, tell Kitty who she was and ... what?
Had this universe's Kitty even been girlfriend with Illyana? According to Ray, Kitty was currently crushing on this Professor Alistaire guy. Better to imagine that Kitty had a great time with Illyana than to find out otherwise.
Then she ended up staring through a vast sheet of plate glass at a pair of very tight, mostly leather pants, in silhouette on the mannequin, while thinking about how amazing Ray would look in those, especially with Illyana tugging them slowly down her over her hips.
In her own universe, where she'd never spent much time around Rachel Grey, Illyana had known she was smart, super competent, friendly enough, but always removed, cool. She hadn't figured Rachel Grey for a huge nerd with a rambunctious sense of humor that she only let out after she got to know a person. Plus her insight into how people thought, backed by actual telepathy, was already helping Illyana understand the world better.
Illyana missed her. Sure it had only been a few weeks in a coffee shop, but hours every morning during those weeks. And she didn't know anyone else in this universe. She was used to having friends around. Never as many as Kitty had, but always a few close ones. She depended on them. Having grown up in Limbo, she still missed social cues and under-reacted to important human moments. Good friends helped this world make sense to her.
Spending the summer here with no one would suck.
By the following morning, she'd determined that she either had to look up Dani and see if they could be friends here, and only friends, or tuck her proverbial tail between her legs (because her literally tail would panic people) and walk back to the coffee shop ... which she did.
On the walk over, Illyana told herself that she simply liked it there; it wouldn't matter if Ray had started avoiding it. But as soon as she saw the otherworldly, upright shock of Ray's bright hair through the window, her heart flopped over in her chest.
This really wasn't at all how it was supposed to go. But then she'd never been great at walking away from a compelling bad idea. Honestly most of the time she went full-bore at bad ideas and trusted her momentum to carry her through.
Illyana walked up to the table and dropped her backpack into the empty seat. "Hey."
Ray didn't look up. "No teleporting," she said.
"Sure. Where are we on kissing?" Illyana asked, wished she hadn't, crossed her arms, determined to stick it out through whatever answer came her way.
"Go get your coffee."
That ... was not actually a no. Illyana got a large cappucino, extra dry, extra shot, and a huge caramel roll, plus two forks.
"This does not make up for you lying to me," Ray said when Illyana put the mass of caramel, nuts, cinnamon and dough between them.
"No. I know. I'm sorry."
"Wow, you apologized already? You really are from another universe."
"Your Illyana hadn't learned how to apologize? Why not? Can I ask some questions about us, I mean, her?"
Ray nodded and used her fork to pry off an end of curved dough dripping with caramel. Illyana stared at the swirls on her cappucino to keep from watching her eat it.
"Was I just all rage and yelling and sword, horns, fangs?" Illyana asked. "When I wasn't bottled up and cold?"
“Why didn’t I get help? Where were the Stranges?”
“Dr. Strange checked you out after Limbo, but then he wasn’t around much. I don't know why. I wasn't paying attention to the New Mutants then. Had a lot going on. Kitty told me a bunch later.”
Illyana managed not to ask what else Kitty had told her. She remembered, with sharp clarity, the long afternoons, the short nights they'd spent together in their room. The perpetually surprising delicacy of Kitty, the way she sometimes slipped through Illyana's fingers like silk.
Contrasted now with Illyana's memory of Ray—from the minute she'd spent on top of her, which she was not thinking about at all—being more solid than Illyana expected for a woman who seemed partly made of fire.
Illyana washed a sticky sweet bite down with bitter coffee. "Dr. Strange couldn't stick around at first, that's the same in both universes. And when he could, in mine, I refused to let him teach me. He reminded me too much of Belasco. It took time and a lot of safety. Was I close to Dani here?”
“Is that what made the difference?” Ray stopped pretending to peruse her textbook and stared full at Illyana, who fidgeted half away before returning the look.
“Yes. And she took me to dinner at the Stranges a lot," Illyana explained.
“She knows them?”
“Dr. Strange’s secretary, Sarah Wolfe, is Cheyenne too. And there aren’t that many Cheyenne women in the mutants, magic, superheroes world, so Dani calls her all the time to vent. Hopefully in this universe too. Sarah's so good for her."
