There had been another air strike. He could see the retreating line of choppers and B-52's getting smaller from his place on the river bank, watching fire eat up the jungle. The acrid stench of zinc chloride hung in the air, and the canopy was turning into a rainbow of smoke from the colored grenades. It made him think of those flower kids back in the US who were painting their vans, and snorting powder. He shared a look with Victor, who was at his side chewing on a strip of grass.
“I guess we're taking the long way round,” Victor smirked. James nodded and gave a dissatisfied puff on his cigar. In his opinion Nam had become a long, hot, pointless fucking exercise in taking the long way round.
"You ever think about turning your forty-seven in for a pair of spurs?" James asked, jerking his cigar at Victor's rifle. His brother grinned at him through a mask of dirt and blood.
"Nah, there's still plenty of game in these parts, and nobodies done cattle driving for years Jimmy." Victor loped off into the jungle. "It's all trucks and air-drops now."
James nodded, shouldered his rifle, and followed his brother.
A hard rain began to patter, bending the palm fronds down on them like hanging heads. James had to stub out his cigar and stuff it back in his shirt, and they were both soaked down to their socks in minutes. Sometimes he took point, and other times Victor slipped ahead to crouch in the leaf litter and sniff for Viet Cong. The rain came so sharp and hard it felt like needles on his skin, and James grit his teeth against the rising pain. Far off in the jungle, someone was screaming. There was shouting, and gunfire, and the smell of blood saturated the wet air. Victor looked back at him, his lips moving but James couldn't hear him over the roaring in his ears.
He woke up choking on a howl with his claws out. The smell of carnage had been replaced by wood polish and linen, and the sudden change made his head spin. He struggled upright, shredding the sheets a little more as they got tangled up with his claws, and then he bowed over his knees, taking deep breaths.
He stared at the metal coating his claws, and reminded himself where he was. This wasn't seventy-two. Nam was over, and he wasn't going to be killing anyone. Not for a long while, he hoped. He let his claws slide back inside his arms, forcing himself not to shiver at the disturbing, surgical weight of them. He wasn't sure he'd ever get used to that. They used to be natural, and now they felt like instruments, and looking at them made him feel violated.
He told himself he just needed to wash, and wake up with some cold water. Shadows were too easy to morph into memories and a bit of ice from the buckets in his truck would ground him. So he rolled out of bed, and stumbled toward the back of his one room trailer, reaching for the rickety wall like he always did.
Except it wasn't there.
His fingers grasped at empty space and he frowned, wiping sweat from his face while he tried to blink away images of Nam. He sniffed and twitched when he couldn't find the familiar hint of Canadian snow or motor oil. He couldn't smell himself either. Normally his scent was pressing in from every corner of the trailer, but the stench his old laundry was faint and small, and in its place there was open, unused air.
Where the hell was he?
He shuffled forward and a hard edge slammed into his knee, making him stumble and curse as a chair fell over his bare foot.
Okay, he must have gotten a room somewhere along the road. That's why this didn't feel like his truck, and he never wasted money on a hotel unless the plumbing in his trailer had broken down. He'd have to check that in the morning, and he didn't relish spending a day digging through the innards of his septic tank. He finally bumped up against a wall, following it by hand until he reached a light switch and flicked it on. He blinked in the glare, thinking about pulling out his toolbox, and whether he'd need to buy new pipes.
Those mundane worries dropped away when his vision cleared and he got a good look at the room.
Rich oak panels, fancy lamps, and soft rugs hemmed him in, and the hair on his arms rose as he turned round and round. This wasn't the back room of some bar, or a creaky motel inn. This was a god damn suite. That bed would have fit him and Victor with room for a lady and lad between them. He could drown in that bed, it was so huge. There were pillows and blankets spread all over the floor, with a wardrobe big enough to hide ten Vietcong inside, if they squeezed.
What the hell was all this? James looked down at himself and realized he wasn't even wearing his own pants. He plucked at the hem around his bare waist with sweaty fingers. He didn't own any pajamas, useless things, and if he did they sure as hell wouldn't be silk. This was silk wasn't it? It felt smooth enough.
He spotted his jeans tossed over the back of a chair and snatched them up with relief, then pawed through the room until he found his jacket and one familiar shirt. There was a strange traveling bag in the closet, toiletries in the bathroom, and when he looked through the bureau drawers he found neat stacks of jeans and flannel shirts that were exactly his size, but not his. He'd never heard of a hotel that bought you a whole damn wardrobe, even if it gave you complimentary bathrobes. The last thing he knew, he was pulling into a truck stop for the night with snow outside his windshield. Now he was in some swanky hotel that put the Ritz to shame?
He slammed the bureau drawer closed. James hadn't had a black out like this since Alkali, and he was pissed as hell that it could sneak up on him. It made him feel unstable.
He yanked on his boots with angry jerks, and grabbed his wallet, glad to find it was still nestled in his jacket pocket. Then he pressed his ear against the hotel room door and listened. There was a creak of timbers, and the snuffling of a hundred sleeping mouths that always came with a large hotel, but nothing more. So he cautiously pulled open the door and slipped into the corridor beyond.
Step one, was to get back to his truck and get on the road. Step two, figure out where he'd been the last twenty four hours. His lapses were annoying, but not usually so dangerous as this. It was a just a sad left over from the wars and his time in special services and sometimes things got spotty, like Alkali.
He didn't know what happened up there, exactly, but it must have been bad. He remembered getting a call from Stryker. He remembered water and concrete walls, and waking up on the side of a road, naked, with the guts of a dead caribou nearby. His claws had become knives and his skeleton was heavy.
Frankly, James was glad he didn't remember whatever the fuck went down, because he'd felt sort of flimsy afterwards. Like he was a timber board that'd been cracked in two. He fell off the grid and drifted, making fake ID's and working for cash. He'd had a couple run in's with MP's on the border, and once in Calgary when he was working the stampede show, but mostly he stayed clear of the army and one day was just like the next for him. If he sometimes woke up at a bar he didn't recognize, that was fine. That was just the battle fatigue, shell shock, or whatever they were calling it these days.
Putting himself up in a fancy hotel like this was dumb as shit though. It made him a target. The army took desertion seriously, even when you weren't special forces. He might as well wave a flag and stand on a hill with a Bulls-eye on his back. He only hoped he hadn't left his truck far away. Once he was back on the road, he'd worry about why this place had clothing in his size.
All was quiet as James stalked past soft lamps and potted ferns. At the end of the corridor a window looked over some curated grounds, with trees dimmed by nighttime shadows. His sharp eyes picked out a gated entrance, and he guessed by the height that he was on the fourth floor.
He found a staircase and crept down it, but when he heard someone coming he ducked into a doorway on the landing and pressed himself into the shadows. There were two pairs of feet thudding down the stairs, one was so light and quick it had to be a child. So James forced his taught nerves to relax, his claws to stay sheathed and he stepped back onto the stairs.
When the pair rounded the stairwell, James found himself facing a stunning black woman, with white hair and an embroidered bathrobe. She was holding a young girl by the hand and nearly walked right into him, they were going so fast.
He steadied her with a light touch, saying “Whoa, you all okay?”
Best to be polite, and inconspicuous. After all he was just another guest here.
“Logan, what are you doing up?” the woman declared, and James blinked, stunned as his name echoed over the empty stairwell. He took his hands away and backed up from the pair while the woman frowned curiously at him, looking over his jacket, jeans and boots. “Are you all right, Logan?”
James watched her mouth form his name again, like it fell from her lips as often as “please” and “thank you” and “pass the salt.”
Maybe it was nothing. Maybe they'd met in the lobby when he checked in here. If he was still living up in his cabin, and working the lumber yards he might have asked her name. He'd have said “Do I know you?” all casual like and offered to buy her a beer, then confessed he didn't remember her. Not like this though. Fuck if he was going to let anything about his tattered memory slip here. She came forward, leaving the kid hugging a stuffed rabbit on the landing.
“Logan?” she asked, softly.
“I'm good,” he grunted, backing further away. “I'm just checking out,” he elaborated. That was safe enough, he imagined.
“But.” She was looking real worried now. “It's three in morning.”
“Yeah. This place got a problem with early check out?” James challenged her.
“Logan what is--”
“Miss Ro,” The child interrupted them with a whine, squeezing her bunny, which was losing cotton out it's ass. “I really hafta go.”
The girl did a funny little dance on the steps, like she was trying to hold something in, and though he didn't catch a whiff of urine, James saw her eyes flash an eery bright green.
“You better go then,” James nodded, hiding his relief at the easy distraction. “Don't wanna have an accident.”
The little girl nodded violently, bouncing on her toes like she was about to explode. That weird green light sizzled across her irises again and the woman made quick shushing sounds as she began herding the girl down the stairs away from James, saying “It's all right Petra. It's not far, just hold on.” Before she rounded the corner on the next landing though she called over her shoulder. “Logan, would you stay up here for a minute? We won't be long.”
Then she disappeared and James considered his escape. There was too much weird crap going on for him to stick around when he couldn't remember how he got here.
He listened to their pattering steps, and then continued down, trying to keep the sound of his boots on the wooden stairs as quite as possible. He kept far enough behind that the woman wouldn't see him if she happened to glance up, and it was slow going, but James was determined to get out of the front door without being harassed. When he'd reached the second landing though, he heard a third set of feet, heavier then the woman or child.
“Storm,” a man's voiced echoed up the stairs. “Do you need help? I heard Petra yelling--”
“It's all right, we still have time, I'm just going to take her outside,” the woman, replied. Who called themselves Storm, James thought with a snort. Was she one of those new hippies, with butterflies tattoos, spouting astrological signs and reading palms?
“Right,” the man answered her. “I'll get the hose.”
“No,” Storm countered over the child's growing whine. “Scott, we have another problem, Logan is--”
“Damn it, what's he done now,” the man interrupted, and the curse sounded so polite. Like when he said damn, he meant to say biscuits, or fudge. The “what's he done now,” was more disturbing, and James stopped to listen with hands on the banister.
“He's out,” Storm said, then paused as if she was trying to be delicate about something. James bristled at the insinuation he was a dog that had got out of it's shed and a cold feeling seeped out of his bones into his veins.
“And?” the man, Scott, prodded.
“I don't think he should alone like this, and neither does the professor.”
“Storm, you know how much I respect the professor, but Logan's always pacing at odd hours, and trying to talk makes him more crass than usual. So unless he's pissing in the ferns--.”
“I think we should just leave it until the morning,” the man finished.
“Well he isn't just pacing,” Storm insisted. “Not like usual. He was dressed and acting... different.”
“Different how?” Scott suddenly sounded more serious and much more awake. It seemed Storm had caught his attention. She'd caught James's as well and his fingers tightened on the wood railing.
“I'm not sure. He said some odds things, and there was something in his voice that just didn't sound right.”
“Are you sure he was awake?”
“Well, he's never sleep walked before.”
“That we know of,” Scott retorted.
“He seemed lucid enough,” Storm argued, and James began to feel a little surreal as he listened to the creepy conversation, like that time he binged on acid and woke up with his nose in the carpet of a rented pad in San Francisco. He'd never looked a lava lamp the same way again.
“Miss Ro!” the little girl interrupted and James winced at the strain in her high voice. “I'm gonna go, I can't hold it!”
“Scott,” Storm pleaded.
“Right. You take Petra, I'll handle Logan. The last thing we need tonight is him wandering outside in a stupor.” Scott's voice sounded resigned and the noise of heavy feet began thudding up the stairs toward James, who stood rooted to the landing.
The words “sleep-walking” and “lucid” were stilling ringing in his ears, and his grip on the railing had turned painful when the man James assumed was Scott appeared below him.
James stared and thought, hell, he looks like a Cherry. Maybe it was the white face, clean shaven chin, or the baby blue pajamas. The red sunglasses threw him a bit, but Cherry still had that stiff, over responsible look of someone who'd gotten their first command. He reminded James of a corporal, back in the 2nd Canadian Division who used to walk up and down the trenches at night with a clipboard, counting his men and docking them for undone collars and tarnished buttons.
Cherry was climbing the stairs, and padding forward like James was a claymore that might go off in his face. The red glasses looked eery in the dim light and James could see his own face distorted in their reflection, bulging and twisted like a bad copy of himself.
“Logan,” Scott began in a polite, careful voice.
“Yeah?” James croaked, grasping for words. They seemed to help because when he spoke Cherry's mouth twitched into a more genuine, if irritated, smile.
“Another late night?” he asked.
“Yeah,” James nodded vaguely. Late was understatement. Weird as shit would be better. Who were these people? How did they know him? Maybe he was still dreaming and this was a figment, brought on by too much driving and too little sleep.
“I don't suppose, whatever this is, you could keep it inside until morning,” Cherry said sliding his hand up the banister.
“No,” James murmured still staring at his red reflection, which was getting bigger the closer Scott came. What happened to his hair? he didn't remember chopping it that short since Normandy. Victor had laughed, and said he looked like a skunk bear.
“Okay,” Scott said, carefully reaching out. “Well, why don't we take a walk then.”
James breath hitched. A German officer once told him to “take a walk,” like that. They forced him and Victor and a dozen other prisoners to march through the snow into the treeline behind their camp, and then shot them. He and Victor spent the night lying in the snow, freezing, and pretending to be dead while the Germans smoked cigarettes and dug shallow graves.
“Xavier will be back from DC tomorrow...” Scott was saying, as he covered the last inch between them and laid a hand on James shoulder.
It was the hand that did it. Suddenly James had no interest in why these people knew his name, or talked about him sleep walking. He just wanted to be outside. He wanted to see the sky. His body said "run," and he obeyed, just like when he was a child following Victor into the woods. “Run, Jimmy. Keep on running, and don't look back” Victor had said, and James never did. The instinct was ground into his soul by his brothers voice.
He threw off Scott's hand, grabbed the man by the throat and shoved him into the wall, snarling. “Listen up Cherry, I don't know who you are, or what sick game you people are running here, but I'm gonna tell you the same thing I told the last government dog who came sniffing around my door. I'm not interested. You get me?”
“Cherry?” the boy scout choked, and James tightened his fist, cutting off the man's air.
“Shut-up. I'm done. I was done in Nigeria, and I ain't going back. You people can shovel your own shit.”
Then he slammed his fist into Cherry's nose. The sunglasses fell off and he crumbled to the floor with a surprised yell, eyes screwed shut and clutching his face while blood spurted between his fingers. James kicked the guy's head into the wall before Scott could make another noise and left him slumped on the landing, with his nose staining the fancy carpet.
James took the rest of the stairs two at time. He didn't bother trying to hide. Cover was blown anyway, if he'd ever had it, and he just ran, following the faint smell of engines until, after several wrong turns, he staggered into a large garage.
He could hear lots of feet pounding up and down the halls now, and knew he'd have to book it, but he didn't see his truck anywhere. He ducked through rows of expensive Cadillacs, and around a silver Porche, but his trusty, beat-up trailer was nowhere to be found, and his heart began to sink the longer he looked.
When he heard feet outside the garage door he ducked under the shadow of a motorcycle. A strange voice was calling his name, and for a moment it seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, leaving a weird itch in the back of his head. James ignored it and stayed still, and as soon as the voice gave up and left to search elsewhere, he was up and running again.
He hated leaving his trailer, but needs must, and he didn't need anyone calling the cops with a stolen license plate number, so he left the other cars and bikes where they were and went on foot, creeping outside where he could smell dew and grass. There were lights blazing from the windows now. James was reminded of the farmers torches, bobbing in the woods while shouting men hunted down him and Victor.
Then somewhere behind the mansion a green flash lit up the lawn in a brilliant display, and James's startled like he'd been stuck with a cattle prod. When the light died away he took a chance and dashed across a black basketball court, slid under a hedge and ran to the gate at the end of the drive in an all out sprint. He climbed the high wall and heaved himself onto the other side, before dropping to the road with a crunch of his boots. A narrow lane twisted off into the night and James took a quick gamble, before heading left.
He passed an iron sign reading 1407 Graymalkin lane without much thought and followed the road at a steady lope.
James marched until the sun was high, his feet were sore and his stomach growling. The country lane he'd followed took him through a bunch of green hills and picturesque roads, that looked a hell of a lot less pretty when you'd been walking them since dawn. White wood and iron fences hemmed in acres of mowed lawns, but there were no handy creek beds for the likes of him.
His need to run had faded as the day wore on and he got further away from that grand hotel, and it's strange people. Now he found himself wandering by tycoon's estates, at a loss. He'd passed some real fancy houses, with gates and stone lions and swinging videos cameras, but James avoided them.
Once, long ago, he and Victor might have rolled up to a manor house like that in Nova Scotia on the back of hay wagon and gotten work in the stables. These days the properties of the rich and famous were not good neighborhoods for grizzled drifters. There was no sympathetic groundskeeper to lead him round the back, and offer a cup of joe for hauling feed or shoveling manure. James didn't know what else to do, except keep walking.
He missed his trailer more with every step, and all the hard won pieces of a life that he'd scraped together after Alkali hidden inside it. His patched surplus quilt, his stained shirts and the copper charm he'd won off a fellow in Saskatoon. All of it gone, and who could say where. At least he still had his jacket. Though it was getting a bit warm for it and he squinted up at the sun, wiping his brow.
The afternoon shadows were getting long in the tooth and everything had that fresh cut spring smell. Which was another thing ticking him off. Because when he went to sleep last night, there was snow outside, and the crisp smell of winter was teasing his nostrils. Now it seemed the world was edging into summer. It was like he'd nodded off, missed half a year, and woke up as a god-damn Rip-Van Winkle.
Then there was Storm and Cherry, acting all close and concerned. At night, groggy and twitchy from his dreams it seemed like a trick, and he'd figured it had to be government because who else would care about messing with his head? But they didn't talk like military, and not even the CIA could change the seasons.
So, he figured he hadn't been caught. He'd lost time. A lot of it. And that scared him. This wasn't like waking up in a different trailer park. It wasn't even like that time he blinked and went from gutting a fish to skinning a rabbit over a whole new campfire as if he'd suddenly done Johnny Wraith's trick and dislocated himself. This was a whole 'nother kind of shit, and James didn't know how to get rid of a hole in his mind. He couldn't stab it, or shoot it. Hell he couldn't even find it.
Best he could do was move on like he always did and see what came down the road. He was thinking about how he'd be sleeping on these curated lawns soon, when in a rare stroke of luck James was hailed by a shiny red corvette that zipped down the lane. The car slowed to stop up ahead, the top came down, and a bunch of teenagers turned in their leather seats to look at him. They seemed like the type to have more money then sense, and gaped at James as he casually strode up to them with hands in his jean pockets.
“Uh, hi, you need a lift?” the kid at the wheel asked. “We're heading into town to catch a show.” He wore a white polo shirt and sounded far too friendly. It set James on edge.
“I don't have to suck anyone's dick, do I?” He asked from the side of the road, only half joking.
The kids tittered nervously and a girl, who looked like she was trying to be James Dean and Jackie Kennedy all at once replied, “Nah. Just buy us a beer in town and we'll call it even.”
James didn't think any of them were old enough to be drinking more then warm milk, and glared. They all blinked at him with nervous eyes, like cows about to face the knocker in a slaughter house and James considered his options.
Riding with kids, especially kids in red corvettes wasn't his thing. He didn't have much to do with kids, but, beggars ain't choosers as they used to say, and though he might like sleeping rough in his own country, James didn't feel safe among the clipped lawns of a million dollar suburbia. He didn't have a fucking clue where he was either.
“Sure,” he grunted and climbed into the corvette's back seat. It squeaked under him as he fastened his seat-belt and faced the open stares of the kiddies. Buying some dumb teenagers a beer would be the least of his crimes. He figured they couldn't do much drunken damage either if he took off before buying them anything. He didn't have cash to spare anyway.
So with a private smirk and the wind whipping through his short hair, they all sped down the road, listening to some band the kids were mad for. Someone called Perry, who belted out a song about waking up with no memory of Friday Night.
James could relate.
“So what're you doing all the way out here?” The girl up front turned in her seat, and looked at him over gloved hands. A strip of white fluttered against her dark hair.
“Just walking,” he shrugged.
“Running?” She asked, oddly quiet.
Not feeling like sharing his long, ugly, and private history with these kids, or talking much at all, James just shook his head and grunted. “No. Just walkin'.”
This seemed to satisfy the girl and she smiled brilliantly at him, relaxing into her seat.
“I guess you really needed to get away huh?” Another kid asked.
“Something like that,” James grunted.
“Why didn't you drive?” Someone asked, bluntly. James looked at them all wondering if they might be thick between their ears and said, extra slowly, with no small amount of sarcasm.
“I've got no wheels.”
“You could always steal a bike,” one of them suggested and the others laughed. James bristled. Just because he was hitching didn't make him a thief, but then, these were kids, young and stupid, and driving him who knew how far without asking for payment. He could hold his temper until they reached a town.
“Thanks for the tip,” he replied flatly, and the kid in the polo shirt punched the boy behind him who'd suggested the theft.
“This is gonna be so cool!” One of the girl's bounced, her earrings flapping around a canary yellow vest. “Are you really gonna buy us beer?”
“Said I would,” James hedged.
“You don't have too,” the quiet girl said, with a soft southern twang in her voice. “They was only joking about that.”
“No I wasn't,” the girl in yellow argued happily and plowed on, asking, “What about shots? can we get shots of something? Like Gin? I hear gin is good.”
“It's not bad,” James admitted, though the last time he had any was when some of the boys built their own still in Lam Dong. That stuff made you go blind, literally, and he didn't see any of these kids picking olives out of gin martinis until they were twenty years older anyway.
“Or whiskey, you like whiskey. Hey Rogue.” She poked the quiet girl with the gloves. “He's a whiskey man isn't he?”
Rogue sent an amused look at James, and he cocked an eyebrow in return, wondering if these kids were trying to guess his tastes or if they just assumed every hitch-hiker would have an appetite for whiskey.
“I guess,” she said with a helpless shrug, and then asked. “Are you?”
“Sometimes,” James nodded. Perhaps he should say that he wasn't a drunk, because all this talk of gin and whiskey was making him sound like a boozer, but then he figured that was probably half the fun for these kids. Picking up a drifter on the road probably made them feel brave and rebellious in their safe, gated neighborhood. So he laid his head back against the seat while the chatty girl rambled on.
“Mr Summers would never let us have a beer, much less whiskey. Like, if we even asked he'd be lecturing about the dangers of alcohol, as if he never drinks, and that's when he's normal, you know. Today he was in a such mood, and we almost didn't get the car to drive. I think he only gave up the keys because we wouldn't leave him alone to fix his face. What was that all about anyway?”
“I heard he tripped on the stairs or something.”
“Yeah, or something,” a boy muttered darkly, shifting in his seat beside James, and then he declared, “I think there was a fight.”
The kids all yelled happily back and forth about Mr. Summers, fights and weekend privileges, and James gathered they lived at some manor up the road, attending a private school. James was busy relaxing into his oh so comfortable, and oh so temporary seat and didn't pay attention.
He did noticed something sharp poking into his thigh and felt underneath him until he found the irritating thing and pulled it up from between the cushions. It was a small business card, white, and bent by the many careless asses that had sat on it before him. On the front it said Xavier's School for the Gifted, with a couple of faded numbers.
James smoothed a thumb over the card. Why did that name sound familiar? Xavier... Wait, hadn't Cherry said something like that last night? Someone named Xavier was supposed to be in DC. Christ. Was that it? He cast his mind back trying to bring up details of those moments on the stairs. Cherry with his hand on James shoulder. Cherry's throat under his palm. Hot blood from Cherry's nose on his fist. James rubbed at his knuckles, thinking. He had woken up in a school? Not a hotel, or government house, but the same god damn school these kids were so naively driving him away from?
He looked over their round faces, searching. None of them were any more familiar to him then Storm, but they didn't seem to share the confusion. He watched them talk and found disturbing traces of friendship in the curve of their smiles and the cheeky, trusting looks they snuck him. As if they were used to him, and didn't know they'd just let a strange, dangerous man into their car. He looked at the veins on their laughing necks and thought how easy they would be to snap. Victor would probably make a joke about it, if he was here. James clenched a fist around the card in his hand before stuffing it viciously into his pocket.
School for the Gifted huh? These kids didn't seem particularly gifted to him.
Polo shirt boy was saying, “Mr Summers told me everything was fine.”
“That doesn't mean there wasn't a fight,” the other boy insisted, flicking a lighter in his hand. “I mean, tripping on the stairs? Come on. I could come up with a better line then that. And they had us watch Petra for an hour while they ran all over the place, like she shit out something that didn't want to be caught.”
“That's mean John,” Rogue interrupted from up front. “You know it's not her fault.”
“I didn't say it was,” John tried to defend himself, but now everyone in the car was glaring at him, including James who remembered the small girl with green eyes from last night. “Just saying I think something went down,” John grumbled, folding his arms.
The other kids looked away, but James kept watching him. Partly because he knew that particular, petulant set of the shoulders. Usually carried by some guy who'd just sassed his commander, and didn't realize that nodding an apology wasn't gonna fly without a 'yes-sir' to follow up. Partly because the kid was giving him some good intel by shooting his mouth off.
“Well maybe there was a fight, but it doesn't matter now.” Polo boy acknowledged from up front, and James caught his eye briefly in the mirror as the kid finished solemnly. “If there was anything we needed to know, they'd tell us. Mr. Summers is handling it.”
“Yeah, with his face,” John muttered under his breath, and James snorted, thinking their Mr. Summers sounded an awful lot like the guy James punched out in his panicked run. Well, at least he had full name for Cherry now, which was more than he did for the sexy hippie.
Bobby took a sharp turn on the road and very forcefully changed the subject. John wasn't satisfied by talking about their science projects, and grumbled. James thought the kid was a bit of a powder-keg, and looking for an excuse to blow one way or another. Personally he'd like to keep them all talking about the other night, but instinct kept him silent. James was an impostor lurking in the background of their cheerful sphere, and he didn't want to give himself away. Getting pitched out of a speeding car and torn up on the road hurt like a mother.
When they reached the highway talk became impossible anyway, with the fierce wind and roaring trucks blowing by. James caught signs for South Salem, then White Plain and finally they were rolling into the Bronx and he was looking the dusky skyline of New York City, with buildings starting to glitter. New York, he thought with a light dizzy feeling. I'm in New York.
He hadn't been here since he left Stryker's team and long before Alkali. It made him a little twitchy, and he eyed the approaching skyscrapers with an equal mix of fond nostalgia and suspicion. He had a lot of memories of bashing around this city with Victor at one time or another, and lot of nasty contacts too. People who might still be alive to recognize him. The city was brighter then he remembered. There were more flashing billboards and golden ads and even the sidewalk squares seemed to light up now.
The kids pulled up beside a mini mart, and double parked against a row of black sedans with glowing video screens above. James climbed out and nodded vaguely at the yellow girl's reminder of his promise of beer. Then he casually walked into the mart, covered in dust and who knew what. The guy behind the counter dropped his porn magazine and blinked at him.
“Hey Bub, you got a phone around here?”
“Yeah, yeah. In the back,” the man mumbled, rubbing at his faded shirt with the name 'Larry' stitched in red on the front breast.
“Thanks, Larry,” James gave him a nod, and went to the back where he saw the pay-phone sign above a rack of potato chips.
He fished out the battered card from his pocket and dialed the first number, tapping the card against his thigh while the line rang.
“Hello,” a smooth, feminine voice picked up the line, and James frowned, trying to decide if it sounded familiar. “Hello?” She asked again.
“Yeah, uh, is this Xavier's school?”
“Yes, it ...” the voice broke off and then came back sounding sharper. “Logan is that you? Where are you?”
“South of the Arctic and north of the Mason Dixie line,” James snapped, before thinking. Then he caught up with himself, surprised how quickly the Xavier people caught on to him. He guessed he really did wake up at their school. He wondered how long he'd been there, and didn't like where the question lead him, because there was the spring heat in the air, and the clothes in the wardrobe and other little things pricking at him like ant bites.
“Don't joke about this,” the woman admonished, sounding sharp and strangely sincere at the same time. “What happened last night?”
Your guess would be better the mine, he thought, breathing into the telephone while he tried to think of something to say besides, 'fuck me and my fucking life'. The woman, bless her, seemed to realize he didn't have an answer and continued.
“Scott's given me his opinion of course. He's fine by the way. It was just a fracture, which I'm sure you'll be glad to know, and he's covered the mess with the students for you.”
“I'm all a flutter,” James grunted, having no feelings for the Cherry either way, and only vaguely amused about the excuses on his behalf. Maybe the woman expected him to grateful, he didn't know, but he'd seen how well that lie flew already, and wingless chickens got further.
“Are you all right?”
“What?” he asked dumbly. What the hell kind of question was that?
“We've been worried,” the woman said, as if that answered anything.
