She was on her latest mission. It was derived from her assigned prime objective– to seize control of the Wakandan metal vibranium, slaughtering anyone who stood in her way. Codenamed “Project Death Wish” and given this task by her captors, she’d been abandoned in the Egyptian desert months ago, and had run for miles on endless miles, avoiding the roads and oasis-hopping her way south. At the moment, however, the previous sandstorm had left Rose buried alive. She burst from the shallow grave and into the white-blinding sun and began running again, ignoring the incessant itch all over her hide as sand coursed through her fur, under her pants, shirt, and cloak, trickling like fleas against her skin.
The facility that’d sent her hadn’t even provided Rose with clothes that matched what the people of modern-day Egypt dressed like, leaving her in ridiculous silicone tights that not only pulled on her fur every time she moved, but were too tight and looked like they’d come from the costume section of a nineties sci-fi movie about aliens. She’d shredded the stupid things as soon as the chopper was out of sight, leaving her with nothing between her and the elements. Although acting like a regular animal was considered the highest disgrace to the Animal People, Rose had been pressed to such limits, and was forced to frighten a poor family camping in one oasis into their tent so she could steal food and a set of clothes from their car, and run off.
Being a Homo animalia-chimera, she was heteropedal, meaning that she could stand erect on two legs, but could also run on four, as she did across the glaring sands. Her body had already adapted itself to running across the ever-shifting terrain, her pads on hand and foot hardened to thick calluses that rasped with every step, and her normally thick, soft cougar fur was thin and coarse, mats in her fur rubbed tender spots in her skin and her healing factor did nothing because there was no wound. Rose’s healing factor was different from all the other, genetic ones; not nearly as strong or attentive when it came to wounds. It, along with her power over fire, was gifted to her at a young age. She found that out during the forty-some-odd years she spent forming the Animal People, a civilization of half animal, half human creatures, into an elite fighting force, skilled in the arts of combat and healing.
She’d even learned a few things herself: several different forms of martial arts, including Shaolin and Jujitsu, how to control her fire, and use it in different ways– an explosive ball she could throw, or a flowing stream from her fingertips or even to light herself on fire, something that happened when she was angry anyway. She’d even picked up, out of necessity, how to turn into a great, metallic, copper-colored, four-legged dragon, two hundred feet long with a wingspan of three football fields.
Rose snorted at her own thoughtlessness. She could have flown this entire time! She concentrated on the flame within her marrow, right down to the core, and almost let out the beast sleeping in its heart before she stopped. The distant thunder of planes made her freeze before she remembered the color of her coat and her cloak would help to camouflage against the sands, allowing her to rest a half-minute more. She watched as two planes materialised from the wavering sky and continued on in the direction she was pressing. Good. I’m still going the right way.
Pressing onward she heaved and panted, mouth dry and physically unable to sweat from class complete moisture deprivation. Rose had been completely dehydrated for a day and a half, and had starved for longer. Any normal human would’ve died long since she had reached where she was. But Rose wasn’t normal, and thus, even after her extreme metabolism had drained all nutrients from her blood and sapped all the water it could from her blood and flesh, she still lived; virtually a walking mummy. So it was that when the caravan first broke the horizon, she nearly bolted for it to plunder what she could and run. But she stayed her hand. She knew from what the Facility had told her that the ancient Egyptians had revered a goddess called Bastet, and that she had the face of a lion. Perhaps, if the people still believed, at least somewhat, she could get the information she needed if they had it, and perhaps some water and a meal, hot or cold.
She wasn’t Bastet, of course, and she wasn’t even a true lion, but it was worth a shot. Even if her looks weren’t enough to convince whoever was in charge, she could definitely sway them with her fire-power; she’d say it was the “power of the sun”, bestowed on her by her “father,” Ra. But with any luck, Rose wouldn’t have to lie at all. She shook and dusted the sand from her thin fur, and stood up. She leisurely strolled up to the treeline of the oasis where they had camped, took a deep breath of the stifling desert air, and loped on. The campsite within the wagon circle was busy, but not too much so that no one noticed her. In fact, it was the exact opposite. As soon as one person pointed at her, ten more did, too. Rose didn’t look that goddess-like at all. She panted slightly, and her shoulders drooped, but her piercing gaze still brought all who met it to shrink away. This part of Africa probably didn’t have many mutants. Although most people were taller than she was at 5’3”, she held a certain air of power that was indescribable.
So, it was no wonder that the people stood in near-silence. Her tail swished behind her, gliding over the sand, lightly brushing at the considerable pawprints she left. The camels and donkeys snorted in fear and shied away from the predator in question, which made the people frantically try to keep their livestock from running. A weakly burbling spring adorned the center of the camp, and it took a notable amount of effort not to leap forward and gulp down the water. So she crouched instead at the water’s edge, dipped her cupped hands in, and drank slowly, feeling life course through her.
A child, not old enough to even know the tales of old times, given that they were still told in the year two-thousand-and-three, could see that Rose was hungry and lean, and offered her a lump of cheese and some bread. The first real food she’d had in months, she graciously accepted the morsels, cradling the gift in her hands and staring at it slack-jawed. The little boy smiled warmly up at her. Tears in her eyes and pouring freely down her cat’s muzzle, she pulled him close to her in a hug, still grasping the boy’s gift. That was the first shred of kindness she had been shown in twenty-seven years.
Charles called him to his office, wanting to send him on another fetch.
“Another mutant?” Logan asked.
“Not exactly. I want you to retrieve Storm from Africa. She’s stationed in Egypt, helping crops and livestock live out the dry season. Take Warren and Kitty with you. It may be a little dangerous, so look out for them.”
Logan opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. He knew that Xavier knew better than he did, and when he thought about it, Warren, otherwise known as Archangel, could fly, and Kitty, who called herself Shadowcat, could phase through solid matter and had proved useful in a pinch. Not to mention Lockheed, the little alien-dragon-thing that had formed a telepathic connection with Kitty always followed her around. “Alright. We’ll leave tomorrow. It’s storming outside, and obviously ‘Roro isn’t here to clear it up.” Logan procrastinated.
Charles lowered his brows. “Fine. But as soon as the sky clears, I want you on the Blackbird and on your way to Egypt!”
Logan begrudgingly set out to find those who were going with him, and saw them in the kitchen, munching on some hoagies. He scrounged unsuccessfully for a root beer in the fridge, and instead grabbed a Vernor’s and popped it open. After emptying the can in a single breath, he notified them of the trip, and then said, “Gear up, kids. We’re goin’ to Egypt as soon as the sky’s clear.”
Kitty looked up. “Egypt? Always wanted to go there, and visit an oasis, and see the pyramids!” She took another bite. Logan glanced at her. She was the youngest on the team, and Logan had sort of taken her under his wing, in a way.
Archangel ruffled his wings. “Sounds hot.” A thoughtful look crossed his face. “Should be lots of updrafts, but that doesn’t make it any less hot.”
“Toughen up, Warren. Whining don’t make anything any easier, and it certainly don’t improve my mood any.” Logan crunched the can in his fist, and threw it away. “I’mma check the weather.” he muttered.
He didn’t really have to check the weather, it was overcast and stormy for miles around. But he needed the fresh air, and the warm rain felt good against his arms and face as he walked through the forest behind the mansion.
Without knowing why, he started to run, to expend some secret reserve of energy he always forgot he had. Leaping over rocks and bounding down the trail, the rain lashing against him, Logan felt better than he had all week. He thought he saw glimpses of grey fur in his peripherals, and turned to look at it. It was a wolf, with a red streak down its side, and suddenly he realised that the forest around him had changed from deep, pastel green and brown oak trees to striking white snow and tall pines.
The vision of the wolf only lasted a split second, then he tripped over a stone and stumbled to a stop against the trunk of a tree. That was the fourth time in a year that he’d had strange visions of wolves. As he began the long trek back to the manor, He pondered the other visions, and found that they troubled him deeper than he had thought. They also fascinated him, and he turned over the idea of reincarnation for a bit. The visions weren’t stopping, and he wondered if he would ever know what they meant.
Rose was unsurprisingly well-accepted amongst the nomads. What surprised her was that she was treated no differently than if she were still human. She loved it. Rose laughed around the fire, and entertained the children with flame shapes, taking the campfire from its place on the logs, then forming it into deer and camels and lions, sending them prowling and prancing across the ground before they leaped up into the sky and burst into sparks. Then Rose would relight the fire and the game would begin anew. The children laughed and danced, and the adults told stories that Rose could understand enough to know what they were about.
The caravan leader knew nothing of Wakanda save that they were headed there to trade, and invited her to stay with them. They hadn’t had the money during the beginning of their trip to rent a plane, so they had to resort to cruder methods of transportation, but would fly back on the return trip. In the cold of the nights, Rose was a favorite among the dogs. Her body temperature was much higher than their masters’, and she didn’t mind being smothered by five smelly canines because she had spent many, many nights supremely cold and alone in the desert, running on and on, trying to keep warm with exercise.
During the day, it was still hot, but at least she was in good company. They sang songs that only they knew, and Rose nodded her head in rhythm to show support. In the middle of a rousing bar song, one day, someone screamed. A cloud of dust was rising on the wavering horizon, and at first it looked like a dust devil or a sandstorm, but then Rose felt the thunder through the ground. Unsure what she was looking at, she squinted into the sun and saw that there were horses in that sandstorm. Bandits!
Although he was afraid to fly, somehow, Logan found himself at times behind the cockpit of the Bird. Now was one such time, and he was as tense as he would be if he were cornered. “There’s no tellin’ where Storm is.” Logan cursed out of frustration. But then he spotted something that looked off, and pointed it out to the other two. “Kitty. Send Lockheed.”
“On it.” The back of the jet dropped, and after a moment, the little purple dragon winged out. Logan pulled the Blackbird into a tight circle around the village, and before long, Lockheed returned, settling on Kitty’s knee. “He says that there’s a caravan down there. In the process of being robbed by bandits. He counted thirty horses.”
Logan growled with savage pleasure. “Great.” He unsheathed his claws, itching to stab something, Woah, there. Calm down. Don’t get carried away. Bottle the anger. Save it. Logan took a deep breath, relaxed his entire body, claws retracting again, and brought the jet in to land. They all pulled off any extra layers before opening the hatch again, including shirts, in the mans’ cases. Rushing out, both land-bound mutants found it especially hard to maneuver in the sand, but everyone managed.
When they reached the caravan, they found over fifty people cowering behind one woman, if women had tawny fur and long fluffy tails. She stood unwavering before the horde of horsemen. She raised her arms out from her body, planted her paws into the ground, and began to glow. As she glowed and burned like an ember, she grew and changed. At first, it was hard to tell what she was becoming, but as the new form reached two stories high, gained wings and a long, serpentine shape, it was clear. The whole process took two seconds, and then, where the girl had once stood, there was a dragon.
An enormous, copper beast, spine and skull maned with stiff plumage, and great, feathered wings blocking out the entire sunset. Feathered fins adorned the base of her tail almost like a second set of wings, and a matching, though slightly larger set rested at its tip; both were angled like a swallow’s tail. When she roared, the dunes quaked, and the horses scattered and bucked, throwing a few of their masters to the ground before bolting in terror. She bounded across the sand after them, half-heartedly giving chase before firing a burst of flame that lingered on the sand before fizzling out. The people of the caravan cheered to see their enemy vanquished, and Logan was speechless. If Charles heard that I didn’t bring her back to the mansion, he’d skin me, wait for it to grow back, then skin me again.
When she turned, now back in her human-ish form, it was her eyes that startled him. They were green, wholly and completely green. Green like pine trees in the winter and new grass in the spring. Then it was her face. It was the face of a mountain lion, a puma. She was smiling, showing off teeth capable of cracking the bones of an elk in two. Her fur was haloed against the sunset, and even though she was dressed in desert rags, she was astoundingly beautiful.
The trio remained in stunned silence for a while, until Kitty spoke up. “An animal-human?” Kitty said. “I’ve read about them, but I thought they were extinct!”
“Look at the way they just . . . accept her. It gives me hope for the world.”
Only Logan remained silent, trying to remember just where he’d seen eyes like that before.
