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Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone

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Ororo stomped her feet on the worn welcome mat in front of her door, hating the feel of her damp toes in her now-slippery flip-flops. The rain itself didn’t bother her much, but her outfit had seen better days. She gave the cab driver an eyeful whether she meant to or not thanks to an uncooperative white blouse. She dug in her purse for her old key, cursing under her breath. The large tote didn’t have enough inner compartments to separate anything; she threw aside a pack of gum, a tin of Altoids, her favorite stub of raisin lipstick, and a handful of pocket change, rummaging until she found the old keychain. Her fingers recognized the small black bottle opener she bought at the hardware store by feel.

Logan had laughed and told her it would come in handy the day that she bought it. She didn’t want to think about that right now. Impatiently, she punched the key into the lock, hoping it still worked. The door was sticky, but she gave it a hearty jerk, and it gave way for her. Old, familiar scents greeted her, such as the remnant of cigar smoke in the furniture and a Febreze plug-in, the slightly musty carpeting that never smelled any fresher no matter how much baking soda she threw at it, and the “lived-in” scent that told her it was still occupied by a human. A male, she corrected herself. A stubborn, hardheaded, selfish-

She sighed aloud and made her way into the kitchen. The apartment was devoid of her plants; she took those with her the first day. It rattled him. Logan had screamed at her retreating back, not caring if the neighbors heard him.

*

 

“Yer in such a big fuckin’ hurry to take yer babies? Huh? They that precious? Ya don’t care about the important stuff, like the photo albums? Huh? Yer jewelry box?” Her silence only seemed to enrage him further, so she spared him a word, if only to interrupt his tirade.

“I’ll come back for them later.”

“Can’t fuckin’ wait,” Logan hissed in disgust. The sound of her own feet clomping down the stairs in her heavy boots was satisfying to her ears, and it helped to drown out his voice… slightly. “Come around any time,” he jeered. “Can’t wait til yer next visit, ‘Ro. Call me. We’ll do coffee.”

“Up yours,” Ororo muttered under her breath. She was so tired, and she just wanted to be done with it. The cardboard box carrying her potted plants felt heavier the longer it took to get to the car. Jean looked worried as she peered out from the driver’s side window.

“Need help grabbing anything?”

“No. He’s being nasty.”

“No shit,” Jean pointed out. “You knew that.”

“Don’t get into the middle of it.”

“Don’t get in the middle of what?” Logan snapped from behind her. He elbowed Ororo out of the way from where she was trying to open the trunk after Jean popped it.

“Get out of the way!”

“Whatever. I’m helping you,” Logan argued as he manhandled the box from her arms and tucked it into the trunk.

“Then be careful with them,” Ororo fumed. Her blue eyes shone with hatred and were ringed with dark circles.

“Be careful? Ya worried about me handling yer crap?”

“No. I’m done taking YOUR crap. Leave me alone. Go back in the house, Logan.” His pupils dilated, and he seemed to inflate in front of her, having an uncanny ability to make her feel smaller, powerless with his words or just one thunderous look.

The honeymoon was over. It had been for months.

“Get outta here with that shit. Yer gonna tell me at go back inside. Yer amazing, ‘Ro. I love that shit.”

“Ororo, get in the car,” Jean murmured. Her stomach churned just listening to her best friend and soon-to-be ex-husband going at it. It hurt to watch them gradually fall apart, especially when they’d been maids of honor in each other’s weddings, once upon a time. Ororo was Rachel’s godmother.

“Fine. I’ll come back when you’re at work.”

“WHY?” he barked. His smile was ugly, and he shook his head. “Am I in the way?”

“Yes.”

“Too fuckin’ bad. C’mon. Come back up here. Get yer stuff. C’mon. I don’t want ya ta hafta wait on me an’ MY schedule, darlin’. Huh? Don’t wanna waste yer time. Yer the boss. Yer wish is my fuckin’ command.”

“Fine,” Ororo sighed. “Throw it out. Give it to Goodwill. I can’t do this anymore. Take it all.”

“I don’t…” Logan sputtered, but Ororo cut him off with her finger, practically stabbing him in the teeth with it.

“I’m done. Do you hear me? I won’t play this game with you, Logan. You win. Okay? You don’t have to deal with me anymore. Sell my stuff. Burn it. Post it on Craig list. I don’t care, but I don’t want to see your face right now.”

“Ya think yer the shit, huh? Yer all bad-ass and hard, now? You can do without it all, huh?”

“I’m ready to leave, now.”

“I ain’t ready for ya ta leave.”

“It’s not up to you.” Jean was already dialing her cell, but Logan caught sight of it and snarled.

“I’m backing’ off, already, Red. Put that fuckin’ thing back in yer purse.”

“Let her get in the car, then,” she suggested helpfully. Logan looked down and noticed his hand white-knuckled and mashed against the door handle, separating Ororo from the car. His nostrils flared. Ororo sighed in defeat.

Then and only then did he back away. She didn’t turn her back on him for a second or drop eye contact as she got in the car, a blatant sign that she didn’t trust him anymore. He read it loud and clear. “Whatever,” he muttered.

“I hate you,” Ororo told him cavalierly. She shut the door before he could do it for her, and Jean pulled out of the parking lot before Ororo even finished putting on her seatbelt, knowing her friend wouldn’t take exception to her haste.

“Yeah,” Logan muttered in her wake. “Sure ya do. What else is fuckin’ new.” Jean peered back at him in the rear view, and she was satisfied to see him looking slightly defeated as he headed back into the three-story brownstone.

It was time to get on with the rest of his day. The first day of being a bachelor, again.

*

 

Those first few days without him were angry, frustrating, scary and lonely. Ororo sifted through the mail on the table, looking for any that might be hers. She threw out the JC Penney catalog mailer, some fundraiser junk mail and a credit card offer. Everything else was his. She noticed an old Victoria’s Secret catalog that hadn’t been forwarded to her apartment, but she decided to cut him a break; she left that on the coffee table and moved on to the kitchen.

It was immaculate. That was a surprise. The dish rack and sink were both empty. There wasn’t a crumb to be found on the counters or floor. The fixtures on the sink gleamed and there was a fresh bottle of Dawn and a new sponge sitting on the soap dish.

Ororo felt a surge of panic. What if he wasn’t living alone anymore? She peered around for obvious signs, opening the cabinets for unfamiliar tea cups or coffee mugs, girly potholders or flowered dish towels. She was almost disappointed not to find any. The white dry erase board on the fridge had a few random scribbles on it in blue ink; she recognized a court date that made her sigh.

It was the last one. Goodbye, dysfunction, hello, freedom. Why couldn’t it be that damned simple. When did it all go to hell. Ororo just didn’t know.

Ororo hung her tote from the coat hook and headed for the bathroom, deciding to make a brief pit stop. She had to move quickly, even though he wasn’t due home for at least another half an hour. She mentally cursed her boss for making her stay through a late meeting when she made it clear that she had an important errand to run. Ororo missed the red line at Hudson Street and ended up taking a cab. It was a luxury she couldn’t afford, and it annoyed her when they hit every red light on the way down the strip.

The bathroom was remarkably clean, too. She wondered if she’d wandered into the wrong apartment, or fell down a rabbit hole. The towels were actually hanging from the rack? The bath mat wasn’t wadded up on the floor and dripping wet? No dirty clothes lying in a heap in a corner?

“Who’s house is this?”

