The engine cuts out about twenty minutes into the desert, and Julio's well-intended tinkering does nothing to revive it. Eventually he slams his fast against the metal of the car, leaving a slight indentation behind. The side of his hand smarts and tingles, the car rattles, and nothing else changes. Shatterstar doesn't even look up from the engine, which he's been staring at since Julio gave up.
"This will require more tools than we have with us at the present," Shatterstar says, annoyingly calm.
"No kidding," Julio mutters, and kicks sand instead of pounding the car again. He'd like to shake it into submission. He'd like to shut Shatterstar up. But a shaking will only do more damage, and Shatterstar isn't doing anything wrong. The sun is hot and the air is dry and Julio's in a killing mood, but he doesn't have any right taking it out on other people.
Act on it.
He steps around the car, into the shadow cast on the passenger side, and his feet grow ice-cold in the sudden lack of heat. The shadow stretches out past the road and on into the desert. The sun is suddenly right on the horizon. Julio stares down at his numbing feet, unable to scramble backwards like he wants. The shadow is climbing up his legs, up his torso. He's never felt colder in his life.
"Rictor?" Shatterstar straightens and lowers the hood of the car. "Is something wrong?"
"Sh-shadow," Julio says around his shivering jaw and chattering teeth.
Then use your power to fight it.
Shatterstar reaches into the shadow and pulls Julio back into the sun. The sudden return of warmth stings much as the impact of fist on car, but Shatterstar's hands aren't too warm or too tight around Julio's wrist. It's comfortable. Right.
Shatterstar leans in, which isn't how it happened, but Julio doesn't really care about details like that. There wasn't blinding cold, either, just a chill wind. That time, 'Star didn't slide his warm hands up under Julio's shirt, didn't kiss him hot as the sun. That time, Julio never slipped his own hands into 'Star's back pockets to banish the cold.
"You're annoying," Julio wants to say, but his mouth is full of Shatterstar and that's preferable.
The dream fades. Everything fades, turning to cold, colder than the shadow of the car. It cuts to the bone, and Julio tries to wrap his arms around himself to hold in heat but finds he's completely intangible, invisible; just a consciousness floating in space. Then he wakes up.
Sunlight is streaming in through an open window, and he blinks out at the familiar view from his old room at Xavier's. He glances at the clock, and swears in Spanish; he's late for breakfast, and Professor X is going to be annoyed. He pulls on clothes and runs downstairs with his shoes untied, running fingers through the line of tangled hair along the top of his head in a useless attempt to manage it. He nearly trips at the kitchen door, and stumbles in to find the rest of the New Mutants already seated at the table.
"Overslept," Julio says before anyone can ask, and sits down between Doug and Dani. Rahne and 'Berto are laughing, and Sam looks like he's trying not to.
"Again, Rictor?" The Professor looks like he finds it funny himself, which is better than yelling, so Julio lets it go. He's not going to talk about his strange dreams, especially not that last one. That's just – it's not something you talk about. He's not sure if it's the part about kissing a man or the just the strength of feelings that has him keeping it to himself, but either way, he'll be adding this to his secrets. Julio helps himself to pancakes instead of explaining.
That's when the alarm goes off. Everyone stands up, thanks the the instincts the Professor trained into them. The alarm is painfully loud, not quite up to Banshee's shriek but close enough.
You have to save them all.
Julio's the first one into the hall, the first one into the entryway, and then he gets grabbed and is too busy scrambling to keep from being suffocated to do any saving. 'Berto and Rahne run in and knock the intruder back, and Julio falls with him, still gripped tightly in something just shy of a stranglehold. Rahne comes running in for another attack, and behind her forms a huge and disgusting figure, blobby and grinning and stretching pointed fingers out toward Julio and his attacker. That's Dani's power, he knows, so he swallows his revulsion while the intruder goes stiff. "I will not allow you to take this time as well!" the man yells.
"Doug?" Rahne calls. "What's he saying?"
"I'm not sure – I've never heard that language before, I need to hear more before I can figure it out --"
Do it, Rictor. Save them. Do it now.
"It's his enemy!" Rictor chokes out. The arm around his neck had tightened; now it releases him slightly. Enough to breathe properly. "He's not here to fight us!" Somehow he knows the language this man is speaking. Even though he can't have heard it before, it's familiar, like the voice speaking it.
Everyone turns to stare at Julio like they'd never seen him before. Dani's image fades. "How did you --"
"What is he even --"
"What the --"
Use your power, Rictor, your power!
Shaking's only going to cause more damage. "I don't know, okay? I can understand what he's saying. I think I must have met him before, somewhere."
"That was not the real Mojo?"
