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The End is the Beginning

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The shock, Logan would reflect later, had been nearly overwhelming. First, it had been Jean – a vision in her slim-fitting red suit and the fire of her red hair. It was her hair that Logan remembered the most, spread out behind her in the waves of the all-powerful Phoenix. It was her hair that had momentarily seemed to freeze in time as Logan had pierced her skin with his adamantium claws, and then had fallen behind her as she’d hung limply in his arms. He would always associate her hair with fire, with passion, with the Phoenix, with love.

But it was the sight of Scott that had literally taken his breath away, had made the floor seem temporarily unstable, had made him lose his sense of equilibrium so that he’d had to steady himself by placing his hand on Scott’s shoulder, an action that the other man had followed with both suspicion and confusion.

“It’s good to see you, Scott.”

He’d barely been able to get the words out and Scott’s unimpressed reaction was plainly there for all to see, even as Jean’s amusement had filtered to his senses.

“Right,” Scott had said, exchanging a look with Jean before he went on his way. Jean followed him soon after so that Logan was left standing in the doorway as Professor Xavier inquired after his history class.

History, Logan had thought. This was the universe playing a cosmic joke on him. After all, what did he know about history?

* * * * *

Logan knew enough history to fill a small library, the problem was that much of the history he knew from the 1970s onwards had been erased. It still nestled in his mind, however, that lost timeline that represented the best and worst of Homo Sapiens and Homo Superior. His mind had been tampered with so many times. What was one more burden to bear when it meant saving the world?

‘Burden’ was a relative term. So much evil had been erased, but that didn’t mean that ‘good’ had necessarily replaced it, and it would have been naïve to think that evil still didn’t exist in the world. One thing that Logan was certain of was that this new timeline had afforded him a second chance. If his long life had taught him anything, it was that second chances were rare. This time he was going to seize it.

He was reminded of this as his second chance came down the stairs. Logan paused at the foot of the staircase and waited for him, even though he hadn’t thought of anything to say. He didn’t have to say anything at all since it was Scott who started the conversation.

“Are you feeling all right?”

Logan was surprised by the question. Was the Boy Scout showing concern for his well-being?

“Yeah,” Logan answered. “Fine. Why do you ask?”

“You seemed out of sorts earlier.”

“I’m fine,” Logan repeated.

Scott appraised him. It had been so long since he’d felt the weight of that ruby gaze that Logan almost wilted under it. It was too unreal to have Scott in front of him, looking at him, speaking to him. Finally, the other man nodded, seemingly satisfied.

“All right,” Scott agreed. “We’ll meet after lunch to go over the security detail and protocols. The Secret Service sent over some last minute revisions.” Summers had switched into Cyclops mode.

“For what?”

The question had slipped out before Logan could stop it. He knew instantly that it was a mistake. Scott looked at him sharply again and Logan would swear those eyes were boring holes into his head, even though Scott hadn’t fired off one of his optic blasts.

“The White House dinner and presentation tonight,” Scott said slowly, in a tone that implied there was no way Logan should have forgotten something that important. “The Professor and Magneto are being recognized by the President.”

“The Professor and Magneto?” Logan was completely unable to hide the shock in his voice. He could tell the moment Scott shifted from exasperation to annoyance.

“I thought you were over that already,” Scott told him. “We’ve only been working with Magneto for the past five years. Hasn’t he done enough to atone for past sins?”

Logan’s head was spinning. Apparently, there were some important details that the Professor had neglected to mention such as an alliance with Magneto, an awards ceremony at the White House, and his vastly different relationship with Cyclops.

“Look,” Scott was saying. “If you’re not feeling up to it, I can appoint someone in your place. Storm can handle –”

“I’m fine,” Logan tried not to snap, but there was an edge in his tone. “Ya don’t need to appoint anybody.”

“Well, good,” Scott snapped back and Logan felt a wave of relief wash over him. This antagonism felt familiar, felt like the old Cyclops, the one he knew. Perhaps more importantly, there was still that spark between them. He’d misunderstood what it meant before, but now he saw it for what it was.

Scott was shaking his head. “You’ve been my second-in-command for so long,” he said. “I’d hate to not have you there tonight because of your differences with Magneto. The Professor would be disappointed too. It’s time to bury the hatchet, Logan.”

“I’ll be there, Scott.”

“Good. One-thirty. Situation Room.”

“Security detail and protocols,” Logan finished for him.

Scott nodded and Logan watched as the other man walked away.

* * * * *

The briefing with Cyclops went smoothly. Storm, Jean, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Shadowcat also joined them. This would be the team of senior X-Men accompanying the Professor and Magneto that evening, together with Cyclops and Wolverine. Logan found out that Mystique, Beast and Angel were already at the White House coordinating efforts from there in their different capacities. Beast, apparently, had been the White House liaison for some time. Angel was specifically handling the protocol of the dinner and presentation ceremony that evening and Mystique . . . well, Logan wasn’t entirely sure what Mystique was doing since he couldn’t get over the idea that Mystique was working with them and was trusted by the President of the United States. Mystique was an assassin and she’d attempted – on more than one occasion – to kill the President. At least, in the timeline he remembered.

Through the briefing, Logan tried to glean the dynamics of the team based on their interaction and responsibilities. When Scott had said that Logan had been his ‘second-in-command for so long’ earlier that day, Logan had managed to hide his surprise well. He was certain that position would have gone to Storm or Jean, even Beast. But no, it was evident to everybody that Wolverine was Cyclops’s right-hand. He didn’t know how it had happened, but he was pleased with the development. It spoke of professionalism, of mutual trust and respect, of a long history with Cyclops even if Logan couldn’t remember any of it. Logan wondered if they were friends. Real friends. It seemed possible.

The briefing didn’t provide any answers to that question since Summers was solely focused on the mission at hand. Logan, however, learned more details about the White House presentation that evening. Apparently, both the Professor and Magneto were being recognized for their efforts in uniting the mutant community through the Pro-Mutant Party and working with government agencies to defeat two terrorist organizations, the Mutant Liberation Front and the homo sapien, mutant-hating Purifiers. Pro-mutant sentiment was at an all-time high and the rumor was that the current administration was on the verge of supporting a mutant candidate for the next presidential election. Logan could hardly believe it. Not only was there a Pro-Mutant political party, but that also one day in the not-too-distant future, there might even be a mutant running the country. Well, Logan reflected, according to Magneto there had already been a mutant in the White House. But this time, there would be no need to hide that fact.

Magneto himself turned up shortly after their briefing ended, escorted by Pyro. Logan took it in stride when he found out that Magneto was now living in the school. He was considerably more startled when he learned that Magneto shared the same room as the Professor. (Even in the future timeline he remembered, those two had been close once circumstances had forced them to become allies once more. He also remembered their reunion in the past, recognized the seeds of that friendship-perhaps-something-more and thought no more of it. Apparently, those two had also gotten their ‘second chance,’ whether they knew it or not.)

The group took the X-jet to Andrews Airfield, now part of Joint Base Andrews, where they were met by the Secret Service and escorted to the White House. The evening was a bit of a blur for Logan after that. There was a part of him that regretted agreeing to attend since it was a steep learning curve on such a momentous occasion, but Cyclops’s briefing had been typically thorough and Logan had (secretly) done the extra work to familiarize himself with the layout, shifts, schedules and all the White House personnel involved. He and Storm had point for most of the evening as Scott and Jean, together with Hank and Warren, were guests at the President’s table.