She looked like hell. The mirror wasn’t her friend right now, and neither was her hair. It was a dripping, frizzy mess. Tendrils were plastered around her temples, cheeks and neck, curling in weird cowlicks as it began to dry. Her blouse was soaked and transparent, and her long peasant skirt clung to her, damp and crawling up her legs with every step. “Ugh.” Nothing was going to help it for the moment, but she opened up the medicine cabinet anyway, hoping that by some chance she’d left some of her toiletries behind.

Nothing. No leave-in smoother, no moisturizer, not even a lousy box of dental floss. She’d been thorough. Or, she thought bitterly, he had. What the hell? Who did she have to impress?

That was a silly question. In the back of her mind, Ororo always wished that…well, that he would miss her. Call it feminine ego or just plain foolishness, but she wanted him to hurt for her, somehow. She wanted him to pine, damn it. She didn’t want to look like a bedraggled mess when she saw him next. She wished she could seem strong and competent, independent and not like she was mourning the loss of him.

She was failing miserably.

Her night were empty and numb. Her bed was empty and cold. She surrounded herself with simple, paltry comforts. There was always chocolate in the house. She played all of her own music, thankful to be rid of his country and old metal collection. The coffee in the freezer was always whole-bean Starbucks, not the Folgers grounds that he insisted tasted the same but cost only half as much. She slept on whatever side of the bed that she wanted with the sheets tucked in at the foot. No one hogged the covers but her. No one hogged the remote but her. There were other things on her TV besides Sopranos reruns or Gangland on the History channel. There weren’t random phone numbers scribbled all over her bill envelopes, making it so she couldn’t throw them away once the utilities were paid. The constant clutter was gone, except for the intentional clutter. Ororo’s apartment was populated with houseplants, fichus trees, spider ferns, African violets, coleus, aloe, some basil plants by her kitchen window, and even a cactus or two.

She woke up in the morning. She worked. She worked out, when she actually felt like it. She called her grandmother once in a while to check up on her. She called Jean. She ignored her Facebook friends who asked her if she was all right since the divorce. What qualified as “All right?” She replayed their arguments in her head. She rewound to the night they met. The first time they made love. Those were one and the same. How could she have been so damned foolish and impulsive. What was she thinking.

Where did it all go so wrong.

She pondered it for only as long as it took her to rummage through their closet - his closet - to make sure she hadn’t left behind her favorite jacket. It hadn’t turned up in the boxes once she unpacked the last of them.

*

Logan was in no mood to deal with anyone. He craved a beer, something hot out of the microwave, his feet up on the coffee table in his socks, and Sports Center. The world could fuck off for the next three hours, couldn’t it?

His uniform chafed him. The rain made it hell to drive, and he’d taken to riding the subway more often to avoid the snags in traffic at rush hour. Whenever the train emerged from a tunnel, fat drops sheeted down and slapped the windows, matching his crummy mood.

He’d signed the last round of papers from his attorney. She hadn’t asked for much, and most of it she already had in her own apartment already. He didn’t know why they couldn’t have just filed as uncontested. They had no house to divide and no kids to snarl over… but reminding himself of that only made him more depressed.

Damn it.

The young couple sitting across from him was getting all mushy and kissy-googoo. He almost wanted to tell them to enjoy it while it lasted, that they’d forget about it all once they started arguing about dinner out with friends, or in-laws dropping by unannounced, or why she got pissed after you didn’t call to say you’d be home late…

The young woman glanced at him and looked puzzled; he ducked away apologetically when he realized he’d been staring. And brooding. And sulking. Let’s not forget the sulking…

His friends were afraid of him. Not so much the ones who were in the same boat or worse, paying alimony and child support, watching their exes drive around in their SUVs or trucks and taking their kids away from them at the start of every week. He hated it when everyone fucking walked on eggshells around him. Like there was something wrong with him now that he and ‘Ro weren’t together. Like he was missing half of himself.

That was it, wasn’t it? Fuck. Who was he, Mr. James Munroe? Life didn’t begin and end with her, did it?

Did it?

Logan rubbed his eyes, which were burning with exhaustion. It had been a long day at the security desk. He was sick of giving visitors directions and the crummy coffee and the same lame jokes from the FedEx guy. Yes, he was working hard, not hardly working. Bastard. He hated his rut. He hated that he had so little to look forward to when he left the office every day, flowing along in the same old traffic, stopping, waiting, starting, crawling, over and over again.

Crawling. He was crawling.

*

She tried not to unsettle or disturb too many of this things. Everything was hanging sorted by type of garment, pants hanging up beside pants, short-sleeved polos mingling with guayabera shirts, long-sleeved sweaters keeping company with hoodies and oxfords. A few items were still protected by dry cleaner's plastic, pristine and pressed with knife-sharp pleats. All of his shoes were in pairs? Impressive.

But the room felt... wrong. Off. She gave up on the search for her jacket, seeing no sign of the camel brown corduroy amongst his belongings. She just stared around the room. It smelled like him. It was killing her.

He still had what few art prints they had purchased together hanging on the walls; she righted one that was slightly askew out of habit. His laptop was on his desk - their desk - closed and sleeping except for the light that showed that it was charging its battery. His boxers were lying on the edge of the bed, which was made neatly except for the exposed pillows. Ororo sighed and folded them neatly within the flap of the comforter the way her mother had always shown her. It was one of her quirks. Many, many quirks. She couldn't help who she was, and that was part of the problem, at least in his eyes.

The room held too many memories, both good and bad. She ran her fingertips over the Corian vanity top, vaguely remembering an empty EPT box and used strip lying there, the window inside it blank. Blank, never blue. Too many close calls, at first; later, too many disappointments that crushed her, made her feel worthless, like half of what she could be. The master bath still had the same old drip marks in the paint and it was still chipped where he and Scott had torn out the old, leaking toilet and replaced it. It had taken months of arguing with him to finally do it, even after landlord promised to reimburse them. She grew tired of his grumbling, his constant attempts to shout her down, and his band-aid approach to fixing it, like squirting a little grout sealer around the edge of the base to stop the leaks. Nice job, Mr. Fixit.

*

 

"We need to replace the wax seal. That's what one of my friends at work told me we had to do. She replaced hers."

"Yer friend smart? She a plumber?"

"Sheesh. Please."

"Is she?"

"She just suggested it. She does a lot of home repairs herself."

"She ain't got an old man ta do it?"

"That's not the point." Then, Ororo admitted bitterly, "No."

"That explains it."

"Please fix it."

"I'll fix it when I fix it. Don't worry about it." She knew her scowl was mulish but Ororo didn't care. "What? Ya know so much about home repairs, now?"

"I could help you. And I've fixed things before!" she snapped.

"Yeah. Using yer shoe as a hammer ta hang a picture on the wall ain't the same." Ororo's cheeks burned; okay, maybe she had used her damned shoe. Might help if he'd ever put away his tools...

"Fuck off," she muttered as she retreated to the stove. Ororo stirred a pot of pinto beans and lifted the lid on her skillet of yellow rice.

"Have ya tasted that yet?"

"Yes."

"Did ya season it?"

"Yes," Ororo claimed.

"Here." Logan edged her out of his way, to her resentment, and he grabbed the salt container.

"Put that down," she commanded.

"Nah. Ya didn't season it. I know ya didn't. Quit tryin' ta tell me how ta fix shit, since ya don't know how, and learn how ta cook, instead." He poured an indecent amount of salt into the thick brown broth before she grabbed it from his hand again.

"No. No more. You don't need it." She took a spoon and scooped what she could see of the salt from the beans before he could stir it in. "I hate it when it's too salty."

"You don't give it enough flavor," he countered, shaking his head as though she was a child of five.