“Oh, really.” He thought this must be one of the weirder conversations in his life. That was counting the night with Victor, Father McMallus and the goat. You got used to a certain amount of weird shit when you realized your eyeballs grew back, but James had reached his give a fuck limit somewhere around the Welcome to New York road-sign.
“Yes,” she said, and why was she so calm? Her voice somehow got even gentler and that was worse. It raised James hackles like a bur. “Logan, I need to ask you some questions and I need you to be completely honest me, all right?”
James grunted, bracing an arm against the pay-phone.
“Do you know who I am?” the woman asked. James didn't answer and she tried again. “Logan, do you recognize my voice?”
He didn't. He had no idea. She might have been the hippie Storm, or she might have been someone else. Hell, she might be Xavier, for all he knew, and what was he supposed to do with that? Say sorry, don't know ya from Adam darlin? The jig was up. They didn't need him to confirm it, and while James was pretty sure none of them were military now, he didn't trust them. He didn't have reason to. They might be worried, but that just meant they were invested and organizations that got invested in James were always bad news somehow.
Maybe if he knew how they met, and who they were it would be different. Maybe if his insides weren't shaking at the thought of losing all this time. They were strangers though, and despite all this confusion he would bet that he was a stranger to them as well.
“Logan?” The woman asked softly.
James cleared his throat. “Yeah I'm still here. Sort of,” he mumbled. “Look uh, there's a car full of your kids in the Bronx, in case you're missing any. I think they're gonna hit the city for some night life, but you never know. Might wanna send someone after them.”
“And maybe I'll see ya around sometime.” He dropped the phone into it's cradle and rubbed a hand over his mouth, curling a fist under his beard. Then he dropped the card for Xavier's School on the floor, and dug out the last handful of change from his wallet. He dialed the only number still worth knowing and listened as it rang once, twice, three times. James had a horrible moment of thinking it'd been disconnected while he slept.
Then there was a click, and Victor's unhappy voice rumbled over the line, saying, “if you have this number, you know what to do.”
The message ended with a beep, and James let out a shaky breath of relief.
“Hey, it's me. I'm...” He stopped at a loss. James didn't know how to tell Victor that he'd called just because he needed to hear his brother's stupid voice. That he needed proof Victor was out there, somewhere, like always. James thought about adding that he was in New York, that his truck was gone, and his memory was skipping out on him, but he wasn't going to ask Victor to pick him up like he was some FNG who'd gone on a bad bender. They didn't work like that anymore.
“Christ,” he finally grumbled. “I hate phones. I never know what to say in them, and it's not like we were ever the talkative sort. Things are fucked up, so situation normal but...” He sighed into the phone and leaned his head against the wall. “I been thinking, and,” he chuckled. “I know how that always pisses you off, so, figured it be shame if you missed the sound of it. Something happened Victor. I woke up and it's like I got shot in the head but the hole isn't closing up and... I don't know. Maybe we've lived too long. Maybe there's only so much time you can remember and this was always gonna happen, someday.”
He snorted. That was the sort of thing Victor hated hearing, so maybe phones weren't useless after all. Victor couldn't claw at him over a wire. They'd lived with each other for almost two hundred years, and that wasn't enough for Victor, but James thought maybe it was supposed to be, because he'd walked away from that massacre in Lagos and his brother didn't follow him.
He'd heard Victor yowling his name all the way through the jungle, like a cat that got it's paw caught in a snare. Victor had expected him to come back. He'd expected Victor to come after him. Neither of them thought they'd just leave it, because that wounded sound wasn't something they were built to ignore, but he'd waited for Victor in the city for a week and he never showed. Finally, James gave up and left for Canada without him. He wasn't going to make that same noise over the phone now, or any other god-damn time.
“Take care of yourself,” he finished lamely and dropped the phone in its cradle. At least Victor couldn't accuse him of never calling, James thought as he left the booth. He figured if Victor was still working with spooks, he'd track James down eventually and it was best to be gone by then. New York was a good a place to disappear.
He used the toilet, bought himself some jerky with the last of his cash and took the time to look through his wallet as Larry rang him up. Most of it was just as he'd left it, but there was a new card, shiny red with Xavier's Institute stamped on it. James bought enough beef strips to keep him upright for a day, and stuffed them in his jacket before leaving the card on the counter for its overseers to find later.
When he ambled out of the little grocery, tearing into the dried meat, he was surprised to see the kids and their slick red car still waiting for him on the curb. They waved and he shook his head, drawing even with their tail lights.
“Thanks for the ride, kids.” He slapped the side of the car as he passed.
“Wait, Logan,” Rogue called after him, and James paused when he heard the girl say his name for the first time. “Are you leaving?” Rogue asked, a furrow in her brow and something fearfully significant in her voice. James didn't know what it was.
“Yeah,” he nodded. Rogue looked like he'd just killed a pet rooster, then she frowned at him like she knew she was missing something, and was angry as all hell about it.
“What about the beer?” the other girl in yellow asked, distracting them.
James shrugged and turned, holding up his hands as he walked backward with an unapologetic smile. “Hey, you're underage.”
“What? That's not fair!” The boy with the lighter and the chatty girl, both yelled.
“Well, next time don't blindly trust whoever you pick up on the side of a road,” he smirked at them, and walked away into the busy streets of New York.
He wandered through the early evening, straying deeper into the Bronx.
The city looked much the same as the last time he rolled through here, a mash of the old and new. Some parts were a little flashier, but it was just as loud and dirty and chaotic as ever. He walked by hot dog stands, tattoo parlors, and stopped in front of a pawn shop on the edge of Up Town, trading some jerky for a cigar with the man on the corner. It was a cheap brand, but he'd make do, and he really needed a smoke.
He lit up and paused beside a bright cafe called “Internet” to think. He needed to make a plan of some kind, he decided. Aimless walking wasn't going to get him much in a city like New York, but the instinct to move was still gnawing at his spine and he didn't want to stop until he was halfway around the world and this trouble was far behind him. Hell, he'd spent years following the itch in his feet and disappearing into mountainous back roads which, even in this day and age, most civilized men avoided.
Another part of him, the part with tired eyes and sore legs and a backside gone cold without his brother's stinky hide to warm it, was thinking that living on the move hadn't done him much good since Alkali, if waking up in a school like a hibernating bear was where he ended up. He thought about those fools who wasted a life's savings taking wagons up to the Yukon after rumors of gold, and then starved. How far would be far enough for him to outrun the holes in his head? Boston? Yarmouth? Lisbon? The answer was nowhere, of course.
So what did he do?
He rubbed a hand over his knuckles, feeling the hard edge of metal under his skin and thinking about the first time he'd realized more then his claws had changed. He'd gotten into a scrap with some hunters and when they sliced his shin to the bone, James saw metal before his flesh closed over. He'd fallen into a ravine, howling like the first time he saw his claws covered in steel and scrambling back in a wild attempt to get away from himself.
One night, perhaps a month later, he'd pulled off onto a deserted lip of the road and sat on the floor of his new trailer, slowly cutting into his body. He'd sliced open every limb, piece by piece and pulled his flesh back while he bit into a roll of leather. He wasn't sure what drove him more, a horrific, morbid curiosity or some vain hope that part of him was still unaltered. He didn't find a single nude bone anywhere, not even under his face, and he spent the night lying in a sticky black pool of his own blood and weeping quietly.
It took a long time to clean up the trailer from that, and he grew wary of looking too closely at his loss of memory afterward. He called it what it was and let it be, following Victors advice about never looking back. Just like he'd never dared return to the cabin he'd built in the Waputik Mountains. Maybe it was time he did though, he thought.
The land was still his. Or should be. It might be under surveillance, but, maybe not, and the thought of walking through his own front door, clearing off the cobwebs and setting a warm fire in the hearth filled him with a bitter-sweet ache that was almost too sharp to endure. He'd like to have some privacy and dignity if his memory kept eroding. Like an old mutt crawling underneath the porch to be alone in it's final days.
It'd be hard getting up north again with only what he had in his pockets, but least he wasn't starting off naked this time.
He needed cash first, he decided as he puffed on his cigar and a crowd rose out of the subway stairs nearby. James watched them, frowning at the wires they all had in their ears. The cords looked like they were going directly into their brains while they all tapped at small squares like junkies. The sight was disturbing. Only when he saw one tall girl with blue headphones over her ears did he realize what the wires were for and he let out a breath, shrugging the itchy feeling out of his shoulders before turning south.
The crowds grew thinner as the night got later and smart folk went home. Eventually he found himself down in Hunts Point, prowling the dead dark streets with cigar smoke trailing behind him. Exhaustion pulled at him, but he didn't want to sleep because he was afraid if he did, he'd wake up another couple months in the future, in Russia or something. So he rested by turns on curbs and in empty doorways, hovering between sleeping an waking, and suffering fragmentary dreams about wired heads.
He spent three days living rough that way, and looking for work. Soon he started to smell less like a respectable laborer, and more like a homeless dog, and one evening he leaned up against a wall with hookers on his left and right. They'd asked if he wanted to have a good time when he first stepped onto their corner.
“Sorry darlin', I'm working tonight too,” he'd replied, and then joined them in sticking his thumbs in his jeans and waiting to be hailed by someone looking for a two hundred dollar quicky.
Behind them a bunch of televisions were playing in the radio store window, much bigger than any he'd seen and strangely flat and sleek. A blue tie politician started talking about “Mutants,” and James left the corner to seek better prospects elsewhere. He'd never liked that word, and always hoped it'd fade out of the language on it's own, but sadly the term was proving more stubborn than bell-bottom pants.
One night he ended up by the warehouses, following the pungent smell of fish and gas and the sound of rumbling motors. It was past midnight, to guess by the moon, but the great thing about New York was that it really was a city that never slept. He ended up in a large street lot among a crowd of working men in heavy down jackets, unloading trucks. Up on the wall a sign with big bright letters read “Welcome to the Fulton Fish Market.”
James stopped, an unsteady feeling sweeping over him.
This couldn't be the Fulton Fish Market. Not the one he knew. That was in Manhattan and always had been. It stank of history, and had been around since the founding of New York, more or less. All this white paint and harsh lights was wrong. Jimmy steadied himself with a hand on the side of a truck, biting down on his cigar, and when he felt less faint he took himself inside to see what the place was like.
It was very modern. There were no colorful awnings, wooden signs, or bare assed children ready to dive into the dangerous port waters. There used to be sailors and butchers, immigrants and mob bosses intermingling among boats and baskets of Salmon. Jimmy had walked up and down the docks with Victor and even carved his name into a piling on the South Street Seaport once. It was probably still there. He'd once joked with Victor over a pint of beer, with a Salmon's rib-bone between his teeth, that New York's fish market would outlive them both.
Well, it seemed everything had it's time.
It made James feel old as the forklifts went beeping past him, and he ambled through booths with iced trays of dead fish. Every type of sea-catch imaginable was on display like always, but it was colder and impersonal somehow.
Then, as he was passing a batch of Halibut, a sharp voice yelled. “If your cousin ain't cut out for the night shift, Freddy, don't waste my time.” A salty old man with rough skin and a peppery beard dumped a bucket of scallops into a tray. “I got four dozen boxes to move before the hour's up, and we're short a man.”
“Hey,” James interrupted, bringing the man up short. “You need a hand?”
“I could use some work,” James said, taking the passing chance and stepping in, to haul up a crate the old man was struggling with. The man eyed James shrewdly under the glaring work lights. James wasn't sure how he was looking just then. Probably somewhere between dangerous and desperate, but he didn't get the bruised, red eyes most people did when they'd gone without sleep, and he must have looked honest enough because the man sagged and glared at his partner, before flipping up a cap that said Crown Fish Company with a nod.
“Ah, hell, all right, just for the night. Talk to Fred after we're loaded. He'll get you pay.”
“In cash,” James pressed, and the old man gave him a squinty eye.
“We'll work something out,” he agreed. “What's you name, son?
“Call me Scrapper,” he grunted, picking up another crate. “Jim Scrapper.”
“You runnin' from something Scrapper?” the old timer asked, stressing the name with a sneer.
James shrugged and looked around the cold white warehouse.
“Not so much from, as towards,” he said, putting to bed any worry that he was wanted by the law. Not that he wasn't, of course.
It was good work. He spent the night loading crates of Red Snapper, Blackfish, Cod and Flounder, and laying them out on ice with hooks. He weighed and gutted and got fish juice under his nails and in his shirt. Working with his hands soothed some of the trouble in his mind and by the time dawn came around again, James smelled like he'd crawled out of a sea-bed.
He also had an offer to come back and work the next night, and that offer turned into two nights, then into a week and one week bled into another until pretty soon he was a becoming a regular man at the Fulton Fish Market. He kept to himself mostly, and showed up at midnight when the army of trucks brought their cold, stinky treasure up from the east shores.
By day he lived the vagrant life, resting in steel nooks under the city trams when he could, and when some of the fish-mongers learned he was itinerant, they told him to just sleep in the warehouse, strictly on the down-low of course. So James made a bunk for himself in an empty store room on the second floor, and rested better without the bellows and honks of New York cabs in his ears. The watery smell of damp concrete got into his head and left images of tanks behind his eyes, where human bodies floated inside instead of fish.
He still wasn't sleeping well. He didn't like the feeling of drifting away and always wondering if he'd wake up in the same place or not. At least when he was in Canada he'd had his truck, and it never bothered him much when the view outside his window changed drastically from day to day. So long as his trailer was still rattling around him, everything felt fine. Without that traveling burrow, James had no sense of peace.
Still he could wash up now, in buckets, and the smell of fish was so strong it covered up the dirty musk from his clothes. His pay wasn't getting rolled up and stored in his boots anymore either. There were some men in the Fulton Market who did a Lobster business up front, and ran an uncertified bank in the back. They set him up with a safety deposit box, no questions asked. That at least hadn't changed. The old fish market always had an element of crime wriggling underneath it's scaly belly, and while it was more fish and less black market these days, once you knew who was who, you could still find just about anything.
So James began to scrape a new life together. He played cards with the guys at the Crown And Crab, and talked boxing with the truckers who brought in fish from the trawlers on Long Island. He learned the U.S had a new president and that no one listened to David Bowie or Michael Jackson anymore. He won a Stetson hat off one of the Shrimp men, and found a book of Henry Lawson's writing, abandoned in the trash by a Diner. He kept the battered thing in his jacket, and dog-eared pages in the wee hours of the morning when dawn was licking the sky and he was sitting on a curb, smoking.
Tony, the owner of the Crown and Crab, was starting to talk Unions and James said he wasn't looking to stay, but he'd like to take a season on one of the fishing trawlers. He could work the boat up to Canada, and maybe have enough for a truck by the time they anchored in Yarmoth in autumn.
Sometimes James felt like he was being watched. Usually at inconvenient times, when he was just on the edge of sleep, or about slit open a Mackeral's belly. At first he'd stop and search for the culprit, expecting to see Victor or another spook in the crowd, but there was never anyone there. The old fish sellers would chuckle, and say he was twitchier than a dog with a flea on it's back, but it wasn't only the feeling of eyes on him that made James so edgy.
There were lots of little things out of place, just like Xavier's mansion. The cars in New York were smoother and slicker than he remembered. Gone were the boxy Audi's and Sedan's he'd gotten used to when the world moved on from T-Birds, and he didn't know what to think about it, because the trucks up north had all looked normal enough. Maybe a little more battered, sure, but just about everything got weather roughened up there.
The phones had changed too. He remembered car phones being a big fad not too long ago. People just couldn't believe you could make calls from the road and now everybody had one that could fit in the palm of their hand and do anything from fry your bacon and eggs to map out your prostate. He found himself missing jokes or making them by accident too. A young guy with Brawn Fish Co. promised to mail him a video of a shark he swore up and down he'd caught by hand, and asked if James was “On Line.”
“On the line for what?” he replied, slapping hunks of trout onto a scale and thinking about the line on the floor they used to draw for bare-fist fighting matches. The older men all broke out laughing and the kid thought James was messing with him, and stomped off. “Seriously,” James looked at Tony. “What's he talking about?”
Tony just shook his head. “Don't worry abut it, son. That boy's on Tumblr too much.”
“What does whiskey have to do with it?” James asked. Though he supposed being drunk might explain some things, he couldn't smell anything on the kid's breath and he didn't know what the hell a Tumbler was besides a shot of alcohol, or a lock piece. When Tony and his buddies tried to explain the fad that had swept up all their kids, all James could make out was that it had something to do with cats and porn.
“So,” he began, pulling the trout into an iced crate for it's buyer. “This is a place you go, that doesn't really exist, but everyone is there all the time?”
“That's the internet,” Tony nodded with a chuckle.
“Internet,” James paused, leaning on his ice shovel and thinking about that cafe he passed his first day in New York. “Is that part of the Arpanet?”
The old men laughed even harder, but Tony gave him a shrewd look and tossed James his flat little phone, telling him to take a break and learn something. James spent half an hour sitting on a bench and fighting with the thing. There were a lot of little buttons that responded to the lightest touch, and did crazy things when he moved his fingers in the wrong way. He wanted to smash it. Although he did finally teach himself how to open a map, and play a song and take a picture, by the time his break ended the mysterious Internet still eluded him.
There were so many little things like that which left him feeling dislocated, and that feeling only grew sharper the longer he was in New York. He began to wonder, with a creeping sensation, if maybe he'd lost more time than a couple of months. He didn't think too deeply about that disturbing notion. Just like he didn't think about the way his attention slid off all the televisions in bars, or how he didn't pick up a newspapers anymore, and why he'd always driven in silence and left the radio to freeze in winter. He didn't think about returning to Westchester either, or kicking in the door of that school and demanding answers. He could only hold himself together, by not thinking about how much of him was falling apart. It was a matter of survival.
When he'd made his way home and was surrounded by those familiar logs, then he'd think about it all. In the mean time he worked and made plans for his cabin. He figured he could be up there within the year if his luck and memory held together.
He was lugging a tub of Salmon and thinking about what sort of caulking the cabin walls would need, when he was pulled up short by a very unwelcome sight.
Standing in the middle of the warehouse floor, and looking like something that had stepped out of a Flash Gordan novel, was Cherry. Or Scott Summers, he supposed. The man was wearing a full bodied black jumpsuit and some kind of high tech visor over his eyes. There was a women next to him in the same get-up, with red hair and an awkward expression that matched Cherry's pinched look as they drew more and more attention from the crowd. The fish mongers nudged each other, pointing at the pair's funny suits.
James handed off the Salmon and ducked behind a stairway, cursing this bad turn of luck. If the stink of fish didn't cover up their smell, he'd have had some warning they were coming. He grimaced and peered through the gaps in the stairs.
They really were a pair, he thought, Summers with his red visor and the lady with her deep red hair. Like a couple of posh berries attached at the vine. The image was ruined slightly by the puffy white bandage over Summer's nose, and the way they were being so careful not to touch anything. Like that gentleman class who never thought about how dinner ended up on the silver plates they ate from.
They were looking around for something and it clearly wasn't fish because neither of them gave the crates of Sea Bass or Muscles a second glance. They were looking at the people, and James had good guess who's face they were searching for. He supposed it had been stupid to think they'd leave things as they were, with that last, short phone call.
It looked like his time here had come to an end, unless he wanted to be found, and he thought about that for a moment. Wondered if it would really be so bad if he stepped out and let them see him. It was tempting, knowing the answers to the last few missing months were within his reach, but then, he'd owe them, and Jimmy never liked owing people things. They took advantage.
Cherry was showing the boys at Colsen and Cobb a picture, and his lovely partner was searching the market with sharp eyes, almost like she knew he was there somewhere. Maybe she had some tricks up her sleeve, James thought. He wouldn't be surprised if Cherry had a bit of freaky-freaky in him. He shook his head and left, just as the redhead turned to look at where he'd been standing.
He slipped out the back and found Tony having a smoke break on the curb. James got the name of a boat on Long Island that needed fisherman, and space on the truck going out there. Then he snuck up to his storeroom and rolled his meager belongings up in a rough blanket, tying it off with twine and making a loop for his shoulder, like he used to when he went trapping and men where still hunting down their supper with muskets. Then he pulled his hat over his head and stepped out onto the road.
He gave the warehouse one last look, saying goodbye in his own way, before he got in the truck. Which meant he was standing in the open when a shock of white hair and lovely long legs came out of the warehouse. Storm looked at him, and he looked back. The truck engine rumbled, and he raised a hand. She raised one silently in return, and then he hopped up into the truck, and watched her reflection get smaller in the side mirrors as they drove away.
It was a long, bumpy ride to Long Island, and when they reached Bellport Bay, the trucker let him off in a small harbor. It was still dark, so James stretched out on a pile of fishing nets by the harbor master's office, and pulled his hat low over his eyes. The spikes of shipping masts jangled together like wind chimes, and the smell of the sea was almost as good to him as high mountain air. He was looking forward to stepping on a trawler, and sailing out over deep water. He could feel adventure calling him, and in his minds eye the log cabin in the Waputik Mountains came a little closer.
He let himself drift with a smile, expecting to wake up on the same bed of nets a few hours later, with his salt grimy pack under his head and the smell of seaweed and oil in his nose. He'd get an early start, and figured he'd wash up in one of the dock spiggets before meeting the fishermen at dawn by the Hauling Molly.
Instead he rolled over and found himself sinking into a clean mattress.
He jerked back from the soft material with a startled grunt. There was a pillow beneath his head that smelled like fresh soap, and a late morning glare teased his eyes. He blinked, confused, and the blurry shapes before him resolved into a large, elegant room, with sunlight resting in golden squares on the floor and an expensive looking clock playing Gimmie Shelter softly on a nightstand.
He pulled himself up on one elbow and stared at this mutiny of reality, but the dockyard did not come back, and the bed did not turn into a pile of fishing nets. His passage north was gone and he couldn't even smell the stubborn odor of fish guts on himself, which the best soap couldn't hope to erase entirely. It was like none of it ever happened, and if he had to guess, he'd say this was the same room he woke up to a month ago, back in Westchester, at the Xavier school.
“Fuck,” he groaned and closed his eyes.
James had always been a get up and go kind of man, but now, lying on a clean mattress that he'd thought he left far behind James couldn't find the wherewithal to shift himself. He lay on his side, wrung out and feeling like the butt of a crude joke, while on the radio the Stones rolled over into Stay Just a Little Bit Longer.
One of the boys in Nam used to talk about some white coats, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who spent their time attaching electrodes to rat's genitals and sending them running through mazes. Or something like that. James stared at The Room and felt a distant kinship with those vermin. One moment you thought you were free, and could see your way clear to the horizon. The next you got picked up by some damn rubber glove and dropped back right where you started, and all that running, and working and getting shocked in the nads was for nothing. No wonder the rats stopped eatin' and fuckin' and died out.
He sighed, and finally pushed upright when the sun began teasing his fingertips. The floor was polished to a shine, not like the rough dock planks he should be standing on, and James ran a tired hand through his hair as he looked himself over. He was dressed in the same loose pants he woke up with last time, but he had a shirt on now, and he clung to that difference. The shirt was new cotton and had that fake leaf smell they put in expensive detergent these days. He rubbed at it while he looked around The Room, picking out other differences.
The wardrobe was the same, and the dresser and chairs, but somehow it looked more lived in. Less like a hotel suite and more like someone's home. Perhaps it was just easier to see in daylight. His boots were by the door flaking dried mud onto the floor and there was an empty coffee mug, ash tray and abandoned spoons lying about. What got him standing though was the sight of his hat.
The Stetson he'd won at the fish market was sitting up on a bookcase by the far wall. There was some junk below it, papers, broken pencils and the like, but the hat had been put away like it was one of those antiques people kept locked in cabinets so they could admire them at a distance. In fact it was dead ahead of the bed, and if you sat there you couldn't avoid looking at it.
James stalked across the room and ran a finger over the Stetson's crown, picking up a very fine layer of dust. He put it on and pulled the brim low like always, sneezing lightly when the dust burst into the sunny air with a glittering cloud.
The roll of cash from his market work had been hidden underneath the hat, and didn't have a dollar missing. His Henry Lawson book was next to it. Someone had undone all his dog-eared pages and put in scraps of newspaper instead. The poem Wander-Light, which he'd re-read too many times to count, now had someone's oil stained finger prints in the margins.
With a shaky breath, James traded the loose pants for jeans and tucked the cash and book into his waistband to keep them close. His spine was itching to move, but runnin' hadn't done him much good last time, and damn if he was going to race through this maze over and over like those stupid rats. So he left his boots on the floor and began picking his way through The Room.
Every few minutes a noise from outside would send his nerves jumpin' but the running feet and young voices would die down soon enough and James figured it was probably just the kids. After all, this place was a school wasn't it? Xavier's school for the Gifted.
No one came bursting through his door anyway, and there wasn't much to find. The place had been lived in, but not for long, and whoever stayed here didn't have much more to their name than he did.
James found the blanket and twine he'd bundled up last night folded in the bottom of the wardrobe with an open tool trunk and box of good Cuban cigars. He gave an admiring sniff, and after a moment popped one in his mouth with a mutinous smirk. They said sharing was caring after all and it seemed only fair, since someone had been through his things.
He nearly missed the most important clue in The Room because it was shoved into the corner of an old roll-top desk, the way he always pushed aside shit he didn't want on hand. He accidentally knocked into it when the thunderous sound of feet rushed past his door and a whole pile of books fell to the ground with a crack and scattered there.
There were a couple of journals, all unwritten accept for a message inside the first cover which said “I encourage you to use this opportunity.” Whatever that meant. The books had titles like Clinical Perspectives, More Than Survivors and Dual Diagnosis, but what arrested him was a large black picture frame with a broken hanger and a spiderweb of cracked glass, as if someone had thrown a rock at it. There was no photo inside. Only a sheet of paper with a carefully typed message.
“Logan. If you forget what this message is for, please come see me in my office.” It was signed Professor Charles Xavier.
James sat on the floor with a hard thunk and stared at the frame. It stared back with cryptic, printed words. As precise and remote as a long distance telegram.
Victor used to hate those, and typewriters, in fact writing at all had never been his brother's favorite thing and teaching Victor had been both a torture and relief for James. Most of the time they scratched out words in the dirt with sticks, though he had very distant, fuzzy memories of a hot sick-room where Victor once sat on a rumpled cushion instead of grass. He'd gotten mud and cow-shit on everything and always hid his hands behind his back when an adult came near them.
The first time Victor hit him was in that room. James had grabbed his hand, fingers and all, to help him trace a letter on the chalkboard and Victor hissed like a scalded cat and scratched him good. That might be the first time he saw his own blood, and he didn't see Victor for a long time afterward. He sometimes wondered if he'd have ever seen Victor again, if he hadn't kept asking after him.
How could he remember that and not have the faintest clue where this sign came from, or how he got back here? It just wasn't right.
He touched the glass where the reflection of his too short hair and sideburns met the word “forget,” and felt a wash of sympathy for whoever cracked the glass. Xavier's message made him want to take after his brother throw the frame out the window like it was a frustrating geometry lesson.
Breaking furniture wouldn't solve anything of course, but being angry felt good. It chased the feeling of helpless confusion right past the fancy curtains and out the sunny window. He'd had enough of this. Professor Xavier wanted to meet him? He'd damn well get to.
James picked himself up and stormed out of the room, bare feet, dusty hat and all, with the intention of marching straight to Xavier's office, and only when he got to the end of the hall did he realize he had no idea where Xavier was.
He glared at the picture frame in his hands, looking for some kind of direction behind the cracked glass. A map or even a simple “downstairs and to your left” would've helped, but there was nothing. Useless piece of crap. He tried to remember how he got out last time, and eventually gave up and just wandered vaguely eastward, following his nose toward the smells of rowdy human bodies.
It took a lot of wrong turns, before he found the stairs again and the closer he got to the ground floor the louder it got. He started seeing kids in the halls. Some were lugging books or shouting, but all of them gave him a wide berth. That would be just fine with him except he needed directions.
He was ready to snatch one of the fleeting pipsqueaks by the neck and demand some help when he passed a large parlor with a crowd of them lounging around, and someone shouted for him.
A pale girl with dark hair and a white streak framing her face left ran up to him. “Hey, it's almost lunch time, are we still... oh,” her bright voice stumbled to a halt when she saw him up close. Whatever made her rush over seemed forgotten as she looked at his hat and then his bare feet. It occurred to James, he might look strange and he briefly considered going back to The Room to get his boots, except he wasn't sure he could find it again, and he was fed up with wandering this maze.
“Umm, hey,” the girl smiled at him, suddenly cautious.
“Hey,” he answered out of habit, and tried to place her. She had a sweet round face, and a jean jacket with cuffs dangling all the way to her gloved knuckles. She smelled familiar too. Oh, right. She'd been one of the kids in the red corvette who drove him to New York.
“I haven't seen you pull that out in awhile,” she said, and reached up to tug on the brim of his hat like they were old friends. James tried to remember her name. Ro something, wasn't it? “But you know, I think it suits you.” She said it like she was defending him, but James had no idea from what. Rogue, that was it. Huh, what kind of a name was that? Rogue and Storm. The next time he turned around someone would be calling themselves Ace or Moon Star.