"Sarah Wolfe?" Ray said, like she'd never heard this name before. And she probably hadn't. Illyana would've never met her without being close to Dani.
"Sarah married Wong, Dr. Strange’s assistant, and Dani would go over for dinner with the two of them at least once a week if she could. The Stranges joined sometimes—that's Stephen and Clea—I assume they're married here too. Anyway, Dani started inviting me to go to those dinners with her before we were even dating.”
Ray sat back in her chair. “Whoa, you and Dani?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Just, we always figured it was her and Rahne. And you are so different from Rahne.”
Illyana raised an eyebrow. At least this universe's Dani hadn't been straight. Nor Rahne. How had that gone? Now she really wanted to get in touch with this Dani. Unless they had the same chemistry here. That wouldn't be fair to Rahne.
“Rahne and I are both broken people who turn into something much more uncontrolled than our human forms—wolf and demon, respectively," Illyana pointed out.
“When you put it that way ... but I just figured Dani liked naivety or something. And you're not."
"No, definitely not," Illyana said. "Dani can project people’s worst fears and deepest desires; it’s not naivety she’s going for."
Ray waited, watching Illyana, who was not going to elaborate. Dani's secrets were hers to tell or keep. Plus she still didn't know how to talk about all the ways Dani had helped her, made it okay to be everything she was, shown her how to begin healing.
Finally Ray asked, "How long did you date?”
“A year and seven months."
"How did it end? If I can ask that?"
"We just weren't long-term compatible. We're still friends and I'll always have love for her."
"So you and Kitty didn't ...?"
"Oh, yeah we did. But younger. Well before me and Dani. Was I with Kitty here?"
Ray's eyes got distant. She looked at the coffee bar and the other patrons. "Kitty hasn't told me, but the way she was when you turned into a kid ... Like she'd lost her center, couldn't balance in the world, didn't know how she was standing upright. I wasn't the one she came to about all that, but even now, being roommates, there's a sadness in her. And I see her looking at your sword. Is that why you're here? Did you come for her?"
The blunt accuracy of the question knocked Illyana out of any possible cover story. Ray couldn't read her mind, with all her spells to block that, but the answer had to be plain on her face.
Ray slammed her book shut and stood up. "Why the hell were you kissing me if you're here for Kitty?
Because your mouth is fire, Illyana didn't say. Because your thoughts branch and weave like magic. Because I know what you've gone through and what you've made yourself into and it stuns me. Because you're like me, but not at all like me, and if I understand you, I'll know myself better. Because I don't need to protect you, but I want to.
"From what?!" Ray nearly shouted in disbelief and anger. "You're the only danger here."
But Illyana hadn't said anything. Was Ray so powerful that she could begin to read Illyana's thoughts even through the magical wards?
"Get out of my mind," Illyana snarled. She pressed fingers to her temples, feeling the shaking rage under her skin.
Of all the stupid things that triggered her, telepathy was among the worst. Illyana felt herself losing control, slipping under the waves of panic and rage. She teleported into the alley, where she'd walked with Ray days ago, hoping she could get a handle on this and go back for her bag.
When she made fists, her talons dug into her palms. Bad sign.
Cold and hot racing through her. The weight of horns. The pressure of fangs against the inside of her lips. She had to hold very still now, try to breathe, remember the steps she took—the steps she practiced—in case of emergency. Step one: do not move.
Step two: can you count your breaths? One ... Two ...
"Illyana?" Ray came around the corner, holding both their bags. "What happened?"
Two ... Fuck!
"Can't right now. Need to go. Bag?" She meant to tell Ray to put it down and step away, but she was losing words.
Step three: Get. The Fuck. Away.
No, that wasn't it. Step three was to find help. Except she didn't have any here. At home she could go to Clea or Dani or ... she had a whole list.
Ray held out her bag, but Illyana didn't trust herself to close the distance between them.
Old step three: Get. The Fuck. Away.
She teleported thousands of miles in a second. Let herself sprint through the trees and snow, stumbling, falling into cold, getting up and running on.
Just going until she'd run clear of the rage and the terrible depths of fear and shame beneath it.