"There's nothing wrong with my beans. Add salt at the table. Not the pot."

"I'm addin' it at the table, too, what's yer point?" He picked up the Mortons can again and attacked her skillet. Ororo tsked loudly.

"I hate that. I hate when you do that."

"Season it!" he railed, throwing his hand s up. "How hard is it to give it some flavor? I always tell you, and you never listen, 'Ro! You always make this crap -"

"CRAP? Now my food's CRAP?" He backed down for a moment. He'd reached that point of pushing her too far, and inwardly, Logan cringed, but he pushed those misgivings aside.

"Look, 'Ro-"

"No. YOU look. If you want something different, YOU cook."

"Now I've gotta cook, when I'm already working fucking ten hours a day? Get over yerself!"

"I work. I cook. It's not rocket science. If I can do both, so can you."

"Nah. Yer throwin' that out there instead of just tryin' a little harder to cook something anyone actually wants to eat."

Ororo tasted metal and heard blood rushing in her ears. "Fine." She shrugged and pushed past him a little too roughly, heading for the sauce pan. She upended it directly into the sink and ran the disposal.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"You're wrong with me," she assured him calmly. "You and your big mouth." He blocked her grab for the rice skillet, and his grip was too firm, almost too rough. She twisted her hand and her whole arm tensed dangerously. "Leggo."

"Back off and simmer down. I don't like yer tone. Calm down."

"I don't like you. You don't want the rice, don't eat it. Let me get rid of it."

"I didn't say I didn't want the rice."

"Yes, you did."

"No, I didn't. I said it needed flavor."

"Let go."

"No. Yer gonna finish helping me make dinner."

"I was already making dinner. I didn't ask for your help."

"Maybe I wanna cook with ya."

"No. You just want to insult me."

"I wasn't insultin' ya."

"The hell you weren't." He still hadn't let go of her wrist. Every time he would relax his grip a little, she would try to twist herself free, but then he'd close it up like a vise.

"I wasn't."

"You insulted me," she asserted. "You DID. Whether you think you meant to or not. And you don't think you were wrong. I'm tired of that."

"Fine. I thought the beans didn't have any flavor. You don't listen when I tell you how I like them." His shrug was cavalier, and even though he had defused, she felt herself boiling, feeling an invisible lid over her scalp rattling from the heat bubbling inside of her.

"You always go too far."

"You take everything too goddamned hard."

"Fine. Sure. You're not insensitive. I just take things too hard."

"Help me finish."

"I'm not in the mood."

"Make dinner!"

"NO! LET GO!" Ororo finally wrested herself free, swatting away his hand, and she swatted the Mortons can across the room. Salt streamed through the air, landing all over the linoleum. Her heart pounded and she just wanted to get away from him. Adrenaline fueled her, hardening her voice and turning her eyes into narrow, deadly slits. "You're not going to be happy no matter how I make the dinner! You're NEVER happy with anything I do, anyway! Feed yourself! Or don't! But leave me alone, Logan Howlett! Do you hear me? Just leave me alone. Don't talk to me."

"Yer gonna just walk out and leave a mess?"

"Like you care. You'll leave it, too." She was tired of picking up after his socks and clothes that he dropped on the floor of whatever room where he took them off. She made a dash for the bathroom and locked the door. The slam satisfied her, but it knocked the shampoo bottle off the edge of the shower door and unto the floor, breaking the pump off the top. Gooey shampoo oozed into the bath mat; Ororo cursed and muttered as she rinsed it out at the sink.

He knocked impatiently. "Ro. C'mon."

"Go away. I'm not speaking to you."

"C'mon. Let's go out ta dinner."

"Go by yourself."

"I don't wanna eat alone. I wanna eat with you."

"Too bad. It's nice to want things. Go away."

"No. Come outta there."

"No. I'm done talking with you tonight."

"I'm not done talking with you."

"Yes, you are."

"I am, huh?"

"Yes, you are," she repeated, annoyed.

"Gads... Ororo, come out. Let's eat."

"I'm not going out."

"I'll bring something home."

"Don't bother."

"I'm starving. I know you are, too."

"I lost my appetite."

"Jesus..." She could almost visualize him wiping his palm over his face, his typical gesture of defeat.

He surprised her with his retreating footsteps. "Yer amazing. I love this shit. Ya don't get yer own way, and ya have a tantrum."

"You have nothing to do with it," she muttered, not giving him the pleasure of getting a rise out of her. Not openly.

She heard the angry jingling of his keys and the rustle of his coat. His footsteps were heavier as they headed down the corridor. He had his shoes on. "Starve. All right? That make ya happy?" He slammed the front door, not caring what the neighbors thought. Ororo figured they must figure the Howletts were psycho by now... ah.

Who cared?

Enough was enough. She wondered why she stayed. She glanced down at her gold band and engagement diamond and toyed with it in annoyance.

Why.

*

 

Logan remembered camping trips that she'd skipped, or the ones where she complained the whole way down the road. Baseball games. Work parties. Disneyland. She'd skipped more shit than he could count, and it drove him nuts.

Ya never wanna do anything with me anymore.

You never want to do anything that I like.

Ya never suggest anything.

It was an old argument, one he could quote verbatim. And he had, on bad days. The bad ones were becoming the norm.

*

 

Ororo was tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Peaceful periods between them were delicate and easily obliterated. She hated waiting for him to blow his top or for him to push her too far. Names were shouted and apologized for, but never really taken back or forgotten. She stopped telling him that she loved him, whether he said it or not.

 

Love ya, darlin'.

No you don't.

 

She fantasized about having her own place, of her own property, of her own name back. She commiserated with Jean over coffee, but her best friend was always convinced that they were having a rough patch. "You still love each other," she assured her as they ordered biscotti. "You don't just throw away ten years." Sure, you didn't, Ororo pondered.

So was this a mercy killing? Shoot it in the head before it got too sick? What they had between them was dying a little bit at a time. Neither of them wanted to admit that the fairy tale's "ever after" had expired.

She accused him of not really knowing her. He railed that she didn't care anymore and didn't want to change to fix what was wrong between them. She was tired of bending, she said. She could have fooled him, be countered.

She wasn't in a hurry to go through the photos. It hurt too much. She left the albums behind and didn't touch any of the frames hanging in the hall.

They were just one more thing to dust.

*

 

He thought so, too, from the look of it. That was it. It jarred her when she noticed that they were gone.

That was what was off. She felt her chest squeeze slightly, but she went to the sink and splashed her cheeks with cold water, welcoming the taste of it on her lips. She closed her eyes and let the blood rush to her head.

It hurt. She didn't know it would hurt this much. She exhaled a shaky breath. "God," she sniffled, shaking her head when she realized that she was crying. "Okay. I can do this."

He was moving on without her. He already had. Okay.

Okay.

She dried her face and hung up the small guest towel, neatening it before she left. She hadn't found her jacket. She had other jackets. Her legs felt wooden as she plodded down the corridor. She stopped at the kitchen for a glass of water, automatically going for the Paramount Great America commuter cup in the cupboard over the stove. She filled it from the filtered spout on the fridge and finished it in three deep gulps. As she went to set the cup on the counter, something red and blue caught her eye.

A tiny souvenir magnet frame. Ororo and Logan, an image of them when they were happy together, crammed into a little one-and-a-half inch square.

*

 

Logan stopped at Safeway for some takeout chicken that he didn't even like, but he wanted something he didn't have to cook. Some part of him reasoned that if he opened the refrigerator, he'd find science projects that used to be edible food leering at him through the clear Rubbermaid containers.