“Has anything come back?” Rogue asked, and James blinked, not sure what to say, so he just shook his head. “Do you think it will?” Rogue ventured, lowering her voice as some younger kids scampered past. “I know you said the professor's hopeful and all but...” she trailed off with a somber, hard knock look that was a lot older than her face. James's hand relaxed on the picture frame just enough to stop cracking the fake black paint.
“I uh, need to see the professor,” he said awkwardly.
“Okay. He's probably in his office now,” she said and then paused when James snorted, because this was like trying to find old Fort Whoop-Up, or the local red-light district. If ya didn't where it was, ya probably shouldn't be there. The girl was watching him and added, almost timidly. “I can show you where to go, if you want.”
"That'd be nice,” he agreed.
It wasn't exactly an admission of guilt, but it was close. Still, he supposed it wasn't such a hard leap for the kid. After all he was standing there in a hat that had been left to gather dust, and holding a picture frame with instructions on what to do if he suddenly lost his memory. Between Xavier, Storm, Cherry and his red-headed gal, James didn't really expect the blank spots in his head to stay secret. It was one reason he didn't want to come back here. Hell, maybe it was passed around their school like gossip. Juicier news then scratching the names of rumored sweet hearts over the school-house door, or trading honey comb from their lunch pales.
He sighed as Rogue lead him away from the busy parlor. She kept looking back at him as they went, and finally stopped outside a door which was nearly concealed among the wood panels of the mansion wall. James was tempted to ask her how anybody was supposed to find that without a map.
“Well, this is it.”
“Thanks kid,” he said, still looking at the door. Did it even have a doorknob?
“Just... well, don't...” she started. A bell rang somewhere in the school with deep brass tolls and Rogue swore. “I gotta go. Mr Summers is really cracking down on attendance.” She walked backwards down the hall, as if she didn't want to lose sight of him. The bell rang again and she disappeared around a corner, still cursing, and James felt the specter of smirk at his mouth. Weird kid, but not a bad sort he thought.
The hall slowly emptied of drumming feet and voices and soon it was just James with his own heart-beat. He gripped the picture frame tight, and then pushed the door open and stepped across the threshold.
Inside was an elegant paneled office with bright windows looking out on a green lawn. It had that comfortable smell which always came from a lot of paper; the remnants of wood that had been chopped, turned inside out and stacked up like a rebuilt timberland for the well-to-do. There was an old man dressed in a neat grey suit, with a shining bald head, waiting behind a desk with a ticking metronome and a bouquet of fountain pens. He was so absorbed in marking papers that he didn't look up when James entered and he paused by a filing cabinet to observe him.
So, this was the mysterious Professor Xavier. He wasn't what James expected.
He thought of professors as severe men with sharp rulers and squinty eyes, but Xavier was all soft edges. He looked like an intellectual who walked around full ideas and manifestos and as he studied the man James began to feel just a little less rattled. Maybe it was because the professor looked so old and frail. Hell, maybe he should have just done this from the beginning, instead of listening to the ghost of Victor, who never liked to stop and think about things.
Xavier finished a paper and tapped his pen, before setting it aside and reaching for another. As he did his gaze passed over James and he did a fast double take, then sat back with surprise wrinkling his blue eyes.
“Logan,” he smiled. “I didn't hear you come in.” His smile turned into a mild frown then, and James shrugged.
“Didn't want to disturb,” he said, twitching at the coarse sound of his own voice. “You looked busy.”
The professor turned and came out from behind his desk, revealing a steel wheelchair as he did so, and James raised an eyebrow as the man rolled up to meet him, saying, “you're never a disturbance Logan. I was just about to have some tea. Perhaps you'd join me.”
“Thanks, but I'm not really a tea man,” James replied, stepping away from the cabinet and holding out the battered picture frame. “I just came by because of this.”
The professor wheeled forward with the touch of a button and carefully took the frame, broken glass and all. James felt a little sheepish handing it over, even though he'd had nothing to do with breaking it, but Xavier barely even looked at the glass. His mellow gaze slid over it like an unimportant detail before fixing squarely on James with a dawning expression that bloomed into a warm smile.
“You are the professor, aren't ya?” James prodded, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
“Yes, I'm Charles Xavier, and I'm very glad you came to see me. I was rather afraid you'd throw this away.”
“Right, well,” James cleared his throat, “just figured I'd get some answers before heading out the door this time.”
“Of course. Please, sit.” Xavier gestured at the stuffed couch. “This might take some time.” He rolled to a small table where a bubbling teapot waited. “How are you feeling?” Xavier asked over his shoulder as he began pouring steaming water into a mug.
“Pissed,” James answered shortly, and snorted when that made Xavier smile again.
“Well, that's understandable. Perhaps some breakfast would help, and we have black coffee, but I'm afraid there is no liquor kept on the grounds. This is a school.”
“Look Xavier,” James bit back, “I don't want tea, or milk or even a damn omelette. I just want to know what the hell I'm doing here.”
Xavier paused, and then carefully dipped a bag into his steaming cup before replying. “You live here, Logan.”
“You live with us, here at the school, and have for some time. It's a very loose arrangement,” the professor admitted and rolled around to face James with the sharp smell of Earl Grey wafting after him. “You're not Faculty, and you don't think of this as your home yet. Though I hope one day you will. Sometimes you go into town or the acreage, but you always come back in a day or two. With the exception of last March that is.”
“March.” James wet dry lips. “Right.”
“Do you remember what happened in March?” Xavier asked with a discerning look.
“Sure,” he bluffed. “That's when I--” he broke off and rubbed at his jeans.
“Broke Scott's nose?” Xavier kindly finished for him and James nodded, thinking at least he knew what time of year it was. Except it didn't smell like March anymore. That lingering cold of spring, which was still clinging on when he'd gone to sleep last night in the harbor, had been replaced by the sweet heat of summer. Just one more thing which changed overnight.
Xavier rolled forward and stopped when he was a few feet away and James hackles were about to shiver up. As if the man could sense exactly how close was close enough. It would have been troubling, but somehow Xavier still managed to look benign and James wondered if that was a special trick.
His knuckles prickled while metal shifted under his skin like cogs in some horrible machine, and he briefly longed for the comforting grind of bone. These days even his body was against him, as if it had switched sides in a war when he wasn't looking and left his mind to stumble along behind the times.
“So, how long has it been?” he finally croaked the all important question.
“Two months, since you came back from Long Island,” Xavier said in an over-gentle tone that would have irritated James if he wasn't busy being light headed. He felt worse when the professor continued. “You were here another five before that.”
“Five. How,” James swore. “What--” a sudden thought occurred. “Where's my truck?” he demanded.
“It's gone I'm afraid. You were attacked last fall and everything burned.”
“That's convenient,” James muttered, feeling his brief surge of hope die on the verbal battlefield while Xavier carried on as if he hadn't heard the jibe.
“I understand it's alarming talking with someone you don't remember, but I hope you'll trust that no one here is trying to trick you, Logan. No one will keep you against your will, and you have --”
“Xavier, would you quit shilly-shallying and just give it to me straight,” James snapped, losing patience with grandfather act. He wanted a simple answer. He'd sort out whether to believe it later. “What is happening?”
“I believe you've been experiencing Dissociative Fugues,” Xavier finally said. “Have you heard of that before?”
James shook his head and Xavier continued, very slowly, like he was trying not to startle him with new ideas. “It's part of a large group of Dissociative disorders. A fugue normally lasts a few hours or days, but it can go on for months. Even years. They're characterized by a loss a memory, and often involve unplanned travel and wandering.”
“All the way to New York?” James cracked.
“Sometimes further,” Xavier nodded. “In fact, I have something to show you. It may lend some reality to a very surreal situation.”
“What is it?” James turned, keeping the professor in sight as the man rolled to the far wall where a screen waited. It was slim and flat and even more futuristic looking than the televisions James had seen in shop windows around the Bronx. He cocked his head, looking over Xavier's small shoulder. He didn't see any cassette tapes. Just rows of silver disks like records, but far smaller. Xavier slipped one into a machine, the screen flickered, and James looked up at a recording of the exact same office he was in now, only it was dark and lit by warm lamps and in the middle of the floor stood... him.
James sat on the arm of a couch and leaned forward, fascinated and the professor momentarily forgotten as he stared at the screen. The man in the home video had James's face, and beard, with the same chopped off hair that had greeted him in the mirror for the past month. It was him. He was freshly showered, still wet and wearing an open hooded jumper with an X patch on the front. There was a cigar in the ash tray behind him with a half eaten sandwich. He looked at home. It was eerie.
“This is ridiculous,” the image of James grumbled on the television, glaring at something just off screen. “What the hell am I supposed to say?”
“Say whatever you like,” Xavier's voice replied and the camera wobbled. Logan hocked up an earthy snort and took a seat on the arm of the couch, mirroring James position as if they were sitting across from each other and then gave James a wry look through the camera.
“Okay shit-head, if you ever take a walk to Long Island again I'm gonna rip a new hole in your ass to go with the one your head got stuck in.” He raised a fist, showing off his knuckles to drive the point home and James wondered if Xavier knew what that meant. If he knew James was special. Stryker always like using that word. Like he and Victor and the others on team ten were idiot savants caught between genius and retardation.
“We done here?” his television self asked.
Video Xavier sighed from off camera and James could hear weary affection in the man's voice. “Logan, imagine there's a man sitting and watching this, who has no idea who we are. Perhaps imagine, for a moment, if someone had been there when you woke up today, and they could tell you everything you missed. Wouldn't that have been a kindness?”
“Christ,” Logan grumbled and swiped at his sandwich taking a discontented bite. It was exactly how James ripped into his food when he was secretly wishing it was still alive and needed gutting, but there was something off about it too, and he scratched distractedly at his beard while he watched the video. Seeing himself talk like this was sort of like watching those old propaganda films. Real, but not real at the same time.
“Lets start with the facts,” Xavier was saying. “What's the first thing you remember from today?”
Logan shrugged. “Waking up on a dock somewhere, smelling like fish-rot and hell if I know why either. I don't like boats. It looked like I'd been hitching for awhile. I did that up north one winter when my truck broke down. I got caught between Carcross and Whitehorse, and had to hike for two days to get a new carburetor. Then wait out a blizzard. But this? I didn't know where I was or how I got out there. It was like... It was like that first time all over again.”
James knew that feeling. Of all the many times he'd woken up in strange places, none were quite as jarring as this school or that day near Alkali. He could imagine the shaky panic this man on screen didn't mention. The way he must have stumbled and fallen off the dock, swearing a blue streak, yelling and scaring the locals.
He wondered how far off the coast the Hauling Molly was now. Probably deep in the Atlantic. He pushed away the achy feeling in his chest when he thought about the open air, and cold salty spray he was missing now that he was stuck back here, in this maze of missing moments and unfamiliar faces.
“Well you know the rest Professor,” Logan finished. “I found a phone, rang the school and got Scott as my welcome party. Almost made me wish I hadn't called at all,” he muttered.
“Scott was just concerned,” Xavier's voice rebuked softly.
“He was pissed is what he was. Though I guess he had reason,” Logan smirked, looking pleased. James wondered if Cherry had still been wearing that white nose bandage when they met at the dock. “At least I got to see Cyc's face when I tossed that book in the back of his car,” Logan added. “That actually made the trip worth it. Wonder of wonder's, the mountain man can read.”
“And Lawson is a fine poet,” Xavier's recording said, neatly sidestepping any comment on Cherry or Logan's literacy.
“Yeah. Sure,” Logan grunted.
“You don't like him?” Xaviers voice prodded.
“I don't feel one way or another about it,” Logan shrugged, but James didn't quite believe that, thinking about the greasy fingers prints in his book. “I'm not like you and Jean,” Logan continued. “I read, but I'm not bookish.”
James sat back, frowning. It was strange to hear those words come out of his mouth. At least, it looked like his mouth. James was beginning to have his doubts now, because besides the drawl of his voice and the way Logan moved which was all slightly off, James had always thought of himself as a reader. At least by comparison. He didn't think he held a candle to Xavier, or his students, but he'd never thought he was a stupid person either.
Some of that was from Victor's violent ribbing about being all book-smart even while they lived like wolves. It was just the way they were. James was the thinker, Victor was the doer. Even though now that they were grown Victor read just as much as him. Usually in winter or the dreary times in war when they were holed up in a trench waiting for the mortar shells to sound.
Victor used to carry around Bulgakov's short-stories instead the bibles and pin-ups other soldiers tucked into their jackets. He would chuckle to himself about amputations and turn pages with his claws, while the men sidled away from him and their division pushed on to the German front. He was still carrying that book when they were shot by a firing squad outside Stalag 344, and after when they crossed the Odra into Soviet territory and joined the Red Army.
James never really got the appeal of Bulgakov.
“Perhaps you should give Lawson a try,” Xavier's voice suggested to Logan. “Some part of you thought the book was worth keeping. You might surprise yourself.”
“You giving homework, professor?” Logan huffed.
“If you like. I don't think this should be pushed away and forgotten Logan. That may have helped sustain you before, but there is more to life than survival, and painful as it may be I truly believe that facing what has happened and finding the cause will help you understand your past, and yourself.”
“Right, because you can't tell me that,” Logan grumbled. It seemed this was an old argument.
“No. I won't do anything that might cause damage, to either one of us.” Xavier replied. “The mind is a complicated and delicate organ. It can't always heal like the rest of the body, and there aren't any quick fixes. Not even for us. Given your penchant for ignoring blackouts, I don't think hearing the full truth now would help you, even if we knew what it was.”
“That's not the same,” Logan argued. “Not even close. I lose few hours here and there, maybe a day. I've never just dropped off the map for month! Never.”
“Damn it,” Logan swore, his voice rocky as untraveled road. He closed his eyes and turned away from the camera, looking pained, and whispered. “What if this is how it starts? What if I'm gonna lose everything all over again and wake up tomorrow not knowing my own name.”
“I don't think it will come to that, Logan, but if it does, I promise to do everything I can to help you recover. You won't be alone.”
There was more on the tape, probably a lot more, but James couldn't stand to watch it. He got up and shut off the video just as Logan started pacing and asking what had happened while he was gone. The name Rogue was the last thing James heard before the screen blinked out and he stood staring at the snowy static while the dull hiss filled the office.
“Logan?” Xavier's voice prodded gently from behind him.
“What did he mean, about losing everything again?” James asked, hands fisted at his sides.
“You were afraid you might lose the last fifteen years, of course. Just like you lost the life you had before that,” Xavier replied slowly. He sounded worried. Damn right he should be worried. James claws were trying to cut through his hands as he stood there, holding himself together like a pin in a grenade.
“Is that a joke?” he rasped.
“Of course not. It's an understandable fear.” Xavier replied. “We taped this the night you came back so that no matter what happened, you'd have some record of your life. Fugues often come and go, and we didn't know how much, or little, you'd remember. I thought that hearing an account in your own words would be easier.”
James shook his head. His heart was pounding and his hands ached.
“This is bullshit. This hasn't been going on that long. A few months, sure, maybe a year, but decades? No way. I'd remember losing that.” Did his voice just crack? “You can't just lose that.”
“Logan,” Xavier began cautiously.
“I'm not him!” he snarled and forced himself across the office, snagging a match book from the desk and lighting up his stolen cigar with jerky motions. His hands were shaking, and they really hurt. He stuffed the matches in his pocket and pushed open a window, leaning against the frame. His smoke drifted into the summer sunshine and hovered on the wind before disappearing over a hedge and basketball court.
“Why do you say that?” Xavier asked, and James chafed at the patient tone, flashing back to doctors and white coats, and sitting in a folding chair on an army base answering question after question about what he and Victor could do while their new C.O, Stryker stood by the door in his crisp uniform and sunglasses, smiling. James cracked his neck, shaking off the fleeting memory.
“Because, I ain't blind or dumb, whatever your look-alike says,” James snapped. “The way he talks is all wrong. That is not me. All you've got on that tape is someone with a damn good disguise.”
“Good enough to look just like you?” Xavier probed, and somehow he managed to sound earnestly interested, rather than skeptical.
“I've heard of stranger things,” James defended, inhaling a deep lungful of smoke and blowing it out slowly. “I knew a show girl once who could turn herself inside out like a silk purse, and keep on talking. She really gave the peep shows a run for their money,” he added idly.
Xavier hummed and rolled to the other side of the window so James could spy on him out of the corner of his eye without turning. Not that he needed to see the man. Every hair on his body was aware of the space between them. He could smell Xavier coming. Hear him. All it would take is one spin, kick and a claw under the jaw.
“Actually, when I was a young man, I did know a woman who make herself look like anyone,” Xavier offered, stirring his tea with a far away look in his eye.
“That's a neat trick,” James acknowledged. Would have been damn useful in ops work too.
“We all have our gifts,” Xavier nodded.
“Yeah? What's your special gift, Xavier?” James sneered. He didn't mean to sound cruel, but the word “special” just slid out like that now-a-days. Always in the same tone Stryker had used, equally solicitous and contemptuous, as if he was talking to five year olds.
“I like to think it's hope for the species, my friend,” Xavier replied with a small quirk to his mouth and ... wait, did he actually say that? His lips hadn't moved, but James had heard him clear as day and... Oh well that was just perfect. James actually laughed.
“Great. You're one of those,” he sighed while Xavier watched him intently. Then it clicked. Gifted. Xavier's school for the gifted. Crikey, I must be getting old, he thought. All the kids and Storm must be like him. Hell, if he ever made bets with himself he'd cash in for pegging Cherry as freak. The silence was stretching longer and longer while Xavier studied him and James eyed him right back until eventually Xavier chuckled with a twinkle in his eye.
“You're still going to have to speak out loud you know," he said. "I can't hear your thoughts now.”
“Are you serious?” That didn't sound like much of a gift but then what did he know. Maybe Xavier's talent only ran one way. James had met a few mind readers over the years. Some of them could see straight through his head, and others only a passing thought or two. They were all different.
“I'm quite serious,” Xavier assured him. “The mind I know has gone dark and I can't see what's behind it. In fact, if we weren't having a pleasant conversation right now I'd think you were asleep. I believe that's why I had trouble finding you when you left.”
“I wouldn't think a man who said I was free to come and go would bother looking for me,” James challenged.
“You are free, Logan, but we were also worried. Especially Rogue. And whether you remember or not right now, some part of you wants to stay here. The same part of you that called us for help when you woke up on Long Island. If you leave like this it may just happen all over again and I hate to see you terrify yourself that way.”
“You know, for someone who says he can't read my mind, you sound awful confident about what's going on in there.”
“I know you.”
“No you don't,”
Xavier sighed again. “Logan--”
“It's James,” he interrupted with a grunt.
Xavier lowered his tea cup. “I'm sorry?”
“We'll if we're supposed to be familiar, you should know that. My name is James,” he stressed.
“James,” Xavier breathed behind him, drawing out the sound of his name like it was priceless “Yes, of course."
Xavier took a long sip of his tea. He seemed to do that when he needed to think and James wondered how deep his cup was, and if there was anything hairier then Earl Grey in the bottom. Maybe a drop of whiskey. He could use some that right now and to hell with school policy. Someone around this joint must have brandy or rum. Probably imported too, he thought looking at the elegant office.
“Tell me, James,” Xavier stressed his named. “How much do you remember about yourself?”
“As much as the next person, I expect.” James shrugged, dragging on his cigar.
“But you've had black outs, like Logan.”
“Not like that,” he insisted. “I had one awhile back." He paused then, frowning and admitted gruffly. "Well, I guess now it's three, but that happens to fighting men sometimes.”
He didn't count the little skips in time when he'd been driving or fighting, or cutting up his dinner. They'd never hurt nothing, or messed him up. Not like a real black out. Not like Alkali, or what happened here. It wasn't the same.
“And this has only come on in the past year, for you?” Xavier hazarded a guess.
“Something like that,” he mumbled. It was longer, but he didn't really want to talk about it.
“Can you tell me what year it is now?” Xavier asked.
James shifted, uncomfortable, and looked around the room. His eyes slid over the television, clock, chess set, and books without focusing anything. “I haven't really been keeping track,” he admitted, clearing his throat “but, it's probably 87, or 88 maybe.”
“I see,” Xavier sighed and stared down at his cup as if the dregs of herbs and water held a great secret. “You know, there is another possibility here. It's something I've considered but been reluctant to bring up with Logan.”
“That you are both real.”
“You wanna run that by me again,” James asked, not liking where this was going. Xavier carefully put aside his tea.
“James, Disassociation is an act of survival that is undertaken against repeated, severe trauma. If there is no other way to escape the mind may simply go away. Sometimes it can even split, and fracture into pieces, which then establish themselves as separate identities.”
“Bull-shit,” James choked.
Xavier pressed on. “They each have their own memories. Their own life. Their own name. Onset has only been recorded in children, but there has never been a known mutant case either and I suspect your particular mutation,” he paused when James twitched at the word, before continuing carefully. “Well, it would complicate matters a great deal.”
“Bull-shit,” James whispered again, gulping at the indifferent summer air, and gripping the lintel tighter.
Two of him? That was crazy talk, and it was just the cherry on top of his fucked up life, that hearing your mind could have split like a stale cracker actually made more sense than a conspiracy about nameless shape-shifters.
Except that if he could remember cutting himself open, stepping on mines and getting burned by napalm in rice fields, there shouldn't be anything more “traumatizing” than that. There shouldn't be some nameless unremembered horror that trumped crawling over bodies, while machine guns rattled, mustard gas rolled over hedges of barbed wire and your blistering skin grew back. That should be laughable.
So why wasn't he laughing?
“I--” he gasped.
If Victor was here, he would be laughing. That special, cruel laugh he reserved for James when he'd done something particularly dense or sentimental.
Things were smacking together in his head like slugs chambered in a shotgun. The gnawing feeling he started getting in New York, that he'd somehow begun living to the side of everyone else, out of step with the world and their fancy phones and new music and strange words. The metal in his bones which he'd never explained. The pants upstairs that he'd never bought, but fit like they'd been worn in. The dirty spoons, and the finger prints in his book. The way Rogue tipped his hat and Xavier had said hello like they were already in the middle of a conversation.
“James, it's all right, just take--”
Deep breathes, James thought and lost his grip on the window sill, bending over his knees and trying to inhale slow, long and evenly. Except when he moved back he was faced with the professor's metronome ticking back and forth on the desk, and next to it was a small and unassuming calendar with big friendly numbers declaring it was June 4th 2014.
“I need a bucket,” he groaned as his legs gave up the fight and he dropped to the floor, throwing up over Xavier's carpet. Beans and black coffee by the looks of it. He didn't remember eating that.
Somewhere in between the retching and his blurring vision time slipped away again. One minute James was emptying his guts over Xavier's expensive carpet, while the man hovered at his shoulder and the next James was standing on the other side of the room, with his forehead pressed against the wall and the sun warming his back.
The office was hushed and empty. There was a strong smell of vomit and stringent cleaner prickling his nose, but he could still smell Xavier underneath it. The stench of tea and compassion was all over the place, and it wasn't growing stale, so the man hadn't gone far. He could hear someone breathing through the buffer of the wall and the sporadic shiff of turning paper made the skin between his shoulders twitch. He tightened his fists against the oak paneling, and breathed deep before he turned to face the office.
It looked like a blast had gone off.
Xavier's desk was bare and overturned, and all the crap it once held was piled onto the couch in a loose collection. The chairs were ripped with three distinctive rents and there was a glorious hole in the french windows, with cracks running all the way to the baseboard. On the floor was an ugly black stain that looked like it had been rubbed into the carpet, as stubborn and unyielding as the hole in his own head.
He left the support of the wall and staggered into the open, gaping. His bare foot crunched on some paper and he looked down to find the calendar, which had been sitting innocently on Xaviers desk just a moment ago, now spilling out of an overturned waste bin. A papery reflection of the retching he'd just suffered. Dozen's of “Year 2014's” stared up at him from the floor, and he backed away slowly as if they were armed insurgents.
James wasn't very familiar with shock. It never lasted long enough for him to get acquainted with the feeling, but he'd seen it in other men and women. He recognized the tremors and the groggy feeling. He'd lay down some money that he was in shock.
The low pitched whine of a motor heralded Xavier's return, just as James was wiping his face with shaky hands. The door opened and James turned, giving the old man a tired look.
“Are you feeling better?” Xavier asked.
“What happened in here?” James asked, too off balance to care about covering up his loss of time. Xavier was as collected as ever, the nogoodnik. He didn't look like he'd been anywhere near the destruction of his office. The man's suit wasn't even rumpled and James thought if he was a little more himself, he'd be working on wiping that smile of the professor's face. No-one was ever that placid by nature.
“You became a little agitated,” Xavier replied and James looked around at the shattered room before gracing Xavier with a sarcastic eyebrow.
“A little? I'd hate to see what your boy get's up to when he really loses his shit,” he mocked. It was easy to look at the mess and consider it the work of a stranger. James didn't remember doing any of it, and hell, Xavier was the one pulling for their being two of him in the first place. James could work with that. If he didn't think about it too hard.
Xavier's careful expression had loosened slightly and he nodded decisively. “James.”
“Yeah,” he grunted, and thought 'for now anyway'
“I'm glad you're still here," Xavier said. "Don't worry about the office. No one was hurt, and under the circumstances I think your reaction was considerately restrained.”
“So, what now?” James looked at the broken glass glittering over the vomit he'd left on the carpet like some untrained dog.
“Well, I have more I'd like to discuss with you but I think we should save that for another day. Perhaps you'd like to explore the grounds. Logan often goes outside when he's feeling... less then calm,” Xavier put delicately, as if recalling some private joke or memory James wasn't privy too.
He didn't know what Xavier was trying to pull here.
“So what, I just loaf around on your dime?” He rasped.
“Logan's found plenty of ways to occupy himself. I've no doubt you can do the same." Xavier rolled pointedly towards his broken paraphernalia and James knew a dismissal when he saw one, but he wasn't about to jump when Xavier gave orders. Even if it was a polite 'get-out' kind of order. He had his principles.
So he forced himself to crouch by the waste bin and start shuffling paper back into it while he avoided looking at the pages and all those dates. It felt like the numbers were staring at him and it gave him the heebie-jeebies. He stilled at a light touch on his shoulder.
“James,” Xavier called. James ignored him and kept shoveling more paper and wooden splinters toward the waste bin. “Please, James, stop. You're still shaking,” Xavier insisted gently.
James fisted both of his traitorous hands in the paper, crumpling the dates.
“Your window's gonna need new glass. I'll get on the horn and find something.” He trailed off with a brief, sharp pain at the thought of losing all the money he'd made scraping up fish and sea-blood the last couple months by repairing this man's office, but what had to be done had to be done.
“There's really no need,” Xavier said, and that was probably true James thought, looking at the man in his smart grey suit and electric wheelchair. He'd never seen a wheelchair that could run on its own power. This man had to be rich as sin, and fixing this wreckage probably wouldn't even dent his bank account.
“I ain't the type of man to smash someone's home without putting it to rights again, and I don't board for free. I pay my way,” he insisted, daring Xavier to refuse. James wasn't going to be beholden to this man, or anyone, and it was poor manners not to repair what you broke.
Xavier leaned back in his wheelchair, considering him. James had seen on a lot of people wearing that look just before they put a trump card down, and he was pretty sure he wasn't gonna like whatever was said next.
“I won't take your money, James” Xavier finally replied, voice hard in a way that had James straightening his spine, just slightly. Funny, he hadn't thought this kind but feeble looking man had a hard bone in his body. “But if you truly want to repay me for the damage--”
Here it comes, he thought.
“Then I would consider you staying here at the school, both for my sake and if I'm right for Logan's, more than enough to settle any bills.”
“Christ,” James swore and stood up, pacing across the room. He passed the door twice before he turned to face Xavier, hands still full of paper. “You are a manipulative son of bitch. Do you get all your staff through black mail or am I just special?”
“You're not staff, and this isn't blackmail.”
“The hell it isn't.”
“I'll make a deal with you, James,” Xavier said and something about that sounded very familiar. It made James pause. Why did those words sound familiar? Why, out of everything strange here, did those words sound familiar? Xavier rolled forward a little more and said, “Stay with us for two months, the same time you were away in New York, and I'll consider all damages paid for.”
James crossed his arms, wondering how much of this was planned and how much was Xavier just taking advantage of a situation as it came up. Why the hell was this man so invested in having him around? It couldn't be just because he cared. There had to be more to it. There always was.
“Two months, huh?”
Xavier nodded. It smelled like a ruse. A thin illusion of free will covering up that fact that he might be stuck here, deal or no deal and James left the office without giving Xavier his answer.
He strode out of the manor, into the sun and walked straight as the crow flies until he reached the edge of the property and leaned against the crisp white fence blocking his path. Just over the stiles was a twisting country road and beyond it hills, rustling trees, and the burn of motor car exhaust taunting him with a world out of reach. He gripped the fence and rocked himself through the urge to break more of Xavier's estate.