Rose laughed and talked with the caravanners as they recalled the tale that night, embellishing the more exciting bits. They clapped her on the back, laughing and acting out the tale by the firelight. Rose had a feeling they’d have a feast in her honor if they hadn’t had such meager rations. Rose did what she could to feed herself. Movement in the shadows caught her eyes. Standing up, she left the glow of the campfire and felt her night-vision take effect. She could smell them, hiding on the other side of the dune. She climbed to the top of it, and saw them, two men and a teenage girl all with an odd smell to them, except for the rather hairy, muscular, dark-haired one. He smelled like forests and sadness and anger. Rose pretended quite well that she didn’t see them. When she moved out of sight and reached the bottom of the dune, Rose didn’t head back to camp. She crouched, waiting.
Two figures crested the dune, one standing upright, and the other crouched low, practically writhing in the sand. It was the girl and the dark-haired man she’d seen behind the camp. The man reached to pull the girl down to the ground. He’s smart. Street-smart; wild-smart. He knows not to outline himself against the sky. Rose pounced, clearing the dune at exactly the level she wanted to, tackling the girl as she began to stoop. She grabbed her shoulders, and the girl screamed as she sailed down the knoll and as she and Rose rolled over and over in the sand. Something slammed into Rose’s back, hard enough to break it, though the metal coating her bones would never allow that. Releasing the girl, she dodged the other man’s feet as he shot from the sky on enormous white wings. She hurled a firebolt at him, and he veered out of the way before swooping again. Rose leaped up and caught a wing in her teeth, dragging him down and making him bleed. She tossed him aside and advanced again on the girl. One step, two steps, pounce, and Rose hit the sand. She’d ghosted right through the girl, and Rose began to question reality for a second.
But not for long. Six knives, long and sharp, skewered her lower lungs. She screamed and crumpled to the ground, wheezing and retching blood. “You killed her!” A male voice, presumably the winged man’s, said. “Do you know what she could’ve brought to the team!?”
The other man’s voice was rough and unapologetic. “Do you know what she’d already done to yuh in fifteen seconds? Should I’ve let her go another fifteen before stopping ‘er? Maybe that would change your attitude, eh, Warren?”
Feeling her breathing steady as her insides healed first, a low growl escaped her. “Guys . . . ?” Only the girl had taken notice of her, but the men continued to argue. Determining that they were no threat, except for maybe the dark-haired man, Rose got up and slunk off back toward the caravan. “GUYS!” Rose heard the girl shout. “She just left!”
Kitty was right. The cougar-lady had vanished on them. Warren had finally shut up, probably just relieved that she was alive. Frankly, Logan was, too. As good as he was at killing people, he despised doing it, most of the time. “Relax. She probably just thought we weren’t worth the trouble and left.”
Warren stared at him. “I think you’re missing a huge detail here, Logan. You dealt a killing blow. And she just walked it off.”
He was right. That was a big thing, considering that of all the mutants he knew, only one had a healing factor. ‘Course, ‘Pool aint a mutant; but he heals better than I do. “So what? Y’ know I can do the same thing, right?”
“Oh, and I suppose you can turn into a dragon, too?”
Logan growled at him, then decided that it wouldn’t reflect well at all on his position as a second-in-command if he attacked one of his teammates. “Stay here. I’m gonna go see if I can talk to ‘er.” Logan stalked off toward the group of people and animals and wagons. “If I’m not back by the time the sun starts to rise, come find me.”
The glow of the campfire made a satisfactory goal to walk towards, and by the time he had reached the fringes of the light, he saw that she had washed the blood from her fur and that she was eating some sort of meat, probably fox or lizard. She flicked her fingers at the fire, and an eagle formed from the flames and glided up into the night before dissipating into sparks. It was then she noticed him. Beckoning her over, Logan stepped back into the shadows.
“Only the untrustworthy hide in the cover of darkness.” The cat-woman materialised a little tongue of flame above her palm. Logan came forward. “There we go.” Her voice held a mild Irish accent to it, and a long-buried memory twinged when he heard her speak.
“I came to apologise.”
“No. I’m the one who should apologise. I attacked you without provocation and then just left.” She paused thoughtfully. “Is his wing okay? Sometimes I forget I can bite so hard.”
“Warren? Yeah, he’ll be fine.” It’s almost like talking to a friend, right off the bat. Logan tried to drop a little of his initial friendliness. “I’m in charge of one of a few teams responsible for, among other things, bringin’ in new mutants.” He paused to see how she would take it, then pressed on. “I want y’ to come with us.”
Her face grew sad. “I would love to, but I can’t. I promised these people safe passage to the country of Wakanda so they can trade. I need to carry out my promise. In fact, I couldn’t even go with you if I wanted to. I’d endanger your whole society or whatever you’ve got going on.”
“Believe me, we can handle anythin’ that comes our way.”
“Not this. There’s an entire facility of people who would like nothing more than a city’s worth of mutants to run their torturous tests on; turning them into weapons and playthings and slaves. The worst part is, they’re tracking me with an implant deep in my spine, and if I leave Africa, They’ll hunt me down, bring me back, and start everything over again.” Logan opened his mouth to say something, but then she continued, whispering, “I’ve heard certain rumors, and if they prove to be true, then I will soon join you. Please, you have to leave me behind.” She turned to leave him. “But, if you want, there are three others like me, Guardians of the other elements, you know. They’re spread pretty far out, from what I know of them. Just in case you’re interested.” She turned to leave.
“What, yuh got no name?”
She paused, and looked back at him with a moment’s hesitation. “Rose.”
She really did want to go with him, and she watched as he boarded the jet outlined against the sunrise. She had a hunch that she’d seen him before, a hunch that had been itching at her all morning, and then she suddenly put two and two together. Logan? The blades . . . his voice . . . It can’t be! But a second whiff of his lingering scent had confirmed it. It was the same scent that had marked the trail she’d lost years upon years ago. “No!” Rose screamed as the plane lifted off. She ran and leaped for it, but it was already too high, and she missed by quite a distance. “No . . .”
She howled her frustration to the fading stars.
By the time she returned to the caravanners, they were worried that something had gone wrong. She explained that no, nothing was wrong. She helped everyone pack up, then buried the remains of their campfire and moved on. Every day and night, save for every third night, when she slept, Rose kept watch for the black jet, but it never showed.
When the unforgiving desert became a lush, mountainous plain, everyone was more comfortable, and it was only when trees entered the picture that Rose smiled. When they camped that night, the caravan leader said that they had reached Wakandan ground, and that tomorrow, after they had reached the village where they traded, he would hold her promise fulfilled.
So it was that when the caravan reached the village outskirts, Rose said goodbye to her friends she had made along the way. Before she left, however, she was given a few gifts; a savage looking scimitar, a wooden bow and a quiver of arrows, plus a few items of jewelry including a simple gold circlet, tight bracelets that went halfway up her forearms, a jeweled collar, and a pair of plain stud earrings that matched well with the magical ones she already wore grafted into her ears. She bowed fervently in thanks for the gifts, said a final goodbye, then was off. Her first task was to find the capital city.
Being schooled in the Wakandan language, Xhosa, much better than Arabic, Rose could listen from far away and still remotely understand what was going on. A father said he was riding to Birnin Zana to pick up some more supplies to finish his project, whatever it was. To Rose, Birnin Zana sounded like a proper name for a capital city and she intended to follow them, but then an alien spacecraft zipped overhead. The people waved up at it, and Rose began to wonder if this was some new modern technology or if the rumors she’d heard about Wakanda were true. Only one way to find out, I guess.
Rose dashed after it, Birnin Zana forgotten, her form long and low against the ground. After she realised that the spacecraft was losing her rapidly, she took a risk and decided that she needed to fly to catch up. High in the sky, so small from the ground that it looked like she was a bird, she followed the craft from above. When it dipped sharply toward a hill, Rose became alarmed. Had the driver fallen asleep? She dove after it, intending to catch it before it hit the ground, but before she could reach it, and before she could stop herself, both craft and creature simply disappeared through the hillside.
Rose’s first impression was of flashing lights whizzing incessantly past her head. And then it was pure shock that where there had been something of a mountain, there was now a crater with a fantastic city sprawled in the center. Rivers and trees flourished amongst skyscrapers, and Rose, with the falcon-like vision all dragons possess, saw trains zipping about around the buildings and people below them happily bustling about. No doubt this was Birnin Zana, and it looked to be the best city on the face of the planet. There were no dumpsters in the alleys, no stray dogs or cats in sight, not even so much as a traffic jam. It was so beautiful here that she wanted to stay forever. Logan . . .
She shook her head. She had a mission. But she could at least walk the streets for a little while and look for the palace. All the buildings looked different; there was one with trees sprouting from various ledges that Rose especially liked. She watched carefully as the aircraft slowed and landed on one skyscraper that had something of a bridge between its two spires. That was a good lead.
She landed on the outskirts to rest for a bit before taking flight again above the city.
The trip back to America was quiet. After they had picked up Storm, she had tried to start a conversation with them, failed twice, and was baffled as to why they had stopped to land in the middle of nowhere. She had asked repeatedly why they had bothered to waste time searching for something that clearly wasn’t there anymore.
Two weeks had passed altogether by the time the group of X-Men had returned to base. Logan was not the one to tell Charles about Rose. Kitty had, after Warren saw himself off to the hospital ward to have his wing looked at and inspected for hairline fractures and infections. Last time his wings had gotten infected, they’d had to be amputated. Charles was actually understanding about why Logan had felt obligated to leave her. “If you had insisted,” Charles had said, “That she would go with you, you would have put all of us and everything I’ve worked for in jeopardy, and that would be far worse than letting a mutant elude us for a while.”
Logan breathed an inward sigh of relief. Charles Xavier was his friend, his rescuer. Working with him had done a better job than training with the samurai had ever done. He had used his power over a mind to quell the beast inside him, making it easier to control. But sometimes, it still escaped. Eventually, Logan would like to be rid of the thing, to regain his humanity, but for now, he was satisfied with having an easier time keeping it in check.
As far as his thoughts on Rose went, he still had a wild sense of deja vu when he thought about it. It was almost like he had seen her in a store, or a picture hanging up somewhere. Or it could be because you live in rural New York, and it’s not uncommon to see a cougar prowling around the Mansion. He sighed. Maybe he would never find out who she was, and if she meant anything at all to him. Meh. He wasn’t that concerned about it.
By the time he had reached his destination, it was nightfall. No one had come looking for him, but it wasn’t uncommon for Logan to disappear on weekends. As long as he was back by Monday and in a proper state to teach, no one cared where he went. A lot of times, he roused up trouble at the bar in the City; the bartender called him “Wolvie” and for every no-gooder he tossed out, Logan got a free drink of choice. But since the local gangs had stopped coming by there, Logan had ceased his regular visits as well. He had trouble finding something to do, so recently he had dusted off some old moves the samurai had taught him.
Logan actually wasn’t as out-of-practice as he’d thought, and it felt pretty good to be swinging a katana around again. It just felt good to be something other than a rough-and-tumble warrior. Samurai had grace and speed; they could cut a flying arrow in three pieces before it struck its target. He’d liked to go outside and cut the cherry petals as they fluttered to the ground back in Japan, but since there were no cherry trees here, he had to make do with leaves in the fall. He kept the blade well hidden away; it was not something that everyone should know about. The samurai sword and its sheath were dark red, and its hilt had black diamonds woven down the scarlet handle. The gold crossguard and pommel glinted in the sun slanting through the window. It had been forged using his soul during his time in Japan by the dark blacksmith Muramasa. It had no name, called only “the Muramasa Blade.” It had a strange power: to negate super-healing and to cut through anything. Its purpose was to kill anything and anyone.
Satisfied for now by just taking it out and looking at it, smelling the faint cling of woodsmoke on the sheath, Logan traced a finger over the gilded Japanese characters before placing it back in its hiding spot.
Trying to navigate the labyrinth of roads would prove impossible. Even from up there, Rose found it difficult to distinguish one road from another. But if there’s a will, there’s a way, and Rose had plenty of willpower and a smooth tongue to boot. It was hard to find landing space on the city’s outskirts. Eventually, she gave up even trying, and settled on a tree; it promptly gave out with a crack, and she fell awkwardly to the ground. Rose shook her feathered wings as she got up, sending dewdrops fluttering down in the morning light. She looked at her wings, really thinking about them for the first time. They look like feathers, but feel more like scales. They function like feathers, but they’re sharp like scales. What are they? Sceathers? The word felt wrong in her mind and on her tongue. Let’s just stick with feathers. Somewhat stiff, sharp feathers.