Trips to the supermarket were brief and perfunctory these days. Logan never found himself buying some of the weird ingredients Ororo insisted she needed. Conversely, he didn't have to listen to her complaints about his sports drinks or shakes anymore, or how he spent more money on steak when he went shopping instead of buying chicken like she did. There was still something so disjointed about buying food for one, despite how liberating it was. Eating in was a sensible option if he wanted to eat at all. Logan's court costs were emptying his pockets and giving him indigestion.

He missed her humming in the kitchen and sneaking up on her when she was dancing by the sink, swaying and shaking her ass to whatever she had playing on the stereo. The familiar scent of her favorite tea and expensive coffee beans was gone.

James Logan Howlett broke down and did the unthinkable when he finally reached his darkest, lowest point after Ororo left: He hired a shrink. Not for too long. The first visit was awkward and made him feel foolish, white-knuckling the arms of the chair in the tiny office that smelled like hand sanitizer and mints. Logan spent the better part of an hour answering questions gruffly, defensive and frustrated, but something inside him loosened and released. He scheduled a second visit. No, he didn't feel any different, he insisted. He hadn't had any revelations. Did he hate her? No.

Yes.

Well, no.

It hurt that he was conflicted, and it confused the hell out of him.

Three visits soon turned into three months. Logan found out that he was angry, not just at his ex, but... about damn near everything. He had attachment issues. He was insecure, which led to him being jealous. He was mad at his father. He was afraid of abandonment, but he masked it by pushing people further away, putting up a front that he didn't need anyone to keep them from seeing him as weak. Having himself decoded and unraveled didn't make Logan like himself any better.

Realizing, to some extent, why Ororo left made him hate himself. Fat raindrops pelted him as he rushed out through the double doors and ran down the crowded street. The sky didn't pity him. No sunlight broke through the cloudy gray soup overhead.

*

She stared at the magnet, myriad emotions swelling in her chest. Her mouth tasted like paste. She reached for it, feeling the stubborn tug of the magnet behind the picture, not wanting her to remove it from its home. Logan's blue eyes stared back at her, and there was nothing mournful in their depths.

But still... still...

*

He jogged upstairs, feeling the plastic bag handles bite into his roughened fingers. The handful of white bill envelopes was spattered with rain, distorting his name as the ink ran across the paper. He dug in his pocket for his keys, wondering for a moment why his welcome mat seemed so damp. Had someone been looking for him? Logan grunted, then keyed the lock. If anyone was in there trying to mug him, they were in for an unpleasant-

"What...?"

The lights were on. The door opened with a light push before he'd even turned the lock pin. "Who's here?" he bellowed as he hurried inside with loud, brisk steps. He saw footprints in his carpeting automatically, out of long habit of living in an apartment in one of the busiest cities in the world. It was why he vacuumed his apartment every day, to fluff up the pile. Cheapest alarm system in the world.

Nothing looked out of place. Nothing was missing, like the TV or stereo. Nothing was broken at first glance. There was no draft, like someone had come into his house through a window...

The low creak of his kitchen floor made his pulse speed up. "Who's in here?" he repeated, anger rising in his voice. Logan flung his bills and bag on the coffee table and went after the intruder, resentful at having his peace disturbed. He barged into the kitchen and demanded, "Whaddya think yer do- ...'Ro?"

"Shit," his ex hissed at him, startled by the sight of him. She dropped the small object in her hand with a low thunk.

She was dripping from head to toe. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold outside and her clothes clung to the ripe curves of her body. And she didn't look very happy to see him.

*

He looked thinner, at first glance. His cheekbones were sharper and the hollows were deeper. She could swear that a few more grays had invaded his jet black waves, which were slick as a seal's from the rain. His blue eyes pinned her, raking over her and taking in every detail. Instantly she hated how she looked, feeling as though she was lacking, somehow. Inadequate.

She shoved her uncertainty aside and straightened up, narrowing her blue eyes. “I’m not staying,” she insisted as she attempted to move past him. She clutched her mail more tightly against her chest, and she shivered at the inadvertent brush of her arm against his chest. Her brain dimly registered how solid he felt, and her body fought the magnetic pull of the familiar, of the death of her old routine of kissing him hello after work.

“Wait,” he snapped. “Ro! Get back here!”

“Never mind. Sorry I surprised you...”

“Sorry ya burgled me, ya mean,” Logan grumbled at her retreating back. That stopped her short.

“Burgled? I don’t think so. I have a key.”

“Ya probably oughta give that back.”

“Don’t trust me?” The thought rankled.

“Should I?” He shrugged and sighed. “You tell me. Seems weird that ya still have a key, that’s all. Ya just make yerself at home any ol’ time ya feel like it?”

“I’m not making myself at home. I just wanted to see if you still had my jacket. I can’t find it.” He frowned, then smacked his forehead like something dawned on him. He spun around and waved for her to follow him. She did so ambivalently. He threw her a look over her shoulder.

“C’mon. What’s yer rush?”

“I won’t bother you. Let me get out of your hair.” It seemed like the right offer to make, even though her feet felt rooted to the spot.

“I’ll give ya yer coat. And yer not in my hair. Ain’t like ya caught me in the middle of anything, ‘Ro.”

“You’re about to sit down to dinner.”

“It’ll still be there,” he muttered, smirking as she set her purse down on the dining room table and uncomfortably hugged herself. “Take a load off.”

“That’s okay.”

“I know. Siddown.” Ororo felt a flash of annoyance, but she sat on the edge of the couch, not letting herself sink into its loft. Logan came back into the living room from the back, brandishing a plastic shopping bag.

“I saved it. I was gonna drop it off, but ya didn’t answer my last text.”

“You texted me? When?” Ororo automatically fished in her purse.

“Ya must’ve ignored it. It was a while back.” She powered on her Droid and unlocked the screen, thumbing through her messages. Sure enough, there was one lonely little message amid a long list of them from either Jean or her attorney: Give me a call. She opened it and groaned knowingly. “Just didn’t feel like dealin’ with me, darlin’?”

“You can’t blame me,” she told him knowingly, without looking up from her screen. She winced at his brittle laugh. “Sorry. I should’ve gotten back to you.”

“Figured ya wouldn’t want me just walkin’ in ta yer work ta drop it off,” he pointed out.

“You could have left it at the security desk,” she reminded him.

“Again, yer ex droppin’ stuff off at yer work? No thanks. That’d look real nice, ‘Ro.” Logan hated the polite, forced civility between them. It was almost worse than their constant pissing match. It made him feel... neutered.

“Right. Right.” She took the bag as she stood, but he didn’t let go of it. She felt her cheeks heat up at the current that seemed to pass between them, even though they didn’t touch.

“Have ya got everything else ya came for?”

“Just some mail,” she told him, nodding to it on the table. That got his back up, and he let go of the bag.

“Just your mail?” he inquired. She didn’t like his tone or emphasis, and she frowned defensively.

“Yes. Just mine.” Logan’s sigh was heavy, and Ororo could tell the toll that the past few weeks were taking on him, even though she didn’t want to acknowledge it.

He still wore his trench coat, and its dark khaki fabric was spattered with rain. Since the flaps hung open, his dress shirt hadn’t escaped the weather, either, and it clung slightly to his broad chest. His skin was rosy from the chill outside, and he raked his hand through his hair, rumpling its dark waves.

“Ya could’ve called.”

“I didn’t want to bother you. I didn’t think I’d even be here this long.”

“So now yer worried about botherin’ me?” he wondered.