It was while watching the Professor, Scott and the President’s wife engaged in conversation that Logan finally made the connection. The rumor that the current administration would support a mutant candidate for the next presidential election wasn’t a rumor at all. They needed a face for the Pro-Mutant Party, and who better than Xavier’s adopted son, the longtime field leader of the X-Men, to step up and take Xavier’s place? Scott was the role model, the Boy Scout. He made perfect sense and those stunning good looks wouldn’t hurt when the media descended on him. My god, Scott was being groomed for the presidency. Logan shouldn’t have been surprised. Scott had always accepted the role – the burden – of leadership.

“Quite the power couple,” Logan remarked out of the blue as Storm appeared by his side. The Weather Witch was looking magnificent in a more glamorous version of the X-Men uniform. She was still on duty. Only the official guests were in civilian attire.

Storm followed the direction of Logan’s gaze before looking back at him. “To whom are you referring?” she asked.

“Scott and Jean, of course,” Logan replied.

Storm arched one perfectly shaped eyebrow, a smile quirking on the corners of her lips. “Logan,” she said, shaking her head. “Sometimes I still don’t understand your sense of humor. I will make one more round of the ballroom. Colossus and Shadowcat are finishing their rounds as well. There’s a shift change in fifteen.”

Logan nodded to acknowledge her words and watched Storm take her leave. He heard her report to Scott, whose earpiece was snugly hidden, as she walked away. (Jean’s telepathic link was also open as a back up.) Storm’s reaction to his comment puzzled him. He hadn’t been joking about Scott and Jean being a power couple. Why would she think otherwise?

The answer to his question came at the end of the night when nearly all the guests had left and the ballroom was being cleaned by the staff. The President, Xavier, Magneto and Beast had retired to the President’s private study for a nightcap before the X-Men would return to Westchester. All in all, it had been a very successful evening and there was sure to be positive media coverage the following morning, if not on the late-night news. Logan was about to leave the ballroom as well when the band, which he thought had also dispersed for the night, began playing a slow, quiet song. He turned in surprise and saw Warren walking towards Scott across the empty dance floor.

It was eavesdropping but in the otherwise quiet ballroom, he heard Warren clearly say above the music, “Oh, come on. You didn’t dance with me all night.”

“I didn’t dance all night,” Scott corrected.

“You danced with Jean!”

“It was one dance,” Scott countered. “And Jean is always the exception.”

“I should be too.”

Logan could tell the moment Scott caved. It was the smile and the shake of his head and the way Warren moved into the other man’s personal space as though he belonged there. Cyclops and Angel? What the hell was going on?

“You think one of them’s finally going to ask this year?” a voice said beside him. “They’ve been together for so long.”

Logan turned to see Jean leaning against the column on his right. “How long is that?” he asked, inwardly cursing. He didn’t think he’d be able to take any more surprises where Cyclops was concerned.

Jean looked thoughtful. “Nearly five years, I suppose,” she said. “Shortly after Magneto joined us. Don’t you remember?”

No, Logan wanted to snap but his dark, troubled expression must’ve given Jean pause because she looked at him in concern.

“Are you all right, Logan?” she asked gently. “Scott said you seemed out of sorts and I have to say I agree.”

Logan didn’t know where to begin. Out of sorts was putting it mildly. The present was too confusing a place, too unrecognizable to him. Although Charles hadn’t been specific earlier in his talk with Logan, it was clear that he thought the altering of the timeline should be kept a secret for now, with the exception of Hank, Magneto and Mystique who had all met Logan in the past. Logan couldn’t imagine being all buddy-buddy with Magneto or Mystique any time soon, but he would relish an opportunity to talk with Hank. If anyone could appreciate a bit of time travelling, changing the timeline, temporal paradoxes and saving the world in the process, it would be the resident science nerd. But so far, he hadn’t had an opportunity beyond a quick ‘hello’ and a slap on the back. Blue had been busy all evening and now he was sequestered away with the President.

Logan found that he couldn’t lie to Jean, however, not when she was looking at him with such concern. “I’m not fine,” he admitted grudgingly. “But it ain’t nothing I can’t sort out for myself.”

“You know you can always talk to me,” she said sincerely.

Logan’s gaze dropped to where Jean had put a hand on his arm in a comforting gesture. God, were they?

He wanted to kill Charles at that moment. Had the Professor forgotten the importance of inter-personal relationships? Did he think there was some lesson to be learned in Logan being ambushed by all these surprises? He watched as Jean’s concern grew, the furrowing of her brow giving it away.

“You reading my mind?” he asked warily.

“I would never do that without your permission,” she admonished him. “But you are projecting,” she admitted. “I can’t imagine what the Professor has done to make you so upset at him.”

“No, I don’t suppose you can,” Logan muttered. Fuck it, he thought. He didn’t give a damn what Charles thought. He’d loved and trusted Jean before. Maybe she wasn’t the same person, but it didn’t feel like he had anyone else in this new world. He wanted her to know.

“Read my mind,” he said.

Jean hesitated. “You’re sure?” she questioned.

“Go for it.”

Jean stepped forward and placed her fingers against his temple. She looked at him one more time for confirmation before Logan felt the gentle intrusion of her presence in his mind. He felt her instantaneous shock and disconcertment and after a few moments she quickly put her hand down and her presence fled.

“Oh my god,” she said, looking at him in wonder. “I don’t know you at all!”

“That’s kind of how I’ve been feeling all day,” Logan sighed. “You weren’t in there for long. Couldn’t have got much.”

“I saw enough,” Jean said, appraising him with new eyes. “I thought it would be better if you told me the rest yourself.”

“Because talking helps?” Logan joked, but there was too much sarcasm in his tone.

“It usually does,” Jean said seriously. “We are good friends,” she added after a moment.

“Is that all we are?”

Jean actually blushed. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I mean, we tried after . . .” She gestured in the direction of Scott and Warren who were still dancing, and Logan didn’t know whether she meant after things had ended with Scott or after Scott and Warren had gotten together. He supposed it didn’t really matter.

“Guess it didn’t work,” he surmised.

“No,” she said, smiling now.

“You still close with Slim?”

“Scott and I will always be best friends,” she replied. “And I will always love him.”

Logan nodded, his gaze drifting back to the dance floor where the music had stopped since the song had ended.

“I guess I’m not the only one who does,” Jean said after a moment.

Logan looked back at her sharply. “Less than thirty seconds in my head and you managed to pick that up?” he questioned.

Jean was smiling broadly now. “Strong emotions are the easiest to pick up,” she told him. “And that was the strongest one of all.”

“Yeah, well,” Logan said gruffly, averting his gaze. “Doesn’t look like anything is gonna come out of it anyhow.”

So what else was new? Even though he didn’t want to, Logan found himself looking at the dance floor again. Scott and Warren still hadn’t broken apart even though the music had stopped playing. They were speaking so quietly that even Logan’s keen hearing couldn’t pick up their words. Then Warren was spreading his wings – those majestic white wings – and cocooning the two of them inside. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what they were doing. The whole scene was so disgustingly romantic that it made Logan want to vomit. He finally turned away, missing the sympathetic look Jean was giving him.

“Where can a guy get a drink in this place?” he growled.

Chapter Text

The flight back to Westchester was peaceful, the mood in the jet a mixture of fatigue and contentment. Logan didn’t remember the X-jet being a passenger carrier, but it appeared the X-Men had several types of jets at their disposal, not just the tactical Blackbird, and this was the more ‘comfortable’ one, easily capable of carrying twenty passengers. It was a good thing too since Mystique, Beast and Angel had joined them.