The flimsy railing of wood and white wash creaked under his hands, and he thought about saying to hell with it. He thought about swinging a leg over the fence and marching north under his own power, maybe sending money back through the post. He imagined a string of escapes where he reached the Alberta cabin, or that farm in Russia, and every time he got a little closer to home... bam! Suddenly he was back at Xavier's starting gate like some dumb race-horse.
This was nightmare. A whole different kind from what he was used to, and James hung his head over the fence, laughing bitterly. He doubted that poor old Xavier meant anything hideous when he proposed his deal, or when he told James he would keep waking up here if he tried to run. Xavier probably thought he was being a good samaritan by offering shelter to the walking wounded, and James couldn't even blame him for it because it wasn't really Xavier who was gonna keep him locked up.
It was that other guy. The one on the home movie.
He wished he hadn't seen that video.
He'd really been doing fine thinking the holes in his head were just senility, or left-over shock from whatever fucked up thing left him with metal bones. He supposed he wasn't so far off base with that. He didn't want to know what that fucked up piece of history was. He didn't want to poke that wound because it still felt raw.
Some of it was sharp and clear, like the bloody ice under his bare toes, and the steam rising off the gutted caribou when he woke up. Other things were a blur, like the stumbling walk he'd taken around the lake until he got another sharp memory of raw feet hitting pavement. Of blinking up at a fizzling street lamp. Of breaking into an empty house somewhere and drinking four bottles of brandy like it was water while he pulled on stolen clothes. The taste hadn't been enough to stop him twitching like a kid coming off their first battle rush.
He'd left a scrawled note on the kitchen table with one word, “sorry,” in faded pencil, before he left dressed like a human.
It still felt so recent. No more than a few years ago by his reckoning and it occurred to him that if, somewhere between Alkali and New York, he'd really lost not just months but decades that he had no way of really knowing what time it was anymore. Because how could he stand here and say for sure whether he'd only lost an hour or a day? What if it was a year? Or more? What if he fell asleep at this fence and woke up next summer standing where he was now, on a day he just happened to be wearing the same shirt. He'd figure no time had passed at all.
James unfolded one of the calendar pages from his fist, and smoothed them out over the fence, forcing himself to stare at the blocky numbers.
Xavier wanted him to stay for two months, but how would they even count that time? Only when James was awake and walking around? Two months could turn into two years, or two decades, and he wouldn't know the difference. He was being told he couldn't trust his own senses and that made him dangerously helpless. Put him at the mercy of others and their sense of time and their agendas.
He clenched his jaw, angry, and thought that losing thirty years shouldn't be like this, as easy as misplacing your hat. Not even for someone like him who could watch one summer bleed into a dozen up on a mountain top without noticing.
The worst part was he didn't feel crazy. He felt like his life was being stolen from him, and he wanted someone to come strolling across this manicured park and say it was all a joke, or, barring that, for the man from Xavier's video “Logan” to have neck of his own so James could wring it.
It was near dark when he finally headed back to the school. His stomach had gone from mutinous grumbling to outright rebellion and he was regretting not taking Xavier up on that offer of breakfast. He'd prefer to stay far away from the big house but it wasn't worth going hungry for.
So he followed the line of fence through the open lawn, past an old kennel and a stable. By the time he reached the manor he could hear children getting ready for bed, and the lower floors were almost welcoming without the daylight clamor, or the threat of running into more faces with that “I know you,” look which was just this side of avarice.
He found a small back door which must have been a servants entrance once, and wound his way through the ground floor. He was just passing a hall which was lit up like a miner's tale of golden tunnels, when he heard Xavier's voice say something about “Logan” and “doing quite well.”
James backtracked, and focused on a door at the farthest end of the hall which was slightly ajar, abandoning his search for food in favor of bigger game.
The door had a small bronze plaque that read “Staff Room” and there was tempting smells of buttered toast and rich coffee wafting out with the clink of sliver spoons. He snuck up and leaned his bulk against the door frame, letting it creak open just enough that he could peer in and watch the conspirators.
Xavier was still in his wheelchair and suit. Near him on a low couch, with stockinged feet curled beside her and sharp heels abandoned on the floor was the red-head he'd seen with Summers back at the fish market. She was quite the looker, with a refined face and hair the color of a thimble berry. There was also a long white coat laid over her folded knees like a blanket, and if that didn't send shivers up his spine the stink of chemicals lingering on her would have. Her light perfume did nothing to mask the smell of disinfectants.
Beside her on the couch was her other half. Summer's had an arm slung over the back of the couch, absently stroking Red's shoulders while he spoke to Xavier.
“Yes I think he's a crass, reckless, unreliable thug, but that's not what this is about,” Cherry said, his ruby glasses warping the light of the room. “He smashed your window Professor, for god's sake.”
“I've been meaning to get a breeze in there. It's quite stuffy in the summer,” Xavier replied, sipping his tea.
“Look, we've all been patient,” Cherry argued. “And the nightly wandering was one thing, but then we find out he has black outs, and now there's some kind of personality disorder? This is getting out of hand. What next? What if he starts hallucinating or goes berserk again? What if he loses it when he's playing basketball with the kids, or on a pick-up? I hate to say it but we've been lucky so far, with Rogue and with you.”
“What are you saying Scott?” A smooth voice challenged and the white haired woman, Storm, stepped into view carrying a mug steaming with the smell of spices.
“I”m saying we don't know what we're doing, and I don't think he can stay here.”
“Where would he go?” Storm asked.
“I don't know. Look, I'm sorry for playing devil's advocate here, but Logan has too many problems and he isn't safe for the kids. He needs professional help.”
“I agree,” Xavier said and all three of them looked at him, startled, but Xavier kept talking. “And in a better world he would have it. I hope we all live to see a time when someone like Logan can go to a hospital, and receive the care they need. But until then, we must look out for each as best we can.” The tone was paternal but also had that hard edge James had briefly heard from the man. An edge which suggested his altruism didn't come entirely from naivety. He looked around at the younger faces, each one turning sadder and darker as Xavier's words sunk in.
“What if he's beyond help?” Cherry asked.
“I don't believe anyone is beyond help,” Xavier declared.
Red spoke up for the first time. “I wish we knew more about what happened to him. The little I've been able to put together, even his surgery, is mostly guesswork. The Adamantium grafting is the only evidence we have. His mutation has erased all other signs of trauma. Even his CAT-Scan showed nothing abnormal. If I can get another while he's manifesting this secondary persona I could compare for differences. Maybe we'll find something.”
James bristled from his place at the door, hair rising in alarm.
“I think we'd better wait until he's more comfortable.” Xavier shook his head. “Logan's instinct has always been to run, and given his retreat to Long Island I must assume that James is the same. Our priority is keeping him and the children,” he nodded at Scott, “Safe from each other, and themselves. If we can't convince him stay and accept help...” he trailed off, looking into his tea, apparently unable to voice the rest.
“Is he even still on grounds?” Scott asked, looking at the red-head beside him. She shrugged and looked at Xavier, who half closed his eyes.
“Yes, he's close. I'm not sure where but he hasn't left yet.”
“This is a bad idea,” Scott said.
“Its the best we can make of a bad situation,” Storm said, though she didn't argue it was bad.
“Yeah,” Cherry sounded resigned, but he rallied for a final swing. “Well if he does stay, I don't want him on the team. At all. Not even for a pick-up.”
James cocked his head. What sort of team was this? Cherry didn't strike him as the full contact sport type.
Xavier considered the younger man, but Cherry wasn't budging and James estimation of kid slid up the barest notch. He had spine at least, and the fact Cherry wasn't acting friendly soothed James's unease, just a little bit. At least one of them was a realist.
“Very well,” Xavier agreed to Cherry's demand, and James got a kick out of that. Apparently Xavier wasn't as much of an all-stop as he thought.
They talked for a bit longer, trying to settle on things and mostly just going in circles. Cherry still wasn't happy about having him around, but keeping him off their “team” whatever it was, was as far as Xavier would bend. They talked about calling in some experts from New York, and DC and Paris, and whether they'd trust them or not to get a look at him. Like he was a god-damn specimen. Most of the names getting tossed around didn't mean anything to James, and got voted down anyway. There were concerns over their stance on mutant issues, privacy, and discretion. That sort of thing. Only one name kept coming back up.
“Hank has been enjoying his work in Zurich so much, I hate to call him away,” Xavier said, rubbing at his forehead.
“But he is qualified for this” Red said, “I don't have his experience and I don't know how long I could restrain Logan if he needs us to. My personal best is thirty minutes, but I've never...” she shrugged and looked down at her hands. Scott took one in his and squeezed.
“Storm and I won't be much help there. We only have deadly solutions if Logan goes cracks up, unless we all start carrying tasers and who knows if that'll even work.” He fingered his ruby glasses, looking tense.
“Hank really is the best choice, Professor," Storm said. "I'm sure he'll understand. Just be completely honest.”
“If I'm completely honest,” Xavier teased lightly, “Hank will leave everything he's built in Zurich in minute. That's no decision at all, and it's hardly fair to him.”
“It's fair if he has the freedom and information to make his own choice,” Storm insisted.
The talk wound down as they all finished their tea and coffee. Red unfolded herself from the couch in a graceful rise and James shifted back into the hall, behind the convenient shadow of a lintel. They all tramped out, except for the Xavier. Storm came first and said good night to Red who followed, barefoot with shoes in one hand. Her words about brain scans kept rattling round his noggin in a bad way, while she kissed Scott.
He was standing two feet from them and could have stepped out and snapped both their necks before they even looked surprised. They never looked his way, and wandered off with heads bent together, oblivious and taking the smells of labs and ozone with them.
When they were gone James prowled slowly into the Staff Room. Xavier had his back turned and was putting some files away. He stiffened when James closed the door and the click echoed through the empty room.
“Who's Hank McCoy?” James demanded.
“Hello James,” Xavier replied, carefully turning in his chair.
“Answer the question.”
“Hank is an old dear friend of mine.”
“Yes,” Xavier nodded slowly. “He has several doctorates. One of which is Neurology. He grew interested in the field after we met,” his lips quirked and James could see some stories there. Young men's stories. He tried to imagine Xavier as a young man, and all he came up with was a lot of sweater vests. “Hank is also one of us.”
“A mutant.” Xavier declared and James snorted.
Mutant, like that meant anything. Him and Victor, they'd always been something different, even among the freaks and kooks.
"I don't do Doctor's. I'm not some damn experiment," he growled past a raw throat, the words tearing up his mouth as they came out. Xavier had gone very still, one palm raised in a placating gesture.
“Of course not. No one here would --”
James laughed. It sounded broken, like an old wagon axle cracking under the strain. He'd been perfectly calm when he came in, so he didn't know why he was running hot now and barking like mad dog at the end of it's chain. He took a breath and blew it out, pulling himself back with effort.
“For the record, since you're all taking votes on my welfare, I think Cherry's got the right idea,” he said turning back to the doorway.
“Scott would surprised to hear that” Xavier replied with a quirk to his lips.
“There's reasons I've been on the move the last few years you know.” He frowned then, looking at the crumpled calendar page he still held. “Decades” he mumbled to himself, then shook his head. “Don't matter how long it's been--”
“I disagree. It matters a great deal. In all the years you've been traveling nothing has changed for Logan, or you. Isn't it time you tried something new? Give us a chance. There is more to living then endurance, James,” Xavier told him sadly, echoing what he'd said on that video.
James thought about telling the man that after living as long as he had, almost everything was an act of endurance. That time didn't mean the same thing for him as Xavier. It'd been trivial long before he realized he was losing chunks of it, or waking up in mansions with well intentioned meddlers. That Scott was right and Xavier had gotten lucky today. In the end though he didn't say any of that, because what would be the point? It didn't change anything.
“You're asking for a lot of trust, Xavier."
“Yes, I am,” the old man acknowledged.
“There's only one person I've ever trusted with what I am,” James warned, thinking about Victor's big shoulders, his weight, his smell, and his claws ripping into James guts when they were raging at each other and breathing their own blood.
If it came to it, he had that at least. Victor was a mean ol' rip, and kept getting meaner every year. James didn't know what went on his brother's head anymore, but even though his gut lurched at the thought of calling Victor in, he knew if he really was on the hook here Victor would come.
He also knew that whatever came next wouldn't be pretty.
Victor hadn't seen hide nor hair of him since seventy-eight. James had thought it was only nine or ten years since he turned his back and left the heat of Africa for the cold north and his sheep-skin jackets, but it seemed it'd been much longer then that. He looked down at the wrinkled paper in his hand, with the numbers 2014 glaring back at him and making his vision darken round the edges. He quickly stuffed the page in his pocket before he blacked out again.
Victor wouldn't just be pissed. He wouldn't just beat Jimmy into the dirt for being a shitty brother and leaving him hanging without a word. Victor would burn this place to ground and wipe Xavier's blood on his face like war-paint.
James wasn't sure he wanted to live with that. Xavier's people were odd sticks, but there were kids here and a wholesale butchery was an awful big price to pay for his own rescue.
He'd wait and see how things played out. Maybe he wouldn't need to call Victor at all.
That night Xavier lead him back to the room, his room, all polite like and left him there with promises that everything would look better in the morning.
James stood in the doorway looking at the ashtray, unmade bed and dirty socks, and couldn't make himself cross the threshold. Even with all the evidence it was too strange to think of himself living here and he spent the night drifting from one corner of the manor to another, between converted smoking rooms filled with bright pamphlets on Cyber Bullying and The Ethics of Your Genes.
Wherever he went in the school he was hounded by the leftovers of his other half. His name was on the calendar in the front hall with a note that read “Logan, 2:00 pm. Pool watch.” One of the girl's dormitory rooms had “Property of Wolverine” written on the door in yellow chalk, and this had been crossed out with a note that said “F-- Off John,” below it. The “fuck” having been wiped out by some conscientious hand.
Someone had even drawn a cartoon of him, with unsheathed claws, on a napkin and left it among an abandoned pile of text-books. The sketch looked like something out of Hunter Thompson's mind, a cross between a rabid pitbull and a man about to die from drug poisoning. He'd stolen it, shoving the drawing into his pocket as if he could stuff the secret of his mutilated claws back into obscurity.
It was strange seeing his own name everywhere, and knowing it was not meant for him. Even the kitchen plate that had been left out for him had “Logan,” written on the foil, and he couldn't stomach eating it anymore then he could sleep in the bed upstairs. He rammed the plate into the furthest reaches of the fridge before scrounging up his own midnight dinner.
All the roaming must have attracted attention because the red-head he’d seen at Cherry’s side eventually came into the kitchen while he was slapping meat and greens on bread.
“Hello,” she said, poised in a red silk robe and looking like she’d stepped out of a Cary Grant film.
“Evenin’” he mumbled, the hair on the back of neck rising at the threat of imminent conversation. She sat across from him at the counter, and poured herself a cup from the coffee pot he had bubbling. The slim hands poking out of her robe were so white they might have been rubber gloves.
“I'm Dr. Jean Grey,” she finally introduced herself, and the fact she was doctor did not surprise him at all. “I think we spoke on the phone before.”
“Mmm, when you’d … left for New York,” she explained. He wondered if that was supposed to make him feel like they weren’t strangers, just because they’d shared a few words over the wire. “The professor tells me you’ve asked to be called James,” she probed in a gentle tone.
“That’s right. James Logan,” he grunted, cutting viciously at a tomato so it’s juices bled over the wood board and his fingers.
She looked surprised. “Logan is your last name?”
“It is today,” he answered with a shrug that left a perplexed frown between her brows.
“Couldn’t you sleep?” She asked.
“Not really. Had the impression that isn’t so strange ‘round here, though” he offered, gruffly, ripping up an onion to try and fend off the smell of iodine under the red-head’s nails.
“Your insomnia you mean,” she prompted, and he nodded. “It’s certainly common. Though I’m not sure how natural it is,” she said.
“And you always keep wandering men company at night?” He snapped back. It was mean and coarse, and he winced at the flat tone of his voice, which was unable to make the allusion flirtatious. Unable to joke about being watched in whatever capacity.
Surprisingly the attack did it’s job. She stiffened at the suggestion she opened her legs for study subjects, or vagrants, and he almost wanted to apologize. Because he didn’t believe for a moment she was the promiscuous type. She seemed very Upper East Side in that way.
He’d always found it natural to sleep with who you wanted, when you wanted, and he liked women and men who felt the same way. It was simpler. Of course he’d never had anybody caring what he did with his body until those last few years in the army. He knew it was different for a woman, and if he was nicer man in a less dangerous position, he wouldn’t have used that against her. But he wasn’t and he was.
James had learned the hard way you didn’t get friendly with white-coats. They didn’t sympathize, and an angry observer was a careless observer. So until he knew where he stood here, he'd use all the leeway he could get.
“Actually,” she said with exaggerated manners. “We’re taking turns.”
“And what, you drew the short straw for the watch tonight?”
“I volunteered,” she said. “Scott was exhausted, and for now I’m the best choice.”
“And why is that?” he asked, eyeing her carefully.
In demonstration the coffee pot lifted on its own and delicately refilled her waiting cup, then his. The talk about restraining him suddenly made a whole lot more sense, and his brain made note of the skill with the same ruthless efficiency he and Victor used to count bullets, or how many bombs were in a dug-out.
He stopped talking after that.
In the morning the mansion began to rumble with children stumbling out of bed, yelling about stolen bathrooms and razors and “where is my shirt Jubilee?” and he snuck outside with whatever food he could fit in his jacket before the noise became unbearable.
He stayed away from the manor as much as he could, and kept to himself. Grey wasn’t joking about taking turns on psych watch. If he crossed the front threshold It wasn't long before someone appeared, shadowing his steps like an oversized knat.
The first was a large man with a flat face and a thin Russian accent. He said his name was Piotr and showed James where to find the laundry after James had become uncomfortably ripe. The Russian stared at him with the slack jawed expression of a man who'd been told that twisted six legged calf in a jar was actually an alien and couldn't decide if it was true.
He kept asking if James remembered this or that thing or person, in a naive way, and James hunkered down in silence until a bell rang and Piotr finally shuffled out, only to be replaced by Storm. She was thankfully silent for the remaining hour James stood around in a towel waiting for his jeans to dry. Excepting one wry comment about how he had plenty of clothing upstairs, didn't he know.
He didn't begrudge them their watch. It was the very least of what he would have done, in their position, and if they were all like Storm, quiet and solid and unperturbed by a naked ass sliding back into his jeans, he wouldn’t have minded the company either. But he didn't feel like talking or being gaped at.
They didn’t watch him so much when he stayed outside. It was really only when he got close to children that Piotr or Jean or one of the others would appear, and he could see it wearing on them as much as him. So he stayed away, and they all seemed content to let him. He washed and drank from spigots, and ate on his feet.
The stables became a good place to spend his days. The barn didn't have any of vestiges of “Logan.” It was out of the way, quiet, and smelled much better then the manor. The stench of horse sweat and offal was sweet and familiar to James, carried over from a distant time before the radio, combustion engine or even the telephone.
He found an old storeroom at the back with dusty bins, broken tack, and wheelbarrows taking up the floor. Once upon a time someone had lived there and there was a flat wooden cot built into the wall with a wash basin, and chests that smelled like feed and oiled leather.
Somehow his Stetson hat found a peg to sit on. His Lawson book began living on the shelf underneath the west window, and his boots started resting on the worn wood floor when the sun went down. The long row of stalls and the stamp of heavy animals also buffered him from the main manor.
He was surprised the stable had animals, really. He'd have thought it'd be turned into a garage for sports cars, but it seemed Xavier's was a proper boarding school. Built to have everything your young up and comer could ask for in a New England education. They probably sold it as one of those pre-Yale preparatory schools. Set-up your kid for life and we won't mention the green skin or scales or the fact that fire is coming out of their mouth.
It was so strange and conspicuous.
Every time he found some kid turning the horse trough to ice, or shooting fireworks out of their ears he wanted to shove them inside and tell them to stop acting like this was a god-damn game, because didn't they know what happened to people like them? Any minute he thought a passing teacher would catch them in the act. Until he saw the red glint of Cherry's sunglasses and remembered that the teachers where mutants too.
He didn't even know if “Mutant” was still a slur.
Some of the braver children took to shadowing him. They would peek around stalls and over hedges, never coming close enough to touch. If he looked at their hiding spot long enough, or stood up, they would scatter and run back to the safety of the mansion like quail disturbed from the grass.
He wondered how much the children knew about the wreckage in his mind. Stories about his rampage through Xavier's office had traveled the length of the school and with his ears he heard each retelling grow until the legend was as big as Paul Bunnan and his blue ox.
There was only one kid who didn’t shy from him. The girl with white and brown hair, who called herself Rogue.
She came looking for him when he was pulling junk out of an old shed behind the stables. He was searching for ribbed tin and buckets he could jury rig into a wash-board so he didn't have to suffer more rounds of Xavier's escort service, just to have clean pants.
The scrape of a shoe gave her away, and he looked up to find her standing nearby with a sagging backpack in both hands. James raised an eyebrow and she rubbed one calf with her foot, awkward as a young goat, before she blurted out a simple, “hi.”
“Hey,” he replied, looking her over. She was wearing a jean jacket and dark satin opera gloves.
“The professor told me not to come looking for you,” she said, loudly, as if it was both an explanation and challenge. Maybe it was. James went back to rummaging in the shed with a grunt.
“He did huh?”
“Well, he said Logan's got a lot on his mind, give him space, and I'm sure he'll make it up to you when he's feeling more... himself.”
“Hmm,” he hummed reaching for a promising hunk of wood inside the shed. “And here you are. You always do what your professor's tell you not to?”
“Only when you do.”
“I’m not sure anyone should be looking at me as a role model, kid” he grunted. Not when his affairs were in such a state of shit.
She faltered slightly. “Oh, well, I can go if you want, I don't want to bother--”
“It's no bother,” he interrupted. “Truth is, I figured I'd see you around sooner or later.”
“Mmm. Something your professor said, which got me thinking,” he said, hauling up a scrap of rippled tin and shaking the dirt and dried hay off it. That might do for a board, if he could find something to back it. Rogue sat on a nearby bin, looking at him like she was expecting a good story.
“What'd he say?”
“That out of all these people I'm supposed to know, you were 'especially worried.” He put aside the the sheet and rested his elbow on his knees, looking back at her. “So I been wondering, why would he say that?”
She shrugged. “We're friends.”
“That's what everyone around here says. Never had so many “friends” in my damn life.”
“Well, you take getting used to.”
“Guess I do.” He looked her up and down again, cautiously, frowning when a glint of sunlight caught the chain around the girls neck. His gaze was slowly drawn to a pair of un rubbered dog-tags tinkling on the end like chimes, and he stood with deliberate care while a cold feeling took up residence in his gut. He approached carefully, not wanting to scare her off before he got a look at them, and when he hooked a finger under the chain pulled the tags up, he was relieved she still hadn't bolted.
“I thought these got lost with the truck,” he whispered. Along with everything else he owned.
“You recognize them?” she asked, curious.
“Course I do,” he snorted and turned away, going back to the shed and letting the tags thump back against her chest. “They’re mine. I just don’t wear ‘em anymore.”
“You were wearing them when we met,” Rogue said with a small frown.
“Well, that comes and goes,” he evaded.
He probably should've gotten rid of them all together. Walking around with tags wasn't exactly covert when you were hiding from the army. He’d even dangled them out the window once or twice while he was driving, but he couldn’t make himself let go. Sometimes he'd wake up and feel them against his chest again, and then he’d clutch at them and wonder when he’d gotten so nostalgic, before stashing them in the bottom of the glove box.
Even though he never remembered putting them on it didn’t seem strange to wake up with them. Their weight grounded him, and reminded him of all the muddy, horrible, beautiful roads he'd walked in his long life. They made the empty spaces in his head seem small and unimportant.
He almost wanted them back, but he wanted to know how they ended up round the neck of this waif more.
“So why's a young-un like you gotten so used to man like me you’re wearing his tags?”
He silently prayed he hadn’t slept with her when his head was empty. James had done a lot of bad things in his life, but he'd never looked at kids like that. He hated thinking that if he was free of knowing who and what he was, he might turn out like the yellow eyed miners, or top-hat dandy’s who paid to get their dick in girls who hadn’t bled yet.
It made him want to rip his traitorous brain right out of his head. He’d murdered men that did that shit.
But the girl didn’t smell like she’d been rolling with him. The odor of his smoke and sweat was old and weak. No more deep than the layer of denim she was wearing.
“It's complicated,” Rogue wavered, twiddling her black satin thumbs.
“So uncomplicate it,” he demanded.
“You promised to take care of me," she said, and when he raised an eyebrow in disbelief she added. "The first time we met. I'd been on my own awhile and I saw you get in a fight,” her eyes flicked to his knuckles. “I'd never met anyone like me before. You seemed the best bet at the time. Best bet I think I ever made, really," she added the last more to herself then him.
“So, you're a gamblin' woman,” he declared and she smiled, round cheeks glowing with childish pride.
“I learned poker on my nana's porch, drinking sweet tea and mint julips.”
“Yeah, what'd you play for?”
“Alligator heads,” she admitted, toeing the dirt.
“Hmm, I played for dear bones and greenbacks when I was learning.”
Sounding a little more sure of herself now, Rogue told him a story about a bar in Laughlin City. About stowing away under his bike tarp, getting found, and seeing him start to drive off before he changed his mind and let her into the front cab.
“And you just decided to ride in a strange man's truck?”
Rogue turned a pair too old eyes on him that looked out of place on her round baby-fat face and declared with a secret smile, “It was that or freeze, or go hungry in a mutant hating bar, or both. Besides, I picked you up on the side of the road not so long ago. Or did you forget that too?” she teased.
“No,” he said, a smirk easing the stony feeling in his face. “But that's different.”
“Why? Because you planned on paying more than I did? Least I wasn't offering blow-jobs,” she snapped with a significant look at his mouth and crotch. It should have seemed saucy, but instead was like he was seeing himself in the mirror. “I was going to ask,” she started and then paused.
“Well, go on,” he waved. “No point in being shy now little Badger.”
“Badger?” she asked, wrinkling her face and fingering the white streak in her hair.
“Bothersome things, badgers. Always putting their long noses where they got no business being.” He said, thinking it suited her, a shy but perversely stubborn creature intent on having its own way. “Although,” he added thoughtfully, “if you treat them well they tend to repay in kind.”
“I like that,” she said, with a brighter smile that seemed more natural. “Well, I was just wondering... is that really something you'd do?”
“Pay for things, like that,” She gestured at him vaguely, self assurance fading into red cheeks.
“I have,” he admitted softly. “Pefer other work, or fighting’ if I can get it.”
She chewed her lip. “I never thought of you like that. Doing that. I mean it didn't seem like something you'd ever...”
She shrugged. “Let happen.”
He sighed. “Everyone falls on hard-times Badger, and it ain’t bad work if you're careful and pick your target. Can be nice actually. Though I'll tell you now anybody you meet on the side of the road asking you to open your pants ain't gonna be someone you want to fuck, money or not. That almost always goes bad.”
“Yeah. Does it...” she broke off again and he waited patiently, until she found her voice again. “Does it make your feel dirty, having people try to do that to you.”
James was getting the notion they were talking about different things, and answered as carefully as he could. “If it's something that’s being done to you, then yeah. But it ain't supposed to be like that, even if someone's paying you for it. You do it with someone.” He snorted. “And towns I came from, a woman of repute was the most respected lady in town. No one messed with her.”
“Mmm, hmm. If you did you'd be blackballed faster than you could shoot geese, and winter's would get mighty lonely without her fireside and friendship.”
“Do you think...” she shook her head and laughed. “God, I can't believe we're talking about this. We never talk about this.” She looked up at him fondly. It was a new look. Like she was seeing him instead of searching for someone else. “You know, I've never seen you come in here either. You always said the stables smelled like shit.”
“They do smell like shit,” James chuckled. Good old fashioned horse-shit. “Did you come by just to give me list of things I ain't done before?” He asked, leaning back into the shed, until only his legs were exposed to the outside world and it's harassment.
“No, but since we're talking about first's,” she started. “Can I ask. If you were driving that day, I mean, if I'd snuck into your truck like that, what would you have done?” she asked.
“You mean would I have left you to the snow?” he asked with tired rancor. He sighed, shoving a bag of ruined tack leather outside and turning to lean against the frame of the shed with both arms draped over a bin, giving the kid a hard look. “In my experience,” he started. “People who are running got reasons for it. If you're going hungry, eating' from dumpsters, and getting beat by someone who wants that five dollar bill in your shoe, it's because you got nowhere to go, or whatever's waiting for you at home is a hell of a lot worse.”
Blink. Flash. White rubber glove. Hum of electricity. Paddles and a small dial reading 800 milliamps.