“See? That’s it. That’s it, right there, why I’m worried about bothering you. Thanks for giving me back my jacket,” Ororo tossed at him. She headed to the table for her purse and mail, looping the shopping bag handles around her wrist. Her long hair fanned out behind her as she turned to leave. She was moving so quickly his mind had a hard time processing her movements.

She was leaving. That spurred him into action. Logan dashed after her as she detoured through the kitchen, before he could even question the logic of slowing her down. Her actions puzzled him even more as she bent down and picked up a small object winking up from the linoleum tile.

“Hold it. What’s that?”

“Nothing.”

“Is that mine?” he prodded impatiently, eyes sparking. She narrowed hers at him dangerously.

“No. It’s mine, technically.” She closed her fingers around it protectively and clutched it over her heart.

“Technically? Did ya take it from in here?”

“You don’t need it.”

“Let my lawyer tell ya whether I need it or not, ‘Ro. Gimme it.” He reached for her hand, but she feinted away, shouldering herself from his grasp. Her lips tightened into a thin line, and he could feel that same old stubbornness of hers rising up in her again.

He’d almost missed it... almost.

“It’s nothing important. I want it back.”

“Show me what it is, and I’ll decide if I’m gonna let ya keep it,” he argued, giving it to her straight. “Otherwise, I’m reporting it as stolen.”

“Are you threatening me?” Her feet planted themselves apart and she crossed her arms beneath her breasts. The gesture made him briefly lick his lips, but he mentally shook himself. Right. Getting back to his ex trying to take something that was his... “No. You know what? I won’t give you the satisfaction of trying to report me for theft. I hardly asked you for anything, Logan! Did I make a big deal about trying to take what was yours? Shit. For that matter, did I even want anything that wasn’t mine before you and I met?”

“Ya want me ta sit down and go over the list again?”

“No. Save that for the fifteenth,” Ororo challenged, slapping the reminder he had taped to his fridge. Their fridge, her heart corrected her.

“Show it ta me,” he snapped, bringing her back on-topic. He opened his beefy palm and almost jabbed her with it.

“Fine,” she muttered, feeling childish and mean. “See? Nothing.” She brandished the magnet at him, then snapped it back against her chest when he tried to take it. “I’m taking it.”

“Yer makin’ a fuss over that?” He looked incredulous, and his eyes crinkled with a mixture of confusion and laughter. “Why do ya even want that?”

“Why do you?” she countered.

“What’s the big deal if I want it?”

“Because it’s mine. I paid for it.”

“I paid for plenty of stuff in here!”

“Here we go again. I don’t care what else you paid for, Logan! I just want this magnet!”

“Maybe I don’t want ya ta take it!”

“What?”

They were at an impasse. She looked at him like he’d passed gas in church. He gave her his Sunday-best “Wanna make something of it?” glare and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Why?”

“Because,” he explained, as though it was perfectly clear.

“That’s not an answer.” An awkward wave of warmth rushed over her. Why were they arguing over something so petty?

“It’s all ya need to know. Give it here.”

“It’s mine!”

“No it ain’t!” he roared.

“NO YOU DON’T! You won’t bully me to get what you want! Do you hear me, you bastard?? You don’t get what you want this time!” She thumped her chest and stood her ground, and all Ororo heard were shrill demons shrieking in her ears, overruling the thud of her heart. Euphoria made her feel lightheaded.

“Jesus,” he muttered. “Calm the fuck down-”

“NO! You want ME to calm down? Are you serious? No. Uh-uh. I’m leaving, and I’m taking this. You know what? This is it. This is the last thing I want.”

“Why do you want it?” he scoffed.

“Because,” she retorted, throwing his answer back at him.

“Great. And ya know what? I ain’t a fuckin’ bully. Where do ya get off callin’ me that, ‘Ro? Huh? Do ya feel like ya ‘escaped’ when ya left me? Huh?” He made quotes with his fingers around the words as he spat them at her.

“Sometimes I do,” she confessed.

“Just sometimes,” he mused, shaking his head. The truth cut him, but he wouldn’t bleed for her.

No! Her body warred with her mind, once again feeling that pull toward him, that need to reach for him and feel how solid and warm he was, to smell his masculine scent and to shuck his wet, miserable coat and welcome him in from the rain. It was so confusing, so much of the reason why she had limited herself from contact with him.

It hurt so much. Remembering hurt so much. Hating him, loving him, needing him, all of it hurt so much. Throwing away so many years together when they’d worked so hard left her hollow, felt so wrong, but all of the reasons why they didn’t work came back to her every time he yelled at her and she heard herself yelling back.

He moved around her suddenly, and Ororo caught a flash of some hard, cold determination in his dark eyes. He was at the door in a flash. It swung open for her, and he stood there, waiting. Immovable.

“Go, then. But leave that there.”

“You don’t need it,” she insisted again, but she knew it was futile. Her heart broke a little more when he shrugged.

“Yes, I do.”

“Why?” She headed for the door, almost afraid to brush past him, but he made no move to touch her.

“It doesn’t matter.” He held out his palm. Reluctantly, finally, she dropped the magnet into his palm. The smiling faces in the photograph mocked her.

“Sure it doesn’t. It only matters if I want it.” By some small miracle, her voice wasn’t shaking yet. Ororo breezed out into the corridor, deciding she didn’t need the last word. All she needed was fresh air and a place to cry away from his ears.

 

It matters because it’s all I have left of you.

 

“What?” Ororo froze in her tracks, not even on the third stair from the top as she spun around. “What did you say?” she demanded.

He’d said that aloud? “Shit,” Logan muttered.

“What did you just tell me?” she pressed.

“Nothing important,” he insisted.

“You always do that. I’ve always hated that.”

“What?” he said defensively. He felt a strange sense of relief that she was coming back up, hovering over him and pinning him with an accusing look. Damn ‘Ro for being so tall...

“You just... mumble crap that you know makes me mad, then tell me to never mind. I hate that. And I heard you.”

“Ya didn’t hear shit.” She huffed at his denial.

“Sure I didn’t.”

“Aren’t ya gonna give me back my key?” he reminded her suddenly.

“Only if you tell me what you said, and don’t lie.”

“I never lie! Name me one time I’ve ever lied to ya!”

“We’ll be here all day. I won’t give you back the key til you admit it, and don’t change the subject.” She fished in her purse for her key chain, holding it tightly in her grip. “Admit what you said.”

“Ya gonna make a scene for the neighbors?”

“They’re used to it by now.”

“I ain’t givin’ ‘em a show now. Keep the fucking key. See ya in court.”

“Then give me back the magnet.”

“Ya can’t have it, ‘cuz I said so.”

“It doesn’t mean anything to you, but it does to me.”

She felt like a lost, hurt child again, just like that.

“It does, huh? What’s it mean ta you, ‘Ro? Does it symbolize anything to ya?” Again, the finger quotes. She wanted to beat him over the head with her purse. Ororo felt the divot in her forehead coming out as she scowled, knowing that little vein was throbbing in her temple. She spoke around a hot, sharp lump in her throat.

“It was the last time we were happy, you bastard.”

*

 

The tears fell, and she hissed a curse under her breath as the first one streaked past the corner of her mouth.

“Wait... what’d you say-”

“Leave me alone. Never mind, Logan. I’m out.” I’m out. It sounded like a death knell, and Logan felt like a fist was wrapped around his throat. She spun on her heel and tore down the stairs, skirt whipping out behind her.