Scott was still at the controls. (It was good to know that some things would never change.) Storm was still his co-pilot. Behind her sat Jean and behind Scott sat Logan. (Logan had intuitively understood that these were their normal positions.) The rest of the passengers had broken off into smaller groups. The Professor and Magneto were playing chess. Piotr and Kitty were having a quiet conversation, punctuated with soft laughs and a little handholding. (Logan could recognize young love when he saw it. He wondered if Bobby and Marie were still together in this timeline.) At the back of the jet was the biggest group composed of Hank, Warren, Kurt and Raven playing a card game. Every now and then there would be an outburst, a laugh, a joking accusation of cheating. (Kurt was apparently wiping the floor with the rest of them.)

“I am no telepath,” Logan heard the Elf say in a mock wounded tone. “How can I possibly be cheating?”

Logan tuned out the group’s conversation just as there was a touch on his arm. He looked up. It was Jean.

“Do you still need that drink?” she asked him.

“Are you saying that Cyke allows alcohol on this thing?” he asked in return.

“You have a stash here,” she replied.

That had to be one of the most bizarre things Logan had heard all day. Cyclops allowed a stash on one of the X-jets. There was no way that Scott didn’t know about anybody’s stash of anything on one of his precious birds.

Before Logan could recover from his shock, Jean was saying, “I could use a drink myself and so could Magneto.” Logan suspected that there had been some telepathic communication going on.

“Basically, you’re asking permission to raid my stash,” Logan filled in for her.

“It’s the polite thing to do,” Jean agreed with a smile.

“So long as you’re doing the raiding,” Logan said off-handedly. Jean squeezed his arm in confirmation before going to get their drinks.

Jean returned to her seat a little while later with a tumbler for Logan. He sniffed the drink. It was scotch, neat, just the way he liked it. Jean had a tumbler for herself, and somewhere behind them he knew that Magneto was enjoying the same drink. Logan took a long sip and nearly spit it out. It wasn’t because the scotch was shit. On the contrary, it was fucking amazing. The good stuff. The high-end stuff. Single malt. Aged at least fourteen years. When he glanced at Jean in shock, she telepathically explained, You don’t scrimp. Why do you think Magneto wanted a drink?

Yeah, well, Logan mentally answered back. Where I came from, getting your hands on a six-pack was considered an event.

Do you want to talk about ‘where you came from’? Jean asked him gently. When we get back?

The truth was Logan did, but he wasn’t up to that kind of brain-breaking conversation tonight. He’d never been much of a talker in the first place and he didn’t think that aspect of his personality would change, no matter what timeline he found himself in. What he wanted to do most of all was sleep. He hadn’t had a moment’s rest in his first whirlwind day of this brave new world. Besides, things might look different in the morning. Not necessarily better, but different.

“Some other time, Jeanie,” he said aloud. He meant it and he knew that Jean could read his sincerity.

“Whenever you’re ready, Logan,” she replied.

* * * * *

Logan’s penchant for avoidance hadn’t changed just because he was in a different timeline. He meant to talk to Jean or to Hank, maybe even the Professor again, but he didn’t do any of those things. He felt like he was falling back on old habits, reverting to a previous life when he’d been a loner, except that he was firmly ensconced at the school and had no intention of leaving. He’d been an X-Man for too long. He couldn’t imagine doing or being anything else. He believed in everything the school stood for, in Charles Xavier’s vision.

His attitude meant that Logan had to relearn everything about his old/new environment. He had to rediscover his friendships, his enemies, his classes (!!!), the team dynamics and his general place in the school. He was relieved to find out that most of these things remained intact or at least, recognizable to him. (He and Kurt were still partners in crime. He’d still taken Marie under his wing and Jubilee too.) Logan didn’t change his personality or his habits and aside from the occasional slip-up (since when did he start listening to show tunes?), the people around him didn’t appear to notice that he was any different. And if they did, nobody commented on it. After all, he was Wolverine.

What truly surprised Logan, however, were his relationships with Scott and Jean. These were the two people that had been sorely missing from his previous life and now they were both back, making his life more complicated than ever. Jean hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d said that they were good friends. She and Scott were best friends, but she’d also become Logan’s confidant. In many ways, she was the mediator between the two men. Logan could never have anticipated that, and it was strange to think that things had turned out this way when once upon a time Jean had been the focal point of his rivalry with Scott. Once that rivalry was removed, they were all able to coexist.

At least, that’s what it looked like on the surface. The most disheartening thing that Logan had learned about this new world was that he and Cyclops were not friends in any sense of the word. It was true that he was Cyclops’s right hand, but that was only in the field. Logan admired how seamlessly they worked together, how intuitively they understood each other, which really shouldn’t have been the case since he wasn’t the Wolverine that Cyclops had been working with all those years. In fact, Logan had never really had the chance to work with Scott before. He’d been too busy challenging the other man, playing the role of the alpha when in reality, he’d had no desire to lead the pack. Summers had rubbed him the wrong way and much of that blustering he now recognized had been done for show. For Jean. And to an even greater degree, for Scott himself. He just hadn’t been able to admit it back then because the idea of being attracted to the Boy Scout was…inconceivable.

It had been so foolish. And petty. Logan wanted to think he was above that now.

Whatever Logan thought in the present couldn’t seem to alter his current relationship with Cyclops. Summers remained distant but professional. He was cool, but not aloof. Logan wondered how it had come to be this way. Surely working so closely together over the years should have led to some sort of friendship. They were both clearly friends to some extent with everyone else on the team. What was keeping them apart? At first, Logan thought that maybe that was just how things had worked out. Maybe their differences had been too great to overcome, but they had respected each other’s skills and abilities well enough to put aside those differences and work together. But the more Logan thought about it, the more that explanation didn’t feel right either. Their differences had primarily focused on Jean. Once you took her out of the equation . . .

This development (or lack of development) with Summers bothered Logan so much that he eventually brought it up with Jean. (She’d be the best person to ask, right?) If Logan couldn’t pursue a romantic relationship with Scott thanks to Warren, then he couldn’t see why they at least shouldn’t be friends.

Logan was dwelling on this one Saturday morning as he went in search of Jean, who he knew would be swimming laps in the outdoor pool. Sure enough, she was there in a green and gold swimsuit, probably halfway through her quota. Logan sat down at the deep end of the pool wearing only broad shorts that doubled as swimming trunks. He let his legs dangle in the water as he waited for Jean to swim back to that end. When she surfaced it was right beside him, holding onto the concrete edge of the pool as she looked up at him.

“What brings you out here so early in the morning?”

“Ain’t that early.”

“For a Saturday?” Jean asked disbelievingly. “You should be sleeping in, hung over or both. I heard you, Kurt and Piotr had a bit of a wild night last night.”

Logan shrugged. “Ya know the Elf,” he said. “Always pickin’ fights.”

“I’m sure,” Jean said dryly, but she was still smiling. “Join me for a swim?” she asked, tapping his knee.

“Maybe in a bit,” Logan replied. “Listen, Jeanie. I did come here to ask you something.”

Jean arched an eyebrow that said she’d already known that, and it hadn’t even taken a bit of her telepathy to figure it out.

“It’s about Scott.”

Jean didn’t comment and Logan didn’t know whether that was a good sign or a bad one. She was waiting for him to continue and so Logan said, “What happened between me and him? How’d we end up like this?”

Jean sighed and pushed herself out of the pool so that she was sitting beside him. Logan handed her the white towel that was near him and she smiled her thanks. “I was wondering when you would ask,” she admitted, quickly drying herself before throwing the towel over her shoulders.

“So something did happen,” Logan confirmed.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Jean said. “You are the one topic – unless it’s in a professional capacity or directly related to the X-Men – that Scott won’t touch. And no, I haven’t pried into his mind about it,” she added, before he could ask. “Even though I’ve been tempted.”

“Something must’ve happened,” Logan said, but it was more to himself than to Jean.