He drove the images away with a shake of his head, and continued. “I'd have probably given you a ride to town, some cash and left the rest up to you,” he said. She was watching him. Something was on the tip of her tongue but she was holding it in, and he snapped, irritated. “What?”
“What if,” she chewed her lip as she thought. “What if I'd wanted to stay with you?” she finally asked, and when he raised a skeptical eyebrow she shrugged.
“I wouldn't have let you.”
This did not impress her and she gave him the look of disdain that every adolescent mastered. “So uncomplicate it.”
“What I said about running didn't apply to just you, Badger,” he glowered, spelling it out.
“So what were you running from?” She asked.
“I don't know. Bad things.” He cleared his throat, making an effort to sound less like an ill dog and more like a human being and rolled his shoulders, to shake off the prickly feeling the conversation was giving him. “What about your friend? Do you miss him? The guy who knows you?”
“Not really,” she twirled the white ends of her hair, with a slight woebegone air. “But Logan's not really gone for me. I never lose him and you don't seem that different anyway.”
“Sure. You say things he doesn't and do things he doesn't, and it's weird, but you’re still country as a bowl of grits far as I can see. You just seem more...” she struggled for the words, her tongue poking her cheek.
She shrugged. “I don't know. Just more.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Well, I've got Logan in my head. It's... part what I do.” She tugged self consciously at her gloves, which James eyed with new interest. The same way he'd eye the bulge in a jacket that suggested a gun.
“Like your professor?”
“No. It's like an impression, or a foot-print that gets left behind.” She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering in the warm sunlight as if she'd caught a chill. “I don't know what you're thinking now, but I always know what Logan would do or say if he was me. Sometimes it stills feels like he is me. Or I'm him.”
“So, you know everything he knows?”
She shrugged, and looked oddly guilty. “It's not much. I know how to fix a car now, and I know which cigars taste cheap, and that boxers are always better.”
“Huh,” James considered. “So what would he say, if he was sitting here right now?”
“What's your deal, bub?” she grumbled out of the blue in a much deeper voice, and then smacked a hand over her mouth, eyes going wide as dinner plates. James laughed.
“Yeah, that sounds like something I'd say.”
“Nobody knows I still do that,” she squeaked.
“Not even the other guy?”
“No, I haven't told Logan he'd... Well, the professor would find out if he knew.”
“He’d blab on yeh?” James raised his brows. It was unsettling, but good to be warned his lesser half was a shoddy secret keeper. Rogue was shaking her head adamantly though.
“No, no. It's not his fault. The professor listens to his mind all the time. I think it's because he worries more about Logan then he'll say, but then whatever Logan knows, the professor does to, and I'm just not ready to explain it all. Logan told me not to tell him things, if I didn't want to talk about them.” She fidgeted and after a moment whispered in confession “It's been kinda nice, actually, having him in my head and I want to keep it to myself for a bit, I guess. The professor would probably say I'm hiding behind him, and it's not healthy.
“Yeah, he seems big on that.”
“Please don't tell anyone. It's only Logan who still comes out, I swear.”
“Don't worry kid, I got plenty of experience keeping secrets.” James snorted. “And I don't feel much like talking to Xavier either.”
He shrugged. “Well, the last time a man gave me choice between him and prison, things didn't end so well.”
“Did the professor say that?”
“Not in so many words, but that's the general up-shot, and I'd like to figure out what's going on in my own head, before I gotta listen' to other people telling me about it.” He shrugged, his shoulders feeling heavy, and leaned into the soft breeze coming through the barn door. “Who knows how long that will take.”
“So, you’re just going to avoid him forever?” she asked, sounding skeptical and wearing the same look he used to give Victor when his brother was talking crazy.
“Hope to god not. Forever’s a long time to be stuck under one man’s roof.” He grumbled, and then changed the subject by waving at the limp pack at her feet. “What's all that?”
“Oh, uh, history.” She pulled open the bag and held up a textbook by one cover so it hung open sideways, and James cocked his head, leaning over to read it. He had a strange moment of dislocation when he saw the sideways date, and the chapter heading. Nineteen seventy five, Nixon, Watergate and The Church Commision.
“Since when do they teach this shit in history?” he asked and she shrugged, looking down at her own book with the blank face of youth.
“I don’t know. Since it happened I guess.”
He grunted flipping through the book, unable to quite grasp that a news scandal from ten years ago, that had Stryker shipping him and Victor and three other black teams overseas in a bureaucratic panic, was now gracing children’s history books. It wasn’t some passing sex scandal they were talking about either. This had been heavy, highly sensitive shit. People were still going crazy about when he…
But no. It hadn’t been ten years had it? He was in the future now. He was in two thousand fourteen. "Mutant" had become common vernacular and kids had “smart-phones”, light up shoes and glow in the dark body paint.
“Logan? Are you okay?” Rogue asked, just shy of touching his elbow with a gloved hand.
“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head.
“It’s pretty scary isn’t it.” Rogue mumbled looking over his arm at her book. “The government doing all those awful things, and nobody even knew.”
“That's what intelligent groups do, Badger. Keeping secrets is the whole point. If everybody knows what you're doing you’ll be shot before its done, and then your intelligence work wouldn't be very intelligent.”
“Sides,” he grunted, looking at photo of Nixon’s sour faced jowels. “Domestic operations on dissidents is pretty common.”
“What kind of dissidents,” she asked cautiously.
“Anyone they don't they like. That's what always happens.”
“I mean, it hits pretty close to home,” she said, looking at her hands, but James eye's were fixed on the page, a weight sinking in his belly. On the bottom a chunky, impersonal footnote read, 'further reports were released after three decades, on the heinous experiments of MKUltra and other illegal government projects.'
“Yeah,” James rasped, blinking at the school-book which had started blurring, the words running together like the wallpaper in the awful apartment in San Francisco.
It was nineteen sixty five. He and Victor had been released from their dirt walled cell in Nam and shipped across the Pacific like so much cargo to spend a couple of weeks roaring through the City by the Bay. All while the Colonel and his Sergeant Major sorted out the paperwork to change them from condemned criminals into special operatives for the US Army.
They were rolling through Haight-Ashbury on a Hog they got dirt cheap from a kid in beatle boots who didn't know a carburetor from a camshaft. It ran like a dying dog, but got them around. Order's to report to Fort Baker under the project heading MKUltra sat in their back pockets, while they tore across the city, joining the Love Generation's frenzy and collecting their weight in Acid, Ether, Booze, Pills, and Hash, just to see what it would do to them.
Neither of them had ever found a drink or herb that could put them under. Trying to get high was a sad race to see how much and how quickly they could pack away before they were stone cold sober again. It was like working yourself up for a disappointing orgasm. Hardly worth the effort.
But this was a whole new age, with new ideas and new chemicals, and drug mixing had become an art form as elaborate as french cooking. They'd tasted some of it in pinches from boys in Nam who were trading heroin, and heard about the “revolution” happening state-side.
So they got a room that'd been painted top to bottom in ugly red flowers, and blew their minds for ten glorious days before it started to fade, and the whole time James was staring at that awful wallpaper. Poppies. James couldn't stop laughing, lying on the brown shag carpet and staring at the flowers half the army in Vietnam were fighting over.
“Welcome to the future Jimmy,” Victor had grinned at him from floor, and James pulled his face away from the field of poppies he was lying in to blink at his brother's twisting head.
Turned out if he breathed in a bottle of ether, drank gin and vodka, chased it with mephaphatimes, then snorted coke and chewed some LCD for dessert, even he could start seeing stars. Stars like bleeding poppies. Like lopped off heads on stalks, and a long line of viet-cong dead. He was following them around the room while Victor chuckled and swiped at his feet when he passed.
“Hey Jimmy. Jimmy, Jimmy,”
“Shut-up. I gotta stop these fucking seeds, you seeing this shit. They don't end Vic, they just keep on coming.” He threw a sloppy fist at the wall where a cat skull had grown out of the poppies and was bleeding all over the carpet. “You gotta pick up your shit,” he snarled at Victor, who laughed.
“You are my shit,” Victor purred. “My little shit. Hey little shit, you like this? We could be getting paid for this soon.”
“What're you talking about?” James gave up making the cat-skull submit because it was smarmy bastard, and rolled his heavy head toward Vic.
“Just a rumor I heard,” Victor said, tugging at James’s shirt until he collapsed next to his brother on the floor.
“Why they gonna pay us to chase this. Ain’t gonna last, and you ain't Aquarius. You can't even stand.”
“Don't need to stand Jimmy, they're not hugging, crystal do-gooding, do-gooder goodies. They just want to kill us. For the good of the nation.
“I ain't.” James protested dizzily.
“That's right,” Victor purred. “We kill them instead.”
“Kill ‘em all.”
They started laughing. Then they couldn't stop. They couldn't even breath they were bellowing so hard, because every laugh made the walls ripple and that was fucking hilarious. Victor’s smell was taking up the whole room and James was melting in the summer heat. The radio was blaring Mr. Tambourine man, and they were a day away from the rest of their lives, which just like the fucking poppies wouldn't stay in the goddamn ground.
Days later, after working to maintain a haze that faded quicker every hour, with every drink and pill their bodies devoured, a pair of shiny black oxfords entered his vision.
“An inspiring sight colonel,” a snide voice, far above the shoes declared. “You're special recruits are already living down to our expectations.”
James rolled his head just enough to look up the pressed khaki service paints and medals to William Stryker's face and another man with General’s star’s. Both of them were sneering under uniform cap’s, and one of the shoes nudged at his face. James snapped at it like a dog.
“Get them up,” Stryker ordered someone. “And clean up this shit.”
A pair of bulging hands descended from on high, hauling James away from the stability of the floor and everything he'd known down there. The arms were attached to a rounded helmet with MP stamped on the side.
There were bad vibrations, and as he was dragged forward James soaring mind had a premonition that he was about to fly far beyond the natural world into something that shouldn't be, and god did he hate flying.
“Logan?” Someone called. “Logan are you okay?”
The voice was too young and sweet to be William Stryker. It didn't belong in nineteen sixty five at all, and he blinked away the memory to find he was sitting in the dirt outside the shed, back on Xavier’s grounds. The air smelled like horse and alfalfa instead of the musty tang of ether. Rogue was standing very close, almost touching but not quite, as if she was afraid to lay hands on him.
He took a shaky breath, and stood.
“You should get back to class,” he said roughly. “You have classes don’t you?”
“Yeah, sure,” she said backing off with sad look. He wondered if that was for her or for him, and didn’t like that fact it might be toss-up.
“Well, go on. Git,” he said, jerking his chin up at the mansion.
She picked up her bag and books, and left. Just as she was turning the corner of the stable, she looked back and said in an authoritative voice that had more gravel in it than he’d expected, “I’ll come see you later.”
“Uh huh,” he grunted back, matching her gravel for gravel until she left. Then he pulled a scrap of paper and a pen from his back pocket and, using the shed wall as a prop, wrote “wrist-watch” and “history: 1960 - 2014” on the small list.
The list was something he’d started that afternoon by the washer’s, while Piotr waited to see if he would start foaming at the mouth.
His own mind might be out of reach, for now, but history was not. So, when he’d finally steeled himself against the cheerful cacophony of the school, he went in search of records that could fill some of this missing time and explain what the hell “Forget PS4, Xbox streams Netflix now,” meant. That didn't even sound like a sentence.
Having an objective in mind, even one as mundane was making himself read a newspaper for the first time since waking up naked, made him feel a little less like an inmate in an ad-hoc asylum. Unfortunately, like most important missions, it was stymied by the mundane and absurd. Like the fact he could not find a newspaper or a history textbook anywhere.
He was in a school for god's sake. How hard could it be to find a history textbook in a school? He spent hours searching through dozens of converted parlors and breakfast rooms and the gilded titles that were shelved in no sensible order were all blurring together. He felt like a looter trying to find that one genuine curio in a clutter of deceptively expensive but unsellable trash.
Somewhere on the third floor he came across a cabinet with an old Lee-Enfield rifle inside and nostalgically traced the lines of the gun. It was polished to a shine and dented from old use. The butt of the rifle had a faded copper plate with the name Xavier engraved on it, and an officer's cap lay next to it with an ivory elephant, and a stone scarab.
Someone in Xavier's family had been an adventurer, he thought with a private smile. He wondered if they ever met.
Some student had left a notebook covered in dog stickers nearby, with a partially legible essay and James, curious, flipped through the abandoned book. It was full of nonsense about Bayonets in the first world war.
“The hell is this crap?” he muttered, crossing out a particularly stupid line with a stolen pen and writing “Bayonets were too long for trench use,” in the margins. He skimmed the rest of the notes and began filling the borders with “wrong,” “Hell no” “bull-shit” and “Are you writing about the Great War or a Rodeo act.”
He was so distracted that he didn't hear company coming, and only snapped out of it when the distinctive waft of chemicals stung his nose. He shut the notebook, and was on his feet when the door creaked open.
“Hello, James” Dr. Grey said, looking poised in suede shoes and pencil skirt. He sniffed, wary and circling away from the cabinet as she came closer. “Are you looking for something?” she asked.
Caught out, James glanced at the shelves behind him, reluctant to say he'd been searching for a school book.
“The Magic Mountain,” he blurted, throwing out the first thing that came to mind, and then leaning back in the face of Red's quirking lips. She came right up to him, almost chest to chest and pulled Thomas Mann's novel from the shelf right behind his back.
Up close the smell of disinfectant and plastic and perfume made his head feel rubbery. Her smile, which had been fond and teasing suddenly dropped away and she went very still, like a rabbit in the bush. James realized he was growling, and his lip was curling up in half a snarl. He made an effort to quiet the aggressive noise crawling out of his chest, and she handed him the book slowly before backing up to the couch by the fireplace, on the far side of the room.
“Don't you have it in german?” he rumbled when she was far enough away, trying to salvage his bluff.
“You read german?” she asked.
James shrugged turning the books over. “Not too well, but if I'm gonna be here for awhile, might as well work on my schooling.”
“Not doing’ it to be admired,” he snapped unaccountably irritated, with his hackles still at full attention. “I just need something to keep me awake at night.”
“You've never struck me as a student of language,” she replied carefully.
“Yeah, I seem to be full of surprises lately.”
It was strange. He'd been living here almost half a year, according Xavier, and yet for all the protests that they knew him so well, Cherry and the others seemed continually startled by him. He wasn't sure what that said about him, or them.
It did make him wonder what he did around here. He didn't imagine Xavier had much use for bruiser. He was starting to think he didn't work at all. Maybe Xavier's staff didn't let him, whether he was in his right mind or not. Maybe they did trust this "Logan" character anymore then him.
The idea that Xavier had intentionally made his mansion half school and half institution sat ill with him, and the sudden noise from the hall outside was a welcome interruption. He turned an ear toward the door, latching onto the voices.
“I never thought I'd be grateful to have Mystique on Capitol Hill.” Cherry sounded weary under his formal starch. “I think Senator Blake is actually worse than Kelly. Did you read that bill of his?”
“It's a monstrosity,” Storm's smooth tone answered.
“Only Magneto would cause more trouble in prison than out of it,” Cherry said as the door swung open and they ambled in. Storm was balancing a plate of scones over a cup that smelled like Chai. When Summers saw James, the cherry red glasses swung between him and Dr. Grey and his face lost what little liveliness it’d had. Storm settled on the couch with barely a glance at them. More concerned with keeping her drink unspilled then commenting on the tension stiffening Cherry's spine.
“Logan,” Cherry nodded with stilted courtesy. Miss Grey gave him a meaningful look, that James guessed had something to do with forgetting his first name, which she had been very careful to use so far. He wasn't bothered. Logan was his name too after all.
“Scott,” he replied with nod, and Cherry looked mildly thrown by being addressed properly.
“What are you doing in here?” Summers finally asked coming up to Red's side and slipping a proprietary arm around her back. He might as well have hung a “keep off” sign round the woman's neck for all the ambivalence in that gesture. It was very old fashioned. Even James knew that, and he raised an inquiring eyebrow at Dr. Grey, surprised a woman like her put up with it, but she seemed perfectly content.
“Why? Rough trade not welcome on your side of the tracks?” James goaded Cherry.
“That's not what I meant,” the boy said with a frown.
“Don't worry, I'm not looking for trouble, just something to pass the time.” He waved Thomas Mann's book and smirked when Cherry's face got even more pinched as if the idea of James and books together really did leave a bad smell. Or he was trying to figure out if James was lying. “How's your nose?” he asked, just to be pesky.
“There some kind of assembly happening?”
“Staff meeting, actually. Some of us actually have work to do,” was Cherry's cold answer.
James growled, because it weren't his idea to be the charity head-case they didn’t trust to wash himself indoors without a chaperone.
“Guess you should get to it then.” He turned away.
“Why don't you stay?” Storm offered and James looked back, suspicious and checking all their faces. Cherry was unhappy, Storm was serene and Dr. Grey still looked like she wanted to study him up close, but didn't voice an opinion. She just poured herself a cup of tea as if things would resolve nicely without her. He didn't know what to make of such passivity.
“Don't want to be bother." He prowled a little closer to the door.
“It's no bother,” Storm replied and then gave Cherry a significant look. The other man nodded stiffly.
“So, what is this about Magneto?” Miss Grey asked Summers, smoothly drawing attention away from James who was lingering by the door, interested in spite of the company. This was why he'd ventured upstairs in the first place after all, looking for something to tell him about current affairs.
“Scott thinks Magneto's caused more trouble in the last five months than he did when he was free,” Storm replied from the couch, blowing on her tea.
“I'm not saying the man's sending secret letters from prison,” Cherry scoffed with a shake of his head. “In fact if Magneto was behind this, we'd have a whole different problem on our hands, but since his arrest Capitol hill has focused a lot more on militant groups, and they've had a lot better luck pushing registration through the senate because of that.”
“Which is just as much our fault as his.”
“Oh come on, Orroro,” Scott argued.
“We left him at the scene Scott,” Storm pressed, and James crept closer, edging around to sit on a chair at the periphery of the company and follow the talk. “We called the right people to keep him in cement and plastic,” Storm continued. “And we made sure he was tried in court.”
“So what are you saying, that we should have dealt with it ourselves?” Scott protested, casting a significant look at James. “We've always said no mutant is above the law.”
“Of course not," Storm agreed. "But the first public mutant trial? For acts of terror? You can't tell me you're surprised that Blake and the others in that 'Humanity' party are using this to further their own careers.”
“By trading on the public paranoia they created,” Scott sneered, looking pained. “And they call us monsters.”
“Well they had plenty of fear to work with already,” Dr. Grey sighed from her place on the couch. Scott turned to her, rubbing one hand gently on her shoulder. “The conference in Philadelphia is going to be a nightmare this year.”
“You're not still going are you?” Scott asked, surprised.
“Of course I am,”
“But everything that's going on--” he started to protest.
“Makes it more important now than ever,” she finished for him.
“She's right. Teaching the public will do more for our rights than Magneto ever would have.” Orroro agreed. “The more they understand us, the less fear Senators like Blake will have to prey on.”
“It's ridiculous how uneducated people are,” Jean waved, her passivity beginning to melt as she warmed to her topic. “You know I still have Doctors in Berkeley claiming that since mutation is triggered under trauma, children must manifest under abuse. It's a blatant misrepresentation, and these are supposed to be the experts! They might as well stand on a podium tell parents they've turned their child gay.”
“Well at least they got a reason to keep their hands to themselves,” James spoke for the first time.
Cherry frowned at him. “Because the only reason to not beat a child is to keep them from becoming a mutant?” he challenged, reeking of bitterness and disgust.
“Didn't say that,” he argued softly, not sure how he'd ratcheted Cherry up from a general dislike to real anger. “But it's better than someone trying beat the devil out of 'em, isn't it? Take what you can get, when you can get it.”
“No, James,” Dr. Grey said very slowly, like he was stupid and he bristled at the tone. “It's still a misrepresentation. Mutation isn't something we choose, it's not a disease, or an effect of abuse. Letting people think it is will only make things worse for us all in the long run.”
James considered that.
For most of his life he’d simply accepted that he and Victor were one of a kind. They were what they were. That was all there was too it. And though once in a great while they came across a circus attraction, gambler or drifter who had too many eyes, or did magic tricks there had never been anyone truly like them. Sometime after the Berlin wall went up James started seeing a lot more strange folk, but he and Victor had never come to an agreement on what they were.
“What do you think?” he'd once asked when they were sitting in a pub in Saigon.
Across the street was a barrack where a man with black porcupine quills instead of hair stood next to a blond who'd been picked up by MP's for scorching a village to the ground. Rumor had it he'd been throwing some kind of electric boomerang round the camp. He would have been stockaded, but command had started collecting unusual soldiers like that. It gave James an uneasy feeling.
“Well, they ain't like us, that's sure,” Victor rumbled, scratching at the hair on his chin.
“Mmm” James acknowledge with grunt. “But you think they're all different or all the same? I mean, how’s a woman with beetle wings any stranger than a two headed twin? You put a bunch of dog's together in a ring and it don't matter if half are flat faced or long nosed. They're all still dogs.”
“It ain't like that.”
“Course not. Use your nose, brother. That place smells like a menagerie. I bet you twenty dollars that every one of these new kooks are as different as pigs and monkeys.”
“You haven't got twenty dollars,” James said, throwing back his drink.
“Neither have you,” Victor replied with a fanged grin.
“I guess we'll have to wait and see who's right then.”
“Guess so,” Victor agreed, taking up his AK-47 and their packs and stepping back into the street with sweat staining the back of his beater. James picked up the machete's, and hauled their M2 Browning over his shoulder, carrying it like a lanyard.
“O'course,” James added as they walked past the barbed wire fence and bamboo railings of the compound. “I don't think you can properly call a pig a pig, or monkeys monkeys if they're one of a kind. There's got to be enough of 'em to have sex and make little baby pigs and monkeys.”
“You and your god-damn reading,” Victor chuckled. “You want to find out if there's enough spike heads to be their own species, be my guest. Waste of a good time though.”
“We got more time than we're ever gonna fill,” James replied with a shake of his head, the world in front him blurring with sun, colored smoke and rice.
“James?” someone asked, pulling him away from the memory and refocusing his mind on the present.
He blinked at the watchful faces of Xavier’s staff.
“So how do you think it works?” he asked. “This mutation stuff.”
Dr. Grey looked surprised but was genuinely happy to educate him on the nuances of mutation and no-one seemed too concerned about his brief slip. She talked about all the new things science had discovered about them. Or rather, what she, Xavier and few select scientists had discovered and the rest of academia insisted misunderstanding.
“And once the gene has matured any biological stress or adrenaline surge will trigger mutation,” she explained. “Even something as mundane as a first kiss or falling off your bike. The natural age ranges from thirteen to twenty, but severe stress, like violence or emotional trauma may trigger it early.”
“Which is where they get this rubbish about mutants coming from bad families. It's a short step from 'mistreatment' to 'corrupting influences' and then a 'lack of traditional moral values,” Storm snorted.
Jean nodded at her. “Even well read people get caught in the rhetoric. My father was professor of social studies but until I turned fourteen mutation was something that happened to ‘other people,’” she admitted with a deprecating smile. She talked about growing up in a family of academics, on the Upper West Side with pleated skirts and piano lessons, until the day her childhood friend was hit by a car. She stumbled over describing that incident and how she’d first discovered her own power.
'Manifesting' was the term she used. It was pedantic, and she kept reaching for three and four syllable words like they could distance her from the reality of seeing her friend dead on the sidewalk.
James, because old habits died hard, if at all, silently noted this was a pressure point if he ever needed one. It seemed to be the only dark spot in her otherwise beige childhood.
“You still talk with your parents?” James asked, eventually, idly balancing Thomas Man’s tome on the arm of his chair.
“Of course,” she said, as if she couldn't imagine it being any other way. “Dinner's are still awkward. Having a daughter whose hair starts floating when she’s arguing politics is a little beyond them, but it’s much better now.”
“Better then what?”
She smiled a little stiffly and took a sip of Storm’s chai when the woman held it out to her. “Just… better.”
“Well ain’t we a nice bunch of well adjusted folk,” James cracked, heavy on the sarcasm, and giving her a look that said he smelled bullshit. Dr. Grey grew more tense the longer he stared at her.
He had enough withered decorum to regret what he was doing, just a little, and the presence of mind to know that it wasn’t going to earn him favor, but both were far outweighed by the vicious satisfaction of seeing a White-Coat squirming. Dr. Grey had yet to do the chair wriggle Captain Morris used to, or start checking her watch like Major Foyle, who’d always had one eye for insubordinate behavior and one eye for puns, but it was only a matter of time before she developed some tell or twitch.
Cherry broke their staring match by sliding an arm around Dr. Grey’s shoulder, distracting her, and speaking up in a mocking tone that drew James’s attention. “So, what about you Logan? How did you manifest?”
“Scott” Storm admonished sharply, then turned and said to James, “you don’t have to answer that.”
“It's fine,” James replied with a shrug, not minding at all. “I was eight.”
Dead silence filled the room and James rubbed at his knuckles, considering what to tell a generation that had never killed their supper much less another human being. He didn't think they'd understand what happened. Their small, comfortable world didn't have a place children who committed murder. So he gave them the barest facts and said nothing about stabbing old Tom Logan in his black heart.
“A man came up to the house, and shot my pa. Shot my pa in front of us. Men were banging on the doors, and my Ma was screaming. She said we were the devil's get. So we ran and never looked back. Simple as that.”
Cherry, Grey, and Storm were all looking at him with gobsmacked faces and he didn’t understand why. He’d skipped the bloody part, and it was a common enough story, even these days.
“You remember being eight?” Dr. Grey’s whisper broke the calm.
“Don’t you,” he taunted, not seeing why this was such a shock.
“Well, yes of course but… you don’t.”
“I don’t...Oh. Right. That.” He rubbed at his eyes, suddenly very tired. “I forgot,” he said and then chuckled at the irony.
“You forgot that you forgot?”
“Yup.” James nodded. Was it sad that he’d actually forgotten he, or rather Logan, didn’t know what he knew? Christ this was confusing.
“And now you remember?” Cherry asked, his face doubtful as if he wanted to accuse James of messing around, but couldn’t bring himself to.
“So, what happened after you left home?” Storm asked, still as calm as when she came in.
He shrugged. “Lived, worked, grew up. Same as any.”
“You said 'we ran,'” Storm clarified. “Who did you run with?”
Scott choked. “You have a brother?”
“Everybody's got family somewhere, Cherry. I didn’t pop full grown out of a mountainside.”
“Well, where is he now?”
“Hell if I know.” James looked away, drumming on his knee, uncomfortable and thinking about that rash phone call he’d made in New York. “Probably overseas somewhere getting shot at and making trouble. It's what he does best.”
“God help us, there's two of them,” Cherry muttered under his breath, low enough that only James’s sharp hearing picked it up.
“What else do you remember?” Jean asked over Cherry’s mumbling, leaning forward with keen interest.
James shifted, and his heel started bouncing against the floor in a laconic rhythm when he said “It doesn't matter.”
“Doesn't matter?” Dr. Grey shook her head. “Logan... James, I mean...”
“What?” he interrupted. “I'm crazy so it's all suspect, isn’t it? And even if it weren't, it wouldn’t do your boy any good.”
“None of it will mean a damn thing to him.”
“Of course it means something,” Dr. Grey argued, eyes narrowed at the lazy thud of his boot on their fine floors. “You came here with nothing, no history, no memory, Logan didn't even know if that was his real name. You’ve had to fight for every scrap of identity you have.”
“Exactly. It's not his life.” James replied standing up. “It's mine. What’s he gonna do with my memories? For that matter what do you think you’re gonna do? Add two cups of war, a tablespoon of childhood and cook for an hour, before making complete man?”
“Hold on, let me get this straight,” Cherry interrupted, turning those hawkish red lenses on James. “You’re claiming that you remember things Logan doesn’t, but you're just not going to tell us what they are?”
“No.” James grunted, a whole myriad of denials wrapped up in one syllable. Everything from ‘no I don’t remember everything you tin-head,’ to ‘hell no I ain’t gonna relive my nightmares for your curiosity.’
“Wow,” Cherry made a face. “I didn't think you could be more of ass, and you just proved me wrong.”
“Nothing I remember will make things better,” he insisted, feeling like he was repeating himself, and starting to get angry.
“Don't you think Logan deserves the chance to decide that for himself?” Jean suggested.
“No,” James snarled. “He can make his own damn memories.”
“That is selfish bull,” Cherry declared. “You’re not the only person who has to deal with… this” he waved at James.
“Call it what you like, Cherry-pop” James growled turning on his heel and making for the door.
“Hey, we’re not done here,” Cherry, got up and yanked him back around. James restrained himself from giving Summers another broken nose to heal. “Logan--”
“God, why can’t you talk like a human being for once.”
“Because it wasn’t an accident!” he yelled, temper surging and breath coming out hot and heavy through his nose. “You’re not stupid. You’ve seen the leftovers. Whatever cut me up weren’t no rail-bed washout.”