She sniffed the air. It was cool and clean, compared to that of the desert, and was laced with fruity smells. She gave a contented growl as she spied a troop of monkeys eating figs in the tree next to her. She wasn’t all that hungry, but snaked her neck through the branches and snapped up five of them in two leaf-filled bites. The rest of the troop, terrified at the russet monstrosity that’d just eaten several of them squealed and shot off into the brushes and were gone. Crunch, cronch and then she swallowed her snack, leaves, branches and all.
Rose licked her lips, changed forms, patted the quiver, bow, and blade to be sure each had materialised alright, and walked toward the city. The scent of humans grew evident, and she began to wonder who it could be. A mother gathering fruits? A father hunting for his family? Just someone taking a stroll?
It was five soldiers with gold-colored spears and necklaces, garbed in red and black, with brightly designed cloaks hanging behind them. They walked confidently, but as quietly as possible. She admired the way they walked, though not very silent, it was quite inaudible to the human ear. As they passed by her crouched in the underbrush, they were so close she could smell what each had for breakfast. She cracked a twig on purpose just to see what would happen.
She was promptly stabbed in the head. “Hey!” It didn’t go far, of course, but it still hurt, and bled quite a bit before it healed. “Owww! Sheesh, lady, watch it!”
“Who are you, and what do you want with Wakanda?” The woman with blood on her speartip snapped, unfazed at the strange creature in the bush. Now she recognised them! They were the dora milaje, fierce women warriors. She’d never met a group of warriors so ferocious as these could be.
“Hey, hey. I come in peace. I will take and have taken nothing, and have no intention of staying more than a day or two.” Rose kept her hands in front of her, and her pads turned to the sky.
“Then why,” asked a different woman, poking Rose’s sword with her spear, “Have you come to us armed for battle?”
“Because I was sent here to do something I am not going to do, but I need to beg a favor from your king.”
“What is your mission, beast?”
“I am to assassinate the Wakandan royal family, and seize control of the entirety of your nation’s vibranium.” The dora milaje closed in tighter with their spears pressing to her skin, but the warrior who’d injured her before thrust her spear through her back and ripped it back out. The pain made Rose instantly double over, and she was, as a result, skewered through the diaphragm. As she began to crumple to the ground, she reached out and grabbed a shoulder with one bloody hand. Legs weak, her vision blurred and darkened at the edges. Fighting against the urge to faint, Rose willed strength back into her legs. She stood up, feeling everything knit back together. When she could stand on her own, she patted the shoulder in appreciation.
Everyone in her presence stared at her, and the leader began to speak in the native language, Xhosa. Rose had been schooled by the Facility to speak and understand it, so it was that she heard things privy only to the soldiers. “She is a threat to Wakanda’s people.”
“Oh please, Okoye. How bad could she be?”
“Very.” The woman growled. “Remember the first time enemies tried to invade? Klaue actually made off with some vibranium, and neither it nor he have been found! Not only that, did you see what she just did? She could destroy us all, and we’d be powerless to stop her!”
Rose decided it was time to cut in. “Yes, yes you would. But considering that I’m not going to wreck everything you’ve kept a secret, you can let me go. I seem to recall telling you that beforehand, and yet you ignored me. I have not come to destroy Wakanda, but to help you in return for a small favor that would do me a world of good. But the favor must be done first, else I can’t do what I need to.”
The soldiers stalled at an outsider being so fluent in a little-known African language, but then, the one called Okoye said, “How can you help us? We need nothing.”
It seems to me like you’ve lost something rather precious, and you happen to be looking at the best tracker you may ever see.”
He must have fallen asleep at some point, because Logan woke up feeling more rested than he had in years. He lay there for a moment, relishing the moment. Eventually he sat up, stretched, and massaged the back of his neck. He looked at his alarm clock; it read 10:37 A.M. He had to be teaching at 11:00. It was a Monday, so his class would spar today, out on the grounds for now because he felt like being outside for real, and not in some fake simulation thing.
He put on a light jacket over his t-shirt and pulled out a pair of jeans and strapped them on with his belt, then donned his cowboy hat before leaving his room. He arrived in the Danger Room after a few early birds. They were his best students, two girls and three boys of widely varying ages, but all in the same class. Xavier’s policy separated students by skill and power Level. His students were on the same Level he was: High Beta.
“What’re you doin’ in here? Class is out on the grounds this week.” They shrugged, familiar with his gruff nature, and complied without saying anything, but their smiles didn’t escape him. There would be nothing too unexpected this week. Logan rounded up the rest of his students, and they all went out on the lawn. But Logan didn’t stop there. He took them deep into the forest, where the underbrush was thick and the trees loomed. Finding a suitable place, he marked out a circle on the ground with a stick about ten feet in diameter, being sure to include obstacles like trees and such. He chose two girls to step forward; Bella, with the power to induce visionary and auditory hallucinations, not to mention her very sharp mind, and the other was a semi-speedster with renowned agility and a green belt in the School’s karate class. No one, not even Logan, knew her real name, but she responded to Swift. and the fifteen other kids seated themselves on the grass. “No powers, no restraint. Bow and begin.”
The girls did as he asked, and the fight ensued. They were well matched for size, and the fight stalled for a couple minutes before Swift decided to make a move. She slipped behind Bella and sent her flying outside the ring before she landed in a soft patch of grass. “Good.” Logan praised. “You,” He pointed at a burly boy with living vines wrapped around his right arm and curling up his neck and face, living off him like he was a tree. His dark skin was even rough like bark. “You’re next.” The boy, Liam, was a head and shoulders taller than Swift, but gentle as could be. Logan needed to break that gentleness, just a little.
Liam entered the ring, bowed to Swift, and when Logan gave the “go”, promptly made vines grow from the ground in an attempt to snare her. She jumped out of the way and neatly handspringed onto his shoulders. As soon as she had him in a headlock, Liam grew branches from his back, which loosened her grip and tossed her out of the ring.
The champion was replaced a good number of times, which told Logan that his class was nearly ready to move on. But he had one more test for them. “Alright. That’s enough. Take a break and recoup. You–” he nodded to the boy left in the ring, “Will fight me.”
Rose found herself bound in high-tech shackles. She could feel the metal flexi-cuffs against her wrists, neck and muzzle, and even though it was so light she hardly noticed it, Rose suspected that it would take a considerable amount of heat to burn through it. Spears at her back, guards to the left of her, guards to the right of her, each holding one of the two chains attached to the collar. Rose held her head high, chin tipped up, and kept her ears regally tilted back, hiding her injured dignity as she was marched through the town. How lucky I am to have my personal tour guides, Rose bitterly remarked to herself, not that she could say anything if she wanted to.
The palace was a grand building, and it blended right in with the rest of the city. The circular spacecraft was perched on a platform where more red-garbed women warriors waited for nothing in particular. By the time Rose reached the palace doors, she had a hard time not trying to break free of the ridiculous things and making a fool of herself. The links of the bindings pinched her skin and caught her fur, and she tried not to move too much, but if she went too slow, she got a jab from the back or a yank on the chain. The leader, Okoye, carried her weapons tauntingly within reach, not that she could use either of them anyway.
The throne room had a wall of glass overlooking the kingdom. The king faced the window, his hair haloed against the light. The dora milaje kneeled. “My king. Here is one who claims they can help us restore what we have lost.”
“Do they, now? And I suppose that they require payment?”
“They ask for no payment but a favor, my king.”
“Of course they do.” He turned around. “Show them in–” Rose nodded a greeting, managing to give a smile through her constant pain. When he didn’t say anything, she dipped her head, her paw meeting her muzzle halfway, as easily as a cat scratching its ear. She hooked her hind claws behind the band and deftly flicked it off her snout and let it clatter to the floor, simultaneously freeing her mouth and proving to the militia that she ultimately chose to comply with them.
As soon as the band was off, Rose thanked him. “May I assure your majesty that I have no intentions of harming you or your guard, and it is indeed a small favor I ask, in comparison. If you provide me with a picture and a scent, I will hunt down the man who has wronged you.”
“And what is it that you ask for yourself?”
“I have a microchip implanted in my spinal column, near the base of my neck. All I ask is for its removal, and you will have my word that your man will be found.” Rose unblinkingly stared into the king’s eyes to emphasize her promise.
“Alright.” Well that was a lot easier than I anticipated! “As soon as you have what you need, I will hold you to your word, beast.”
“If I may, your majesty, but my name is Rose.”
“And I will address you by your name when I choose, beast.” Rose’s lip twitched at his impudence, especially in the face of her generous offer. “After all, it is you who has infiltrated our home, but seeing as you have given me your word that you will fulfill your oath, I cannot treat you too harshly.” He motioned to Rose’s captors. “See to it that she is given a proper room and a hot meal. Tonight, you will dine with me and the leaders of the Wakandan tribes that surround us. You will explain your plan, and we will vote. Then we will see whether to go along with your proposal or to keep you prisoner forever.”
“Break’s over. Back to the ring, all of yuh!” Logan singled out the winner of the tournament and beckoned him into the ring; Makaio: a naturally bleach-blonde Hawaiian boy with the power to manifest weapons of cosmic energy, as well as maintain a meditative trance that slows down his perception of time. Logan made a point of memorising his student’s files within the first week of the new school year. “Don’t hold back. Use anythin’ you have against me. Anythin’. Begin!” Logan stayed in an unassuming posture while the boy hardly knew what to do with himself. He soon calmed down once he figured out that he really did have to make the first move. The boy took a deep breath, and with a flick of his wrists, bullwhips flared into existence. He flashed one at Logan and Logan jumped out of the way, dodging in and elbowing the boy in the chest.
He’d seen it coming and had braced himself; part of Logan’s force shot back at him, ricketting up his arm painfully, but not without achieving the desired effect: to unbalance his opponent. He then followed with a back-sweep to the backs of both Makaio’s calves that broke his concentration. The whips dissipated and Makaio was forced to twist wildly in order to land on his hands and spring back up.
When he did, Makaio chose a different weapon: a glowing, whitish-yellow version of Logan’s own claws. Logan inclined his head in surprise. He hadn’t expected that. In his moment of hesitation, Makaio ducked in and slashed at Logan’s side. Logan dodged, but not fast enough. Makaio’s claws raked his side, burning hot and drawing blood, wounding him and simultaneously cauterizing it.
The students outside the ring were silent, and gathered as close to the fight as they dared. Though it wasn’t deep, the set of scratches dealt to Logan’s side were taking longer to heal because of the cauterization. They stung bad enough to loosen his restraint for a second, before he got a hold on it again. But one second was all it took for Logan to plant a double roundhouse kick in Makaio’s chest, forcing him out of the ring and into the bushes. He sighed inwardly at his outburst before walking over to lend a hand up. “Class dismissed. Mansion’s back that way.” Then he began to walk in the opposite direction.
Logan tended to find himself wandering the forest way too often, but walking helped him think. He especially liked it when he came across a stream or creek bubbling it’s merry way among the dense foliage of the wood, because then he could meditate, something he’d learned in Japan. Meditation helped heal him, in a way. It helped his heart to mend itself, or was that his healing factor, suppressing the painful memories again?
No, they were still there. Only this time, when he reached back farther and farther, he saw the happy memories there alongside the ones that made him regret, and the ones that made him feel hollow inside.
As he sat on a boulder beside a weaving brook, he closed his eyes, and focused. His mind wandered over to a deeper part of itself, one that seemed dusty and unclear. A memory there was black and dim, but as he turned it over and over, a woman’s voice whispered a single word; a name.
James . . .
With a sharp inhale, Logan was thrust from his moment of peace and into the real world, grown orange by the setting sun. He washed his face and hands in the crisp water, and replayed the scene over in his mind. James . . . James . . . Who was he? Why did he have that memory, and not this James person? There was one sensible solution, but no. That’s crazy! My name’s always been Logan! Hasn’t it? Logan found he couldn’t answer that.
He tried to forget it later that day, while lifting in the gym, but couldn’t put it out of mind. He set down the eighty-pound dumbbell he was curling with and wiped his forehead with the towel around his neck. Kurt, the teleporting, literal son of the devil, sat down next to him. “What’s bothering you, mein freund? You know I can tell when something is.”