“Oh, something did,” Jean replied with certainty. “But it was so long ago – years ago – and I always suspected that there was more going on than what you two let on.”

“Tell me.”

“Wouldn’t you rather see?”

“Then show me.”

* * * * *

They were falling. Something – probably a missile – had shot the Blackbird out of the sky, but they had somehow managed to make it all out before the Blackbird crashed. Even in their free fall, Cyclops was already barking orders.

“Storm, can you slow us down?”

“I have already summoned the winds, Cyclops. But we are too high and falling at too fast a rate. I cannot land us all safely,” Storm explained.

“Do not worry about me, Cyclops,” Piotr said. “I can make it down on my own.”

“It’s a long way down, Pete.”

“My organic steel can take it,” Piotr assured their team leader.

Cyclops took a second to consider it before he nodded. He had tested Colossus’s strength in the Danger Room exercises. It would be a rough landing, but Colossus would survive.

“Storm,” Cyclops said. “Try to give Colossus as much wind support as possible.”

“I will,” Storm promised. “I can take two people down,” she added.

“Take Wolverine and Nightcrawler,” Cyclops immediately said.

“Scott, what about you?” Jean asked, and Logan could feel her panic. (It was bizarre watching the scenario – watching himself – through Jean’s eyes, feeling everything that she felt at the time.)

“Jean, start slowing yourself down through levitation,” Scott said in return, evading her question. “There’s no time, people. Move!”

“Cyclops,” Logan heard himself growl. “Ya ain’t gonna sacrifice yourself. It’ll be bloody but my healing factor will take care of this fall.”

“No!” Cyclops barked back. “Once Kurt has managed to slow down enough, he can come back and teleport me down.”

“Yes,” Kurt was saying. “This is possible.”

“Enough talk,” Storm said. She’d grabbed hold of Wolverine and Nightcrawler. “I will land us safely, but I must also concentrate on Colossus.”

“Scott,” Jean said, reaching out for him. “I can levitate us both down.”

“Jean.” The warning in Scott’s tone was clear.

“Then I can slow us down until Kurt can come back . . .”

Logan lost the rest of the conversation. He knew when Jean had landed, albeit disoriented and a little fatigued. She had strained herself by keeping both her and Scott from plummeting to the ground as Scott had suspected. (Logan understood as well that Jean had not yet fully come into her powers, that the Phoenix was yet to touch her. He wondered if the X-Men had encountered the Phoenix force at all in this timeline.) Cyclops’s landing was even rougher than Jean’s but his plan worked. Kurt had let go of Storm before touching the ground in order to teleport back to Cyclops. His velocity at that point was manageable and he and Scott had tumbled to the earth, but not with enough force to seriously injure either of them. The most spectacular landing belonged to Colossus, whose crash caused a massive crater, but Piotr had merely walked out of it and asked everyone else in his deadpan manner what had taken the rest of them so long.

Good old, Colossus, Logan thought.

It didn’t take Logan long to piece together the details of the mission they were on and its significance. The team was outside a military base in Colorado, secreted underneath a mountain known to the locals as Valhalla High. The base had been infiltrated from the inside through a portal from which one of the X-Men’s old foes, Count Nefaria and his new race of genetically modified beings, the Ani-Men had emerged. They were now holding the base hostage and were threatening to unleash the Doomsmith scenario, a program that would be capable of launching the entire nuclear arsenal of the United States if the U.S. government and its allies did not pay an enormous ransom.

“Shouldn’t there be contingency measures for something like that?” Kurt had asked, referring to the security of the nuclear arsenal.

“I’m sure the U.S. military will look into their protocols more thoroughly once the crisis has passed,” Cyclops had replied. “It’s up to us to ensure that the Doomsmith scenario doesn’t happen.”

It was a turning point for the X-Men and their relationship with the government because the President, through the encouragement of Hank McCoy, had specifically called for their help since the X-Men had a history with Nefaria. A few months prior, Nefaria had attempted to hold Washington D.C. for ransom, but the X-Men had stopped him. The Count had managed to escape however, and the X-Men knew that it would only be a matter of time before they clashed forces with him again. This was that moment and the stakes were even higher.

Provided with a layout of the Valhalla base, Nightcrawler teleported inside through a surface access hatch. He successfully managed to override the missile bay doors and let the rest of the team in through an underground opening.

“I’m sorry, Cyclops,” was Kurt’s greeting as the X-Men entered the base. “I had one of Nefaria’s men knocked out, a Frog-Man. He led me here, but he must’ve come to while I was opening the missile bay doors. He’s gone.”

“It can’t be helped, Nightcrawler,” Cyclops told him. “You did well getting us all inside. We need to get to the control center as soon as possible.”

“Cyclops, the Doomsmith scenario has already been activated,” Storm informed them, as she scanned one of the control panels in the missile bay. “We have forty-five minutes until missile launch.” As if to prove her point, the automated voice of the base announced the countdown.

“Then we have forty-five minutes to stop it,” Cyclops answered. “This way.”

They were soon hampered, however, by a gas that was released into the tunnel that they entered from the missile bay. Colossus smashed an exit into an adjacent tunnel, only for the team to run into a troop of soldiers – the Air Force security of the base – who immediately opened fire on them.

“Don’t hurt them!” Cyclops ordered above the gunfire. “They’re not in control of their actions. Jean, can you shut them down?”

“Yes,” Jean answered. “But it will take a little while. Nefaria has some sort of mental hold over them. It’s like they’re under a kind of hypnosis.”

“Do it,” Cyclops said.

While Jean set to work on mentally incapacitating the soldiers, the rest of the team helped her the old-fashioned way. Storm kept the security force off balanced, slowly forcing them back by creating great gusting winds in the tunnel, while Nightcrawler infiltrated their ranks through his teleportation. The battle lasted no more than five minutes before the soldiers were completely subdued by Jean’s telepathy and other more physical means.

“They won’t be waking up any time soon,” Jean said, walking through the men who were sprawled in various positions on the floor.

The X-Men’s reprieve was brief since Nefaria, watching the defeat of the Air Force security from the command post, sent out his Ani-Men to stop them.

“Finally,” Logan heard himself say. “Some real competition.”

This battle was much tougher as the X-Men found themselves face-to-face with other genetically altered human beings – those experimented on by Count Nefaria – who had spliced the DNA of animals to create the Frog-Man, the Cat-Man, the Bird-Man, the Ape-Man and his most recent addition, the Dragonfly.

“I feel like I’m on the island of Dr. Moreau,” Nightcrawler observed, before teleporting out of the path of the charging Ape-Man.

“A regular menagerie,” Wolverine agreed, claws bared and prepared for Ape-Man.

“Quit yapping and focus!” Cyclops yelled, his beam refracting off the wall of the room in order to hit the leaping Frog-Man. The amphibious Ani-Man fell, but was only disoriented by the blast.

“He’s mine, Cyclops!” Kurt interrupted, anticipating a rematch with his brief prisoner.

At first, it looked as if the fresh Ani-Men had the upper hand. Jean soon discovered that the mental control that had been exerted over the soldiers had originated from Dragonfly, who had the power to hypnotize through her gaze and possessed strong psionic shields. While Jean tackled Dragonfly, Wolverine and Colossus dealt with Ape-Man, Nightcrawler had his rematch with Frog-Man, leaving Storm and Cyclops to handle Bird-Man and Cat-Man, respectively.

By the time the Ani-Men were subdued, less than twenty minutes remained to shut down the Doomsmith scenario. Although she’d been hit by one of Cyclops’s optic blasts, Dragonfly was the only Ani-Man who managed to escape.

“She’s going to warn Nefaria,” Jean told Cyclops.