“That’s exactly why we need to know what happened.” Summers shouted back, looking a little lost behind his glasses.
“I don’t know what happened! I don’t have your precious answers, but I do know if you go looking into old business it’s gonna stir up shit. That shit is coming knocking on your door. It’s gonna come after your kids and tell them to serve their country. You were the one worried about having me around here, so don’t lose what sense you got in that prep-school head now that I’m actually stuck here, for god knows how long.”
“You got no idea what you’re dealing with kid. Be smart, and leave it alone,” he snarled and shoved his way past Summers, slamming the door behind him.
He kept going until he’d lost himself in the front hall, and couldn’t hear the indistinct murmur of their voices anymore. He propped both hands on a wall and hung his head between his arms, knowing it wouldn’t be long before someone came along to shadow him again. Probably that chump, Piotr.
A grandfather clock chimed nearby. His head was ringing with the drumming tune of Paint it Black and somewhere a man was barking “maintain soldier!” His mouth tasted like rubber, as if someone had stuck a bite guard between his teeth. Coming inside was a mistake. He should have left well alone.
There was a table below him, with mail slots, schools fliers and happy yellow and blue paper notes. A small postcard looked up at him, distracting him from the noise in his head and giving him something to focus on while he stood there, breathing like an idiot.
It was a tacky fifty cent piece designed to trap the virgin tourist with must see attractions and iconic skylines. This one showed the Pont Alexandre bridge in Paris, and James sighed, remembering nights when he and Victor would lean against the stone, smoking and watching the lights burn over the Seine.
Then he noticed a mark on the card. It was propped against a forgotten soda bottle and he could see the back of it reflected in the glass, where a smiley face had been drawn in simple black ink. James felt his heart stop, briefly, before it picked up again double time and he reached out with shaky fingers for the card.
The stamp was dated from March, and the card addressed to Xavier's school for Gifted Youngsters, with no name, no return address, and no message. Just two dots and the curved line of a poorly drawn smile, mocking him from afar. That same, horrible, familiar smile that he'd seen scratched into walls and table tops and gun grips. If the writing hadn’t been enough the lazy left slant and crooked end of the eyes was a dead give away. He’d know Victor’s hand anywhere. Knew it better than his own.
Victor had sent this.
Victor knew where he was.
James heart was suddenly skipping, unsure whether to leap up or sink into his boots, and he half expected a black coat to sweep in from the corner of his eye, along with the stench of old blood. But the card had been left too long ago and he didn't have a hope of catching that particular dangerous smell, even when he held it to his nose and inhaled deeply.
The paper crumpled, held too tightly in his fist, and the sound railroads, drums, the jingling of bit and bridle crowded his mushy head, overwhelming the strange flashes of rubber and metal by sheer force and number. Like a clash of regiments.
Victor knew where James was... and he wasn’t here.
The school was still standing, and James was still alone. Just like he’d wanted.
He slid down the wall, knees and head too weak to stay upright, suddenly hating Victor and his twisted sense of humor more fiercely than he had in years.
Sometime after a distant clock struck the hour James picked himself up off the floor and retreated back to the stables.
Storm had come out of the staff room once or twice to check for a pulse, metaphorically speaking, but never said anything. To James, who was suffering from a blurry present that kept getting mixed up in distorted flickers of men with guns, and grins and bandoliers of bullets she merely seemed to appear and disappear. She would crouch in front of him with her shock of white hair and warm lamp-lit eyes, before being swept away in memories of sand, and shell casings, or the oppressive heat of that jungle near Lagos.
After he pulled himself together he spent all night in the stables, working off his ire, and fingering that stupid postcard until it was creased and worn. He fed and watered the horses, cleaned buckets, swept stalls, oiled saddles, turned hay, and even scrubbed out the troughs. It kept him busy, and busy kept him from getting too lost in why’s and hows and what ifs.
Unfortunately it didn’t keep his mind off Victor, that piece of crow bait.
When dawn came creeping over the horizon and there was no more work to be done, James eyes were burning with a peevish demand for sleep that he had no intention of satisfying, and thoughts of his brother were still pricking at him. He ended up sitting in the old tack room at the back of the stables, staring at a hole in the northwest corner of the ceiling, and cutting himself.
The tips of his claws sawed back and forth through the delicate skin between his knuckles, while a radio he’d found tossed aside poured out modern music like it had only seconds to live. The rapper declared they were “putting their hands up”, and beads of blood trickled down his palms in a messy rhythm, staining Victor’s postcard which was folded in his left hand.
It was almost like masturbating. The pain old and delicious in its familiarity. He used to do this during the wars late at night. The jagged edge of his bones, the drone of flies, and Victor’s snores would all slow his heart. So long as he didn’t look at his claws now, he could ride the pain and ignore the sick sensation the metal gave him.
Though, truth be told, there was something masochistically satisfying about that as well.
He just couldn’t figure out what the hell Victor thought he was doing. He’d been so sure that if the old cat knew where he was Victor would show up in fury. Instead Victor was sending him god damn cards, like they were just overseas pals writing to each other for lack of a girl or boy to give them more lascivious attention.
The idea that Victor was trying to snub him, or simply didn’t care, was so ridiculous James discarded it with a laugh. Victor's passions ran long and deep. His brother didn’t turn cold when he was mad, and he wasn’t the type to go quiet either. Neither of them were talkative men, sure, but they weren’t sitting outside a mud hut enjoying a pipe of tobacco now.
Besides, refusing to speak when he was pissed had always been more of James’s thing.
Victor, he was different. He’d throw down with James, or if he was more wounded than fighting could express, he’d get truly inventive in his revenge. James fingered the rough edge of the parisian card, wondering if that’s what this was. A prelude to some nastier game Victor had stuffed up his hairy sleeve to draw out the pain.
The question was, why?
Lagos had been shit-pile, sure, but they’d fought before. Glorious rampaging fights that leveled rickshaw towns and saloons. It wasn’t the first time they’d left each other either.
They had a huge row near the end of the First World War. James didn’t even remember what it was about now, though he thought their fathers and mothers must have come up. In the wake of that, pissed as hell, feeling like his guts had been ripped out in a few short words, and caught in the general confusion that international military “cooperation” always bread, James ended up traveling south with the repatriated Chinese.
When Victor caught up with him in Australia some odd eighteen years later, there’d been hell to pay. He still dreamed about the blood mixing with the beer of those bootleggers, and the torn up legs of dock workers who had the misfortune to be in Victor’s way. The ensuing fight set off a fire that engulfed a whole city block. Though, in all fairness, it wasn’t all about them. James had been a mess after Itsu. He was itching for a war and it wasn’t long before he had one.
Maybe he was reading too much into this, he thought. Victor always told him he got trapped in his head too easily. Perhaps all Victor could do was send a card. Maybe he was in tight spot.
Maybe he was being watched.
It occurred to James that he’d never wondered if Victor was part why Stryker found him in Canada, and maybe he should have.
The murkier their black assignments got the more he’d longed for the old ranges, and in his taciturn way, he’d been talking about home on and off for months before Lagos.
“Stop acting like being poor is some damn moral high ground,” Victor had hissed in dark, while their transistor radio burped out Aerosmith and covered their talk from the listening bugs in their packs and boots. “It ain’t no crime to have a good paycheck for once, Jimmy.”
James, well versed in the quagmire of his brother’s head didn’t take the verbal bait. It wasn’t about the money. Never was, and they both knew that. James didn’t have to talk to make his feelings known either, and his silence got colder every night. Victor ripped him up when James gave him that look one too many times. The one that told Victor he wasn’t happy with the state of things.
The rest of the team, and the C.O’s all knew something was up, but Victor had been angling for promotion and wouldn’t say what anymore then James would. Just that it was family business, and he'd take care of it. There was talk of sending the two of them back to the states for re-training. Except nobody knew where to stash them with Church’s commission sniffing around their ops, and who was in command had became a constant guessing game anyway.
The others didn’t know he and Victor were Canadian. Their piecemeal records had been American. Because the little man who taxied them from Laos to Vietnam called them American, and at the time they figured they might as well be.
James never told Stryker otherwise. Neither did Victor. James was sure of that. Even though there were gaps. Blank spots between missions interspersed with flashes of plastic wristbands, and strange men saying “what's the use of a man who can’t keep secrets?” But he was sure he never told them he was Canadian. He was sure.
Would Victor have told them where to find him?
Did Victor have a choice? The horrible thought that Victor had been made a victim of the same sort of mission that left James such a wreck ruined what little calm he’d scraped together. It was almost impossible to imagine.
Or did Stryker just get lucky? What had Victor been doing while James was settling in the old Waputik Mountains? He’d thought at the time Victor would simply carry on doing what they’d done before, with that same indolent, I’ve eaten too much smile. If they could stay drunk James would have said Victor was higher the Kurt Cobain on killing by the time he left.
But who was to say if Victor stayed on, if he’d been transferred to some other outfit, if he was still doing wet-work at all after all these years... or for whom. A lot of time passed after all. It was hard reminding himself every moment that it hadn't been five or six years, but nearly thirty. A lot could change in thirty years.
The fact he was getting fucking lonely out here among the mutated rich wasn’t helping.
The buzz of a soft motor and wheels trundling over wood interrupted James’s thoughts, and the sudden scent of a Dior suit heralded Xavier's arrival. The man was like a bad penny. James sighed and pulled his claws back in, wiping the blood off on the hem of his shirt, before tucking Victor’s card into his waistband.
“Hello James,” Xavier said with a soft voice as his chair rolled to stop at the threshold of the tack room. His hands were folded over a large blue bundle in his lap that smelled like cotton and fresh soap. The good kind, that was more like cedarwood then bleach or sodium.
James sniffed and said nothing. Xavier’s gaze was drawn to his hands, and the spots of blood darkening his shirt. James looked the old man in the eye, daring him to say something, and when Xavier didn’t he pulled a hand rolled cigarette off the nearby window sill and lit up.
He’d made a pack's worth of them from a bag of hash he found in the garage and a page he ripped out of a phone book in the kitchen. It tasted awful, but he liked the momentary poisonous kick he got from the ink, before his body killed the sensation.
“May I come in?” Xavier asked.
“It’s your barn,” he replied, taking a hit off the cigarette. He was mildly impressed when Xavier didn’t flinch at the smell, which sure stank to high heaven.
“All the same,” Xavier said and remained waiting just outside the door until James rolled his eyes and waved the man inside. The mechanical wonder of a chair hummed until Xavier was sitting at kissing corners with James’s bunk.
“It’s getting quite cozy in here,” Xavier remarked, looking around. James raised an eyebrow surveying the barren space with an unapologetic ‘are ya shittin’ me’ look? He’d cleared out the tack and trash, and now it looked like the depressingly clean remains of a dead man's home, scrubbed down to the bare necessities. There was nothing that couldn’t be picked up or left behind, which was the way he liked it.
“If you say so,” he grunted. Maybe Xavier was just wishing it would get cozy in the future. That whole tie him to the earth thing.
“Well, I brought you a few things,” Xavier said, patting the bundle in his lap and placing it on the bench beside James. It turned out to be pillows and a fluffy duvet. “There’s some mattresses in the west wing that would fit this nicely.” Xavier continued while James eyed the peace offering. The fact it didn’t smell like him, and he could tell it wasn’t from That Room with all the paraphernalia of his other “self” was the only reason he didn’t drop a burning cigarette on the stuff.
Xavier seemed to be waiting for something more from him, but James kept smoking until Xavier sighed and began. “I understand from Scott that you had an interesting conversation.”
James huffed at that delicate little descriptor, and stood up, putting his back to Xavier and some space between himself and the questions.
“Then you also know I’m not the answer to your little detective game, and I’m not gonna play Madame Zita no matter how many coins you stick in my slot,” he snapped, thinking of those gilded old fortune telling machines. Then shivered at the image of himself, cut down to a plastic sized oracle trapped in a glass carnival case.
“I was made aware of that, yes.” The old man nodded carefully.
“So we got nothing more to talk about.”
“James--,” Xavier pressed.
“You want some coffee?” he asked, clearing his throat. “It’s cold. Haven’t gotten to fixing up the old stove pieces yet, but hell it’s yours” he said, pulling the large jar of steeping grounds and water off a high shelf with a tin cup. The smell was rich, but lacked that trace of ash and wood-smoke flavor from his youth.
“James,” Xavier pressed, softly. The weight of his gaze the smell of his concern pressed on James as he grabbed a spare shirt and slowly poured the brew through the makeshift cotton sieve. “You know I would like to give you all the time in world if you need it, but you’re not the only life I’ve taken responsibility for. So I have to ask… and you don’t have to speak, just nod, yes or no. Do you have even the smallest suspicion who did this to you?”
James stopped, rubbing at his knuckles and looking down at the cold coffee. He nodded slowly.
“And do you believe they’re still looking for you?”
“Yeah,” he forced out, then frowned and shook his head, wringing the coffee stained shirt out and tossing it aside. “Maybe. I don’t know. It’s been a lot longer than I thought. Maybe I got lucky and shoved into a box of unsolved cases somewhere.”
It sounded pitifully unlikely to him, but he starting to get that he didn’t know much about anything anymore. Much less what was or wasn’t classified. They were teaching kids about MKultra in school for fuck’s sake. So maybe it wasn’t such a daft hope. Maybe, in all that missing time, he really had been forgotten.
“You know, secrets,” James declared softly. “Are always more valuable than the men and women who keep them.” There was the barest crack in his voice. “If it’s a question of saving their skin, or being exposed, they’ll let you hang. Every time. It’s just how it works.”
He looked over his shoulder and found Xavier’s eyes all crinkled and sad. Like he was looking at some lame dog that got run over. James shook his head and stuck his cigarette back between his lips, glaring at the professor beyond a string of blue smoke.
How much did he dare give away? He'd already revealed a lot by accident, and who knew what else his lesser half might have blabbed, or guessed, when he wasn’t around to keep things in check. Damage control, that was best he could do now.
“Look, Xavier, the people I used to work for--”
“The government,” Xavier declared calmly, and James shrugged. ‘Government’ was a broad enough word it could describe just about anyone in that trillion dollar organization.
“They don't take kindly to hearing the word no,” James finished, handing Xavier the cup of cold coffee, “but I couldn’t do the job anymore. So I left. That’s why I’m here.”
“I deserted.” He leaned back tapping cigarette ash into an empty can.
“I see.” Xavier sounded grave, but not surprised as he took a sip from his cup, and James rubbed at the sore skin under his over-tired eyes.
“I'd been out maybe four years, and hadn’t heard a peep from them. Figured I was in the clear. Then one night I get call from my old c.o. Says he's got this new project and needed me specially.” He snorted. “I told him I was done been his special boy.”
“And he didn’t appreciate that.”
“Understatement,” James scowled. “Not that you'd know it to look at the man. Always was a creepy son of bitch. He smiled too much,” he added, looking pointedly at Xavier. Stryker used to wear this sickly paternal smile when he was proud, or about to pull up a particularly nasty job that no normal soldier could do. “Well, I can guess what happened after that.”
“But you don't know?
“No. I really don’t. I remember packing. I knew I'd have to move quick, ‘cause men don't call you for jobs like that if they’re gonna let you turn 'em down. My guess is I didn't get out fast enough, and whatever the job was, it was a lot more special than I thought. I don't remember a damn thing about it. Just coming too afterwards, and splitting before someone came looking for my fluffy ass. I don't know what happened to start all this.” He waved at his head, and then looked at his hands, conscious of the metal just under his skin. “Truth is, I don't much care. I'm not interested in answers.”
“What are you interested in?” Xavier asked, taking another sip of the cold brew.
James shrugged, casually. “Nice boots, a full belly, open horizon. A life without passengers trying to backseat drive.” He muttered the last to himself, but Xavier heard and smiled into his cup.
“Did living day to day give you that, before coming here?”
“Christ,” he swore. “We're all living day-to-day. Whether you’re making history or just taking a shit. Even when folks are running around thinking about tomorrow, they're still living today. I've never met anyone who could live in more than one time at once. So what does it matter how you spend it?” then he sighed. “Course, I never been an ambitious man, just a restless one. So what do I know.”
“Ah,” A dry chuckle rattled out of Xavier's old frame.
“What?” James barked, hackles raising.
“Oh, I'm just considering the irony. One side of you longing for a past and the other only interested in the future.” He raised his cup in a toast and James offered the old man the finger in return. It amused Xavier even more, and he said “I don't know how long you'll be with us, James, or for that matter, how long we'll have Logan for, but I do know Logan will keep looking for answers no matter where you end up going.”
“Ball and chain,” James sighed. “Be simpler to just cut him out of my head.”
Xavier’s laugh lines faded and his face turned grave. “I’m afraid it doesn't work that way.”
“Yeah, figures. Well, that's probably best all around. If you could go sniffing around in here, I think I'm the one who'd get wiped out.”
Xavier shook his head. “I would never jeopardize the trust you've placed in me by trying to 'get-rid' of any part of you.” He put aside his tea-cup and folded his hands. “Logan and I had a long discussion, which is on that tape for you, if you wish to see it, about how much time he loses.
He doesn't have a record, so we're merely guessing, but it seems likely that before you came to us there was a regular loss of time for years. It's possible the two of you used to switch quite often, and I think it's no coincidence that you didn't appear to us until now. It can take time to trust new people, and as you’ve said, I am asking for a great deal of trust. It's not something I take lightly.”
“Yeah, you spend an awful lot of breath trying mollify folk,” James sneered. “Or am I just special?” He spat the last word, and Xavier’s eyes narrowed.
“Well, when you look less likely bolt at a moment’s notice, perhaps I’ll stop trying to put you at ease.”
“Good luck with that.”
“What about your brother?”
James stiffened and stubbed out the end of his cigarette, avoiding Xavier’s eyes in an unforgivably obvious display that he never would have gotten away with when he was still working covert ops.
“What about him?” he stalled.
“You told me there was one person you trusted,” Xavier said. “Was that him?”
James made a noncommittal noise, not sure if “trust” was the right word to use for Victor right now, but that might be because he was feeling sore. Trusting Victor with the nature of what they were was one thing. Trusting him to be sensible, well that hadn’t been so likely the last few years… damn it, decades. It was decades.
“What is he like? If I may ask.” Xavier’s cultured voice prodded him.
James paused, briefly stumped on how to describe Victor. Parsing his brother up in words seemed so inadequate. They couldn’t hold the weight of him or the smell of him, or how when Victor when entered a room everything just stopped. Things fell towards Victor like he was the center of fucking gravity.
At a loss, he just began crooning a song from another lifetime. Back when they lived in dug outs and log cabins and ate honey from wild beehives.
“One wore blue and one wore grey, as they marched along the way. The fife and drum began to play, all on a beautiful mornin’. One was gentle, one was kind. One came home, one stayed behind. The cannonball don’t pay no mind, all on a beautiful mornin,” he trailed off, leaving the rest of it unsung.
“That’s lovely,” Xavier said after a time.
James shrugged and straightened from where he’d slouched against the shelving, dropping the butt of his dead cigarette into a can. “I guess.”
“It sounds quite old.”
“It’s just a mountain song,” he grunted, and moved to inspect the bedding Xavier had brought. “We were never in the war o’course.” They actually learned the ditti from a Billy Yank who came up north to their logging camp one winter, after America started stitching the Union and Confederate states back to together. “But my brother, he liked it anyhow.” James explained. “He thought it was funny, us being what we are.”
“Your brother is a mutant?” Xavier asked.
James looked back, curiosity piqued. “Well that runs in families, don’t it?”
“Often, yes, but not every child manifests. What’s his name?” Xavier inquired casually.
“You ain't gonna find him,” he said, answering Xavier’s real question and smirking when the old man leaned back and didn’t deny it. “Him and me, we don't get found unless we want to be. At least that’s how it was before,” he amended. “Anyway, he's not the type you want willing to be found.
“You sound sad.
“Were you close?”
James considered that. Were he and Victor close? He supposed from outside it would look that way. Victor was just always there, the heartbeat he knew would never fade, no matter what else changed. Even when it was on the other side of the world. Living outside time like they did, they could never really get away from each other, but did that make them close? Or just stuck together like inmates in hot-box?
“I don’t know,” he finally answered, his words drying up. The scratch of Victor’s postcard against his belly hurt like it was holding open a wound. “Your boy Scott looked like he was gonna heave at the idea of there being two of me, but I’ve always been the nice one. Or so they say.” He tried to smile, make a joke out of it, but fell short of his goal. He broke off, looking out the window and almost without meaning to added. “Truth is, I think he had so many folks telling him he was monster that he gave up on being anything else a long time ago.”
If Victor was there he’d tan Jim’s hide for saying such things, but he wasn’t here, and if the postcard riding his under his belt was any sign, he wasn’t coming either. So a little revenge was warranted. He cleared his throat and turned and crossed his arms, turning back around to face Xavier.
“So, was that all? Or did you need something else? War stories, sex stories, sperm donation? Maybe a little how to guide for your man?”
“I think Logan would adamantly say he's not anyone's man, least of all mine.” Xavier replied.
“Well, he's living on your land and eating your food and you're putting up with me because of it.”
“Well, no, you and I are just getting to know each other,” Xavier said carefully.
“And somehow I’m the one ended up doing all the talkin’,” James smirked. “Pretty one sided friendship.”
“I’m more than happy to talk, about anything you like.”
“Hmph. Well, there is something I been wondering, actually.” James scratched at his beard, and Xavier nodded, encouraging him to go on. “Why I’m here instead of somewhere else. The other me, that is. Cause if I was me, losing a burned trailer wouldn’t keep me in one spot.” He wished there was a more straightforward way to talk about himself. This whole thing was practically ready-made for some double-talking, orwellian novel.
“Logan wanted to stay,” Xavier answered simply. “He wanted more.”
James snorted, “More what? More out of life? He fell for that crap?”
Xavier gave him a long look and replied in that careful tone of his. “It’s not so unreasonable is it? After all, it seems probable he hasn’t had as much life as you.”
James frowned, considering that insight into what was, to him, a sucking black hole in his mind. Then Xavier told him all about sending out Cherry and Red and Storm after he “heard” some mutants were going to run into trouble with a radical group, and how the trio of heroes came to his rescue like a team of monkeys. They brought him and Rogue in and Xavier offered to help with his memory.
“I promised to do everything I could to help you find the identity you'd lost.” Xavier finished his tale. “We've been working on that together since, piecing together what clues we can find, and what Logan remembers.”
“So,” James hummed. “He paid for your help by staying here for a few days and in return... he was allowed stayed even longer?”
“I suppose that is one way to look at it,” Xavier rested his chin on one hand, watching James, who blew out a long slow whistle.
“That's not a bad con Xavier. Double payout with no deposit. Makes your man a bit of an idiot, but that ain't so surprising. I suppose he didn't think he had much more to lose.”
“And a lot to gain.”
“Well, to the house and it's winnings. Whyever you want ‘em, and as long as they last.” He pulled out a new cigarette and saluted Xavier with it.
“You're a singularly cynical sort of person, James,” Xavier chuckled.
“Does that make me more or less like the guy you know?” he asked, lighting up with crumpled match-book that said “Xavier’s” in gold ink.
“I'm not sure yet. I suppose it depends on where the cynicism comes from.”
“Experience mostly. Sides, you don't strike me as a man who's never met a cynic.”
“Oh no, I've known my share.”
“But you don't buy it, right? No, you wouldn't. You've got that preacher look to ya. Save the world in spite of itself thing. I bet you go round trying to evangelize people to idealism.”
“I take it you're not religious?” Xavier said, picking up his cold coffee again.
“Heathen to my bones,” he replied, cracking his knuckles. “Never really followed one thing or another.” He dropped back onto his bunk and stretched out his legs, puffing on his cigarette, “Still seems a poor reason to put your stakes in a man like me.”
“Do I really need a reason?”
James snorted. “You smell like a do-gooder, no arguing that. Maybe that’s your only reason, or maybe you’re bluffing but altruism's got its limits like everything else. It ain't something god made to separate us from beasts.” He tipped his head back and blew out a cloud of smoke which circled the ceiling. “I saw a dog throw itself in the sea once, swam out to get a pup that'd been swept out. She saved the pup, then drowned herself. It’s just instinct.”
Xavier hummed, and laced his hands over his coffee cup. “Supposing that were true, and any altruistic act is simply an extension of self preservation to the preservation of your family. Isn’t it just as likely that same instinct would extend beyond family to a village, a city, a country. Even an entire species or beyond? So, by your own logic, doesn't it make sense to do what we can to care for every living thing the same way I'd take care of myself?”
James laughed wryly. “You’re not a meat eater are you Xavier? You want to care for every living thing while knocking some cow’s head in for your supper?” He shook his head. “Sides,” he stretched. “It doesn't work. Folks can't see anything beyond their own nose, and if they do then they stop caring about what's close at hand. Hell, look at the CIA. It just becomes a fucking game.”
He peered at Xavier, supposing it didn't actually matter if the man was the genuine article, or just foolish. The motivation was the same after all. The only difference was how long his altruism would last, and when Xavier would grow fatigued with humanity the way the old spooks had.
James himself had stopped seeing anything but aesthetic differences between one cause and the next a long time ago. Just like Victor. The difference was, Victor liked making a mockery of it all, and never got tired of playing the game. James always reached a breaking point when he wanted everyone to wake up, and smell the hypocrisy.
People were assholes, that was fine, but they should have the decency and common fucking sense to admit it.
That was usually what had him dropping their radios somewhere and switching sides. Like on the ridge near Da Nang.
Their troop was shelled to death before they got half a mile up the stinking, mud-ridden ridge. James ended up with blackened fatigues, standing over the last dying man while centipedes crawled over his burnt boot. The American was rotund, and pale, and the hole in his leg looked like a well of bubbling blood. He reeked of fear and was scratching at James pants, mouthing “help me.”
James casually shook off the centipede and placed his boot on the man's chest.
“Watcha doing Jimmy?” Victor's deep, lazy voice cut through the jungle behind him. He was in a tree, picking his teeth with a splinter of bamboo.
“Thinkin’,” he said, while the American blinked up at them. His ears were probably blown out from the blast anyway. “It's twenty miles to the checkpoint. We’ll haul him there, watch him get patched up and sent home with a purple heart. Meanwhile you and I’ll be with the next batch of grunts colonel Klinker sends up this ridge. Which’ll block off the Viet Cong just long enough to get everyone dead. Then we’re hauling bodies back down again like nothing happened.” He looked up at the jungle. “For what?”
Victor dropped to the ground with heavy wumph, mud spattering up his BDU's.
“Ain't you heard the presidential speech?” his brother mocked, fangs grinning under jungle shadow like the old Cheshire. “We're fighting the communist menace.”
“Pile of American shit,” James sneered while he pressed his boot into the surviving soldier's chest, and listened to him gurgle. “All this Domino Panic. Johnson's as bad as Truman was and he's got his head so far up his own ass, I swear, he doesn't know Hanoi from Beijing. We can buy opium for a box Tide, but commies or a nationalists might as well be Satan.” He looked back at Victor. “Besides, you were living and breathing the communist line a few years ago.”
“Didn’t hear you complaining about the Vodka, or the Klyukva S Sakharom,” Victor teased, knowing how often James had snitched them cranberries from a government store when there was no meat and he couldn’t stand porridge grain anymore.
“Shut up,” he snapped, and Victor laughed. “You know if the Americans find those stamizaks in your vest, they’ll arrest you on the spot.” He interrupted, gesturing at the back of Victor’s soaked vest, where the tattered pamphlets of dissident Russian literature were stuffed like pornos. “Then we’ll get shot behind the stockades just like the Cong.”
If you don’t put us there for ripping up civilians first, he privately added to himself.
“Is that what crawled up your ass and died?” Victor said, coming up behind him and looking down at the officer as blood dribbled from the man’s mouth. Probably from a bitten tongue. “Hell Jimmy, we been shot for less.”
“I'm tired of killing Cong,” James growled.
“You hungry for white meat, little brother? You should’a just said.” Victor purred in his ear, his beard scraping against James’s. He elbowed Victor back. It was too damn hot to have him breathing down his neck. Victor let himself be shoved away, chuckling.
Craving some American kills wasn't why James wanted to leave, but he didn’t correct Victor and just looked down at their last comrade. “We can kill him,” he said. “Keep the radio, a couple of guns, and head north. The whole unit'll be called KIA, and by the time they get anyone back here, the Viet Cong’ll be gone. Call it one for the home team.”
Victor nodded, his deep purr shaking the hair on James’s arms as he casually stepped forward and crushed the American’s neck with his boot. The man didn’t even have time to cry. Then Victor left the dead scene and ambled into the jungle with James right behind him.
“James,” a light touch on his arm had James snapping to attention, and he snarled at the bald, old man at his elbow. Xavier drew back, holding up his hand in peace and said gently. “You went away for a bit. Are you alright?”