The arm loosens further. Julio turns himself to actually look at the intruder, and feels his jaw drop as he comes face to face with... Shatterstar. But that was just a dream, right? Does it matter? If he were as pale-skinned as his friends he would be blushing like crazy, and as is he can feel his face heat and all that. And what if the Professor is monitoring his head to translate what Shatterstar is saying?
There's nothing to fight. Shatterstar's one of the good guys, he has to be. He is. Julio knows it like he knows his name. Like he knows practice routines. Like he knows this warmth and the way his adrenaline gets going again, even though he's sure he's never seen the man before.
This isn't working.
"...you sure this is going to work?"
Everything is blurred, his eyes won't open, and his feet tingle like crazy. There are faces looming overhead but Julio can't tell whose. His thoughts are sluggish. Someone's speaking and it sounds like Cable, but that's impossible, because Cable's gone, isn't he? Or was that just a dream, too? He feels cold like a shadow out of one of his dreams, but that's slipping away. He tries to move, something, anything, but it's like he's not even connected to his body.
"Do you have any other options?"
"Isn't this sort of ironic? I mean, back in X-Force he left because of Cable wanting to muck around in his head --"
Julio tries to keep listening to hear the response, to pull together some sort of response to the knowledge that Cable's there, that he can't move his body, but it's way easier to fall asleep again, and way too hard to fight to stay awake. Everything fades back out again.
And it's all heat and skin, 'Star sliding against him a little less awkwardly than before, because it's been a couple nights since the start of something new and things are starting to make sense. The way Julio has to straighten his back and look up instead of curling in around; the way 'Star's hand fits against his hipbone and 'Star's mouth fits against his lips. Sometimes there are noises, and Julio's never sure who's making them. Sometimes he hears but doesn't feel himself gasping 'Star's name. Sometimes they don't say a thing. They're figuring it out as they go along, like they always have.
He's shuddering now, almost too warm to touch, and he can't see because his eyes are shut so tight so it's all scent and taste and texture, 'Star's breath on his neck. Julio's shaking.
The world around him, 'Star beside him, it's all in perfect tandem. Julio lets go.
It's over too soon. They collapse in against each other, sweat cooling, breaths slowing, and Julio opens his eyes to see 'Star smiling like it's new all over again.
Why didn't that work?
Julio's floating in that black again, warmth chased away by lack of sensation. But he stays there this time, conscious. He can't see a thing, but someone's there with him.
Rictor, you have to work with me. I can't see what you're thinking or hear what you're saying, but I know you're in there, somewhere. You need to access your power, somehow – that's the only thing that's going to get you free with your mind intact. Don't worry about us. We've cleared the blast zone, and the room we're in is safe.
What's going on, Julio wants to ask, but he's not a telepath and he doesn't have a mouth here to say it with. He can't use his power, because he doesn't have it anymore. Is he stuck here, then? Is he gonna die?
The void melts away again. It's still dark, but it's the dark of being stuck inside a room with very little light. His hands are still stuck inside Arcade's screen, but the picture has dissolved into static, and the sound cut out. He can't see the vials of hydrochloric acid, but he can hear the soft clink of glass with his every small movement. As far as he knows, the fight is over, but from what he saw, the wrong person won. Domino's nice enough, but she's also a mercenary like her compatriots, and she'll get the job done before worrying about people she knows. Julio and 'Star left X-Force. They're not her responsibility anymore.
Julio tugs at his hands again. They're still just as stuck as before.
The screen buzzes some, and then flickers into life. Arcade is smiling at him. If Julio could get his arms free, he would've punched the screen to get rid of Arcade's smug smirk. "Well, Rictor, the fight's over, and I get the feeling you'd like to know who won."
"Fuck off and die," says Julio.
"Your civility astounds me!" Arcade only keeps smiling. "Apparently the student does not surpass the teacher. A shame. But fortunately for him, and for you, your old teacher made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
The door opens, flooding the room with light from outside. 'Star runs in, stopping just short of the first glass container and then stepping more carefully over to where Julio is sitting. He unsheathes his sword and cuts the top of the screen-cuffs off, and Arcade's presence is at least visually negated.
"I thought," begins 'Star, but then he pauses and frowns. "That Arcade was going to hurt you."
"Naah." Julio keeps the shake out of his voice -- save it for somewhere else. "He wanted to mess with your head, amigo, not mine."
There's another pause, while 'Star's hand comes to rest at the base of Julio's neck, and 'Star's breath tickles the edge of Julio's scalp.
We're going to keep trying until we get this right.