Logan chuckled half-heartedly. “Yeah, you can tell, huh? Made the mistake of teaching you how to read people.” His smile faded as he switched arms. “Just worried, is all.”
“About what?” Nightcrawler ventured to ask. The clank of metal on metal as Colossus racked up an extremely heavy barbell drowned out Logan’s answer. “What’d you say?”
Logan impulsively made the decision not to burden his best friend with what was going on inside his head. He forced a smile he hoped looked genuine. “Nothin’, bud. Nothin’ at all.”
No one, especially not one of his best friends, deserved to deal with even a fraction of the torment and confusion that went on inside his head. It was like a revolver, with the chamber always spinning and spinning; pieces of different lives and different men. In fact, based on the snippets he could glimpse, he wasn’t even sure if he wanted his memory back, half-wondering if reliving all the lives he’d lived would drive him mad.
The dinner was spectacular, and Rose found it hard to not devour all the grilled salmon. All the food that she ate seemed to have a strange power in it, and made her feel a kind of young that she hadn’t felt in thirty years; it made her feel vigorous, alive and strong. She had eaten five fish, a haunch of gazelle, and a range of exotic and juicy fruits and savory vegetables before she was filled. Everyone took their sweet time, relishing all the delectable dainties set before them. When the table was cleared, business matters were called forth. Rose was introduced formally by the king, and then she stood and addressed the council with low eyes and a slightly firm voice.
“I have sworn to your king that if he performs me a favor, I can do your country a favor by bringing into captivity the man called Klaue. However, as we speak, I am a long-time slave to an illegal facility experimenting. They have commanded me to come here and to enslave the Wakandans, knowing full well they have made me strong enough to do it. My favor is this, and I cannot do as I promised before I have it removed: I have a chip implanted deep in my spine. It is of my captors’ make, and I need it removed, otherwise I cannot leave Africa without their interception.”
“Tell me,” the king inquired, “If you are so powerful, why do you not break free of their control?” The council murmured in agreement.
“Your majesty, I mean no disrespect, but they only know how they have made me, not how I was before, aside from the obvious of course.” She flicked an ear at a fly tickling her ear fur, then went on, “But if they knew my true potential, they would never let me out of their sight. I believe you will find that it is true that if, per se, one of your soldiers were to be held against their will, that they would find it easier to make an escape if the enemy were underprepared to deal with their true nature.” She let her words sink in a bit. “It is the same with me. I pulled some strings to get myself here once I heard of your great abilities with technology. I have earned the trust of those who have locked me in my cage, and now they have left the key within reach. I have simply reached out, and grabbed it.” By my tail, that was the best speech I’ve ever given! Did I really just make that metaphor at the end? My teachers would be so proud.
“So.” Plate-lip spoke, “Klaue for removal of this . . . chip?” He looked around at the nodding council. “It is a small thing. I have no objections.”
“Nor do we.” A woman with silver hair agreed.
King T’Chaka looked rather sulky, if one would dare call him that, before he declared that he agreed. He pressed a bead on his bracelet, and a hologram appeared of the upper body of a lovely young woman. “Shuri. I am sending you a patient.”
“Yes, my king.” Rose could only stare at the bracelet. What else could those things do, and where could she get one? She wasn’t usually a sucker for gadgets, but that thing was an instant must-have in her book.
T’Chaka ushered her onto a ship, which was autopiloted to a certain mountain, graced by the effigy of a prowling panther above the yawning entrance to a cave. The craft hovered for a second, then perched like a dragonfly on a wall. Rose exited, and found herself outside.
Rose followed the directions he’d given her, pressed the button on the elevator, and ended up in a long, white hallway, lined with tapestries and paintings depicting nothing but wild patterns straight from the eighties and distorted people. She followed the winding path until she came to a set of brightly painted stairs that spiraled downward to a kind of laboratory. The place had three tall windows looking out over a cavern lined completely with an ore that Rose had never seen the likes of before. It had veins that glowed purple, while the rest was a slightly metallic black. The cave was criss-crossed by trains that zipped softly and swiftly from one side to the other. Shuri was there, and she hadn’t noticed Rose yet, as she was readying a levitating table for use. Rose padded up behind her, not intending to be silent, and when Shuri turned around, she shrieked.
“BAST HAVE MERCY!!! You scared me!”
“I know.” Rose gave a small smile at Shuri’s loose nature. “You’ve already heard that I . . . need your . . . help . . . ?”
Shuri wasn’t paying any attention. She was circling around Rose, looking her up and down, muttering things like, “Remarkable!” or “Extraordinary!” She pulled Rose’s tail.
“Hey!” She yanked it away, baring her teeth at the nosy young woman. Rose’s fangs were inches away from Shuri’s nose, and the confident girl barely flinched away from her hot breath. “Are we going to do this or not?”
“Okay, okay, don’t get your tail in a knot.” Shuri plucked an orb from her bracelet and turned it on, ordering Rose to stay still. The orb scanned her as a 3-d diagram of her skeleton, which Rose found utterly fascinating, as she had never seen it before, appeared on a body-length screen, and statistics wrote themselves along with it. The tiny chip on the screen turned red. Shuri swiped the diagram, and it spun around. “Your bones are Adamantium?”
“Coated. And are you sure you don’t want to do an x-ray until I’m a dragon?”
“I’m sorry, what did you just say?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to do an x-ray until I’m a dragon?” Rose repeated. “It would be easier that way, considering I don’t heal quite so fast.”
Shuri grabbed a dagger and a scalpel. “As far as that goes, I’ll bring it with me and calibrate it to show on my kimoyo beads. Let’s do this.”
He dreamed of himself, in a maze. It was lined with piles of orbs, with wisps memories encaged within them. Inaudible voices whispered, just around the corner, yet never there. Logan wanted to scream to drown them out, but here, he had no voice with which to drown out the sighing, ghostly crowd of murmurers. He could only walk forward.
“Logan . . .” It was the one word that was clear. What did they want? Why was he here?
“Logan it’s me, Charles.”
“Charles?” Logan’s voice returned, and he felt relieved. He could see the spectral image of a bald man walking toward him, as if Charles were a ghost. “What’re you doing here? Y’ shouldn’t see all this . . . this darkness.” He kicked a glass ball, and the shred of smoke twisted, disturbed in its rest as its prison rolled across the floor. “There’s too much for anyone else to bear but me.”
“No. Logan, I can help. Please, if you’d let me. Right now, you’re sleepwalking. In fact, you have for quite a number of days.”
“I don’t sleepwalk, Charles.”
“Logan, WAKE UP!”
* * *
Logan jolted awake and stumbled forward. He had been standing! “What . . . happened?”
“I told you. You were sleepwalking.” It was Charles, the real one who needed a wheelchair to get around.
It was nearly 2 o’clock in the morning, but Logan wasn’t tired anymore. Xavier had done so much for him. Logan wanted to give something back, but everything nice he tried to do or say came out twisted in one form or another. So, all he said was, “Thanks.” He watched Charles roll back to his bedroom, then headed up to the roof for some stargazing. Those stars had watched over him from day one. He wondered if they’d seen all the things he’d done, or pined for him when he’d been . . . not in his right mind. Logan’s suppressed wolfish instincts rose up from deep inside him, bringing with them an urge to howl. But he barely suppressed it before it escaped his throat. Wolf memories stormed him. Being the last to eat, but fixing that by rising in the ranks. The joy of the hunt; the way the wolves and he ran like water over stones, on the trail of a moose or elk. Killing the polar bear that had mauled him and his pack.
The worst was the beastial rages. He still had them sometimes. Periods of time when he would get so angry, and something dark and demonic would take control. He would wake up, and find that he’d done something terrible, like wiping out the better part of over two hundred people. That was his greatest fear.
Shuri was on Rose’s back, right near her shoulder blades, right where she could barely reach. Shuri had been kind enough to meet Rose in the remote edges of the city, next to the broken tree. “This is probably going to be the most painful part.” She warned. Rose was unable to reply, but gritted her teeth and gouged her claws into the earth, bracing for the pain.
Rose rolled her eyes. The five dora milaje who’d attacked her in the jungle had just rounded the corner on their patrol, and were pointing at her, afraid. “SHURI?! Shuri, come down!”
“No, Okoye. She needs my help, and I am giving it!” And then she stabbed her, right next to the line of auburn feathers along her spine. Rose snarled in pain and her wings twitched outward involuntarily. She swung her head around to glare one emerald eye at her. “I told you it would hurt! And we don’t have enough painkillers for you at this size, anyway, so it’s not like we can’t put you out of your misery.”
The guards had seen that Rose wasn’t going to bring harm to Shuri, who Rose now thought of as her best and only friend, despite the gaping gash in between her shoulders and their initial start. After all, she was one of the few who would dare climb on, much less slice open, the most feared and respected creature in all of history throughout the ages. The eleven- or twelve-year-old girl was what one might call “stupidly brave.”
“I see the bones it’s between, but not the IC. I’m going to have to slice deeper. Bast have mercy!” Rose gave a longsuffering whine, and allowed Shuri to slice again into the muscle. “ARG! Stop bleeding already! Oh shoot, did I hit an artery?!” Rose’s head snapped up and around, and she regretted the sudden motion immediately after. The guards tensed, but Rose ignored them. Shuri had shoved aside Rose’s frill, but the wind still sent a few strands flying back. She gave the wound a sniff and a lick. It was bleeding heavily, but not enough to where she should be concerned. She looked at Shuri and shook her head. “Oh, that’s good. Hey, I saw it! It’s so tiny, though, and really wedged in there like, right up against your spinal cord . . .” Rose gave Shuri a determined look and snorted. “Alrii-iight, here goes . . .”
Rose gritted her teeth to stop herself from roaring as Shuri poured something into the wound to stop it from bleeding so much. She said something about almost having it, and not to move, but Rose wasn’t about to move again anyway, as it sent agonizing bolts up and down her backbone.
It seemed everyone held their breath. Then she announced that it was out, and Rose heard the clink of metal on metal. Rose couldn’t stand the constant torment any longer. She willed the dragon she’d let loose back inside it’s tiny cage, and Shuri, who was still on Rose’s back as she shrank, quickly got up and dusted herself off. Rose just lay there on the ground, panting and feeling better by the second as the damage was undone. Then she flopped over on her back and began to laugh.
“I . . . I’m free! I’M FREE, FREE, FREE!!!!” Rose leaped up into the air again and again, like a gazelle. Shuri was given a bear hug as the dora milaje looked on in utter bewilderment at what they had just witnessed. “An hour before sunrise, I want you, and any of your friends or family to meet me right here. I’ll show you how to really fly!”
“DIE, you—” Logan’s snarl was abruptly silenced as the sentinel backhanded him into the side of a building. He was alone in the Danger Room, blowing off built up steam. He had no clue what made him get so angry sometimes, and yet he knew that it was the monster he kept caged inside him. He felt it shake the bars of it’s prison, threatening to break them. Right now, as much as he hated to admit it, he needed the half of him he dreaded. He knew he’d made a mistake deliberately choosing a level meant for a team or an Omega-level mutant, but he wasn’t going down without a fight. Logan trembled with rage as the bars were shattered.
His eyesight adopted a reddish hue, and Logan felt as if he were watching a movie; with no control over what happened next. He could only wait and see. He scrabbled up the three-story robot like a rabid dog, raring to get to it’s head.
His claws tore through the sentinel’s right eye with little difficulty, disabling that laser beam. It fired the other one, probably in hopes to shake him off, but to no avail. With a mere flick of his wrist, the robot was blind. He severed the robot’s head from it’s body, and the mechanical monstrosity tumbled to the ground. Alright. That’s it. I’m done! Logan thought, and he tried desperately to regain control of his mind, but the beast uncaged was having none of it.
Logan grappled for control once more as his body continued to gut the fallen iron foe. Logan was glad that Charles was keeping the Danger Room on right then, because if he turned it off, there was no telling what his demon might do, to the mansion, or worse, the students.
Logan watched as the terrain flickered to a dense pine forest. The sharply familiar scents tickled his nose. The beast was confused by the sudden change of landscape, and he took his chance, managing to get in control again, shoving his destructive half back into submission as he listened to the trickling river flowing over the stones at its bottom. What would I do without y’, Chuck? He’d known exactly how to calm him down, as he always did. The Danger Room cleared, and it became a blank silver space. Logan hung his head as Xavier entered. Charles was his friend. It hurt to disappoint him.