“Nefaria was probably watching the whole thing,” Wolverine added.

“Nightcrawler, Colossus, secure the hangar bay in case Nefaria tries to escape,” Cyclops barked. “The rest of you, with me.”

Jean and Wolverine had both been correct. Dragonfly had warned Nefaria who’d left the control room by the time Cyclops had blasted his way through the reinforced doors. They entered the room to discover that not only was the Doomsmith scenario counting down, but that the facility had also been set to self-destruct.

“Nefaria must be pretty confident that he’s getting out of here,” Wolverine observed.

“He used a portal to break into the base,” Cyclops reminded them. “He’s got an escape plan. Jean, contact the Professor. We need the codes to shut these machines down.”

“Already on it, Cyclops,” Jean answered, sitting down in front of the console of the Doomsmith scenario.

“Wolverine, track Nefaria,” Cyclops went on. “Storm, go with him. Jean and I have got this covered.”

Logan was so engrossed in Jean’s memories of the mission that he experienced a physical jolt when she suddenly pulled out of his mind. “What happened?” he asked her, surprised. “Why’d you do that?”

Jean leaned back, supporting her weight on her hands. “I don’t know what happened,” she admitted. “We were separated after that. I got through to the Professor, who’d been in contact with the White House. Scott and I inputted the abort codes in time for both the Doomsmith scenario and the self-destruct sequence to the base.”

“Sounds like a happy ending,” Logan ventured.

“It was.”

“But?”

Jean looked at him with serious eyes. “But you and Scott had an epic fight afterwards,” she said. “When we got back to Westchester. No one knows what happened. Scott ordered us all out of the Blackbird’s hangar bay and then . . .” she trailed off. “We thought you guys were going to take down the whole school. Eventually, Charles came in and put an end to it.”

“You have no idea what it was about?” Logan asked, curiously.

“It had something to do with the mission,” Jean answered. “Nefaria and two of his Ani-Men, Dragonfly and Ape-Man, did get away. They had a jet already prepped in the hangar, despite Nightcrawler and Colossus being there. Storm even managed to hit the jet with one of her lightning bolts, but Nefaria must’ve been able to open his portal device in time because we watched the jet fall straight into a portal and disappear.” Jean paused. “There was something else going on,” she added. “Between you and Scott. The mission just seemed to be . . . a ruse. The mission was successful and it marked a turning point in the X-Men’s relationship with the White House and the other governments of the world. The rest of the world may never know that we saved them from oblivion, but the leaders of those countries that were being forced to pay the ransom certainly did.”

“So, what else is new?” Logan said. Saving the world and not even getting a ‘thanks’ was the status quo in the timeline he had come from, and that was before the Sentinel program had brought them all to the brink of extinction.

“A lot,” Jean told him. “That mission changed everything. And we – the team – were so sure that you would leave after your fight with Scott. It was clear that you’d both reached your breaking points.”

“Then what?”

Jean shrugged. “Then nothing,” she said. “You didn’t go, but you didn’t exactly give a reason for staying either. Things between you and Scott were ‘glacial,’ as Bobby put it. It took some time but eventually that passed as well.”

“We ‘thawed out?’” Logan said dryly.

“Thawed out, melted, call it whatever you want,” Jean said, grinning at their terrible puns. “But your relationship became what you see today. Professional. It’s no secret that you two aren’t friends, but you’re also the best team out there. There is no one Scott trusts in the field more.”

“But we’re not friends,” Logan repeated, mostly to himself.

They fell into a silence, Jean kicking the water with her legs. “You can ask him about it, y’know,” she said after a while, but Logan thought she sounded uncertain. “I don’t know how he’d react, but maybe it’s worth a try . . .” She gave him an encouraging smile.

“Dunno about that,” Logan said, not returning her smile. “Seems like a bad idea to dredge up all that old history.”

“But if you don’t ask, how will you find out?”

The Professor, maybe? Logan thought. He wondered if Jean had picked the thought up.

“You haven’t told Scott, have you?” Jean went on. “About where you come from? How you’re not actually the same Wolverine that we know?”

Logan’s face grew stern before it softened and he sighed.

“Don’t you think that’s something he should know?”

“Probably,” Logan grudgingly admitted.

“So, what’s stopping you?”

“I don’t know, Red,” Logan said, and it was the truth.

Maybe he didn’t want to rock the boat with Cyclops. It felt greedy to want more when what he had now was so much more than what he’d had in his old life. Scott was alive. Logan was his right hand. The X-Men and the school were both flourishing. Mutants were being accepted in society. The world really was a better place. Whatever personal sacrifice Logan would have to make (because even a blind person could see how happy Scott and Warren were together) would be worth it.

Logan also should’ve known that something this good wouldn’t last, that mistakes are often repeated and that he’d have to do the cleaning up. Because that’s what Wolverine did . . . in any timeline.

Chapter Text

Scott walked down the hall towards the rec room where he could hear laughter filtering out through the open door. It was after dinner and most of the kids were in their rooms, cramming their homework for the following day. He took a deep breath as he approached the room, knowing that Logan, Kurt and Piotr were inside. He hated how he had to steel himself before facing Logan, to make sure the proper façade was in place in front of his team. He wasn’t immune to the shifting dynamics between himself and Wolverine. He doubted anyone else could sense it – it hadn’t gone that far – but the slightest alteration in their dynamics was perceptible to him. Though the other X-Men would probably never suspect it, he knew Wolverine better than anyone else, save for Jean. It was their intuitive understanding of each other that made them so effective in the field. But something had changed. Logan was different and Scott knew it.

Scott traced Logan’s change in demeanor back to the morning of the White House presentation when Logan had appeared in the Professor’s office, disoriented and obviously late for class. He’d looked at Scott with something akin to wonder or sheer amazement. He’d even placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder, a gesture so uncharacteristic that Scott had tracked the motion with his eyes. The action hadn’t made sense.

It’s good to see you, Scott.

The words that had followed had made even less sense. Logan’s tone implied that he hadn’t seen Scott in years, which was preposterous since they’d seen each other at dinner the night before and then in the rec room for the after-dinner movie. The previous evening had been Team Movie Night, a tradition that Scott had instituted years ago. It had even been Logan’s turn to select the film, which explained why they’d ended up watching The Magnificent Seven. Logan loved the classic Westerns and Yul Brynner was a kindred soul.

At first, Scott had attributed Logan’s reaction to him the morning of the White House presentation as the possible effects of a hangover. Maybe Logan and Kurt had gone on a bender after the film. It would be unusual, but not unheard of. Now he knew for certain that that hadn’t been the case. Logan really was different. He was still Scott’s right-hand and, barring one or two odd hiccups in the field, they were still a flawless team. But Logan seemed . . . kinder . . . to him somehow, mellower, even docile at times. There was no trace of the antagonism that still occasionally underpinned their interaction. Now Logan was so responsive to Scott’s actions, to Scott’s every move. And he was hovering, dammit! Logan always seemed so near, his presence so acute. Sometimes Scott would catch the other man staring at him when Logan thought he wasn’t paying attention. And those looks! They were filled with fondness and affection, as though Logan couldn’t believe that Scott was actually there. Scott found it unnerving. Logan did not look at him in that way. At least, he hadn’t done so in a very long time.

“Wolverine,” Scott said, making a quick survey of the rec room when he entered, his gaze eventually landing where Logan, Kurt and Piotr were playing cards. “I need you.”

Logan glanced at him briefly and nodded before putting down his cards with a flourish. “Read ‘em and weep, boys,” he told his companions.

There were loud groans from Kurt and Piotr.

“Are you sure he is not cheating?” Piotr asked Kurt.