Logan didn’t think. No way in hell was she running away from him again. He twisted the lock shut on the back of the knob and slammed the door after him before bolting after her. His lack of a coat didn’t register as he followed the blur of her long brown legs into the street. He caught up to her mere feet behind her as she hailed a cab. A blue taxi practically stopped on a dime, rolling down the window just enough for her to lean down and bark her destination. Logan’s breath was a ragged pant, and his hand snapped out to stop her grab for the rear door handle. Her blue eyes blazed back at him as she spun on him, her long damp hair clinging to her cheeks. Ororo shook her head.

“Off. Get off. Get back inside.”

“YOU get back inside.”

“No. I’m finished. Move your hand.”

“Buddy, this is the middle of rush hour. Either let her in the car or both of ya let me get around the corner! I got other fares!”

“Gimme a minute!” Logan snarled. He caught Ororo’s arm and squeezed it, trying to make her see him, hear him. “Ororo, c’mon. Let’s go inside.”

“No. I’m going home.”

“This IS home.”

“Not anymore. Here.” She handed him the key chain, letting it drop from limp fingers into his palm. He tried to push them back at her. Logan shook his head, and something inside him strained and tore, severing those last fragile threads. His insides felt scraped raw. “You wanted them. There you go.”

“Uh-uh. Take ‘em back.”

“Quit changing your mind. I’m out. GO.” She took advantage of the fact that he was only holding her one-handed, and she jerked her arm free. Ororo flung open the door and sailed into the rear seat, and all he saw was her pain radiating from her eyes, poisoning her tears.

“Don’t slam that door!” the cabbie cautioned, but Ororo already let the momentum catch it in her urge to get away from Logan and to put distance between them. It didn’t slam.

Logan caught the handle and climbed into the car beside her, forcing her to move across the bench seat. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” she accused. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Ask my therapist.”

“Are both of ya my fare?” the driver asked, craning himself around in his seat to stare at them like they’d turned purple and grown a third eye.

“No.”

“Yeah. Wherever she’s goin’.”

“Not with you.”

“Meter’s running.”

Ororo fumed. Fine. One way or another, she’d make him see reason, and she was tired. Her throat felt raw, she was soaked and cold, and she just wanted to retreat to her own space. Even if it was lonely. She avoided looking at him and she watched the street signs and commuters zip by as they jerked along through stop-start traffic, nabbing every red light. “Ya wanna tell me where you’re headed?” the driver reminded them.

“Canal Street and Fifth.” Logan frowned and stared at her profile.

“Tell me ya ain’t livin’ in that dump.”

“It’s not the Ritz. It doesn’t have to be. It’s just me.”

“You and every skid row nutball in a ten-mile radius! God, ‘Ro. Ya can’t afford better than that?”

“I have to afford more than just rent.” Her utility bill was outrageous, and even though she didn’t have to put gas into a car, it was costing her almost as much to commute. Her groceries were relatively meager, and she had statements for copays and deductibles that weren’t picked up by Logan’s insurance once she was removed from his coverage. “Don’t knock it.”

“This is how ya wanna live?”

“It’s my life.”

It’s our life. “Fine.”

“I’m not paying your fare back. You should’ve just gone back inside.” His nearness was wearing her down. She turned away from the window just long enough to glare at him. Logan threw up his hands.

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“I love it when I get a fare and a free show,” their driver remarked.

“Fuck off, man.”

“Just sayin’.”

“You’ve said plenty, please.” Logan resented the she was being more polite to the cab driver, a stranger, than she was to him. His sigh was a ragged, weary snarl, and he plowed his hand through his hair. “You need a haircut.”

“I’ll get to it the next time ya drop in. How ‘bout that.” Logan snorted. Ororo glared at him again.

“How about not.” The mood between them was tense and charged, and Ororo’s cheeks grew hot. The cab driver had his window open, and she was getting a draft. To her irritation, she was standing up at attention again; her traitorous nipples were stiff, hard little buttons, and she knew Logan was staring at them. She longed to slap him. “Quit staring,” she muttered accusingly.

“I ain’t lookin’ at anything.” His blue eyes darted to their desired target, and a smirk toyed with the corner of his mouth. “Cold?”

“I’m fine.”

“Damn right ya are,” the cabbie said under his breath.

“Eyes front,” Logan barked. “A little respect!” He was that close to slapping the guy upside the back of his head. Jealousy burned in his chest.

“Whatever you say, man. I’m just takin’ ya where ya tell me ta go.”

“Next time I’ll tell ya ta go ta hell.”

“You first.”

“This is my side,” Ororo said, nodding to the sign in front of her complex. The cabbie turned the car into the first driveway. “Apartment S.” She rummaged in her purse for her wallet, hoping she had enough fare. Logan was quicker, shoving his hand into his pocket. His battered wallet was shedding singles and crumpled receipts. He shoved a handful of bills at the guy over the seat while Ororo tried to argue with him.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.”

“Only thing ya gotta take care of is gettin’ out of the car. C’mon.”

“Night, hon.”

“Yeah, g’night,” Logan growled. He leaned down to let Ororo out of the car, automatically reaching for her hand. She stared at it briefly, then accepted it, and his grip was strong and warm, making her shiver more than the cold.

The cabbie chuckled. He was a huge, blond bear of a man with grizzled stubble dirtying his lean jaw and he wore dog tags around his neck, a big trucker hat, and a battered chambray shirt over a white tee. It tickled him to see the little guy trying to put himself between him and the long, cool drink of water in the clingy wet skirt. Victor shook his head and saluted him. “Don’t let the door hit ya on the way out.”

“Fucker.”

“Logan, please.” She surprised him by dragging him along behind her, impatient to get inside, even if it meant having an unexpected guest. Logan peered around her complex in distaste. There were decent cars in the lot, but the building itself was in bad repair. The gutters were rusty and several of the window awnings were torn. Ivy was growing along the west brick face of the building. The landscaper wasn’t doing his job. Logan recoiled at the thought of anyone he cared about living in this dump.

Ororo was nonplussed as she fished out her own keys and fiddled with the lock. It took her three good tries to open the sticky door, and Logan was greeted by the scent of Glade and the remnants of her morning coffee. “I don’t know why you came.” She watched him surveying her space, taking in the spare furnishings and the nearly bare walls. He saw she still had her damned plants everywhere, but it was a half-assed attempt at making the place “homey.”

“Because ya left before I was ready for ya ta go? Just a thought, ‘Ro.”

“Before you were ready? You seemed ready for me to go back when we were still together. You never gave me an inch.”

“What else did ya want me ta give ya? Huh? More space? More ‘you time?’ Was I supposed to just tell you what ya wanted ta hear and say ‘Sorry, honey, I was wrong?’ every time we didn’t agree?”

“You never, ever said you were wrong, even when you were. Don’t make me laugh.”

“I ain’t bein’ funny. I ain’t even tryin’ ta be.”

“You didn’t. Ever. Don’t you think I ever got tired of you not hearing me?” Ororo hung up the jacket that sent her out into the rain to his apartment in the first place, resenting the garment’s role in the blow-up she felt brewing between them. “Court’s on the fifteenth.” He felt as though she slapped him.

“Sure. Already jotted that down in my day planner, darlin’.”

“Stop calling me that. You don’t mean it.”

“Who said I don’t mean it.”

“You don’t.” That belief always tasted bitter, stabbing her heart.

“I do,” he said quietly.

“I don’t believe you. Don’t patronize me.”

“Sure. Throw around the psych words again. Act like ya’ve been watching Oprah again.” He followed her around the tiny apartment while she busied herself with small tasks like turning on the kitchen lights, sorting her mail and putting away the clean dishes. The apartment was spartan and smelled like her, but it lacked... something. Logan spied a few cardboard boxes in the corner beside the TV stand. “Ya haven’t unpacked that stuff yet.”