“You lost it again.”
“I know. Sometimes it’s the only way to get out of a tough spot.”
“You meant to lose your temper? You mean can control it?” Charles was surprised. They’d been working on both his memories and his implanted desire to destroy everything and everyone. He’d actually been sent to kill Xavier, but he’d resisted, and joined him instead.
“No. When y’ cage the beast, the beast gets angry. It gets harder to get back in control every time it gets out.” He stalked off to his room, just wanting to be alone. He tried not to think about what might happen if, one day, he lost it, and couldn’t get it back.
Rose lashed her tail in excitement, and flexed both sets of her feathered tail fins. She was in dragon-form again, though she knew she’d pay for it later. It took a lot out of her to transform more than thrice within a certain amount of time, but Shuri had earned it. She stretched her wings, then shook them. She flapped them up and down a few times and felt her talons lift off the ground a little.
She spotted a stray llama on one of the surrounding mountains, but didn’t go after it. She wasn’t too hungry at the moment, and didn’t feel like picking bits of wool from her teeth anyway. Rose spotted a small group of maybe eight people coming toward her. She recognised Shuri and her head shot up. There was a young man with her, looking slightly scared by the brazen figure of Rose, but his steps were even. She figured he must be the prince. He looked too much like T’Chaka not to be. Speaking of which, the king himself strolled up to her, with Okoye at his side. Rose dipped her head beneath her chest, twisted horns scraping the earth.
“Don’t try anything, lizard.” Okoye hissed in her ear. Rose just rolled her eyes, out of Okoye’s sight, of course.
She knelt on the ground and spread one wing to form a ramp so they could walk up and onto her back. Shuri was the only one who got the hint. “Come on!” She whispered, patting Rose’s side. “She’s perfectly safe!” She grabbed tufts of feathers as she straddled the base of Rose’s neck, about as wide as an elephant’s back. They needed no further invitation. They dashed up and onto her back, taking positions where they wanted, chittering with excitement. Rose turned around, making sure everyone was secure. When everyone was, She beat her wings hard to get off the ground. There was a chorus of slightly frightened shouts as she cleared the tallest spire, and went over the mountain range and up through the veil. But as she leveled out, with the forest below and the low canopy of thunderheads above, her passengers emitted whispers of awe.
But Rose wasn’t done quite yet. She gently veered toward a canyon, gliding lower and lower. Someone must’ve figured out her plan, because they shouted a warning to hold on. Everyone’s grip got easily five times tighter, and Rose felt everyone crouch closer to her neck, clinging to her scales with their knees.
She curled her wings in and lunged down the side of the gorge. She twisted around obstacles, and slipped under the natural archways, Shuri and the prince screaming with delight as if they were on a rollercoaster, though neither dared put even one hand in the air. Even Okoye began to join in the fun, and then, everyone but the ever-composed king was hooting with joy. Rose could feel both sets of tail fins reacting to the slightest tilt she made, aiding in sharp turns and sudden maneuvers. She completed two barrel rolls and another backflip before bolting into the cloudy night sky, higher and higher.
Soon, she was above even the thickening storm, which formed an overcast to the world below, blocking out the now-bright stars. Rose blinked at the moonlight reflecting off the clouds’ white backs as she gently wove between the billowing pillars. Her passengers were silent as she tipped to dip a wing into the mist, sending some of it twirling off behind her. She gave a contented kind of sound, a soft, dragonish purr in the back of the throat, like a gentle, growling sigh. Above the clouds, time became meaningless.
Rose noted the position of the moon and the pinkening horizon to the east. They had to return to the palace. She skimmed the cold layer of floating ice below them, then with two quick wingbeats, slid below it. It was raining below the overcast, but Rose was ahead of the lashing, torrential sheets. She raced the storm, gaining ground. She reached the holographic veil a good distance ahead of the downpour. She landed where she’d taken off from, and again extended her wing. The royal family slid down it, landing with as much grace as they could muster. Rose bowed, tucking her head and long neck below her auburn chestplates.
After she was sure everyone was gone from sight, she converted back to her original form with great difficulty and remained lying on the ground, finding she couldn’t move for exhaustion afterward. She blinked, but couldn’t get her eyes back open. So she swiftly drifted off to sleep, and stayed that way, even when the rains pelted her unsheltered body, soaking her to the skin.
“So she’s off the grid?” Logan asked. He and his closest teammates were lounging in the billiard room, a case of A&W Root Beer and another of Coke nearby, because “this is a school, and alcohol, including beer, gin, wine, and rum is forbidden on the premises”, so Logan had to hide a few cases of soda if he ever wanted something carbonated. What he really wanted was a cigar, but he wasn’t allowed those, either, so instead he cracked another sunflower seed between his teeth.
Kurt nodded. “That is what the Professor said, yes. He said that there was no mention of an Omega-Level mutant anywhere in Egypt, or Africa for that matter. I know that you’re not one for tall tales, Logan, but that’s hard to swallow.”
Hank McCoy sipped from his can before carefully measuring his shot at the cue ball. “From what I gather, he can’t decide whether or not to be upset. If he can’t find her, then the Brotherhood can’t either. But without her, we can’t find the other beings she mentioned.” He fired, knocking an impressive 4 of his striped pool balls into seperate holes.
“Yeah.” Kitty piped up from her seat against the wall, waiting her turn. “Logan said she mentioned that there were three others beside her. Something about controlling the elements and being really far apart.”
Hank looked up. “‘Four beings, bestowed with power over the elements of the earth, everlasting Guardians that be set upon the four corners thereof’? I thought it was just a myth!” He rushed off, leaving Kitty to stare at the pool table, wondering how he’d won with only five turns.
“What was that all about?” Logan crushed his empty pop can and added it to the bin next to his armchair, popping in two more seeds.
He soon found out, as Beast came bounding in with a book, it’s pages thick and yellow, but still surprisingly flexible. Logan could smell that it was very old, without even looking at it’s ornate cover. “I found it!”
“Hey, I know that one!” Kurt exclaimed. “I have read it many times.”
“I have too. I love the stories in it.” Kitty agreed.
“This time, we will be focusing on one particular legend.” Logan crowded around the book as Hank flipped delicately through it, respecting it’s fragility.
Something caught Logan’s eye, and he slapped his hand down on a page, disregarding Hank’s saying that he should respect history a little more. “Wait.” It had a picture of curious creatures on it, ones that walked and talked like humans, but were as lithe, as stocky, or as muscular as the animal they appeared to be. There were dogs and cats, lions and bears, rhinos and elephants, rabbits and deer; prey and predator alike living in a unified, civilized manner. The air of magic and a being called the High Evolutionary hung above it all. “She was a cat.” He recalled how beautiful she’d been.
“She was?” Hank was astounded. He himself was a blue, lion-ish, tailless . . . well, beast . . . and he had discovered he was devolving. If these people existed, perhaps they could fix him. A glimmer of hope shone in Hank’s eye as Kitty nodded. Hank shook his head by way of clearing it. “Back to the mission.” He continued to flip, searching the golden-brown pages until . . .
“There!” Kurt spotted. “The dragons of fire, water, earth, and air. The four elements!”
“So you have read it! Well done.” McCoy praised, and then read from the page. “Find drink in the barrenest desert, warmth in the blistering cold, the power of earth where the cherry trees bloom, and storms in the land of gold. What?” He scoured the page for more information, flipping it back and forth investigatively. That’s . . . That’s all it says!”
Logan growled. “I hate bloody crrryptic prophecies.”
“Let me see the book.” Nightcrawler took the front position, then closed the ornate volume. He opened the front cover. There was the first story, on the first page. “No copyright. No anything in the front.” He borrowed Kitty’s phone and searched for when the idea of a copyright was first used. “1790. That’s when the copyright act was passed.”
“So the book’s super old.” Logan quipped. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I think I see what Kurt’s saying. Maybe we can figure out the riddle by dating the book!”
Hank’s face lit up. “Of course we can! Now, looking at the cover, or rather, by running a few tests, I should be able to date it.” He headed off to his laboratory, and the group of curious friends followed.
He placed the book under a scanner, which brushed lasers over the book’s surface, and transferred information about the book into Hank’s computer. Logan wondered how anyone could understand how any of the things in this room worked. “So, I’ve noticed a few things right off the bat that could lead to a conclusion as to the date. First off, it appears to be hand-written, and the language used by the transcriber is Old English. Second, the pages in here are not paper at all. They’re sheepskin, scraped and stretched to paper-thin sheets. Third is that the medium in which it is written is iron gall ink, made by mixing a solution of tannic acids with ferrous sulphate, and there appears to be several different drawing styles and handwriting samples, indicating that several people worked on this book in particular.” Hank squinted at the screen in front of him. “Huh. There’s also traces of sea salt in the binding.”
Kitty held up her phone. “This look familiar?” On the screen was a black-and-white picture of their book, on the stand of a museum. “The plaque says that it was made between 300 and 1160 A.D.”
Hank had been sipping his coffee, and what he had been in the middle of swallowing exploded from his mouth and nose. Beast coughed and wiped his face on his shirt, scraping up his shattered dignity with as much composure as he could muster. Beast wasn’t usually the flustered type, and Logan found his actions then to be secretly funny. “Excuse me,” he said between clearing his throat and sinuses, “But WHAT did you say?”
“That it was made between 300 and 1160 A.D.” Kitty shrugged.
“How can it be that old? It must be worth millions!”
“So it is.” Kitty affirmed. “Two million, to be exact.” she read, “Since it was made by hand, in a monastery, during medieval times, yeah, I’d say that’s fair. It disappeared from the museum a few years ago.”
Logan kept his thoughts to himself. He began to question Rose’s age. Was she as old as the book? Older?
She was still sprawled on the grass by the time the sun had passed it’s high mark and was trailing quickly down the sky toward the hard edges of the mountains’ peaks. Her fur was dry and dusty, making her sneeze as soon as she woke up. The night’s flight came back to her, and she relished the memory. Now that she was fixed, she could go back and find Logan and his team of mutants he mentioned. But first, she wanted to help the Wakandans find Klaue, and possibly get one of those bracelets. It could prove useful, Rose thought. If Shuri can program it to make me look human again, I could infiltrate the Institute, find out what it’s all about, and see if I want to join or not. Rose stretched, rolled over onto all fours, shook herself like a wet dog, and stretched again.
Klaue. In order to find him, she’d need something that could find a person, even if they were not in any kind of computer database. And apparently, T’Chaka didn’t have the kind of tech that could do that, like she previously thought. Logan. His team was completely mutants. They had to have come from all over the world! And for them to have come from all over the world, they had to have a machine that could find anyone, and a person that knew how to operate it. So I’ll start there. She’d need to let T’Chaka know she was leaving the country, so he didn’t think that she was breaking her promise.
She righted her cloak, brushing it off so it was almost as good as when she’d first got it. Then she strolled through town, making a beeline to the corporal spire. Once there, she found the elevator already open, and someone inside. Dashing at the closing doors and the astonished man who was presumably a janitor, Rose slipped between the doors and into the space beyond. The janitor stayed silent and frozen until he reached his floor, then hurriedly left.
Pressing the button marked with the highest number, Rose made sure to tuck her tail between her legs and back against the wall. She watched the numbers and listened to the elevator music, a tinkling mbira with the beat of a djembe drum and a shekere. She hadn’t noticed it before, probably because she had a bit on her mind. As she stepped out of the chamber, she found T’Chaka alone this time. “I need to leave to find Klaue.”
“Of course you do.” Rose could tell that he wasn’t being sarcastic. “Shuri told me that it was you who was the dragon. If that is true, where did you learn such magic?”
“You would not believe me if I said where it originates from, Your Majesty. All I will say is that it is as old as human civilization itself, and only I can access it. And yes, that was me. I apologize if I was overeager and presumptuous.”
“I enjoyed the flight, actually. It’s not every day you get to fly on the back of what is allegedly a mythical creature. Just because I wasn’t whooping with glee does not mean I did not have an enjoyable time. You also gave me a belief in the impossible. Thank you.” The king straightened. “Shuri wanted to give you this, and for me to remind you to say goodbye before you go.” He pulled out a bracelet of komoyo beads.
Rose gingerly took the beads from his palm and slipped them over her hand. They were loose, but not too much so. She was glad that she didn’t have to ask for such a huge gift. Rose bowed deeply to him. “Thank you so much!”