“Yeah. Fine,” he cleared his throat which felt a bit rougher than before. “Just thinking. That's all.” He broke off, climbing back to his feet.
“I need to turn the horses out,” he interrupted before Xavier could ask what he’d been thinking about and if he would like to talk about it. Because no, he would not. James was abruptly done talking. “You can see yourself out,” he said, striding out the door.
“James,” Xavier called him, and he paused at the edge of the first horse stall, looking over his shoulder. Xavier was making those damn eyes at him again. If it wasn’t for the total lack of lust in his smell, James would be wondering if the man had a thing for him.
“Come join us for breakfast when you’re done. Some of the younger children are planning to surprise me with Apple Biscuits.”
“Surprise a mind reader?” he heckled. “Really?”
“Well,” Xavier waved a pair of bony fingers, looking at him significantly. “It’s been known to happen.”
James shifted, his unrest easing just a bit. He wondered if Xavier was going to act surprised for the kids or just smile at the little knuckleheads with that same implacable demeanor.
“I ain’t good company,” he deferred.
“You’re better than you think,” Xavier replied. “There’ll be a seat for you at the table, when you’re ready.” Then he rolled out of the stables into the growing sunshine, victorious in having the last word.
James shook his head at the strange old man, and went to get the leads.
It didn’t take him long to turn out all the horses and he lingered for while, running with them and chasing the stroppy dun that had been given him the eye lately. That one was a trouble maker. When he had them all in the pasture, and his stomach was pinching, and he’d run out of excuses he finally turned back towards the big house and went looking for that breakfast Xavier promised.
It was strangely quiet inside. Most of the kids were still sleeping, and Xavier wasn’t in the kitchen or the dining hall when he scrounged up some grub. He did hear the man’s muffled voice locked up in his study though, sounding serious and troubled and asking about “blowback,” and “mutants” and “safety measures.”
The buzz of a television in the east den drew him in, along with prickly smells of disquiet.
Summers and Grey were standing behind a sofa in their bathrobes, watching a curly headed newscaster on the television with intent faces. Storm was beside them with her arms crossed and the remote clenched in one hand.
James paused just outside to watch.
On screen the anchor woman was saying. “An investigation is underway and sparking debate across the nation about the Mutant Crisis. Several advocacy groups are calling this a hate crime, while others, like Senator Kane have said this is just another example of the type of damage uncontrolled mutations present to the public.”
The news caster's image gave way to a split video, showing the senator on the right, and series of a crime photos on the left. Most of the horror was secured beyond police tape, but the scene was so messy there was more than enough for the news to use.
James stalked a little closer.
The victim had once been a beast of of man. Wild blond hair, white skin, and ragged furs over a stained trenchcoat. He’d been strung up on a wire fence, ripped in half and decapitated. Guts hung from the spine and ribs like dirty washing. The legs were crumbled on the cement with the head beside them. Someone had wanted to make sure this poor bastard never came back.
“Speculation on whether the attack has any link to the terrorist group responsible for the events at Staten Island last year is also at the forefront of the debate,” the newswoman went on, eyes alight with lurid greed for a grisly story.
Storm looked at Dr. Grey. “Do you think they know?”
Grey tapped her fingers. “They’ve been blaming Magneto’s Brotherhood for every mutant incident since Staten Island. I think it’s more likely they got lucky.” She looked at Scott then, adding, “but it wouldn’t hurt to look into it.”
James was standing at Storm’s shoulder now, eyes fixed on the screen. It wasn't clear, but he thought he saw a smiley face carved onto one of the dumpsters.
“Pause that,” he croaked, and the others looked at him with surprise. Because he was asking, or maybe because they hadn’t noticed when he came up behind them. “Pause it,” he demanded again and Storm stabbed the remote at the TV as he passed her.
He crouched in front of the pixelated screen, eyes roving over the still images. That was definitely a smiley face, just there, almost hidden under bad lighting and scratched idly onto the plastic of the trash bin. Police would think it was graffiti.
“Logan?” Storm prodded behind him.
“Smilodontini,” he murmured, trying to fathom what he was looking at, and feeling unfairly off balance like he did on those overseas flights when Bradley kept dipping the plane. Every damn time he thought he was getting his feet under him something else tilted it all sideways again.
This was just like something Victor would do.
A very, very angry Victor.
The first time he'd seen his brother kill like this he'd still been scrawny runt. He’d gotten too curious about a white man's camp near Beaver River, and followed the tempting smell of coffee, and roasting hazelnuts into their territory. They were telling tales of bears as big as pine trees and he gave himself away by crawling close and snapping a twig.
He remembered squirming in the arms of large, stinky man, and trying to chew through the ropes on his hands after they caught him. Meanwhile they argued about whether his scalp would bring a bounty, seeing as they weren’t sure if he were white or red.
They brought him to a nearby settlement, but the post had a local preacher acting as doctor and law to any as came within his sights, and he said they couldn’t sell him. He said James was possessed. He said that was what savages did to children. He said they had to save his soul.
The preacher had yelled from a bible while the men held him down, half drowning him in a basin of blessed water and tearing his claws out one by one. He screamed so loud he cleared the woods of animals for days, and turned it into a ghost land.
He hadn't known his claws would grow back then. When they were done he'd been crying not just from the agony but because he could see his bones lying on the table and felt their loss as if they'd taken his whole arm.
When Victor came, he killed them all. His brother spattered the walls of the post house with their guts and spread the remains across the planks like a cat laying down it's scent. Their limbs he threw outside for the coyotes, and the preacher's body he hung on a rack of antlers outside the shack. Victor had only been a few years past his balls dropping.
James hadn’t believed him, at first, when Victor said his claws would grow back. Not until he wrapped James’s little arms under his larger, stringy muscles, and told him how old Tom Logan used to pull Victor’s teeth out with iron tongs, and they always came back.
Victor didn’t have trouble keeping Jimmy away from white men after that.
“Who is this?” James rasped, staring at the television screen, and wondering what the poor sad, sack had done to bring on Victor’s wrath.
“It's Sabertooth,” Summers said, and James gave the kid an incredulous look.
“He's part of militant mutant group formerly lead by Magneto...” he trailed off when James turned his back on him, drawn to the screen and the signature smiley face in the corner. “And you don’t care.”
“Do you know him?” Dr. Grey asked, leaning forward.
“No,” James said, standing and stepping back from the TV, his eyes still glued to the scene. “No, I don't know him.”
All he knew was that whoever this man who called himself Sabertooth had been, he wasn't Victor.
He turned and left the room, heart pounding like he was riding logs down a white water dam.
“Logan, where are you going?” Storm called, following him into the hall.
“I need some air.”
“You just came inside,” she replied flatly. “How much air do you need?”
“What is this, a summary court-martial?” James snapped.
“Logan,” she called sharply just as he swung open the front door. He stopped, itching to be gone, and found Storm with a straight back and crossed arms right beside him. A little wind blew through the open door, rustling her hair. “It would be nice if you said goodbye this time. We deserve that at least,” she said.
“Hell I’m not running off, I've just got some things that need doing. You gonna try and stop me?” he asked, tipping his head back challenge.
“Should I?' She replied, without giving an inch.
“I’m not going far.”
“Would that be end of the acreage not far, or over the border not far?”
“Neither. Not that it’s anyone’s business.”
“When was the last time you slept?”
“What?” he asked, thrown.
“You don’t look like you should be driving. I’ll give you a lift,” Storm said, looking him over much like a commander inspecting sub-par troops.
James peered at her, feeling like he’d missed part of the conversation, and hoping he hadn’t just lost time without noticing.
“I don’t need a chauffeur, I ain’t wounded or incompetent,” he growled.
Storm raised an eyebrow, her whole demeanor suggesting that was debatable. “I’m not worried about you. I’m worried about who you’ll hit on the road, if you go out like this.”
“Don’t be,” he snarled. “I’m at least another couple weeks away that shit.”
She frowned at that. If it had been Cherry standing there James would’ve been gone already, but he found himself straightening a little under her challenging gaze.
“All right,” she acceded. “Take one of the cars, don’t crash, don’t pass out on the road and don't make Scott come after you. You won’t like it.”
“Wouldn't dream of it, darlin’,” James smirked and left, his steps lighter than they'd been since waking up back in this dolled up rat cage. He took a silver sports bike from the garage and roared out onto the highway without bothering with a helmet.
He needed to leave a few words in the phone that served as Victor’s mechanical ear. Preferably where he wouldn't be overheard by curious busybodies.
The song Logan sings:
Two Brothers From the album Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War, version by Chris Stapleton.
If the facts had suited his mood James would have driven that borrowed bike to wherever Victor had stashed himself and given his brother a fine ol’ whoopin'. His blood was burning with the same itchy heat that had scraped his temper raw in Nigeria, and the idea of smashing his brother’s face in and sending some bloody teeth rattling across the floor was damn appealing. That was only partly due to the body that’d been splashed across the television like a god-damn dare.
Just his luck he didn’t have a clue where his brother was, but he had an idea how to get the old cat to come to him, and if Victor didn’t take the bait and wanted to keep whatever this was on the same level as propaganda leaflets, and fake Futsches Reich stamps, then James could do that too. They’d learned psychological warfare in the same trenches after all, and Victor wasn’t the only one who could play dirty.
James parked his borrowed bike on the corner of Prince and Mercer in Manhattan, looking up at the neon sign of one of their old haunts. It was almost the same as the last time he’d been here, back in sixty one? Sixty two? They’d been on home-leave from Nam. He remembered because it was just before the Cuban Missile Crisis hit the news, and the last time they were west of the Atlantic without Stryker’s watchers on the roof-top reporting if they did anything more then fail to get drunk.
Stryker didn’t know it, but he and Victor used to come here back when it was Gerde’s Saloon; before the streets were paved, when horses were tied to posts outside and longshoreman sat on hard wooden stools under flickering gas lights. There were precious few places from that time still standing on this side of the world. It was also one of Victor’s favorite spots, and if he was right, and Victor had found him at Xavier's because of that phone call he made in New York, then he’d follow James back here too. When he did, James would have few a things to say with his fists.
He swung off the bike, taking the bag attached to back out of habit and throwing it over his shoulder before he pulled the bar door open. The familiar penny hex floor and the old clock were still there, and only the checkered tables by the front windows were bathed in light, leaving the rest of the place a dim mystery of hidden corners with cracked wood, and old secrets. He inhaled deep with half closed eyes, before lumbering past a wall of memorabilia and dead men in cracked sepia photos, into the tight back hallway where an old pay phone still stood.
There, he dug into his pocket for some of his fish market change. He learned a long time ago how shitty it was to end up somewhere unexpected without money. Made a man do a lot of things he normally wouldn’t and if James didn’t have any cash stashed in his boot or under his belt, well then he didn’t have cash period. Victor was the same, and thinking about his brother had James’s fingers tapping an impatient rhythm against the black plastic while the phone rang and he waited for his brother’s terse voicemail.
He wasn’t expecting Victor to actually answer the phone. They’d had the same number since 1938 and they didn’t get it for talking. They used it more like an old telegram service to send addresses, coordinates or short messages. James hadn’t wanted to get it at all back then. He’d thought it was a waste of money.
Any international call was a pretty dodgy gamble in the thirties. You didn’t know if it would go through and had to pray if it did that some switchboard operator didn’t scramble your longitude and latitude. James remembered sitting on a bench, holding a rag over his face and pretending he had a bloody nose while the strips of his cheek re-grew and Victor talked to a shrinking salesman.
To this day James wasn’t sure if Victor’s fixation on the telephone was a sign of just how plumb crazy he’d gone after The Great War, or if it was a touch of corrupted genius. Because Victor was convinced if they had a phone they’d never lose each other again and he hung onto the idea as fiercely as he did the back of James neck when he was done beating him like a steak in Cairns.
He never told Victor he gave in, not because he lost that fight, but because of the haunted look in his brother’s eyes and the prospect of finally getting to sleep on his own after months of Victor’s heavy weight pressing on his back.
They still fought like cats and dogs over it, of course, but by the time they were on a plane rattling towards Europe with the RAF, and James was growing an intense dislike of aircraft, he was at least back to having his own bunk. Then as time crawled on the technology got better, the world got smaller, and James lost most of his excuses by the time the sixties rolled around and they were launching fucking satellites into space. Victor was still fucking smug about it too.
So with all that history the last thing James expected to hear was his brother’s sleep roughened voice answering in real time.
“What?” Victor demanded, sounding as awake and pleasant as a hungover cougar. James’s brain stalled and everything shrank down to the pinpoint of his brother’s voice.
“You got thirty seconds. Start talking,” Victor ordered in that same short tone that’d made them undesirably company in every camp, fox hole and hotel from one side of the world to the other.
“You're a real piece of shit, you know that?” James swore, his words sounding strangely far away in his own ears. Like he was listening to someone else talk through the sticky brick wall he was leaning against.
There was pause filled with slow breathing and a rustle of fabric. Then Victor, sounding much more awake, purred into the phone.
“Are you playing games with me Vic?” He asked, a bit stronger.
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re sending me fucking postcards.”
“Well what can I say. I saw it and thought of you,” Victor quipped.
“Yeah? You see that big hunk of meat and think of me too? That why you left it strung up like old drawers in an alley?”
“Still such a fucking prince,” Victor grumbled but oddly didn’t sound very put out.
“That was murder, Victor,” James said softly, wondering if his brother even recognized the distinction, and not sure there was anything to say if he didn’t.
“Ah god damn it, Jimmy,” Victor groaned. “Now I’m gonna have to burn the phone and scrub the fucking number again.”
A shuffle of starched cotton, and the jingle of a belt followed his tired voice. Then a pained grunt leaked over the phone and James frowned at the handset, listening harder, wondering if the dead man had given his brother a bit of a run for his money before his head got ripped off.
“Is that all you gotta say?” James sighed.
“What do you want me to say runt?”
“You can tell me what you think you’re doing, for starters.”
“I’m taking care of business, Jimmy, like always.”
“Who’s business?” James demanded, his attention sharpening as he straightened from his slouch on the wall.
“Ours,” Victor purred. It was too easy to picture a smug smirk stretching over his brothers fangs, and blood speckling the hair on his cheeks.
“Really,” James sneered. “You turn into my fucking banker when I wasn't looking?”
“A lot of things turned round while you weren't looking, runt.”
“Guess that steady paycheck you were so fond of was one of them,” he shot back.
“What makes you say that?” Victor goaded him.
“Nobody pays you to make front page news unless they run the paper Victor. I may not be working now, but I know what our business looks like and it doesn’t make fucking headlines .” James snarled just short of shouting into the receiver. “How far off the rails have you gone since Lagos?”
“Oh that’s rich coming from you.”
“Don’t change the fucking subject.”
“Well don’t knock a good story Jimmy,” Victor parried. “Killing one man in the right venue can do a lot more for ya then killing twenty men on the quiet. You used to know that.”
“Victor.” He took deep breath, as if he could drag patience up from the depths of his rotten soul. “I know you. That body wasn’t business. That was personal.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the line which made James’s hackles rise and when Victor finally spoke his voice was that quiet deadly tone which James had always taken seriously.
“Well, no one said the job didn’t have it’s perks. Ask Bradley. If you can find him.”
“Mmm, you remember Bradley, don’t you Jimmy. You may be getting off on psych pleas now but I know you remember that piece of shit.”
“You killed Bradley?”
“Sucked bits of him off my nails for weeks. Boy always was a mess. Now that was personal, but last night? That was just taking pleasure in the work.” Victor insisted, and there was something strange in his voice which James couldn’t quite place.
“Right, work” he sneered back. “Or was it boredom?”
“You really think I'm that stupid?”
“Are we going by recent history?”
“Shut the fuck up. What you know about recent history wouldn’t fill a rimfire cartridge.” Victor scoffed.
“Hey, I didn’t call and tell you I had fucking hole in my head so you could use it to shut me up when you don’t like what I’m saying.” James pointed at the phone as if it was his brother’s face and he could put a fist under his nose.
“You didn’t call me at all for the thirty six fucking years .” Victor snarled back. “What the hell am I paying for this number for if you can’t pick up the damn phone.”
“It’s your money Victor. I told you when ya got it, if we were fighting we weren’t gonna want to talk.”
“I didn’t know we was fighting,” Victor teased.
“What the hell did you think Lagos was?” He threw a hand in the air.
“That was you being a little shit.”
“Oh fuck you. You were yowling like someone cut off your fucking balls.”
“You claiming you’re a sack Jimmy?”
“Saying you ain’t got any on your own maybe.”
“I ain’t the one turned tail like a fucking coward.”
“Being smart don’t make you a milk-sop.” He argued. “You should try it sometime.”
“That weren’t smart, runt, that was running like a rabbit. I told you, Jimmy.” Victor hissed over the line. “I told you what would happen if you ever pulled something like that run to fucking Japan ever again.”
“The fuck you think I care where you crossed the border and where you ended up?”
“You know nine fucking languages. You can learn some fucking geography.”
“You want to fight me over fucking geography right now, you little piss?”
“I want you to stop acting like you don’t know shit!”
“I don’t know shit? I don’t know any shit?” Victor howled.
“You knew that staying with Stryker's set-up after Church found those records was some of stupidest shit you ever done,” James barked. “But you couldn’t fucking back down. Not even once. Not for once could you back the fuck down and listen! You knew. You knew it was… something was fucked Victor. Something was really damn fucked.”
He shook, dropping his chin to his chest and taking deep breaths while he clutched at the top on the pay-phone and the plastic started to crack under the pressure.
“Yeah. I know.” Victor’s reply came back, oddly quiet and almost like he was saying sorry with that three word admission. Victor never said sorry for anything.
Much as James knew he was right about this and Victor had been a stupid, obstinate son of bitch, Victor admitting it made his insides curdle. Made him wonder if, maybe, something else did happen. Something to Victor. Cause his brother wouldn’t hear a word about leaving back then, so what the fuck would make him sorry now?
James took another breath, sidestepping that cowpat of a debate for a more immediate one.
“And now you just killed a man who didn’t have a fucking thing to do with anything.”
“Say something,” Jimmy sighed.
“You make Henry Molaison look like a paragon of mental fucking health.”
James ignored that jab at his two-bit brain.
“You didn’t even try to cover that murder,” he accused.
“Doesn’t need a cover.”
“If you expect me to believe they wanted this kind of attention, than you’re even fucking crazier then I am. You’re exposed.”
“Well you called me, pup.” Victor grunted. “And you’re the one started talking about murder on the fucking phone. It’s a little late to be caring about exposure.”
“I didn’t do this Victor. It's just you. Like always. And you’re gonna leave me to pick up the fucking mess, like always.” He hit the wall next to phone and when the bartender glared back at the hallway he raised his hand in a silent promise to keep it quiet and not leave any holes that couldn’t be patched with spackle
“You’re worried about me,” Victor murmured, a smug flavor in his voice. Then he started laughing. He laughed and laughed, and James looked awkwardly back at the strip of the bar he could see beyond the dim hallway and the mid-day drinkers that could be listening even if they were probably duller than a redwood between the ears.
“Shut-up,” he finally grumbled when Victor’s thunderous laugh faded.
“Relax Jimmy. You won’t have to lift a finger. If the local pork heads do their job they’ll get to the truth. They’ll confirm the victim was a radical Mutant going by the name Sabertooth, that no one will miss. They'll also find a trail of money leading back to a certain senator who's got his balls in a vice with the Humanity party, and as it'll turn out, this senator ordered a hit on poor ol' Sabertooth.”
“Oh it'll be trending. US senator pays for Mutant Murders. The good senator will be removed from office pending trial and a friend of Senator Kelly will step up for the interim. Kelly will be very happy.”
“Uh huh, and what if the cops aren’t good at their job?”
“Then I’ll find ones that are.”
“They’ll bring in the FBI,” James warned.
“And the FBI will get real nosy about Sabertooth since he don’t seem to exist where he should, and then they’ll get approached by the CIA and told to get off their fucking lawn.”
“Which they won’t like.”
“No they won’t, and that is gonna shake a whole ‘nother nest snakes out of the grass.” Victor finished sounding very pleased with himself.
“So, you’re taking Sabertooth out of the picture.” James summed up, and then, not quite sure he wanted to know the answer he asked. “Is that your own idea? Or theirs?”
“Does it matter? Frankly I’m surprised you even noticed the dead look alike.”
“Its playing all over CNN.”
“Right, ‘cause your a firm follower of current events these days.” Victor’s sarcasm was so scorching it could have melted tar, and James was a little offended.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Victor laughed in his ear. “You know what it means Jim-boy.”
“Well pretend I don't,” he snarled back.
Victor sighed. “This is getting fucking old.”
He sounded bitter and resentful like he’d been after Cairns when just about the only thing that made him lose that pyrrich look in his eyes was swimming the great barrier reef and spilling blood between the Jacks and the Wharfies.
“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, Victor,” James insisted.
“I’m talking about how you still ain’t got a fucking clue,” his brother replied. “And I’m tired of seeing that stupid, blank, don’t know you from adam, look on your face.”
James grew cold, and the world rippled in front of him, like he’d been plunged into some kind of tank and was looking at it all from underwater. He tried to talk, but his jaw was stiff and ached like it was being pried apart, and there was an ugly taste of rubber and plastic on his tongue.
“How often have you seen that?” He finally forced out, the words feeling unwieldy in his mouth.
“More than once.” Victor grumbled, as if they were still just snapping at each like always. “Which is more than I’d like. It’s not worth sticking around for. Not even to finish beating your ass into the ground.”
He’d seen him. Victor had seen him and James didn’t have fucking clue when. He didn’t remember. He hadn’t been there… He’d been... that other guy. Victor saw him all empty headed and dumb and he’d done… what? He’d fought him? Left him? And that parasite, the one that’d taken over his life and left him stranded in some mansion like a fucking lap-dog… he’d seen Victor. He’d seen James’s brother.
He felt sick. Violated. Like he was back in the fucking snow looking at what had been made of his claws.
“Who was it Jimmy?” Victor whispered.
“Guh,” James failed to talk. There was something choking him, and he pressed a hand over his face searching for the gag he could feel filling his mouth like a plug. But his hand didn’t find anything.
“Who put that dumb look in your eyes?” Victor demanded again, as if he couldn’t hear the gag James was trying to talk around.
“I ...don’t...” James coughed, then spit over his elbow and breathed deep, taking in the bar’s dubious aroma of beer, peanuts and old shame. “It was just a job.” He forced out, focusing on the greasy miasma of diner food.
“You weren’t taking jobs last time I saw you.” Victor sounded dubious
“Well, I don’t think I had choice at the time,” James admitted.
Victor breathed over the line. A familiar tempo, marching in step to James own chest, until finally his brother’s voice rumbled out of the dark, oddly soft.
“Not even jobs like ours leave you with metal bones, Jimmy.”
James sucked in a breath.
“Who was it?” Victor pushed. “Gimme their names.”
“I don’t remember,” he whispered, feeling dizzy.
“I don’t .”
Victor growled. “Well you better remember something soon Jimmy. Cause whoever they are they're getting old. It’d be a cryin shame if they died peaceful in their beds.”
“The shithead responsible for this aint dying of old age,” James rasped, his sluggish blood stirring again.
“The hell does that mean?” Victor demanded with the kind of growl that heralded avalanches. James didn’t care about any fucking warning like that. The gag in his mouth was gone, the walls were starting to get solid and he was feeling warm again.
“It means Stryker called me in Alberta,” James admitted pulling himself up from the slouch he’d fallen into against the brick wall. “But he was always fucking middle management, so if you want someone to blame for this you should look in the goddamn mirror.”
“You know what, you piece of crow-bait.” He snarled, anger leaking like blood from a wound. “They wouldn’t have had any idea where to find me unless you squealed like a pig on the spit.”
“You could’ve left Lagos, but you stayed behind. You made your god-damn choice Victor. You didn’t need to send them after me just because you got fucking lonely afterwards. What did you think was gonna happen, huh? They’d shoot me and I’d walk it off, then coming limping back with my tail between my legs? They knew us you idiot, they know what we can do, and they didn’t shoot me. They--”
Needles. Water. The tap-tap of buttons.
Metal bones. Why did he have metal on his bones. Don’t think about it. Don’t fucking think.
“They didn’t shoot me.” He finished. “And everything ... everything since Lagos, is your damn fault. So keep me out of whatever fucking business you got going on.”
There was a pause, filled with heavy breathing on both ends of their line. Two beasts just waiting for one slip to let loose and tear each other to shreds.
“That ain’t happening Jimmy.” Was Victor’s dark promise.
“Well then you can get used to the blank stare,” James countered. “Because the only time you’re gonna see me around is when I don’t know any fucking better.”
“Jimmy,” Victor warned.
“You know, I used to wonder what I'd be without you,” James whispered, keen and cruel, and savoring it. “Now I guess we’re gonna find out.”
“ Jimmy --” Victor’s furious snarl cut off as James slammed the phone back on the receiver and left the hall, walking across the bar with the same long heedless stride that had taken him away from crashed jets, and the ruins of bombed out homes.
He stood on the curb outside, looking at the traffic pass in a haze of gas and roaring engines. His eye’s were hot and tired, and when he wiped at the irritating tickle traveling down his cheeks his palm came away wet. He rubbed furiously at his face, trying to scrub it away and getting his chops salty and damp.
He’d been awake for too damn long.
The bar was still waiting behind him, like it expected him to come back inside, sit down, and enjoy a drink and a smoke like old times. Like nothing had changed. Like all it would take was a fist-fight out back to somehow square it all.
What a fucking joke.
Victor would probably still come looking for him, like he’d planned. Sweeping in with that long black coat of his to have the last word. But he didn’t want to be here when Victor arrived anymore. The thought of getting dragged back into that labyrinthine conversation filled James with the same sort of dread he used to get lying in the nose of a Avro Lancaster Bomber, knowing they were headed towards flak, but unable to do a fucking thing about it. Left at the mercy of Victor’s piloting, and the dim hope that his brother would get them on the ground again.
So he took a turn at random and started walking, not knowing where he was going, and not really caring. The city swallowed him in a mitigating current of indifference. There were people everywhere. An endless mass of bodies, fermenting together in the oppressive heat of a New York summer. The air was heavy with exhaust, and the sickly sweet smell of steaming garbage mixed in the limpid breeze with baking bread, hot-dogs, mustard and Cartier perfume. Still, no matter where he went Victor’s words followed him like tin cans banging behind his boots.
“... still ain’t got a fucking clue… metal bones… who was it...”
He stumbled and the pavement seemed to age before his eyes, the mottled gray cement glaring at him one moment before turning dark the next. Afterimages of neon lights streaked over the avenue like he was back at Fort Baker and someone had just handed him a cup full of rainbow colored pills, before flipping a switch.
Then he was in a creaky chair, in a dark theater with the smell of peanuts and popcorn in his nose, watching The Manchurian Candidate on the big silver screen.
Then he was back outside and the street was spinning. He dropped over a nearby trash can, clutching the lid with both hands while the flow of traffic bent around him.
Then he was in a gas-station bathroom somewhere near Meander River, bent over a dirty sink, and vomiting. Something was lodged in his throat. Blood had spattered the stained porcelain below and he hacked and coughed until he finally spit a long wire into the sink. Bits of flesh were still attached to the ends and bloody spittle dangled from his lip while he gaped at it.
Then he was leaning back over the trash-can. There was no blood and no wires. Nothing but the usual mess of coffee cups, and hot-dog wrappers stared up at him, but he vomited anyway, trying to throw up something that wasn’t there.
An old man was sitting on the curb nearby and watching him with dull eyes. A plastic bag was wrapped around his head like a shower cap and his hands shook in his lap; an unconscious tremble that rattled the paper cup of change like it was a shaker of sorrow.
James looked at his own hands, which were at least three times as old as that man, yet still soft and smooth. Other men had callouses and salty cracks adorning their knuckles, like badges of honor showing their labors and age, but not him. Then he looked back at the man and the almost catatonic stare; a “stupid, blank, don’t know you from adam, look,” that gave him horrible vertigo and had him bending over the garbage again, trying to hock up the emptiness inside him.
When his heaving finally subsided and he looked up at the city street, he realized he had no idea where, when or even who he was. Yet at the same time he was completely sure that his given name was James Howlett and he was standing underneath a soot stained sign for a smoke shop, in New York City. He stared at the array of cigars, tobacco tins and rolling paper, reading the brand names over and over, and holding the letters like talismans against the terrifying void that had filled his head, even as their meaning kept slipping out of reach.
Then it was gone, like it had never been, and he was just James. The same James he’d always been. In desperate need of one of those shiny white pills that used to make everything go woolly back at Fort Baker. Before they stopped working like every other pill always stopped working.
He lurched into the nearest nightclub and propped himself up against the bar, ordering a pint of whatever was on tap and drinking it down. Since there were no pills or China, white or otherwise, to be had.
He was little too rough and a little too poor looking to fit the upscale decor and perhaps that was what caught the eye of the woman at the far end of the room. She had a sharp black dress that matched her sharp black eyes, and a cultivated sultry air that was part desire, and part money.