Then she could face what had triggered her: the way he used to pull thoughts from her mind. He used to mock her with them. He used to twist her thoughts, like he'd twisted her body, in ways that made her a monster.
Illyana curled into the base of the biggest tree she could find—almost as big as Storm's soultree—and cried, heaving ugly sobs and soft whimpering, as the emotions worked through her.
"I am my own monster," she growled at the memories. "And my own person. There is nothing of you left in me. I have made myself."
She sat against the tree and curled her hands in her lap, looking at the long, wicked sharp, black talons. She pressed the flats of her nails to her cheeks and whispered, "Mine," over and over until all of her, present and past, knew that she belonged only to herself and that all the ways she could be were included, were loved.
Then she let the talons turn back into fingernails and rubbed her face with a handful of clean snow, wiping away tears and sweat. She leaned against the tree, staring at the blue sky through the bare branches.
"That could've gone a lot worse. Also I definitely need to find a therapist here."
She should go back and tell Ray not to worry. But she couldn't yet. She was okay enough to function, not enough to answer questions.
Illyana smelled wood smoke and walked toward it until she found houses. Then she turned a handful of leaves into rubles and bought dinner, a room for the night, and a used winter coat that she loved from the moment she first smelled it.
The second day in Russia, Illyana found an internet cafe and sent a message to Ray that she was all right and would be back soon and thanks for keeping her bag safe. She didn't stick around to see if Ray would reply. Instead she walked in the woods and let herself get talked into making dinner for the elderly woman she'd rented the room from.
She hadn't thought through what it would be like to spend the summer so far away from everyone she knew. But Clea must have. Which meant that Clea trusted her not to isolate herself, to reach out, to make the connections she needed to stay healthy. Clea trusted that if Illyana found herself getting triggered, she go get a therapist, maybe find a support group, make more friends.
After breakfast the next morning, she walked far enough into the woods to be out of sight and then teleported back to her room in Manchester. There it was still the middle of the night, so she showered and got back into bed and stared at the ceiling.
She dozed off around dawn and woke to a very soft knock on the door to her sitting room—Illyana's suite had a sitting room, bedroom, bathroom—a pause, another knock, no louder than the first.
She got out of bed and put on her sweatpants and sweatshirt. Opened the door to find Ray standing there with Illyana's bag over her shoulder, a carrier holding two large, white cups, and a bakery box that smelled strongly of cinnamon buns.
"I'm sorry," Ray said, forehead creased with worry. The toughness she usually carried had fallen away, making her seem as young as she was.
"It wasn't you."
In her bare feet, with Ray in boots, Illyana felt how much shorter she was—and looking up into Ray's eyes, the hints of orange fire in the brown, gave her a breathlessness she wasn't ready for.
"It doesn't have to be my fault for me to be sorry," Ray said. "I felt a little of how you felt. It was bad. I know what that can be like. Not the same, but ..."
"I know," Illyana said and took the box, shrugging one shoulder toward the couch.
Ray put the bag and cups on the coffee table while Illyana settled at the other side of the couch, opening the box of cinnamon buns. "Three?"
"You never know; that looked like it could've been a two-bun emergency. How okay are you?"
Illyana liked that she didn't ask: are you okay?
"Medium ... ish. Shaky, but some of that is fatigue from running off the reaction. I'll take it easy today."
Ray wore a loose purple shirt and close-fitting black pants, had kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet under her, sitting against the arm of the couch so she faced Illyana.
"I should try running. I usually fly," she said, lifting a cinnamon bun in a napkin and taking a bite.
"I should try flying."
They smirked at each other. Illyana leaned into the back of the couch, half-turned toward Ray. She got a warm bun on a napkin and wolfed down a quarter of it before making herself slow down enough to talk.
Illyana explained, "In retrospect, I think crossing universes loosened my anti-telepath spells. It’s good to know so I can fix it now, not have to deal with it in a fight."
"Uh-huh." Ray's tone conveyed her doubt about Illyana's use of the word "good" anywhere in the context of what had happened. "Would it have been better in a practice fight? Should you be practicing?"
"Maybe. But that could have been worse. Hard to tell. I usually know the things that will be a problem, but not how much of a problem."
"Yeah. Same. Sometimes a surprisingly small moment happens and before I know it, I'm gone for days, inside my mind, trying to get back to now."