“Why is it whenever I win a hand someone automatically assumes I’m cheating?” Logan asked in mild exasperation as he stood up. “I ain’t Cajun.”

“Gambit doesn’t need to cheat,” Kurt reminded everyone. He turned his attention to Cyclops. “Are you sure you don’t need us as well, Scott?” he asked.

“Just Wolverine,” Scott confirmed. “Enjoy the game,” he added, before he left the room. A few moments later, Logan fell into step beside him, as Scott knew he would. “I just received a call from Hank,” Scott began, going straight into the mission briefing without any preamble. “He received an interesting tip from the Bureau of Mutant Affairs about a potential mutant slave trade happening in Detroit.”

“Slave trade?” Logan repeated. “Thought that was stamped out stateside.”

“The X-Men have taken down the major syndicates,” Scott agreed. “But something like that can’t be eradicated completely, not when the demand for mutants is still so high, especially in the developing world. Most of the illegal experimentation has simply shifted to countries that don’t have the same laws as us to protect mutant rights or where the enforcement of those laws is lax. There’s a rumor that the Chinese triads have become the major player in the slave trade.”

Logan grunted his displeasure. Scott knew that mutant experimentation was high on Wolverine’s list of despicable things that would never be tolerated, no doubt due to Logan’s own brutal past.

“Hank’s already in Detroit,” Scott went on. “I told him we’d meet him there. This is just a reconnaissance mission – data gathering – but we could use your tracking skills.”

“Whatever you need,” Logan said off-handedly, but the reply still gave Scott pause. That was not a normal Wolverine response, but Scott pushed the thought aside. They had a mission to focus on.

* * * * *

Hank was waiting for them in the side street of a rundown industrial complex in what used to be the heart of Detroit’s automotive industry, now left to ruin and urban decay. He was fidgeting with his X-Men uniform.

“Good to see you in uniform, Beast,” Scott said, as he and Logan neared their teammate.

“Ah, yes,” Hank said, looking up. He tapped his belly. “It’s a bit snug,” he admitted. “But it still fits.”

“Fits just fine,” Logan added. “Nice to have you in the field again.”

Hank’s eyes were twinkling. “Being the White House liaison doesn’t quite provide the same sort of workout,” he said.

“Bet they have a great gym, though,” Logan joked.

“It is a very impressive gym,” Hank agreed.

“What do you have for us?” Scott interrupted. Pleasantries were nice, but they were there for recon.

Hank pulled out a data pad. “I’ve already done a quick scan of the building,” he said, his tone becoming businesslike. “No signs of life, mutant or otherwise. If this was a holding or processing facility of some kind, it’s been abandoned. There’s been no activity in the area since I arrived. I’ve also had this place on satellite surveillance since the tip came in.”

“NSA?” Scott questioned at the same time that Logan said, “Really makin’ use of those White House connections.”

Beast coughed, slightly embarrassed. “Ah, S.W.O.R.D. actually,” he corrected both of them.

Wolverine’s wolfish grin only grew as Scott said, “Is Agent Brand watching us now?”

“Most likely,” Hank replied.

“Ya know it’s true love when your girlfriend stalks you through orbiting alien satellite systems,” Logan said.

“How large is this complex?” Scott went on, redirecting the conversation back to the mission.

“Too large for the three of us,” Hank answered. “I recommend, however, that we limit our search to this main building. It’s the one that shows the most recent signs of activity.”

“All right, then,” Scott said. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”

* * * * *

The building that Hank had referred to was a rather large warehouse whose main floor could easily have been used as a production and manufacturing line of some sort, but instead had probably been a holding facility judging by the regular marks left behind by the cages used to contain the mutants. A handful of cages were still there, discarded in one corner of the building, some of them with broken hinges. Perhaps some of the mutants had managed to escape during the evacuation. At least, that’s what Scott hoped.

“Not very high tech,” Logan observed, his claws effortlessly slicing through the iron cages.

“They needn’t be,” Beast replied. “Captured mutants are heavily drugged in preparation for transport,” he explained.

“The more powerful mutants are fitted with collar dampeners,” Scott added, “to counteract their mutation. That’s where the technology goes.”

“Cyclops, I’m going to look around up there.” Beast motioned to the second floor where a large office space overlooked the main floor. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and find something – documentation, a discarded hard drive – any kind of clue to give us an idea of what we’re dealing with.”

“I’ll help you search in a moment,” Scott said, but his focus was on Wolverine. Logan had that preternatural stillness about him that meant he was highly attuned to something.

“What is it?” Scott asked, as he approached the other man. Beast had already leaped onto the metal staircase leading to the office.

“There’s someone here,” Logan said, very quietly.

“Beast said –”

“I know what Beast said,” Logan cut him off. “And I’m tellin’ ya, there’s someone here. I can hear ‘em and I can smell ‘em.”

Scott knew better than to doubt Logan’s senses. “Where?” he asked instead.

Logan nodded to their right. The area was completely dark. If there was something to be seen, then Scott certainly couldn’t see it.

“Are they watching us?” Scott asked.

“They were,” Logan answered. “They’re on the move.” Without further warning, Wolverine was off and Scott had no choice but to follow, even though every instinct of his told him not to jump into an unknown situation. Apparently, some of Logan’s bad habits were rubbing off on him too.

“Beast,” Cyclops said, activating his communicator as he ran after Wolverine. “Logan and I are in pursuit of an unknown subject. We’re headed towards the northeast section of the warehouse. Maintain your position in case they double back.”

“Understood, Cyclops,” was Beast’s swift response.

“There’s a hatch here, Cyke,” Wolverine said. “Whoever it was went down here.” Logan was holding open a circular hatch, his eyes silently asking permission to continue.

“Go,” Scott said.

Logan silently dropped down and Scott followed suit. They found themselves in a tunnel.

“This way,” Wolverine said quietly.

Logan’s steps were more deliberate now. He walked in front of Scott, adamantium claws bared. Scott always got the sense that Logan was protecting him, physically shielding him if necessary. The tunnel eventually branched in two directions. Logan paused and Scott watched as the other man sniffed the air, determining which direction to take. A few moments later they had veered left.

“Beast,” Cyclops said, matching Logan’s quiet tone. “Do you read me?”

Beast’s reply was filled with static interference, but Scott could still make it out. “I do, Cyclops. There’s . . . some . . . interference.”

“Wolverine and I are underground. There’s a tunnel system here.”

Wolverine stopped suddenly and Scott did the same. Logan pointed to their left. “Door,” he whispered.

Scott could hardly make out the outline of the door, which seemed to be seamlessly embedded into the metal wall of the tunnel, but Wolverine was right. There was a door there. Meanwhile, Beast was still saying his name through his earpiece.

“Beast,” Scott said. “We’ll get back to you.” He stepped forward and ran his gloved hand over the metal frame of the door. It was a very small door, half the size for a grown man. They’d have to crouch to get inside and Logan would have a tougher time than him. Notably, there was no handle.

“Want me to do the honors?” Wolverine asked, holding up his right hand.

“Be my guest,” Scott said, stepping aside. He placed his right index finger on the trigger of his visor as Wolverine’s claws went to work, shredding the door to ribbons in a matter of seconds.

Behind the door was a room, one more brightly lit by a swinging light bulb than the tunnel they were standing in. Whatever attack Scott had been anticipating never happened and he stepped inside, bending down to maneuver through the narrow entrance. The room was small with plain light-colored walls (Scott assumed they were white or some other cream color) and a concrete floor. The floor was littered with opened candy wrappers and assorted plastic bags of junk food. There was a table and chair to one side, a lavatory in the corner and a small sink beside it.