“I’ll get to it.”

“Let’s do it now.”

“NO. Don’t. Don’t touch anything.” Her voice was hard and her grip on his arm was tight and unyielding. He tried to move toward that end of the room, but she refused to let go of him. “It’s fine. Let it go. I’ll do it later. I don’t want your help.”

“Ya might as well make yerself at home in yer new place. Unpack that stuff.” He jerked his arm loose, even though it was hard to walk away from her. Logan needed something to busy himself, and the boxes provided an easy excuse. “Bet ya don’t have a box cutter.”

“I don’t need one, and neither do you. Logan. Logan, enough.” He squatted down and took out his keys again, using the jagged edge of one to break the edge of the thick brown tape. Several loud rips broke the near silence in the living room, punctuated by her sigh of annoyance.

“Fine. Do what you want. You always do.”

“So do you,” he sang back. “Where do ya want this stuff?”

“Leave it.” He didn’t heed her. Ororo watched him lift several items out of the box, spreading them out across the floor. Why did he always do that? Ororo despised clutter. “I haven’t decided where to put everything yet.”

“That’s because it’s all in boxes, where ya can’t even see it. Hello? Ya got sweaters in here. Shoes. Those can go in the closet. Here’s yer old Bible.”

“I forgot that was in there. I bought a new one. You can keep it if you want.” Logan shrugged, then set it down on the rug.

“Fine.”

“Let me know if there’s anything else you want. I need to clean some things out.”

“Including me,” he muttered sourly.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Right. Nothing. Sheesh...” Ororo turned away and headed back into the kitchen to make a cup of herbal tea. She needed a moment to think. She toed off her flip-flops and nudged them under the dinette table and rummaged through the cupboard for a mug.

“When did ya get this?”

“When did I get what? What are you getting into out here now?” she accused in irritation. She padded back out to the living room and sucked in a breath at the sight of him holding up a small, light blue sweater. “Put it back in.”

“Why? It’s nice, who did you buy this for... hey! What the hell, ‘Ro?” She snatched it from his grip and refolded it before shoving it back into the box, burying it with all of the other items he’d taken out. Her actions completely knocked him for a loop. What the hell was wrong with her? What did he say wrong this time? Her posture was stiff and uncomfortable, framed in frustration and stubborn pride.

“If you want to stay, then leave those alone.”

“I just wanted to help, ‘Ro!”

“That’s not helping me. That’s making things worse. Don’t go through my boxes and ask me questions, Logan. Just leave them alone. Leave everything alone. Don’t get up in my grill. I can’t do this with you right now.”

“Can’t do what? What is it, a baby gift? Ya got a work shower or something to go to?”

“It was a gift for us.” Her breath was shaky and she felt grief clogging her chest. “It was wishful thinking. My mother made that. She sent it a few months ago, back in April.”

“What, after you-”

“Right before. I’m just waiting for a decent occasion to give it away to someone who needs it.”

“Take it out of the box,” he suggested hollowly. “Put it somewhere that nothing will happen to it.”

“Don’t worry about anything happening to it. Just leave everything there. If you don’t want anything else from me, I’ll call you a ride. I already gave you your keys.” She felt numb and raw, and her words sounded dispassionate and dismissive. He wanted to shake her. “I don’t feel like unpacking everything and putting everything away. It’s a waste if I don’t end up staying here long.”

“There ya go, talking about wasting time. Was that all it was between us, ‘Ro? A waste of time? Huh?” His voice was gritty, and his face was a mask of pain. “Is that why ya ran from me? Is that why ya keep throwing up all these fucking walls and smoke screens? Why ya keep acting like ya wish ya never met me?”

“Don’t make me the bad guy. You know why I couldn’t stay. You’re not the victim.”

“If ya think you were the victim, then I guess I am wastin’ my time, darlin’. Ya think we just wasted all these years. Don’t you. Huh? Don’t you. Tell me.” She exhaled a long, shuddering breath and her eyes burned. “C’mon. Say it.”

“Stop.”

“Tell me that we were a waste, ‘Ro. Tell me that what we had was a big, steaming pile of nothing. Tell me that you couldn’t live with me. Couldn’t look at me anymore. Tell me that I didn’t love you enough or how ya wanted ta be loved.” His voice was breaking. “Tell me. Say it.”

“Stop it.” She hugged herself, hating the chill but feeling rooted to the spot by his words. She couldn’t turn her back on him. She couldn’t walk away, even though he was tearing her apart, confronting her with her own cruelty.

“I didn’t give ya what ya wanted. What we wanted.” He held out his hands. “And I’m sorry, Ororo.”

“Don’t. Don’t do that. Please, Logan. That’s enough.” The damned tears fell again, anyway, and she couldn’t look at him anymore. He didn’t come forward to comfort her, didn’t budge an inch.

“I know I was a dick. I know I pushed ya too far. I couldn’t help it.”

“Yes, you could.” Her cheeks felt clammy and her mouth tasted dry. The microwave dinged, announcing that her tea water was done, but she didn’t make any move to go get it.

“I knew ya were already tired of me. I wanted ta stop it. I wanted ta make things better, but I kept shooting myself in the foot. Part of me wanted to get it over with, let things die between us, make it quick instead of letting it drag out.” She let out a wounded little cry and hid her eyes behind her fingers.

“Nothing...”

“What?”

“Nothing I did... was ever right,” she said haltingly. “All you did was criticize and point out everything that was wrong. Everything was always wrong with me. I don’t know who or what you were comparing me to, Logan, but I sure wasn’t that person that you were trying to turn me into. I’m still the same person I was when we first met, but you must have had some idea that I was someone else. I don’t know who you thought I was when you met me. I can’t even say that I wish I hadn’t met you. You just don’t know me.”

“You were my wife, Ororo. And yer tellin’ me I didn’t know you? Really?” She floored him. Confusion made his mind swim, and he was going down fast.

“I don’t remember... the last time we were just happy. I can’t remember just when it was that... that we weren’t here. Stuck in this same rut. Feeling like any moment everything would just fall apart. I don’t know how to get there again with you.”

She turned away from him and headed toward the kitchen on wobbly legs. “I’ll call you a ride-”

She never saw him move so fast. He was in front of her, suddenly, and she practically fell over him when he dropped to his knees - to his knees - and tugged on her hands. He gripped them so tightly that she gasped, and he bowed his head, just holding on to her.

What the hell?

She tried to ease her hand loose, but he clung to her skirt instead and gripped the back of her leg, and she overreacted, thinking he wanted to knock her down. He clung to her... he didn’t look up at her. He held her immobile, and his head was pressed against her abdomen, just below her thundering heartbeat.

He was so warm. The chill in her body seeped out and drained away with his contact, his scent and the feel of his firm skin and crisp, slick hair sifting through her fingers. Her hands mapped out the tension in his neck and traveled the cords of muscle in his shoulders and broad back, memorizing them by touch.

“Ya killed me when ya left, darlin’. And yer killin’ me again. Don’t tell me I don’t love ya. Don’t tell me ya don’t believe me when I tell ya how much I need you. And don’t, no matter what ya fucking do, tell me I don’t know you.” His fingers tangled in the back of her blouse and her skirt. “I love you. I still do, even if it’s too damn late for us, ‘Ro.”