Illyana wanted to crawl down the couch and hold her or curl into her. But wasn't ready to do that quite yet.
"You don't have to tell me," Illyana said slowly, gently. "But how old were you when he took you?" She didn't have to say the name; Ray understood she was asking about Ahab, the man who'd forced her to be a mutant-hunting hound.
Ray stared around the room. In the weeks Illyana had been in this universe, she'd bought art and a few more clothes. A print of the Tree of Life from Kabbalah hung over the couch and on the wall by the bedroom door, she'd put a Teen Titans poster because seeing Koriand'r and Raven always made her grin, even if they weren't real in this universe. The bookshelf held a mismash of books from previous renters, but Illyana had picked up a few Russian books for her class and put them on top.
"We can talk about something else," Illyana said.
"No, it's just that … I was fourteen."
"Oh." The age Illyana had turned weeks after she’d returned from seven years in Limbo. A reminder that, among other things, Ray had had a workable childhood, had people taking care of her, had time to form real memories of herself as a child before she'd been taken.
"He had me for three years, I think, maybe four," Ray said. "Not the same."
True. Little compared to being stranded, helpless, a child in a dimension full of demons with a sorceror who worked every day to turn her into the perfect vessel of his will. But she'd had Cat and Storm. She'd seen powerful adults fighting for her, willing to lose everything because they believed she was worth saving. Who had Ray had those three years of being a hound? Who'd fought for her when she couldn't?"
"Did you have anyone with you? Fighting?"
"I knew there was a mutant resistance. I ..." she stared into her coffee and didn't say: I caught some of them. But Illyana could read that in her face.
"I did terrible things too," Illyana said. "Someday we could talk about this but maybe not today. I am really far away from the people who usually take care of me."
"You let people take care of you? What's that like?"
Illyana considered her. This universe’s Rachel Grey had not only kissed back when Illyana had kissed her, but had actually walked back down the hall to kiss her again.
Illyana scooted down the couch and lay gingerly on her side, her head on Ray's thigh. She smelled like fire and amber. Small muscles in Illyana's back relaxed. She could trust Ray to alert her if there was danger and to fight on her side if it came to that.
"You are really not our Illyana," Ray said, putting a hand gently on Illyana's shoulder.
"I could be."
"How did you get here from 'rage and yelling and sword, horns, fangs?'" Ray asked, quoting Illyana back to herself.
Illyana pulled Ray's other hand to where she could interlace their fingers.
"I didn't trust anyone for so long. Everything felt like a threat. I fought all the time, stayed cold inside, locked down, kept myself away. Even with Kitty sometimes. I couldn't fight her, but I'd leave. And when I got back, she'd be mad, which she had every right to be. I didn't ... I couldn't be what she deserved."
Ray made a low sound of sympathy.
Illyana went on. "Clea wanted me to stop being a hero for a while—to be a student—and I fought her too. After the demons came from Limbo and tried to take over Earth, she insisted. I hated her for a while. But Clea gave me a lot to learn, pushed me, but never too much, never hurt me. After a year, maybe a bit more than that, I started to have feelings I'd never had: trust, safety."
"What was that like?"
"I remember the first time I had a question about magic, a complicated messy question, and I caught myself looking forward to asking Clea, to hearing her response. I didn't only need her answer, I wanted it. That's what trust felt like for me and I couldn't remember having felt it before. In Limbo, with Storm and Cat, what I had for them was more like awe, and, very much, desperate need.”
"And safety?" Ray asked.
"Sometimes just lying in bed at night ... But also when I was dating Gaia—"
"Oh, uh, my universe is a few years ahead of yours—well, that's not really how it works, but that's the best way to think about it without hurting your brain. And I don't know if you even meet her in my world or if you'll ever meet her in this. Really sweet, but not in a push-over kind of way. Got me over that whole mess with Monet ... which I should not be talking about because my dating history could screw with your timeline."
"You felt safe with Gaia but not Dani?"
"Dani showed me a different kind of safety. I was ... a different person with her."
And then of course she had to tell the whole story.