It’s a cell, Scott realized.

In the far end of the littered cell was a bed pushed against the wall and a little girl, sitting huddled with her knees pressed tightly to her chest.

“Hey,” Scott said gently, hands outstretched in a non-threatening gesture. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

Behind him he heard Wolverine enter the cell and the familiar faint ‘snikt’ of the other man’s claws retracting. The girl’s eyes were wide with fear and she evidently didn’t believe Scott because she leaped off the bed and evaded him, making for a small ventilator shaft.

“Stop her,” Scott ordered, even as Logan was already moving towards girl.

Wolverine managed to grab the girl’s legs, but she’d already knocked the cover off the ventilator shaft and had managed to get herself halfway inside. Logan hauled her back, kicking and screaming as he repeated Scott’s words, albeit in a much louder and gruffer voice.

“Hey kid,” Wolverine said above her shouts. “We’re not gonna hurt you.” He wrestled with her (‘wrestled’ was an inaccurate description, Scott thought, since Wolverine bore the brunt of her vicious kicks, while doing his best not to snap her bones with his grip), eventually managing to pin her down. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old, her light-colored hair a mass of tangles behind her as she glared at both Scott and Logan defiantly.

Scott leaned over the two of them.

“Careful, Slim,” Logan said warily. “She probably bites.”

As if to prove his point, the girl snapped her jaws and struggled again.

“Stop that,” Logan said sternly. “Ya really will hurt yourself kid, and it ain’t gonna be my fault.”

Scott placed a placating hand on Wolverine’s shoulder and he immediately felt the tension drain from Logan’s form. “My name’s Scott,” he said, introducing himself. “And this is Logan. Do you have a name?”

Judging by the tight press of her lips, it looked as though the girl wouldn’t respond but eventually her defiant expression crumbled and she said in a surprisingly quiet voice, “Bad men always wear black.”

Scott glanced down at their uniforms. Maybe it was time for a change.

* * * * *

The girl’s name was Max.

“Short for Maxine?” Scott inquired.

Max shook her head. “Just Max,” she answered.

“All right, Max,” Scott said. “Are you the only one here?”

By now, Scott was sitting on the bed with Max beside him. She’d opened what looked like her last Snickers bar and was munching on it as they spoke. Wolverine had taken a sentry position beside the ripped doorway.

“Yes,” Max said, after she’d swallowed the chocolate. “Everybody else left.”

“When did they leave?”

“A couple of days ago.”

“And you’ve been here by yourself since then?”

Max nodded solemnly. She tentatively offered her half-eaten Snickers bar to Scott. The girl still had some manners, Scott thought. “Thank you, but I’m fine,” Scott told her. “Go ahead and finish it.”

“Cyclops.” Beast’s voice came through the communicator. “Is everything all right down there?”

Scott noted how clear the reception was in Max’s cell as opposed to out in the tunnel.

“We’re fine, Beast,” he answered. “We have a guest.”

“A guest?” Beast’s interest was evidently piqued.

“A little girl named Max. We’ll bring her up. Did you find anything?”

“Still perusing, but it’s not looking particularly hopeful,” Beast replied.

“We’ll join you in a few minutes,” Scott said. He looked at Max. “It’s probably a good idea if you come with us. It’s not safe to stay here on your own.”

Max looked at him seriously. “I should wait for my Papa,” she said. “He said I was special. I know he’ll come back for me.”

“Who is your Papa?”

“They call him the Preacher.”

“Did your Papa run this place?”

“Oh no,” Max said, shaking her head. She dropped her voice. “This place was run by bad men. They always wore black and carried big guns. That’s why Papa gave me my own room. He didn’t want me mixing with the others.”

“The others?”

“The ones they kept upstairs.”

“You mean mutants,” Logan interrupted.

Max turned to look at him. “They were special too,” she agreed. “But not like me.” She glanced back at Scott. “Are you special?” she asked him curiously.

“Yes,” Scott replied. He tapped his visor. “That’s why I have to wear these. Otherwise I might hurt someone.”

“And you?” Max asked Logan.

In response, Logan lifted his left hand and very slowly extended his claws. Max wasn’t afraid of the intimidating blades. She watched them extend in awe and then laughed in delight.

“The bad men would’ve liked you,” she said, smiling.

Logan retracted the claws in the blink of an eye. “I bet I would’ve liked them too, kid,” he agreed with one of his wolfish smiles. Despite Logan’s clearly ironic tone, Scott smiled as well.

“Max,” Scott said, returning his attention to the girl beside him. “Why don’t you come with us?” he asked, making it seem as if Max had a choice. It was always better if children came of their own free will. “We’ll help you find your Papa.”

Max thought long and hard about Scott’s offer. “I don’t know you,” she said at last. “Papa always says never to trust strangers.”

“That’s good advice, but you can trust us,” Scott said sincerely.

‘Sure ya can trust us,” Logan added. “We’re the X-Men.”

* * * * *

Beast’s search of the office area turned up one badly damaged hard drive, a handful of documents that hadn’t made it to the paper shredder and a matchbook with a logo that none of them recognized.

“And who is this young miss?” Beast asked, when Scott and Logan turned up with Max.

“This is Max,” Scott said, introducing the pair. “Max, this is our friend Hank.”

“You’re blue,” Max said, shaking Beast’s hand.

“That’s very observant of you, Max,” Hank said good-humoredly, but not unkindly.

Hank was left with entertaining duties, which was a good thing since he was the best with kids among the three of them. He sat at the back of the Blackbird with Max, talking amiably and getting the young girl to open up.

“Not going back to D.C.?” Logan had asked him as they boarded the Blackbird.

“I’ll head back tomorrow,” Hank had replied.

It was no secret that Hank also wanted to run some preliminary tests on Max when they returned to Westchester. Hank was a genius and a diplomat, but first and foremost, he was still a scientist.

“She is extraordinary,” Hank told Scott when they were back at the X-labs. “Her mutation prevents her from being detected by electronic systems. She doesn’t appear on heat sensors or any other traditional monitoring devices. She might as well be invisible.”

“Special indeed,” Scott agreed. “This also explains why she didn’t show up on your satellite surveillance.”

“It also makes diagnosing her extremely difficult,” Hank added. “I suspect that she won’t register on any of our medical equipment.”

“If it comes to it, you can use a temporary dampener to take her readings,” Scott advised.

Beast’s nose crinkled in distaste. “You know how I feel about dampeners, Scott,” he said disapprovingly.

“It’s a last resort,” Scott assured him. “We’ll explain to Max what we’re doing and we’ll get her permission first.”

“In that case, I’ll leave you to do the explaining,” Hank replied with a grin.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Scott asked, taking note of Hank’s amused tone.

“Only that our guest seems to have developed a definite fondness for you,” Hank answered.

“Me?” Scott said, surprised. “You’re the one who kept her company on the Blackbird.”

“Yes, largely fielding questions about you, the X-Men and the school. She’s quite smitten, Scott.”

Scott shook his head. “She’s seven.”

“A very impressionable age.”

“I’ll tell you who made an impression on her – Wolverine.”

“Logan makes a strong first impression,” Hank agreed. “Whether it’s for good or for ill.”

“Does he seem different to you?” Scott asked, seemingly out of the blue.

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t quite explain it,” Scott admitted. “But he hasn’t been himself these past few weeks.”

“Has it affected his performance in the field?”

“No.”

“Then why does it concern you?”

“That’s a bit harsh, Hank.”

Beast shrugged. “I’m merely stating the obvious,” he replied calmly. “You and Logan have a purely professional relationship. If something were troubling him, he would not confide in you and nor would you ask after him unless you felt that his personal issues were jeopardizing the team’s safety. Since that does not appear to be the case . . .” Beast trailed off and looked at Scott expectantly.