“Don’t thank me, Thank Shuri. Go on! I won’t have my daughter thinking that her gift was not good enough.” He grabbed her arm, growing gravely serious. “And you are not to tell anyone about what you know here. To the outside world, Wakanda is a poor, third-world country, and I want it to stay that way.” Rose solemnly agreed. “And you’ll find your weapons in your room. I had Okoye return them to you.”
Rose expressed her gratitude once more, then ran back to the elevator and yelled another “Thank you!” through the doors. She pressed the bottommost button, and halfway down, she realized that Shuri was royalty. My friend is a Wakandan royal!
* * *
“Shuri?” She yelled down the long hall as she raced toward it’s end. She was bent over a hovering table, working on some sort of armor. “Shuri!” She turned, and a big grin spread across her face. She opened her mouth to say something, then a look of confusion wiped the smile away.
“I don’t know your name! I just figured that out.”
“Rose! I’m Rose. Thank you so much for my bracelet! I just have one small question to ask you before I go. Do these do disguises, too? I could use one for, well, you know.”
“Yeah, you could use some new clothes too. The king doesn’t want me giving away any of our special clothes, so I have to dig a little and find you some regular ones. Hope they fit okay. Disguises! Yeah, these can do disguises and stuff. Typically, we use the old way of changing our appearances, but I can mess with the bracelet and cause it to project a lifelike hologram over your entire body. You just design away, and leave the rest to me.” Shuri led Rose over to a computer and tapped a program where Rose was given a base hologram. She got to choose from different noses, mouths, ears, eyes, body types, hairstyles and skin colors. She took out a photo of herself before she was changed. She’d liked herself then, and she still liked herself now, but no one else could look like she had back then.
She adjusted, lengthened, straightened and selected, giving herself the bright, Autumn red hair and fair skin she’d been so proud of. “Alright. I’m done.”
Shuri came rushing over with the clothing and a satchel to put her treasures from the caravanners in. “Alright! I’ll get it in there while you get redressed and show you which beads do what.”
“One bit of advice: don’t destroy that chip until you’re well away from Wakanda. The Facility at Alkali Lake still keeps track of it, and if they lose contact with it, they’ll come looking. Thank you again, Shuri, you really are too kind.” Rose smiled, though she frowned within herself. The entire nation has been too kind. Exactly how badly do they want this Klaue guy?
Rose stared at the gift wrapped around her wrist and wondered.
“We finally got a blip on the Fire Elemental. It was quite difficult and extensive, but we finally found her. I had to search specifically for who Logan described to us: a half-human, half-mountain lion woman named Rose.” Charles was saying as he exited Cerebro. “This time, I want a different team to go and fetch her. Nightcrawler. Storm. She’s on the Eastern coast of Africa, Conakry, Guinea to be specific, where the sun happens to be setting. She’s likely to be asleep, and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.” He looked at Logan. “And I suppose we’ll need someone who knows what she looks like, so Wolverine will also go. I’ll send you her coordinates directly after you leave.”
He was secretly excited that he got to get out of the confines of the mansion again; the walls, at times, seemed to close in on him. “Thanks, Chuck.” Logan laid a hand on his old friend’s shoulder as he passed by on his way to the hangar.
As the basketball court opened up, the Blackbird whooshed into the sky, pivoted southeast, toward the lock programmed into the G.P.S. The ride was silent, save for the beeping of mechanisms, and the swishing of wind outside. Logan knew it would be almost a full-day’s flight, so he started to program a stop into the route. “Uh-oh.” Logan frowned deeper than usual.
Nightcrawler came over, taking control of the cockpit that Logan insisted he have. “Uh-oh what?”
“There’s nothin’ between us and Guinea. We’re gonna have to risk it, not that I like the idea of flying over water anyway.”
Storm, who was in the back trying to locate a single signature on Rose, spoke up. “I could give us a fair wind.”
“All the way there? Wouldn’t that be a bit strenuous?” Nightcrawler asked.
“She wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t think that she could do it.” Logan reassured his friend. “Besides, with a favorable breeze, we could glide some of the way, using little fuel and heating the engine less.”
“Storm looked at him in amazement. “When did you learn to fly?”
“I didn’t. It’s just common sense. Now, I’ll take over what you’re doing, and you give us that second breath.”
Storm’s eyes went white, and Logan could almost say he felt the plane sigh with relief. He was glad the back didn’t have any windows. He and heights were not exactly best friends. Logan decided to get done with tracking Rose as fast as he could so he could take a nap. Unfortunately, it took longer than he expected. She must’ve had her tracker removed. But hope isn’t exactly lost. If I can switch the scanners to infrared . . . There! Her heat signature lit up like a white surrenderance flag. “Gotcha. She’s headed straight for us.”
“But we’re still a good five-hundred-seventy-six miles from the nearest island, let alone the shore!” Nightcrawler exclaimed.
“I know.” Logan, despite his fear, peered out the windshield, glancing down at the radar. Come on, lizard! He wanted to see the group’s reaction when they found out what she could do.
“What is THAT?” Storm, who’d let her hold on the winds go, whispered. A dot had materialised on the screen.
“That,” Logan calmly explained with a half-smile, “Is a dragon.” As he said it, he saw it. A great, reddish-gold legend, giant, feathery wings easily two, no, two hundred and fifty yards across, glinting in the sun. She flew right past them, not a thousand feet away. The ship was silent with awe. Then she turned and saw them.
Nightcrawler panicked, and steered the ship up, climbing higher and higher. The sudden motion jerked everyone in the plane but Kurt back a few steps, and they reeled their arms furiously, trying to grab something.
“Kurt! Level off now.” There was that same tone of authority in his voice that he used on the students, the kind that made one obey immediately. The dragon had assumed they were running, and gave chase. She pulled up right in front of them by the time Nightcrawler regained his senses and hauled back the controls to halt the Blackbird to a hover. The fearsome copper face stared straight into the windshield. She tapped the ship gently with a claw, like a curious child at a fishtank. No one could say a word for a while.
Logan shouldered his way to the control panel, the very front of the plane, and stared directly into the dragon’s pine forest green eyes. She knows me. I can see it. She remembers when we last met. “Turn around. Let’s go home.”
“But the mutant—”
Logan hiked a thumb at the window. “We already found her.”
She’d found him again. On her own, although it had also been an accident. He was with two others, a blue demon and a white-haired African woman. They talked among themselves, though Rose couldn’t hear what they were saying at all through the glass, much less over the engine’s racket. She waited for them to decide. It was all she could do at the moment, if she wanted to follow them back.
Eventually the jet swung around and raced back at a couple hundred miles an hour. Rose, loving a challenge, beat her wings furiously to catch up. When she was neck-and-neck with the plane, she did a loop-the-loop around it, then, smiling, stuck out her long, forked tongue at Logan and the other two. They laughed, save for Logan, who smiled slightly at her playfulness, and she flicked her tail, and the feather-fins on the end slapped the side of the jet.
Late into the night, Rose yawned. The jet was now leading the way, and she was using the hot exhaust as a thermal to keep her up in the air. She began to doze, her wings locked in the gliding position. Suddenly realising that she couldn’t sleep without losing them, Rose decided to take a trip through a cloud to wake herself up. Oh, how she missed coffee! A flock of frigatebirds, asleep on the wing, made her jealous, so she swooped down and ate them all. A little overkill, maybe, but Rose was hungry, her last meal yesterday’s memory, and the feathers in her throat were annoying enough to help keep her awake. She’d traded off her collar for a hot meal and a place to sleep. It had been undeniably beautiful, but ungainly and awkward. Besides, the place she’d stayed needed a few tune-ups, and the bejeweled, golden ornament was surely more than enough for all the fixing up the poor hut needed, as well as some food to feed the widow’s family.
With her belly somewhat full again, Rose felt a tad more awake. She stayed behind the jet still, as the warm breeze ensured she didn’t fall while gliding through the night. When dawn broke, Rose had to either put her face directly in the stinging, smelly exhaust fumes, or fly with her eyes closed against the rising sun, blazing in the eastern sky. She ended up choosing the latter, because when the plane was blocking the sun, she couldn’t see where she was going anyway. She did keep one talon on the right wing, as not to get lost or fall behind.
She was so tired that when the sun moved higher and land came into sight, She locked her wings and coasted to shore, not even bothering to stake a landing. She simply collapsed headfirst on the rocky seashore, barely aware that the jet landed next to her, and the trio unloaded, curious as to why she’d crashed. Their voices were distant, as if she were listening to them through a telephone that was away from her ear.
“She left some damage on the wing. Looks like she was holding on.” Logan was saying.
A strange voice with a heavy German accent broke through the gathering darkness. “Why’d she just . . . drop?”
The blue demon pried open one eyelid with a three-fingered hand. Rose let her eyeball roll back into her head. Not wanting to strand them with a thirty-ton beast to carry home, Rose summoned her last scraps of energy to cram the dragon-form into the flame once again. Then, the sights and sounds of the outside world faded into nothingness as exhaustion claimed her.
Rose had collapsed on the shore, and he had a couple ideas as to why. Either she was dead tired, or actually dead. But as he saw her flanks rise and fall, he relaxed. The bright scales flickered, then glowed like fire until the whole of the dragon was a silhouette of golden light. The light’s source began to shrink until it dimmed and finally went out. Within two seconds, Rose was sprawled out on the stones, completely unconscious.
“I’ll get her in the Blackbird.” Logan ran over and heaved her up. She’s heavier than I expected! It was true. Rose’s petite frame belied her weight. She easily weighed as much as he did. He gathered her tail as he clambered over the terrain, trying to reach the Bird without falling. Logan set down his burden on one of the cushioned benches, tossing her long tail over her body so no one stepped on it passing through. The jet whirred into the air, Storm at the controls, and Nightcrawler across the cabin, staring at him. Eventually, after flicking on the autopilot, Storm sat next to Kurt.
“Explain.” She demanded. “Why did you not tell us about her?”
“Because you’d find out anyway, and I didn’t feel like answering a ton of questions.”
“And do you now?”
“No.” Logan answered crisply.
“Well, I have plenty, so I hope you’re prepared. Now, first of all, what just happened!?”
“She was a dragon and she turned back into herself.” He shrugged.
“Well,” Nightcrawler raised his eyebrows, “He’s not wrong . . .”
“But–” Storm protested.
“Fine, fine. You want the whole story, I’ll tell you. Her name is Rose. She’s actually not a mutant, because she was born completely normal, and given her powers when she was a kid. She was also a victim of the Alkali Lake project, like me. She looks like she does because she ended up finding some magical secret group of animal hybrids that changed her or something; magic, magic, stuff I don’t understand.” Logan shot Storm a look that read, happy now?
“Huh.” Nightcrawler said. “That is actually slightly more believable than ‘my mother is one of the most infamous mutants alive, and my father is a literal demon’. I can’t wait to see what she can do. Maybe I’ll finally have an actual competitor in obstacle coursing.”
“Beast ain’t challenging enough?” Logan quipped.
“Well, I’ve raced him so often, that I know all he can do. Her? She looks lithe, and strong. Fierce, and deadly accurate. Like she’d love a challenge.” He noticed the looks he got from the other two. “What? I just got to imagining me against this girl in the course. She’s never seen it, but I have, and I’d like to see her try and beat me, that’s all.” His face showed that he was telling the complete truth, so Logan decided to believe him.
“Alright. Now, when we get to the mansion, we’ll move her to the holding cells. If she wakes up and loses it, then there’s little to destroy.”
The others nodded in agreement.
Rose woke slowly, and on a soft bed. Well, soft compared to the rocks she’d fallen asleep on. She remembered flying over the ocean, and roughly landing on the American shore. She opened her eyes and looked around. She was in a small metal box, with one wall being reinforced glass. She was still dressed in the outfit Shuri had given her, and her anklet she always wore was still firmly attached to her right ankle. Her crown, komoyo beads, and bracelets lay in her bag on the ground underneath her bed, and she put them on, missing their comforting weight. After searching for her scimitar, bow, and arrows and not finding them, she gave up and tested the walls. She rolled her eyes. They thought they could trap her. Foolish!
The walls, to give them a little credit, were very strong, but adamantium was stronger. She neatly traced a small arc in the bottom of the glass, from floor to floor. Her claw didn’t entirely go through, but now that one place would pop out with a well-placed kick. It burst out, sliding across the floor. Slipping out of the hole she made, Rose decided to explore, and if she was lucky, this place wasn’t so bad. She activated her disguise, just in case.