"I'm sorry," 'Star says, and the weird thing is that he's smiling, like this is something to smile about. Like the blood everywhere is something to smile about. Mojo is grinning at them, leering, quivering like Julio's already starting to shake him to pieces. Julio pays him no mind, too busy pressing down on the gaping hole in 'Star's chest. His hands are covered in blood, like everything else. He's not smiling.
"I got you," Julio whispers, "I got you," and 'Star just keeps smiling, until eventually he stops. Mojo is laughing and laughing and laughing. Julio stands up, slowly, with 'Star's blood all over his hands and his clothes and just about everything, and he brings his hands together before turning to face Mojo. He's still not smiling. He doesn't say a word. He can't. He just...
...presses his hands tight together and pushes at the earth like he's never pushed before, shoving at it with all the force he know, calling up the familiar feeling of oneness to create a chasm, to shake Mojo so violently his heart stops, to bring everything around him to ruin. He looks down at Shatterstar and then shuts his eyes; he hums the note that 'Star used to, he starts shaking himself.
He can't feel the earth. Nothing moves but him, and Mojo's laughter is louder and jeering and in his ears.
Julio screams, blasting his throat raw, and doesn't even think anymore, picks up 'Star's fallen swords and runs --
Rictor, try that again.
He could learn to hate all television, after all this time he's spending staring at this one. And he could tear his eyes away, except he can't, because that's his best friend up there about to get skewered, and it's a fucking commercial break.
Rage. Strike out in your anger.
He wants to. But destroying the screen would mean he wouldn't know, and that's almost worse.
Julio never wants to see another commercial again --
Wolverine strikes out with glinting claws, catching 'Star in the stomach; around Julio the New Mutants -- X-Force -- are falling. Falling to former friends. He reaches into the earth to knock Rahne away before she can reach them, but there's nothing, nothing but a sharp ache in his head and a clenching in his stomach.
"I can't do it!" he shouts, and reality wavers. It's the way it doesn't match up, what he's doing and what's supposed to happen. It's like waking up in a dream without waking up from sleep. Everything freezes, or goes into slow motion. Julio doesn't really know which, or care. "I don't have powers!"
For a long moment, or maybe no time at all, there's nothing.
"I don't know what the hell you're trying here, but I can't do it!" Rictor waves his hands around, and the people and plants and landmarks around him dissolve into steam and then into nothing. The ground is mostly grey.
We're trying to wake you up. You won't wake up until you shake yourself free.
"I don't have powers," Julio repeats. "I don't have anything."
Whoever trapped you here thought otherwise. Maybe they're onto something. There's nothing else we can do but try. But you need to do this.
Julio doesn't bother responding. He tries again, and again, until his head is swimming and the landscape around him is spinning in and out of focus. Nothing's moving but him.
Time passes, or maybe not. It's hard to tell. Eventually he sits down on the hard grey ground, and stops trying to make his head do things it can't possibly ever do again. At least before there were other people. 'Star. Now there's no one, not even the voice in his head.
And then he looks up, and sees Dani Moonstar of all people standing above him.
"Rictor?" she says, and her voice resonates in a weird way, like she's speaking from far away. "What are you afraid of?"
"Nothing I haven't already seen," says Julio, before he can even think about the question.
"Do you have nothing to lose?" Dani asks. If it's even Dani. It looks and sounds like her, but something seems off. But then she's conjuring up one of her visions, and Julio is staring at himself, standing next to her, staring down at him.
Julio doesn't answer immediately. The surrounds change, and he's back to the building he nearly jumped off of, the one Madrox's dupe pushed him off. There's a crowd below, but they're all just staring.
"I'm not gonna jump again," Julio says. "I just want to wake up."
"Your people cannot learn to bring back what's lost," Dani tells him. It's not Dani, though, and now it's really obvious. "What do you want?"
Julio thinks of the power to move the earth, and then swallows against the way his throat is tightening. He said he could live with anything but this. But he's been living since, and it's damn hard, and sometimes he doesn't know what's got him going on, but he's doing it all the same. And then there's 'Star. That's something. That's something else he wants. Something he has.
"To wake up," Julio says. "Just to wake up."
"Wake up, Julio Esteban Richter." Dani grows taller, paler, and her hair and eyes glint red. Then she's gone, and everything vanishes. This time, so does Julio.
He blinks awake parched and starving, staring up at a flickering fluorescent light. Eventually he tries to sit up and finds he can. 'Star is on his right, Terry and Cable on his left glaring at Madrox in the corner. But 'Star's staring right at him, and the tenseness of his face is relaxing fast.
"How did you do that?" 'Star asks. That gets everyone else's attention.
"Wasn't me," says Julio. Then, present company be damned, he grabs 'Star and kisses him, because he remembers his dreams just fine.