Illyana and Dani had gotten together after Asgard, when Dani was finding mutants to bring to the haven of Xavier’s School and asked Illyana for help with the travel. After the first time—when they'd arrived to find a scared teen, wrapped in a blanket, in a junkyard, being beaten by two randoms—Illyana told Dani she’d teleport her anywhere, anytime.
Watching the way Dani talked to the kid, figured out his powers, what he needed, got him back to the school—it brought back how gentle Dani had been with her two years prior, how much soft persuasion had gone into getting Illyana to talk to the Stranges.
Only now—with Kitty gone off to college and not talking to any of the Rasputins at the moment, mostly due to things Illyana wished she could unsay—Illyana had space for a lot more feelings about Dani.
She’d always liked her. Probably always been attracted to her, except with Kitty around no other attraction got air time. But Illyana didn’t figure Dani felt the same, until a danger room session went excellently sideways. Illyana had been working on her spells of reflection and got one up just as Dani hit her with mirage-producing force. The mirage power reflected back and pulled images from Dani’s mind, tossing them around the room. Illyana could not miss the one of her in a bed, under Dani.
Staring at the fading image, Illyana heard the danger room door whoosh open and shut. She ran after Dani, who walked steadily, not quite running, down the long hallway that led from the danger room to the locker room.
“Dani, wait! Dani!”
That only made Dani walk faster. So Illyana teleported in front of her, put a hand up to stop her. She’d meant the move only as a gesture, but Dani’s momentum carried her into Illyana’s hand, and then Illyana had her fist knotted in the front of Dani’s shirt. She wanted to bring Dani closer but wouldn't until she knew more about what she'd seen.
“Forget it,” Dani said, fingers gripping Illyana’s wrist like she was about to throw her. “Your move worked, good fight. Those are idle thoughts, curiosity, I just—”
Illyana pulled at Dani, leaned forward, waiting to see if Dani would pry her hand off or throw her, and kissed her.
After a flash of startled stiffness, Dani’s lips softened and opened to her. Dani’s hands found her hips and pulled her closer.
Illyana broke the kiss, turned her face to put her lips by Dani’s ear. “You okay if I teleport us?”
A burst of blue-white light and the hallway vanished, replaced with Illyana's bedroom in the Stranges' mansion.
Dani stepped away from her, turned, looking at the room. “This is yours? What’s all the writing on the walls?”
“What better to write them in?”
“You don’t have to use a magical language?” Dani asked.
“All language is magical. And yes, I know what you mean, but I don’t, not for the kinds of magic these are.”
“It’s calm here,” Dani said, gesturing toward the space on the far side of Illyana’s bed, where the dormered ceiling of the fourth floor tapered down and she’d set up a meditation space.
Illyana stood at the foot of her bed with Dani on the side near the door, the side with the tall bookshelf, made of the same light wood as the short bookshelf in her meditation area, and the reclining armchair with its lap desk.
“I thought you’d like it, maybe enough that it wouldn’t be too forward to teleport you into my bedroom,” Illyana told her.
“About that. I don’t know why I keep thinking about you. I’m straight. Not in an insecure, denial kind of way, I actually like guys. Maybe I’m a little bit bi, but I’d have thought with everything that we all got into in the Xavier mansion back in the day, I’d have figured that out before now.”
Illyana half-turned toward her meditation space, looking at the cushion, trying to inhale the calm of it because this was a much stranger coming out for her that just telling people how super queer she was.
“Dani, I’m pretty sure you’re straight. … You know how I sometimes have horns and a tail or even more demonic features than that? That’s not all I can turn into. Clea helped me with the magic so that sometimes I can turn into a guy?”
Dani looked from Illyana’s face down to her feet and back up again. “Really?”
“Yeah, for when I get bad PMS.”
At that Dani started laughing and Illyana had to join in, until both were laughing so hard that Dani sat in the armchair and Illyana on the foot of the bed.
“Maybe your mirage power can read the potentiality of my bodies and is attracted to the guy aspect of me.”
“That makes a lot of sense," Dani said and Illyana's heart did the sudden-elevator-dropping thing she'd only felt with Kitty.
She didn't have to explain, or try to explain, why Dani's power could probably read the existance of a body that was only magic. Dani understood enough about magic that she didn't have to ask.
“Do you want to see?” Illyana asked.