After picking a few locks, she found herself in a place much like what Rose imagined the interior of a spacecraft might look like. Rose set about exploring the place, the jangling charms on her anklet the only sound she could hear right off the bat in the strange silver halls.
A pair of elevator buttons greeted her as she peered around the corner. Her curiosity piqued, Rose pressed the upward arrow. The doors opened immediately, which made her look around. If the doors had opened on her level, that meant someone had just gotten off at her level. Not waiting around to find out who might share her current floor, Rose pressed the button marked with a G.
This elevator was silent, and the ride up one floor seemed to take just as long as a ride up the entire Wakandan capitol building. The doors opened to a beautiful mansion-type hall with an ancient smell. Floors decorated with ornate rugs, portraits of people probably long dead, and small tables with potted plants, the place was a polished sort of rustic, like something from Rose’s own era. In a way, it reminded Rose of the Howlett Manor, the way it had been all those years ago. The scents of so many people entwined about these halls that Rose grew scared. She ducked behind a pillar and listened. Someone walked by, as if on patrol. They stopped for a moment, and Rose held her breath. The person grunted, and continued on.
As they passed her hiding spot, she peeked around to see a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a trenchcoat and black pants. He played with a single poker card as he walked. Satisfied that she hadn’t been seen, Rose continued her venture, this time more cautiously.
She noticed a group of chairs sitting outside of a door, and figured whatever was on the other side must be of great importance. She pressed her ear to the wood.
An old voice, muffled from the wood, came from inside. “You can come in now.” Rose, thoroughly surprised, opened the door. Inside she found an older man, with wise eyes, sitting in a wheelchair. She suddenly became conscious of her rather dirty clothes. Her head habitually high from her time as a goddess in Africa, she was also aware of how condescending she must seem. She was also aware of his expression of mingled fear and surprise at his first glimpse of her old face before it left. “I’m sorry for my countenance, miss, but you look very much like an old student of mine. You must be new. Welcome!” Rose, deciding to do an impromptu test of patience, cocked her head as if she didn’t understand a word he was saying.
“Where am I?” She said in Xhosa.
“Now, I know that was a question, and I didn’t understand it, I’m afraid. But don’t worry. You’re in my school now, the Xavier Institute For Higher Learning. If you’re here, then you must be a mutant. I am one, and the team who fetched you were, too.” The man said. “Can you tell me who you are?”
“I’m Rose, and I need your help.”
“I can’t understand you.” Charles’s kind eyes grew confused as something light brushed the edges of her mind, so soft that she didn’t even think about it. “I can’t . . . Why can’t I . . .” Realisation dawned on her that he was a mind-reader, and because she was half animal, he couldn’t pry into her thoughts.
She decided to try something out. She thought as loud as she could, READ MY MIND? He heard it, and he startled, ever so slightly.
“Y-yes.” Then it occurred to him that he’d understood her thoughts. “So you do speak English!” She gave a sly smile. “So explain to me everything you said before, and then why can I merely sense your presence?” He seemed annoyed that she had to think at him in order for him to hear it.
“Sir, I have been training for several years in . . . somewhere I prefer not to mention. I, personally, am no mutant, no offense to you or your race, of course, and was asking where I was, and that I needed your help repaying a debt.” Rose recapped.
To his credit, he stayed remarkably calm, considering Rose found that her placid tone often got under people’s skin, especially when they wanted information. “And what might that be?”
“I need to find a specific person. Since you found me, I think that you have a way to do that.”
“You aren’t wrong, I’ll give you that. But I’ll only help you if you tell me what I desire to know, starting with why I can’t read your mind.”
“The answer is simple, and at the same time, complicated. Your abilities are tuned to Homo-sapiens and Homo-superior. I am of the subspecies Homo animalia-chimera. You can’t read my mind without my permission, and even at that, I can choose what I want you to see, and trust me, that’s a good thing.” Rose sighed.
“But that has explained nothing to me.” Charles, though tranquil as ever, had a note of annoyance in his voice.
“I apologize. Let me say it in a different way.” Rose deactivated her holographic mask. “I’m half animal. You can’t read an animal’s brain like you can a human’s. The human half of my brain can choose to let you in or to shut you out.” She smiled again, flashing her inch-long canine teeth.
He didn’t flinch, but rapidly changed the subject. “You look like you could use some exercise. Why don’t we get you a change of clothes and assess your Level? If the Danger Room isn’t too busy, then I’ll set it to show me.” He smiled warmly. “How does that sound?”
“And then we work on favors?”
“And then we’ll work on favors.”
“Alright, that was good.” Logan said; it was the most he ever praised his seven students. The combat exercise had gone well. The Danger Room was on a lower level than that he trained with, but considering his students were only about sixteen to eighteen, they’d done well. But, as he knew from experience, they’d need to do much better in a real battle.
“Why don’t you show us what you can really do?” One of his students probed.
The doors whooshed open, and a familiar voice broke the brief silence. “If you’re itching for a show, then allow me to give you one. We have a new recruit! Children, meet Rose.”
Logan snapped to attention. It was her, wearing a spare battle-proof suit that the team typically wore on missions. “That was one of our strongest cells, you know.”
“Well, now it’s got a big hole in the door. Might want to fix it before you put anyone else in.” She smirked.
Logan shepherded his class into the computer room, where Charles had wheeled himself to the controls. There was a gigantic window where he could watch what was going on. He grabbed a chair and sat down. Charles put on the helmet that allowed telepaths to manually control the Room.
He switched on the first level, which was just a few guns and things. Rose looked around, bored. She gave Charles a quizzical look, then clawed the barrel off a machine gun. She pounced on a few others, then tore one up out of the ground, hurling it at the ceiling, making an explosion when it collided with another. Logan watched her bow deeply as a missile whizzed over, rustling the fur on her back and detonate about twenty feet away, then straighten. Now she’s just showin’ off.
“Come on, Charley. Turn up the heat. Let’s see how she does against a little extra firepower.” Logan let a small smile slip through.
He took it up to the next stage, where there happened to be the floor of a crumbling building full of weaponized robots that poured in in waves. The first wave came, fell beneath tooth and claw, and faded away. The second wave, too. But the third consisted of cyborgs wielding flamethrowers. They surrounded and blasted Rose, who did nothing to dodge any of it. Remarkably, the fire rolled off her sandstone-colored pelt like water off a duck’s back, and the suit held against the flames, though barely. The torrent ended, and she gave the control room a glance. Then, she made an X with her arms, held it as she began to burn, and when she broke the X, she exploded. Everyone went quiet for a while, anticipating the worst, but when the dust settled, Rose was there, jumping to bat at a support cable that dangled down from the building’s ceiling. His students, who’d been clapping and cheering, half that they got to witness the testing of a new potential member, and half that they got a break from training, now went wild with this new display.
The last wave defeated, Charles turned it up and up, until finally he reached the last stage, the level that Logan and the other X-Men used for team fighting. Rose now stood in an urban battlefield, a dark, smoky arena with rubble and broken cars strewn about. Logan knew this level quite well. It was the one he’d done a few days ago to cool off. Charles, who’d forgotten that level had been reset, began to reach for the controls again, but Logan stopped him. “Trust me, she can handle it.”
He hesitated, but eventually withdrew his hand and let it be. Rose grinned at the observatory, seeming to show all thirty of her teeth. Then the sentinel took one thundering step. She popped about four feet straight up, landing on all fours with her tail bushed and rigid, wide green eyes watching the sentinel’s every move. Logan wondered if she would be willing to do her little dragon trick. What was she doing? She’s going to test the waters. He realized. She’s seeing how big of a threat it is.
Rose leapt onto the robot’s kneecap, and it swung at her. She twisted out of the way, leaving it to smash in itself. That just made it angrier, and it stretched out a hand. The energy beam that blazed from it’s palm grazed Rose, and Logan listened to his captivated class groan in despair. Rose was no doubt hissing now, her teeth bared defiantly. She glanced at the window, and Logan nodded once. Do it. This time, she set her jaw. She now knew that no one could take on a sentinel without help, outside or, in Logan’s case as well as Rose’s, inside. She began to glow, dazzlingly bright, like a golden-hot branding iron. Her body twisted and grew. Wings sprouted from her back, vast and feathery. Two seconds later, those in the observatory were silent with admiration at the brazen beast that stood before them.
Rose tore off the sentinel’s head with her teeth and threw it to the ground. Then, grasping the shoulders of the robot in her front talons, she melted its insides with a steady stream of white fire. When she was done, she threw the shell against the Room’s wall. Half-spreading her wings, she let loose a victorious roar that shook the air. Then, two jade eyes fixed on the observatory. Oh no . . . She bounded over, and sat rather doglike in front of the window, her head level with it. Logan’s students were silent as they took in Rose’s fierce-looking triangular head and twisted horns.
As Charles turned off the Danger Room, Logan watched as Rose dipped her head, stretching back her wings as she took another bow. All his students clapped vigorously as they poured out of the observatory, arms outstretched to touch her scales. Logan had to admit that he wanted to as well, but restrained himself for his composure’s sake. “Hope y’all enjoyed that, because chances are, you’ll never be able to see it again. Class dismissed. Head to the library, and stay there until the bell.” Logan then ushered them out of the room, leaving Charles, Rose, who’d changed back, and himself inside as he shut the door. “So.” He said as he turned back to the interior of the room, “What class is she?”
“Given her power, I’d say she’s somewhere about Omega.”
“Not gonna lie though, I was born completely normal.” Rose interjected. “I was given my powers, and I was made a Homo animalia-chimera. I’m no mutant, only Gifted. I can’t take credit for my powers; I wasn’t born with them.” A recording of Charles’s voice came over the loudspeaker, relaying the announcements before the bell rang for the day to end.
“Now, Miss Rose,”
“Please, just Rose. I may be much older than you, but please, I haven’t earned your respect yet.”
Charles opened his mouth to speak, but Logan got there first. “Just how old are you?”
“It’s rude to ask a woman her age, Logan.”
“Nah, it’s fine.” Rose said. “Specifically, I’m one hundred and thirty-four. Why?”
Charles and Logan were staring at her in pure disbelief, so Rose rolled her eyes. “Healing factor. If I may, I’d like to talk with Logan alone.” Charles obliged with a hesitant nod, leaving the Room. “What’s someplace where we won’t be bothered?”
“There’s a balcony on the roof, but can’t we talk here?”
“Anyone could come in.” Rose solemnly said. “We need to be undisturbed. Take me to the balcony, please.” I need to tell you about our shared past.
He obliged well enough, though Rose noticed that he didn’t look back to check if she was following or slow down any, but she kept up fine all the same. The view was beautiful, with the open sky sprawled above the forest lining the horizon. “So what do you want to talk to me about?”
Rose found she couldn’t tell him right away. “We don’t have to talk about anything if you don’t want to. I just wanted a quiet place to be.” Rose lied. “You seemed like the type to know the quietest place in this whole mansion.” She sat down and let her legs dangle off the side.
“Huh.” Logan sat next to her, not too far away.
They were silent for a few minutes, watching some geese fly North. The silence wasn’t awkward, exactly, more like a couple of introverted acquaintances sharing a moment. They listened to the distant chatter of kids playing basketball and the honking of the geese. Rose began to think about the man beside her and if she trusted him or not. Finally, Rose came up with a valid question to ask, but he beat her to it.
“You said you’d come from Alkali Lake. I did too, but escaped . . . a different way. What did they do to you?”
“I told you before.” She protracted her claws, which gleamed golden in the setting sun’s light. She laughed a little. “When the Facility found me, the Animal People had already done their part in my life. They tranqued me, which didn’t work, obviously, but when they think you’re weaker than you are, they tend to make escaping much easier. So I keeled over and slowed my breathing.
“Then, they strung me upside-down on this big pole talking in French and such. The ride there was long, and when I got to the Facility, they tranqued me again and put me in my own cell. When they did their experiments on me . . . well, all I remember is a whole bunch of painful needles making it so hard to move. The actual adamantium coating didn’t bother me as much as the needles did. I mean, hello! Living embodiment of flame and heat over here!” She expected a laugh, but never got one. The old Logan would’ve laughed. He’s changed so much; I can smell it on him.