“Point taken.” Scott sighed. He looked pensive. “He’s still different,” he stated after a while.

“Perhaps you should inquire after him,” Hank suggested.

“And jeopardize our purely professional relationship?” Scott said in mock horror.

It was Hank’s turn to sigh. “Logan is . . . adjusting . . . to certain things,” he said with a tone of resignation.

Scott turned to face his old friend. “Logan may not confide in me, but he has confided in you, hasn’t he? You know what’s happening with him.”

“That would be breaking a trust,” Hank replied. “Give the Wolverine a little leeway,” he advised. “He’s earned it.”

* * * * *

Scott was still mulling over Hank’s words as he walked to the locker room of the X-Men’s sublevels. Since he and Hank had immediately brought Max to the Medical Bay upon arriving at Westchester, he was still in uniform. By now it was very late and the whole school was asleep. Scott looked forward to peeling off his uniform, having a hot shower and getting into bed himself. He had an eight o’clock math class the following morning. Algebra. Unpleasant.

For some reason, he wasn’t all that surprised to see Logan in the locker room when he entered. It almost felt as though Wolverine were waiting for him, but Scott couldn’t fathom why that would be the case. Still, Logan was sitting on the wooden bench in the center of the locker room, in between the two rows of lockers that the team used. He’d already changed into civilian attire and was drinking a beer. If Scott had to assess the other man’s body language, he’d say that Logan looked a little dejected. Not dejected enough for Scott to strike up a conversation, but Scott did nod to the other man as he went to his own locker. He opened his locker, unselfconsciously began to strip, exchanged his visor for a pair of goggles, wrapped a towel around his waist and then headed for the showers.

Scott would admit that he was surprised to see Logan in the same spot when he got out of the shower. He hadn’t heard the other man leave above the spray of the water, but he’d assumed that Logan had quietly done so. Instead, Logan was still there, drinking his second can of beer. Scott was fairly certain now that Logan was waiting for him. He recalled Hank’s advice and before he could really think about what he was doing, he said:

“Is there something you want to tell me?”

He’d opened his locker again and his back was to the other man as he spoke. He was aware of Logan’s eyes on him, watching him as he changed into civilian clothes. He shouldn’t have felt self-conscious – he and Logan had seen each other naked countless times over the years, and in other far more intimate situations – but Logan’s gaze felt heated, almost hungry. It made the hair on Scott’s skin prickle as he pulled his t-shirt over his head and drew up the laces on his sweat pants. He would’ve preferred to wear pajamas, but he’d still have to walk through the school even though his chances of running into anyone else at this hour were negligible.

There was the crunch of a beer can being squashed and then a gruff, “Max settled in?”

That was not the reply Scott had been expecting, but he was thankful that Logan had stayed on a mission-related topic. He shut his locker and turned around. “Hank will show her to one of the spare bedrooms when he’s done with his tests,” Scott informed him. “He’s probably already done that,” he amended, after a moment.

Logan nodded. “That’s good,” he said, tossing the squashed can of beer into the wastebasket.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Have you settled in?”

Scott didn’t know why he’d asked that question or why he’d phrased it in that particular way, but Logan’s response was immediate. He looked at Scott sharply, his expression one of wariness and suspicion.

“I dunno what you’re talkin’ about, Slim.”

Scott didn’t know what he was talking about either, but some gut instinct combined with Hank’s strange comment that Logan was ‘adjusting’ had pulled the question out of him. It had been the right question too, judging by Logan’s defensive reaction.

“I think you do,” Scott said, wondering how far he could push Wolverine.

Logan looked rattled, a remarkable enough feat given the Wolverine’s normally unflappable nature. Sure, Logan could fly off the handle at any moment – his quick temper could still be a weakness – but the other man rarely displayed discomfort; anything remotely close to discomfort was usually dealt with by his adamantium claws. He stood up and crushed the second beer can, neatly piercing it with one of his middle claws.

Ah, Scott thought. The claws were out. This was going to be more interesting than he’d anticipated.

Logan took a step closer to him. “You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” he said threateningly.

Scott held his ground. The two of them hadn’t done this particular dance in a while. In years.

“Then why don’t you tell me?” he said calmly.

Logan sneered. “Carin’ and sharin’ ain’t exactly my strong suit. And from what I’ve seen, you and me don’t exactly ‘talk.’”

From what I’ve seen.

It was a strange choice of words. It made Logan seem like an outsider, a stranger, an observer. How could that be when Logan had been with them since Magneto’s assault on Liberty Island well over a decade ago?

“You’re different,” Scott said simply. “It’s true that we don’t ‘talk,’” he conceded. “But I can tell.” He decided to lay his cards out on the table. “I’m worried that whatever’s happening with you will eventually affect the team. If you need some personal time –”

“Always the team,” Logan muttered, cutting him off. He looked away. “Ya don’t got to worry about that. I ain’t gonna hurt the team.”

“Logan,” Scott said, the command in his tone compelling the other man to look back at him. “What’s bothering you?”

Suddenly, Logan was very close. Scott hadn’t even been able to react before he was pressed against the lockers, Logan leaning over him with one hand braced on either side of Scott’s head. Scott felt the tension spike between them. His instincts told him that he was in danger, but that it was a different kind of danger.

“Ya wanna know what’s bothering me, Slim?” Logan asked, and Scott heard the barely restrained anger in the other man’s voice. Yet there was something beneath the anger, something far more puzzling. It sounded like . . . longing. “You’re bothering me.”

Before Scott could even register those words, Logan closed what little distance was left between them and crushed their mouths together. It felt like a first kiss to Scott, and it might as well have been given how many years had passed since he and Logan had been intimate with one another. It would have felt like a first kiss except that there was so much desperation behind it. A part of Scott’s mind was screaming at Logan to stop, to not let things go any further, but another part of him was responding. It was his natural instinct to ease that desperation and so he returned Logan’s bruising kiss, seizing control of it until he felt Logan become pliant, content to follow and explore.

Scott remembered how much Logan enjoyed making out, how kissing had always been important to them. He remembered how different Logan’s kisses could be, how they were hot and heavy before sex, how they were slow and languorous afterwards. He remembered how those kisses could turn into nips and bites, how Logan liked marking him (and how unfair it was that Scott couldn’t mark him in return). He remembered all these things as he steered this particular kiss; this unexpected, utterly confusing kiss that was stirring emotions in him that had long been buried.

“What the hell are you doing?” Scott asked when they had to break apart. He was aware of the fact that they were holding each other, his hands on Logan’s broad shoulders; Logan’s arms were around his waist, cradling him.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Logan answered quietly, still leaning in, smelling him as though he were basking in Scott’s scent.

Something in Logan’s actions and his words finally made Scott come to his senses, and he roughly pushed the other man away from him. “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded.

Logan must have realized that the moment had passed because his stance was defensive, even as his expression had grown defiant. He wasn’t about to answer Scott’s question.

“Why now?” Scott asked, his own anger and frustration bubbling to the surface. “Why are you changing things between us? What we have is good. It works.”

“What if it’s not enough?” Logan shot back. “What if I want more?”

Scott was stunned by the reply. Had Logan completely lost his mind? Was he suffering from another one of his memory breaks? It had happened before, usually through an external influence of mind manipulation, but never to this degree.

This time Scott was the one who stepped forward as Logan held his ground.

“You don’t have the right,” Scott said, his voice as lethal as one of Logan’s adamantium blades. “You lost that right a long time ago.”

He turned away before Logan could say anything else, leaving the locker room before he blasted something in his anger.