Dani had been turned half toward the bookshelf. Not reading the titles, but resting her gaze on that neutral, colorful space. Now she met Illyana's eyes, the dark brown of Dani's irises shimmering with the heat of a summer night.
“Rather a lot," she said. "Yes.”
“Let me change. I mean, clothes also. I’m bigger.”
Illyana got a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt from the middle drawer of her dresser and went into the hall bathroom. During Limbo and for two years after, she’d had her Darkchilde demon form forced into existance much too often. She’d hated that self for too long. But Clea helped her learn to better integrate those violent, rageful, demonic aspects so that now she could be the Darkchilde form at will.
And then she’d gotten playful with it: manifesting her tail in the kitchen in the morning to grab the creamer, or using her claws to open a can. Clea suggested she keep learning the magic of physical transformations and together they’d decided that a male body would be a good idea, especially around age sixteen when Illyana’s PMS got horrible.
She could manifest her guy body without speaking words, but she liked the ritual of it and said the magic words she’d associated with the change.
Then he put on the sweatpants and shirt and went to show Dani.
Dani’s mouth opened and she stood up fast from the armchair. “That’s you?”
“In the somewhat bigger flesh,” he said. “I go by Ilya or Ely in this shape.” He flexed and then grinned because he always felt like a dork when flexing, but not enough to keep from doing it.
“I never in a million years thought I’d hear myself say this to a blond-haired white guy, but can I touch you? Kiss you again?”
“Hey at least I’m Russian and not American, right?”
Dani put her hands on his arms and ran them up to his shoulders, then around to the back of his neck to pull him close and kiss him.
The kissing went on. Ely leaned back against the wall, arms around Dani, her smaller body against his chest. Kissing her mouth, of course, but also her throat and neck and ears, while she laughed against him. (Illyana had always liked Dani laughing, but this laugh was different, better, low in Dani’s chest, loose and joyful.)
And the longer they kissed, the more aware Ely was of how he’d started to fill out his sweatpants. Difficult to miss that throbbing, lengthening weight—though he could still be surprised by how quickly it happened. Like being surprised at how wet she’d become as Illyana or how swollen her lips and everything had felt sometimes with Kitty.
Dani noticed and rubbed against him, so he went from heavy and half-hard to achingly thick and straining up, trapped in the crease of his leg by the sweatpants material and Dani’s body. He snaked a hand down and tried to reposition upward, but Dani circled her fingers lightly around his wrist.
“Let me do that.”
Dani’s fingers found the waistband of Ely’s sweatpants and slipped under it, slid down until she’d curled her hand around him. She pointed his dick up, but didn’t stop touching, stroking, learning it.
A wave of deeper pleasure, a pulse from inside, and he was spilling across her hand, over himself, the trapped confines of the sweatpants making it worse, and better, forcing the hot, wet pulses against his skin and Dani’s as he came helplessly over her fingers.
And the embarrassment, the plain obviousness of how Dani affected him, made the muscles inside clench harder, the deep throb inside his whole gut and pelvis, like he couldn’t help spilling out, releasing so much of himself to her.
Dani said, “Oh,” mostly breath, more than once, as she made quick, short strokes with her hand, jolts of pleasure through him, drawing a few last spurts.
“Sorry,” he grumbled. “New body, no instructions.”
“Good thing you’re also a lesbian. I’m sure you know what to do next.”
“Oh yeah I do.”
Ely stepped out of his sweatpants and used them to wipe himself off a bit, then walked Dani to the bed, lay her down and kissed resolutely from her throat all the way down her body, removing clothes as he went. By the time he got to the sweet, soaked place between her legs, he was mostly hard again, but he ignored that and sucked her clit until she was thrashing and arching against the bedspread.
Illyana told Ray most of that, minus the sex details, definitely minus the part about coming on Dani's hand, for sure minus the other parts about how Dani turned out to like teasing Ely, to see if he could hold out (more often than not, he couldn't) or if he'd end up making a mess of his clothes. She also left out how much she'd enjoyed being the guy half of a hetero relationship with Dani—not more than she'd enjoyed being a girl with Kitty, for sure, but it had surprised her how much she liked being Ely and still liked being a girl.