He watched her, watching him, through the reflections of bottles, and caught her eye, holding it so she knew he saw her. He tried not twitch with paranoia, and wished he had a gun. She didn’t look away, and when his drinking slowed to a less thirsty pace she came and sat very deliberately on the next stool, tracing her finger-tips over the back of his hand.
“Do we know each other?” He asked, frank as a fogy, and a little afraid of the answer. For all he knew, he might be regular at this bar. Maybe he had her phone number. Maybe she was here to tag him, or put him down. They might have fucked. Maybe he owed her money. He didn’t know. The world was becoming a minefield with the chance of a bomb behind every face.
“We don’t, but we could,” she replied with inviting curve to her lips. James leaned back in his seat, studying her, and wretchedly relieved at the prurient offer which suggested he was as much a stranger to her as she was to him.
“I’m not sure I could afford to get to know you, darlin’” he hedged and made an educated guess. If he was wrong, she’d take offence at being mistaken for an Escort and leave him alone to his misery and horribly expensive beer. If he was right, well, he was looking to drown the last few hours and flesh was better than ale for that.
“It depends on what kind of company you're looking for. I’m a reasonable woman.”
“With reasonable rates?” He smirked and she returned it. He worked his jaw and considered. “You offer full service?”
They went to a hotel across the street. Clothing was lost to a red carpet that smelled of a thousand other close encounters and he buried himself in her skin, savoring the sharp musk of sweat and cunt juice.
He ate her out, and heaved against her, nosing her belly, neck and the arch of her hip. He pressed his face into the soft slopes of her body, as if he could barricade himself behind her for one precious night. He used her, and she let him. There were no obligations and no talk beyond the exchange of goods and services.
Her hands turned soft as she deduced his cravings, and the touch became light as a handler quieting a skittish horse. His skin twitched as she stroked his spine, and his hair, and down his arms, and he mouthed the curve of her ribs long after they were both done and drifting in a half-there world of warm sheets and human touch.
“Good?” she asked into the quiet dark. Over the curve of her breast he could see small golden dots of light twinkling in the black sky beyond the hotel window.
“Yeah,” he whispered after a moment, inhaling her unique smell.
“You need more?”
“No.” He closed his eyes, and sighed as she gently touched the hair along his jaw. “I’d just like to lay here for a bit, quiet like. But if I start fallin’ asleep, wake me. Yeah?”
She hummed in agreement, and the tension that had been holding him together bled into the mattress, leached away by the inviolable power of orgasms.
It was such an extraordinary relief that he came a breath away from embarrassing himself, and telling her his whole sad, dirty story. Why he was here. Where he came from. How the world kept twisting around him like he was stuck in a plane cork-screwing into oblivion. But he held it in. Pressed his lips together and said not one damn thing. Because he remembered being in her place, back in Morocco in 1978.
When he'd finally realized Victor wasn't coming, and he couldn't stay in Lagos just watching the rain drip off tin roofs, he'd sold his rifle and ammunition in a back alley. The cash stretched him all the way to Tangier, and a little shanty neighborhood on the shore of the Straight. There, broke as a camel’s back and so close to Spain he could smell it on wind, he'd started selling himself.
One night he spent hours just laying naked in a cheap bed, and staring at a creaking ceiling fan that was vainly trying to cool the hot air. The man who'd just fucked him sat on the edge of the mattress, weeping into his hands and confessing all his sins like James was his damn priest.
He stayed because every hour was another sixty bucks in cash that would put more miles between himself, Stryker's team ten, and the shadowy pencil pushers who ran them. But he really couldn't have given less of a damn about the man’s problems. He had too many of his own.
The calm of that old Moroccan night and the hot and sticky New York summer evening that had slipped over him was shattered by a hideous electrical ring.
“Aaagh,” he groaned, lifting his nose from under his companion’s chin and looking blearily around for the source of the horrible noise. He couldn’t see anything, and the sound just kept going on, and on. The body under him rolled away, taking his sense of stability with it and he reached after her only to find one of those slim new phones shoved into his hand.
He blinked at it. Then down at his companion who was looking at him with an impartial expression. Over the edge of the bed his pants lay crumpled next to the bag that had been on the back of the motorcycle, and was now spilling it’s contents all over the floor. He didn’t remember taking that with him.
The ring gave out and the phone’s screen went dark in his hand, revealing a long red list of missed calls from “Xavier’s”. At least twenty. His hand trembled, and he was about to toss the phone away when it started ringing again. Somehow sounding louder and even more obnoxious.
“Are you going to answer it?” the woman asked, stretching naked arms above her head.
James looked back at the phone, sighed and pressed the green button, holding it up to his ear.
“Yeah?” He answered, cautious.
“Logan!” Summer’s tight voice practically yelled through the phone and he pulled it away from his ear. “Thank god. It took you long enough. Where are you?”
“Hang on Cherry,” James cleared his throat and sat up, swinging his feet over the side of the bed and offering an apologetic look over his shoulder to his companion. He didn’t really know how these new phones worked so he just let it dangle in his lap while he told her “I should probably call it a night, this is gonna take awhile.”
“Who is that?” Summer’s tinny voice demanded as James stood up, leaving the phone on the bed.
“No one,” he grumbled back, taking some cash out of his left boot where he’d stashed it. “How much more do I owe you?” he asked his escort, and counted out the bills according to her tally of the balance while she pulled on her own clothes.
“Logan!” Cherry’s voice squawked from the phone like an offended chicken.
“Here, and thanks for everything.” James handed over the cash and she tucked it into her bra with a small smile that was almost commiserating.
“It's my job.”
“I know, but I really needed something like that. It was a good night and I don’t have too many of those lately.”
“Well, if you need another one some time we'll see if I have an opening.” She passed him a black card. No name, address or even a logo. Just a phone number.
The phone had gone silent, and James half hoped Cherry had hung up, but he wasn’t that lucky and the previous calm was gone anyway. Even if his dwindling money could have paid for more time, it wouldn’t have been the same. So he lead her to the door and kissed her jaw as she stepped out. She gave him a wink, and left him on the threshold, naked except for the small black card in his hand.
He went back inside, dropped onto the dented, still warm bed with a sigh and picked up the damn phone again.
“What do you want Cherry?” He asked, exhausted.
“Tell me I have not just spent--” Summers broke off, took a deep breath and then began again sounding only a little less disgusted than his first attempt, but determined to hold on to his temper. “Tell me you were not just in bed with a prostitute.” He spit the last word.
“Whatever you say kid.” James leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“How could you do that to us?” Cherry asked.
James wrinkled his nose. “Didn’t have nothing to do with you, Cherry, and it ain’t any of your business.”
“What if something happened to you? What if you--"
“I can’t get hurt,” he cut in bitterly. A fallacious joke that Cherry would not grasp the extent of, even if he heard it. Which he didn’t. Too caught up in his own rant for that.
“-- Didn’t we deserve to know where you were? What did you expect us to tell Rogue when you didn’t come back? Did you think of anyone except yourself for one minute? You never--”
“Ah come on,” he groaned, stood up and went looking for his clothes, but Cherry was still going, talking over him like he wasn’t there and James missed the marrow of it all, only catching the last few words.
“--but I’m the one who has to clean up the mess Logan!”
James stopped in the middle of the room, jeans dangling from one hand, and the phone clutched in his other. Arrested by an echo of the same the sentiment he’d thrown at Victor just a few hours ago.
“There’s nothing to clean,” he promised in a rough voice that didn’t sound as sure as he’d thought it would. “I just needed some time to myself.”
“You've been gone ten days!”
“I heard you, but that’s not what I... Ten days?” He looked wildly around the room as if he could find that lost time with his scattered socks.
“Yes,” Scott’s voice softened minutely.
“Are you sure?”
“Who's looking after the horses?”
“... Did you really just ask me that?” Summer’s voice came back deadened with incredulity. “Ten days without a word and you’re worried about the horses?”
“The brown’s going colicky.” He defended, quite reasonably.
Scott’s voice grew distant. "I can't even-- Ororra, you talk to him. I’m going to get a trace on the phone. Do not let him hang up." The phone was passed over with a shuffle and James heard Summers mutter in fading voice, “I’m going to tag him like a dog. I swear to god.”
"Logan?" Storm’s composed tone took over the line.
"Someone needs to look at the brown cob,” he told her, pulling on his pants. “And the--"
"The horses are fine.” She interrupted. “The children were doing chores in the stables before you came, and they picked up again when you left."
“Well you know how to make a man feel needed, don’t ya,” he grumbled, doing up his belt and trying to think where, in between the bar and the cheap motel room he’d lost ten days.
“Strange as it may seem to you, I’m not here to prop up your ego.” Storm smoothly replied.
“Damn,” he joked, yanking on his shirt. “You don’t pull punches do you?”
“You’re indestructible. As you’re so fond of reminding us.”
James barked out a slightly hysterical laugh. “Would matter if I wasn’t?”
“Not much, no.”
“Has it really been ten days?” he asked her, a small part of him hoping to hear ‘no’. That Cherry had somehow miscounted, or was fucking with him, even though he knew he wouldn’t. Cherry just didn’t seem the type. So what’d he done? Had his replica woken up and just sat in this same room, doing nothing, looking at the walls like Gillman’s woman in Yellow Wallpaper?
That seemed even more mad then forgetting about it.
But he’d come here with his escort. She didn’t charge him for more than a few hours and that mercenary profession did not encourage generosity or sentimentality. Certainly not for strangers and not when it’d lose you money.
He stumbled over the motorcycle bag he’d taken from the bike and knelt to shove the contents back inside, only to stop, short of touching it when he saw what had spilled onto the floor. Protein bars, a water bottle and bits of a first aid kit he’d never use were accompanied by a new pack of Cigars, La Gloria Cubana’s, and a small, vibrantly yellow book title “Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain The World We Live In Now.”
James stared at the little pile of treasure.
He would have thought it all belonged to Cherry, like the first aid kit, but that boy didn’t smoke. He’d never seen him with so much as a lighter and with all the times he’d pursed those pretty lips into a disapproving line when he saw James smoking in the pasture he couldn’t picture the boy enjoying a La Gloria.
He quickly counted his remaining money which had fallen like dead leaves on the ugly carpet, and found he was short. They were just the sort of thing he would buy in passing if he had the time for it, hell that book… But he didn’t remember having the time. He didn’t remember getting anything.
He just didn’t remember.
Storm was talking. Telling him about little goings on at the mansion in a soft drone that meant nothing, and he suspected, wasn’t meant to. Besides keeping the line open and letting him know she was still there. Which he appreciated in a way.
“Storm?” He whispered.
“I think I just… lost...I don’t--” he clenched his jaw. “I don’t know where I’ve been.”
“It’s all right. I’m coming to get you. Just wait for me.”
“Right,” he swallowed. “I can do that.”
He pulled on his jacket, tied his boots, shoved everything into the bike bag and left the room to sit on the curb outside the hotel.
A cheap neon sign over the street painted everything red and gave the passing rabble a macabre look. A lamp-post nearby had a poster taped to it, showing off a sweet faced child with demonic eyes, and asking “do you know what your child is?”
A couple passed by, eyeing him with suspicion while they discussed a magazine called New Science with a brain on the front cover and a title that read “Telepathy and you. What it means and how to protect your privacy.” The general upshot, according to their opinion, was “we don't know how it works, but it does, and privacy is dead. You're screwed.”
Across the street a small woman with a deformed face held out her hand to a passing man in a suit, who sneered and told her to “get a job.” Like it was so easy.
Why was it, he wondered, that people found it so easy to be cruel in public, but rarely kind. As if decency and compassion were like using the crapper; private matters that should be kept behind closed doors.
Everything felt louder and crueler the longer he waited there. A laugh was like a pin in the drum of his ear and he thought they might start bleeding soon. Every one he watched displayed such a clueless indifference to each other that he felt like the only thinking creature in the world. A lone adult surrounded by children, who would blow away with one strong puff of time. He was overcome with such crushing loneliness that he thought he might go mad, and then he laughed, because of course he'd already gone mad, hadn't he?
This, he realized, had been his life for years. Drifting from one roadside corner to the next. Surrounded by petty cruelties and bumptious inanities, with an empty seat beside him, and an empty road ahead. He never stayed long enough, or knew anyone well enough to hear anything of substance, and wasn’t that just the cruelest damn irony. He'd had, perhaps, the most endurable conversation in years because of Xavier and those people at the school who looked at him like a dog about to turn rabid.
His lesser half had gotten himself more friends in a year than James had since the fifties. Friends who worried, and cared. Friends who came looking for him when he went missing. The only one James had was Victor, and that was a dubious honor at best.
But maybe, he thought, looking at his reflection in the grubby window of a passing taxi, that was because there wasn't much to the other guy in his head. Victor called him a blank face. Maybe folks liked him because this “Logan” was happy being a white man’s wet dream. A thin paper pin up boy of the indefatigable, tobacco chewing, western ideal. A man’s man, who never stumbled, and never felt hurt, and never grieved without a body count.
It was such goddamn bullshit.
Then again, he’d sent a lot more people to the promised land then his personal Dr. Jekyll could have, given the length of their respective lives. So what did that say about him?
Fuck his head hurt.
He was holding his forehead in one hand, and looking at the burning end of a cigar he didn’t remember lighting in the other when Storm arrived. He knew it was her the moment her good quality calf high boots stopped in front of him. She brought the smell of soil and rain with her wherever she went. Like she was always just coming in from the garden.
He leaned back, looking up her tall frame at the crossed arms, stylish jacket, and unhappy expression.
“What did I say Logan?” She asked in a thunderous tone.
“You said don't make Scott come after me.” He dutifully replied, before adding. “I didn’t ask him for nothing, and if this is all it takes to have everyone shitting their pants I don’t know how you lot run a fucking school.”
“... Right... What tipped you off?”
“Besides your thrilling silence? Scott finally got a notice from a tow company about his bike. Or what’s left of it. He’s working out a plan for you to pay for the damage by the way.”
“Ah, jeeze.” He winced. “Do I want to know what kind of damage that is?”
Storm gave him a strange look. “Someone ripped it in half and then tore it up piece by piece.”
“Hazard of parking in the city I guess,” he bluffed, uncomfortably reminded of just where he’d left that bike, and the mess he'd made of Xaiver's office.
“I’ve never known a chop shop to wreck something they can sell,” Storm replied with flat look. “When we saw that, we thought something had happened to you.”
“Or I went nuts and took out my crap on your property,” he added what he was sure had been circling all their minds. Although Storm did not look like she appreciated it.
“Why didn’t you answer the phone? We’ve been calling you all week.”
“Didn’t hear it,” he evaded. “I’m surprised it even works. That thing must have the best batteries of all time.” Storm’s expression did not waver, and he cleared his throat. “So, why’d you get pick-up duty?”
“Because I was the one who let you walk out the door in the first place.”
“Ah. Well, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one in the dog-house.”
Storm sighed and dropped down onto the curb beside him. “Scott was right, I shouldn’t have let you go like that.”
“Why did you?” He asked, curious.
“Scott and I… disagree about you.” She admitted and James quirked an eyebrow. She shrugged. “I thought I was proving a point but, really, I think I was just frustrated, and tired, and trying to get back at him. It’s been a very long term.”
He nodded and finally stood, offering her his hand.
“Let’s take a walk,” he suggested. Storm gave him a dubious look and he goaded, “unless you’d like to go back right now.”
She took his hand and hauled herself up before walking down the dark industrial streets with him.
“You mind if I--?” he waved the cigar at her, and the look on her face elegantly expressed how late that question was in coming. What with the already lit roll sending blue smoke into the night. She let him stew for half moment before shaking her head.
“I appreciate you coming out,” he said as they passed a grate belching smoke into the air from the underground, and Storm did something mysterious with her own phone.
“Really?” She looked surprised.
He cleared his throat and admitted. “I ah, might not have as much of a handle on things as I thought I did.” Storm said nothing and he smirked at her stoic look. “Thanks for not saying the obvious.”
“What I’m trying to say is, it’s a kindness I ain’t used to so if I’m a little--”
“Gruff,” he amended. “Well it don’t mean I don’t know it’s a lucky thing to have.”
Storm’s severe expression cracked a little. The beginning of a smile gracing her dark lips.
“How much did that hurt?” she asked.
“Quite a bit,” he admitted.
“Well I, appreciate the thought, however muddled, but honestly we expected this to happen again sooner or later. It’s a symptom of your condition. Of what happened to you.” She looked significantly at his hands, which he shoved into his pockets. “That’s what the professor says.”
“And your professor’s never wrong,” he heckled, a little irritated, and stopped at a Halal stand to eye the slowly roasting sticks of meat and sniff the enticing aroma.
“I wouldn't say never.” Storm cocked her head. “Rarely.”
“The congenital privilege of a mind reader,” he muttered. “Hail Caesar.”
She frowned, like she wanted to say something but was thinking about how to be diplomatic. From what little he'd seen of her, James suspected Storm’s type of diplomacy would leave him more gutted then blunt honesty.
“Don't look at me like that,” he pleaded. “I know something happened. I know it left me... like this.” He flexed his hands. “It might even,” he swallowed. “Might not be what I thought it was. But your professor’s got this idea that it's some kind of, I don't know…”
He trailed off, hating this lack of certainty. He was walking around like a blind man on a battlefield. He could hear the guns, and smell the smoke and feel the uneven ground under his hands and knees as he crawled. Enough to guess where the fire was coming from and try not to get shot, but he couldn’t actually see a damn thing.
“I don't see why it has to be some big event.” He finally said, and ordered a plate of Shawarma, pleasantly surprised when Storm did as well and joined him in walking through the black streets battling strips of lamb that were intent on falling onto the sidewalk.
“And,” She prodded him, sucking sauce off her fingers.
“Just, people got this notion that a man can’t be hurt from anything less than over top, super-hero, cataclysmic bullshit. Seventy years on ice and torture. That sort of thing. Like living ain't enough reason to cry. They think that because something's common, that somehow makes it less powerful. Less painful.”
Storm’s face turned grim. “I've never known that to be true.”
They’d reached a park and she went up to the railing of the East River and looked over the water at the steel bones of the Williamsburg bridge. He joined her there, and considered the faraway look on her face.
“You're a dazzling exception then,” he murmured with respect.
“Do you know how many orphans live on the streets in Cairo?” Storm whipped round to glare at him, her grey eyes churning like clouds circling the black center of a hurricane. “Or here in New York? Or any other city? Selling buttons and begging from tourists? Eating garbage and getting spat on? How dangerous it is just trying to find a place to pee?” She ground her teeth. “Do you think the number of other abandoned children means anything to a thirteen year old girl arrested by the police for a virginity test?”
“No,” he said softly. “No I don't.”
He reached out, took her stiff hand off railing and gently held it in his palm. Storm sighed and the crackling energy fled from her like static on the wind, leaving only a muted smell of ozone.
“Too many of us have been hurt, one way or another.” She threaded her fingers through his, and covered his hand in her own. A strange turn around of comfort. “It’s pointless and conceited to try and parse out who deserves their pain and who doesn’t.”
“Yeah,” James agreed with a heartfelt nod. “And then some pasty faced inkhorn comes along and has the audacity to tell you that you ain’t healed “right” and that you gotta “make peace” with it or some shit.” He hung his head over the oily water. “Xavier's talking about “dissociation” and “trauma” like putting myself together again is as simple as making a 'here's what I did today' video or doing some twelve step workbook. I swear I’m gonna turn round and find some kitschy ass door knocker about “loving myself” next to the horse feed.”
Storm snickered. “I think that's entirely between you and your trauma.” She gave his reflection in the black water an indecent grin.
“Nice,” he replied, crabby.
They walked south along the river park and after some time Storm told him, “I do think you’re over simplifying the professor’s advice.”
“Why, you know everything he said to me?” He bit back. “Your little gang share those details while you were talking about fucking brain scans?”
“No, we did not.”
“You ever think that maybe forgetting was the best thing I could have done to look after myself? Maybe Xavier should leave well enough alone. All of yeh should,” he grumbled the last, thinking of Victor and his ever-present scheming.
“All right,” Storm replied, cold as a northern wind. “The next time you find yourself lost and terrified, I’m sure there are plenty of people you can call who will drop everything, come to your rescue and not care what you do with yourself, or how you ended up there.”
“I wasn’t terrified,” he mumbled. “And you ain’t responsible for me.”
“We all have a duty to each other,” she replied stiffly.
“Right, because we’re mutants, and mutants stick together.”
“If we don’t look after each other, who will? Them?” She threw her chin at the New York skyline.
“Perish the thought.” James agreed, and then, feeling he owed her something after being ‘asinine’, he added. “This didn’t happen all at once you know. When I woke up by Alkali, I was still me.”
“Alkali?” Storm’s gaze sharpened on him.
James shook his head. “Don’t matter. Just saying, I don’t know how this pissant ended up in my brain. I been missing little things for a while, but I didn’t think it was this… bad. Everything seemed normal.” He scratched at the back of his neck. “It’s not like losing your keys. 'Cept for that first time, there weren't nothing to miss, and who’s to say what the right thing or wrong thing to do 'bout that is? S’not like there’s a guide book on what I am.”
“I’m sure Jean could help you decipher your mutation at least.”
“Yeah I bet she’d love that. Her and doctor what's his name are gonna have a fucking field day with me. Be like old times.”
“It really bothers you.”
“The prodding? Hell yeah.”
“Jean. You don’t like her do you?” She sounded intrigued, amused.
“I haven’t spoken to her more than twice. I don’t know her well enough to say I dislike her.”
James scratched at the bridge of his nose. “It’s nothing against her. I’m sure she’s a fine woman, but she smells like a lab and it sets me off. I don’t know why. Not like I haven’t seen my share of them, but there it is. Anyway, I think Cherry would pop a vessel if I looked at her wrong, and that's a whole bunch of trouble I don’t need right now. Hell, he got so worked up about my company tonight you’d think it was personal. I don’t see how it’s Summer’s business who I sleep with or how I do it…” Something occurred to him then, something disturbing, and he snapped round to look at Storm. “I’m not sleeping’ with one of them am I? Or both of them?”
Storm’s eyes lit up with humor.
“You’d sleep with Scott?”
“Maybe, if things were different. He’s got a nice ass.” Storm laughed and James liked the sound. “I’m serious you could bounce a penny off that boy. Though s'pect he’d kill ya with a look for trying.”
“You’ve no idea.”
“I gotta give the kid props for managing to look so sour with half his face covered. That takes work. Doesn’t seem to have much humor though. He takes everything so seriously.”
“He’s had a lot of serious things to take care of.”
“What about you?"
“Do you like Dr. Grey?”
“In a way.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I respect her work and her intelligence and her dedication and there are days when I’m desperate for the company another woman over the age of eighteen.”
“I doubt it.”
“So where’s that leave you then?”
“Between the three of you I seem to be the referee, more than anything.”
“I'm sorry.” And he sincerely was.
Storm stopped on the walkway, with a napkin halfway to her lips, and when he turned back to look at her, he was met by an inscrutable expression.
“I've never heard you use that word,” she said. “I wasn't sure you knew it.”
James smirked. “Well, it comes out, every now and then. Not as much as it should, probably, but there ain't a lot I feel sorry for, bastard that I am. Maybe that’s why my Golyadkin Jr hasn't said it. Because the asshole ain't sorry.”
“But you are?”
“Well.” He shrugged, looking down. “I know what it’s like being someone else’s clean-up crew.”
“The last few years my brother and I were together,” he confessed. “It seemed like all I did was damage control. It’s an ugly, thankless fucking job, and didn't do either of us a lick of good in the end.” He waved. “So, on behalf of my lesser half who ain’t around. I'm sorry."
“Apology accepted,” she whispered.
He nodded, and then cocked his head to the side. “So, should I ask?”
“About you, Jean and Scott?”
“Is there something going on?” He pushed.
Storm sighed and looked back out at the city’s endless field of smoky lights. “Maybe, but none of you seem to know what.”
“Hmm. Seems an awful lot of trouble to be stirring up.”
“I don’t think any of you thought that far ahead.”
“You sure about that?” He toed the ground.
Storm straightened. “What do you mean?”
“They’re a couple aren't they? Summers and Dr. Grey." He inquired carefully and she nodded. "They happy together?"
There was a rather suggestive pause but she nodded again.
“I assume so.”
"They seem like they would be.” He nodded. “It’s a cruel or stupid man who goes sniffing around that kind of thing. There won't be any sharing, see. It'll be an affair, if its anything at all, and in my experience affairs only end ugly and painful." He shrugged. “I'm not that kind of stupid. Whole thing smells like trouble and If I can smell that, then your man Logan can too. So all I can think is he wants to be cruel, to them and himself. I just don't know why he’d be looking to cause pain,” he finished, a little awkward.
“That's… interesting.” Storm considered him.
“Ah, don’t mind me.” He reached over, brushing his hand against hers. “I’m just shooting my mouth off. I got no clue what goes on in yer house.”
“No maybe not, but you do know what kind of a man you are.”
“Well that don’t mean your fella’s the same.” He defended. “You’re probably right and he’s just following his dick around without a clue what he’s doing. Hell, your professor said he was only fifteen.”
Storm shook her head, with a twinkle in her eye. “Logan may only remember fifteen years but he’s hardly a teenager.”
“Well,” James shrugged, wishing he’d kept his fool trap shut. “Maybe our tastes are different. Or maybe he’s just an ass.”
She rolled her eyes skyward. “The three of you have been competing for that title for awhile now.”
“Yeah? Who’s the reigning champion?’
“You were in the lead by two points last I counted, but Scott’s gained a couple since you woke up like this. Jean is only behind by one.”
James laughed. “You keep score?”
“Mmm, there’s even board.” Storm winked and then turned serious. “Why would you do it? If you were in Logan’s place?”
He looked away. “I don’t know enough of things to say.”
“Guess,” she commanded.
He sighed and stopped by the railing again, looking over the river. “It would depend. On what I thought they might do to me, or for me, but it all comes down to the same question really. How different are we, me and this man you know. This... construct of my lost moments.”
He left the rail and stalked up to his fellow truant, his warden, and temporary confederate. Leaned in close so he was sharing breath with her, exhaling the dark and bitter stench of his soul.
“If I don't like your dear Dr. Grey,” he whispered. “Do you really think he does? Maybe, he's just playing.”
“Playing at what?” She stood firm, spine straight and nose touching his. Not backing down one whit from his prowling gaze.
“Position darlin'. It’s all about position. High ground over low. Fortified or open field.” He pulled away then and walked a little further down the dark stone parkway. “You know, my brother likes to say there's no one like us. He say's it because of what we are, but that’s not really why. Least I don’t think so. See, we look like people, and talk like people but inside there’s just big gaping holes where our hearts should be, and nothing we do ever fills ‘em up.”
He waited for judgement, but it didn’t come, and somehow that was worse.
“So, what do you do?” She asked.
“You don’t love?”
“I don’t rightly know.”
“Are they all like that then?” She nodded back the way they came, which he took to be a reference to his earlier pay by the hour companion.
“No, not all of ‘em.” He looked away. “I even been married.”
“Really?” She sounded intrigued, but then, something else must have shown on his face because she turned sad, and asked, “what happened?”
“She died. Got killed in a riot.” He picked at the stained paper napkin which was the sole remnant of his Shwarma plate, peeling off bits of it and tossing them aside to drift down the sidewalk like ashes. “The baby--” he broke off, cleared his throat and started again. “Our baby, he died a little before that. Sickness.” He shook his head at the irony.
Storm came up and placed a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry.”
“It was a long time ago.” He shrugged. “A very long time. What about you? Any decent men in your life?”
She smiled. “That if nothing else proves you don’t remember me.”
“If you did, you’d know that “decent” isn’t nearly good enough. There’ve been men, but--”
“None of ‘em were worth it?”
“It sounds cold when you say it like that.”
“No. Sounds like you got standards.”
Storm hummed and turned her back on the river.
“We should get back.”
“Yeah, I guess it's that time.” James surrendered.
They retraced their steps slowly, dawdling to watch a man bang out music on overturned buckets, and another painting an illicit mural of fractured faces over a brick wall. It must have been very late, or very early, because the streets were almost empty as they made their way through that black landscape, with twinkle lit trees and looming lampposts lighting their way.
Storm had James hand in hers, pulling him along when he faltered or stumbled.
He found himself in the passenger seat of a car sometime later. Storm was still beside him, her hands on the driver’s wheel now. A warm breeze caressed his half lidded eyes from the open window and a radio sang softly in Arabic.
“I meant to ask,” he murmured, drowsy.
“What?” Storm whispered.
“Do you and me get along when I’m not me?”
“We don’t talk much actually.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I’m starting agree.” She glanced at him briefly, and then turned up the radio, just a notch, so the sound of Umm Kulthum’s solo filled the car. “Go to sleep, James.”
He was gone before he finished thinking of a protest.