Words wouldn’t make things right. Her fingers stroked his hair, a privilege she missed, no, longed for on so many lonely nights. She was no longer rigid; her body sagged against him, bending to cover him, to shelter him with her essence. She knew this man, knew his pain and longing because it mirrored hers, and the need to cling to him, hold him, to anchor herself to him overwhelmed everything else. She held onto him so tightly, and the taste of his skin when she kissed his temple mingled with salty tears. She wasn’t sure whose they were.

Those were her lips, buried in his hair and granting him a benediction. He was afraid to meet her eyes and find hatred, or even denial, but her lips were soft and insistent, marking him. Pulling him back from the brink. They trailed down his firm cheek; he leaned into them and closed his eyes in acceptance, yielding to her. Cool, smooth palms cupped his jaw and turned it upward, forcing him to see her pain, her need.

His eyes shuttered before he could drown in hers, just as she descended over his mouth. He swallowed her low, sweet moan and the kisses grew frenzied and hot. He rose, taking her with him, carrying her fireman-style back to her lonely bedroom.

They were only too happy to divest each other of the sodden clothing, caressing skin as they bared it, feeling their flesh grow heated. His work shirt was as hopelessly rumpled as her skirt, both unwelcome restraints to their reunion. They tripped-waltzed back to the bed; she chuckled at his grunt of surprise as he fell backwards onto the bed, leaving the field open for her to straddle his lap. He came up for air, breaking their kiss, just long enough to give her a mock glare.

"Did ya just laugh at me?"

"Of course not. I did no such thing." She tried to keep a straight face, the picture of pious innocence. But her hips ground down against his aching flesh. He hissed out a curse and spanked her rump. That earned him a grin that wasn't repentant at all.

"Sure ya didn't."

"I would never." He felt her muscles tighten and flex beneath his palms as she teased him, working herself against him and building up a rhythm. Oh, how he'd missed this. Ororo had always known how to get under his skin and get him out of his clothes... there went his undershirt. She leaned in and nipped his ear, making a sound suspiciously like a coo, and he shuddered. Logan was hard as a rock.

Her stockings and panties had to go. He flipped her off his lap and rolled her onto her back, following her down and letting his hands roam over her body. Hooks and straps were impatiently pried loose. Logan took his time with her silk hose, levering long leg up and letting her heel rest on his shoulder while he rolled the stocking down. His eyes burned with desire, crinkling at the corners as he gave her an almost feral smile. His fingers traced a path up her leg, teasing it as he lowered her foot to his chest. Her belly quivered when he blew on her toes, then drew the first one into his mouth.

That was it. She was gone.

She laid back and just let herself feel him take her on a journey back to when they'd first given in to desire, reliving that moment when they realized there was no turning back. She remembered the scent of his flesh and how firm it felt, how he covered her with his heat. The lines around his mouth and eyes had deepened since then, a road map of the past few years. Ororo wondered how she'd never noticed them before. Her fingers combed through his soft hair, and yes, he did have a bit more gray. But his eyes... Logan's eyes. She could still drown in them. They still consumed her. His thin, well-shaped lips still owned her as he kissed her senseless.

She still smelled the same. Still tasted the same. Still made that needy little moan that turned his insides into butter. The dark, stiff tips of her breasts beckoned to him, and he drew them into his mouth. She still moved beneath him like a wanton, still opened for him when he drew on her plump lower lip, demanding that she let him in. There were faint circles under her eyes, confirming she'd lost as much sleep as he had. Her forehead had shallow creases marring its smoothness, whether it was from surprise or frowning, he wasn't sure. Her belly was soft and slack, no longer perfectly flat, perhaps a tangible reminder of what could have been. Shame made her tingle; she gave in for a moment to the bitter memories. But Ororo thought better of nudging his head away when he bent to caress it with his lips. His eyes flitted back up to her face, chastising her. She was being harder on herself that he could be, and his expression told her, Don't be hard on the person I love.

"I missed you." He deadpanned and paused over her sex, casually stroking the mat of wiry curls.

"Who are ya, and what've ya done to my ex-wife?"

"I did. I do." Her lips quirked. "Jerk."

"Have ta twist yer arm ta get ya to admit it. Sheesh. Yer stubborn, ya know that?"

"Poor you." But she arched, straining to meet his mouth when he finally leaned down and tasted her. Ororo's leg wrapped around his broad back, stroking him with her heel.

Dusk gave way to night as they made love, not the quick, desperate joining of two people who wanted "convenience." The sheets and blankets ended up kicked and rolled off the foot of the bed along with the clothes. Ororo's hair grew hopelessly tangled from their frequent rolls to different positions, as well as from Logan's fingers combing through it; he'd sorely missed that luxury. The room's silence was marred by the creak of mattress springs and their low cries and pleas. It was too sweet and precious to rush, there were too many nights that they'd missed to merely stop. They stared into each other's eyes, marking each other with every kiss and caress. They were so connected to each other that they breathed and subsisted as one; diverging from one another would cause greater suffering than death.

She woke in his arms, cramped and drowsy, limbs heavy, but Ororo was so content. When she leaned up from him to find the blankets to cover them against the chill in the room, his arms tightened around her.

"Uh-uh," he grunted sleepily, cracking a reproachful eye up at her. "Yer not runnin' away from me, darlin'."

"I know. I'm just cold."

"That's all ya needed ta say," he shrugged, and he let her go long enough to drag the covers up from the floor and spread them over them. "Get over here," he muttered, and he felt oh, so warm as she snuggled back down with him. She was lulled by his slow breathing and the rise and fall of his chest. They were silent for a while, sharing the peace between them, filling in the gaps with touch and slow kisses.

"I still love ya, 'Ro."

"God, I hope so. I'd hate to think this was just about you having 'needs.'"

"Bitch..."

"Bastard. I love you, too." He felt her body relax, and he kissed her temple.

"So whaddya say we do about it?"

"I don't know."

"Bullshit. You know."

"It would destroy me if things didn't work if we do this all over again." A spark of hope lit in his chest.

"There ain't no 'doin' this all over again,' period. I don't wanna run around in circles and keep bangin' my head against the wall and go back to what we had before. I want to start this over again. I want you back."

"We'll make mistakes," she predicted with a sigh. Ororo propped herself up and played with the hair on his chest.

"They'll be different mistakes."

"That makes me optimistic..." Logan tugged a lock of her hair in umbrage.

"Don't talk shit."

"I'm serious."

"Good. So am I. Ororo, I want you back. I want ya as my wife, who I love, and who I'll love til the day I die. I don't want more bullshit between us. I want ya ta come back, because ya love me, too. Not because ya feel like ya weren't able ta get away from me."

"Yeah. About that. It sucks. Every day has sucked since we split."

"Hn. Ya don't say."

"Yeah. They have. And the whole "can' t get away from you" thing? It's more along the lines of 'I can't keep myself away from you. It's useless.' I need you." A wide grin split his face, and Ororo snorted. "Don't be getting all pleased with yourself, mister. I'm not happy about that."

"Ya could be." She squirmed against him when he began to tickle her.

"Hmmph..." Logan pulled her down to him and kissed away her pout, and she responded eagerly. A wave of contentment swept over her, and she felt that something that was missing before suddenly slid back into place. Ororo's spirit felt balanced and whole. "Love you."

"I know." He peeled the covers down, revealing her body to his hungry gaze and nimble hands.

"Jerk..."

"I love you, too."

 

They woke shortly after sunrise in a lazy tangle, sated and hopeful. As days, then weeks went by, Ororo's plants reappeared in Logan's kitchen, and shared utility bills once again littered the counter, occasionally anchored to the refrigerator door by a magnet of the two of them, smiling together like the world was theirs.

FIN