“What about your claws? How did they get coated? Because from what I know of cats, their claws are just fingernails.”
“Actually, a cat’s claws are part of the first knucklebone. To remove my claws, you’d have to remove the first knuckle of my finger. A cat’s nails seem to grow because there’s a keratin coating on them. When the adamantium coated my skeletal system, my claws grew longer, but not for long. The pretty, black layer outside my claws chipped off and never grew back, leaving me with these ugly silver-looking ones.” She took a glance at him, and he seemed to have been genuinely interested in her tale. “But hey, at least I don’t have to sharpen them. How about you?”
“I can’t remember where I came from, but I remember I ended up enlisting in the army. I don’t remember much before that.” Logan shook his head. “I only remember the woods and the wolves.”
“Yeah. I lived with wolves for a while. Some of my happiest days were spent with ’em. As far as the molten metal pouring over your every bone goes, you’re lucky. It was excruciatin’, and the pain it put me in just made me deadlier.”
“You were deadly before?” She prodded, hoping to get to the subject of his claws. This has to be natural. You can’t just go, “Hey, remember me? We were kids together!”
“Yeah. I ended so many lives on Doomsday alone. Men with families who needed them for the jobs they held, boys with worrying mothers fell by my hand; teenagers just barely able to hold a rifle.”
“War is war, Logan. At least you don’t use guns anymore, so that’s good, right?”
“Never used a gun in the first place.” He raised his fisted hands as if he wanted to slam them into the deck, but slowly lowered them instead.
“As much as I hate to ask it—” Here we go.
“Then don’t.” But after a long pause, he sighed and showed her anyway. “I have these claws.”
Rose hesitated and stared. Last time she’d seen those claws, they’d been made of bone and protruding from her shoulder. She looked away and down at the ground. “I know. I knew who you were when we met in Egypt.” She lowered her voice to a whisper and stared directly into his eyes. “I could never forget you, not in another hundred years.”
The realisation of what she was saying sunk in, and his eyes widened. Then he stood up. “Come with me.” He led her back down the winding, cluttered hall, then through a maze of passageways to two gilded double doors. He pushed them open without knocking. “I found the key.”
The bald man in the wheelchair looked up. “Did you?”
“She,” Logan pointed at Rose, “Is the key. She knows who I am!”
“Is this true?”
“Yes, sir.” Rose nodded.
Xavier nodded solemnly. “Establishing a temporary mental link between you two could restore his memory, yes. But it could also mingle both your minds so that neither of you can unscramble each other’s memories from your own. It’s a risk, but it might work.”
Neither Rose nor Logan were deterred. “Do it. We’ve been working so long at this, and now the missing link to finally restoring everything is standing right here.”
“I admit, I’ve never witnessed you so adamant about something ever before. To see you like this now gives me hope that it may work. Lock the doors. Any disturbances could mean disaster.” Rose clicked the locks, and jiggled the handles to be sure of their security. Then, Charles had them pull up chairs very close to one another, and to place each hand on another’s forehead. Rose now had her left hand on Logan and her right on Charles, as well as Logan’s right hand and Charles’s left hand resting on her head. It felt awkward, being so powerful and having a stranger touch her, like it was a violation of some sort of unwritten code. But it was comforting knowing that they probably felt the same way as well. “Open your mind, Rose. Let us in.”
Forcing down all mental barriers, Rose felt every hair rise as her skin pricked. She suddenly could feel everything Logan ever felt, at any time; it almost overwhelmed her. She saw the agonising split-second decisions he’d had to make, how hard it had been on him, and how, in an act of preservation of mind, his healing factor had fogged his own memories, spurred on by countless brainwashings. But as the seconds rolled lazily past, she found herself in the deep recesses of a maze, tall walls on three sides, leaving only one way to go. Everywhere she looked, greys and whites bloomed into color as orbs lining the paths she took cleared as she passed them by. She could see images in those she peered into.
A small boy, drawing his claws for the first time and using them on his assailant before witnessing his mother shoot herself. Rose had chosen to fake sick so she could stay home with him during the terrible times that’d followed. The boy, older now, but not quite a man. She and him were trudging through a blistering cold winter’s snowstorm. Him with a blanket and her with a light coat, both going to receive food from Cookie’s cabin at the quarry. They were turned away at the door, and, at their rejection, headed off into the woods to hunt there, instead. One particularly faded memory drew her attention. She picked it up and watched as it was brought into focus. It was the Incident; the one where Dog had challenged Logan, but she’d slipped and fell on his claws, the first time she’d ever needed her healing factor. The pain and blood loss had sent her into something of a coma, from which she woke, finding herself in a tomb.
The next few memories she looked at were of wolves, of the happiness they’d brought him, and how the White Bear had torn all of it away. She saw his hunt for the man who’d sent the White Bear, and how he’d been captured for a circus freak instead. He was sold to a cruel man named Essex, who tortured him in the name of science. Rose felt every cut Essex made, every bone he broke, and the overwhelming desire to die.
Then she saw his rescuers, and how they nursed his mind and spirit back to health, or what passed for health. She saw how they went back for revenge, and got it. She saw how he was plagued every year after that by a brute named Sabertooth. There’s one thing I can help him with! I will make sure that Toothy will never bother my Logan again. Rose walked on.
She saw the wars he’d fought, battles he’d won, blood he’d shed.
There was a familiar face! Rose growled. Stryker. The head honcho behind the operation at Alkali Lake, he’d been the one overseeing Rose’s torment. Rose saw how Logan let himself be subjected to such torture under the guise that he would be a new person, and she witnessed his violent escape through his eyes.
Having seen enough, she forced her way out of the Circle of Minds making both she and Logan fall back in their chairs. Her promise momentarily forgotten, she scrambled to recover herself. Logan just lay on the floor.
“Is he okay?” Logan heard Rose demand.
“If you’re okay, he is. He just needs a moment.” Charles said.
“Or a hand up off the floor would be great, too.” He grumbled. Rose reached out and helped him regain his feet. Her hand felt rough and velvety soft at the same time. The mixed sensations sent sparks up his arm.
“How do you feel?” Charles asked.
“Tired and irritated. I’m goin’ to bed.” He left Rose and Xavier alone in the office, but hung around the corner as Charles took the liberty to explain. “It may take a bit of time before he can finally reach that far back in his memory, since he’s not used to doing it. When he does . . . well, I know he’s done some terrible things and I don’t want him blaming you for causing him pain.”
“Of course. You want me to leave (even though I just got here) and do something profitable?”
“It doesn’t have to be anything profitable. Just stay out of trouble and don’t do anything too stupid. In fact, why don’t you pay back that debt you were talking about?”
“Sir, yes sir.” Then, she turned and walked out, immediately slamming into a big, blue wall of fur. “OOMPH!” She and the wall grunted.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am! You’re so small I failed to see you there.” It was Beast, who hadn’t noticed Logan standing in the shadows behind the door. He peeked through the crack between it and the doorframe.
“No, no, it’s my fault, really!” Then she realized that Hank was holding the book they’d been examining a while ago. “What’s that?”
“This,” He laid the book on the desk as Charles, intrigued, wheeled over. “This is an ancient literary marvel. It contains a puzzling riddle. Several, actually, but this one is particularly troubling. None of the X-Men can figure it out, not even Frost.”
Xavier nodded. “Let’s see it then, Hank.”
Logan snuck behind the newly focused group as Hank cracked the book to the place his finger had marked. It was that same blasted poem, and he read it aloud. “Find drink in the barrenest desert, warmth in the blistering cold, the power of earth where the cherry trees bloom, and storms in the land of gold.”
“What year is it from?” Rose asked.
“From about the time Columbus landed on the American shore.”
“Then isn’t it obvious?” Rose laughed. “You’ve been thinking outside the box. If you know a little basic history, then you can figure it out. Take it from the top: drink in the barrenest desert. What is the driest and most practically desolate continent you can think of?” Blank looks. “Australia. It’s Australia. Now what about the blistering cold? That would be Canada. Land where the cherry trees bloom is Japan, but the land of gold is where your knowledge of history comes in. During Columbus’s time, Cortez had also found great wealth in South America, where the Aztecs had unfathomable amounts of gold.” She gave them a look that read, See? Easy.
“And the bits about the drink, warmth, storms, and the power of earth?” Hank asked, excited.
“Well, sounds to me like the Guardians.” She shrugged.
“How do you know about all this?” Hank crossed his arms.
“Because I happen to be one, thank you.” Logan almost smiled as she bared her teeth at him, her eyes literally sparking with annoyance. She pointed at a swirling black flame seemingly branded on the back of her neck, then tapped it’s twin on the page. “Also, I happen to have a promise to keep. I need to find one specific person, as you may remember, Charles.”
“Why is this so important?”
“Because I swore an oath to the king of Wakanda in return for removing a certain chip in my back. I have a feeling he would want me to tell him at least where Klaue is hiding out.”
“Fine. We’ll see about this Klaue, and then you leave for however long I say you leave for.” Charles commanded.
“Alright.” She agreed.
Logan didn’t need to hear any more. He slipped off to his room, knowing that Charley was right. Not even Logan knew the consequence of restoring his past. He began to worry again that it would drive him mad. Logan slumped onto his bed, trying to see if he could recall something, anything, new. After fifteen or twenty minutes, he opened his eyes and stared at the off-white ceiling. He still didn’t remember anything besides what he could before, but when and if he did, he didn’t want Rose to get hurt by his explosive temper.
As much as he didn’t want to admit it, within the deepest recesses of his heart, he knew that he’d loved her . . . once.
Everything looked the same from an aerial standpoint. Why can’t dragons have a radar system?
She’d looked up a few pictures on Google Maps yesterday before she left, and that helped a tiny, tiny bit as far as locations went. But for the most part, South Africa looked the same; lots of green and orange with a mountain range along the Eastern coast. Wings and tail aching having flown back across the Atlantic Ocean yesterday plus several hours today, she lit on a mountain peak, sinking her talons into the stone. She wasn’t affected by the cold winds assaulting the summit, but perhaps it was because her scales radiated warmth, and a good thing, too. As a cold-blooded creature, up here she wouldn’t be able to survive longer than a few minutes. Feeling a bit less sore, Rose’s weapons, which dangled on a rope like a strange kind of necklace, clinked against her chestplates as she leaped off the peak and into the wind.
A couple of wingbeats later, Rose spied a place full of shifty-looking people and rusty warehouses. She thought she could taste vibranium on the air, or at least something strange, information that Rose discarded because she had no clue what vibranium really smelled like. He was around here someplace; he had to be. Klaue had a branching tattoo on the back of his neck, coming up out of his shirt collar and around behind his ears. She had a fair idea of what he looked like, but circling slowly above every block, ignoring the terrified panic of the citizens as she skimmed the clouds above their city, she didn’t see him.
Boy, she hated the old-fashioned way of searching for people, though she had the advantage; with the combined efforts of her raptor vision and everyone staring at her, she got a good look at everyone’s faces. City after city, week after week of combing the country, dodging their militias, and sleeping in caves, she was about to give up. She was flying North, above the warehouses again, to say that she knew what country to search, at least, when something powerful slammed into her chest, sending her reeling out of the sky. Not knowing which way was up, she tumbled head over tail out of the sky. Her back slammed into the ground, which was only soil, but still knocked the breath from her lungs. Miraculously, Rose still had both her eyes, despite the best efforts of the flailing scimitar as she’d fallen.
“Wowee, an honest to goodness dragon as I live and breathe!” exclaimed a deep voice with a heavy accent she couldn’t identify. “How much do you think the black market will pay for a dragon’s scale? Or a dragon’s tooth?” Cracking one eye, Rose saw a greying, limping man put a foot on her jaw, taking out a pair of pliers. Pushing back her lip, he pried open her mouth, reaching for his choice tooth.
Rose got a flame ready, but he saw the glow in her throat and jumped back as she scorched the grass behind him. He aimed his gun at her and fired. A blast of energy numbed her face, sending her vision reeling, and she slapped him hard with her tail, sending both gun and man flying in opposite directions. He landed belly-down, and Rose recognised his tattoo.
She sauntered over, head low and menacing, relishing his fear as he scrambled to get away. “D-don’t eat me, now. I-I-I wouldn’t taste very good! T-t-t-t-too t-t-tough and stringy!”
Rose gave him a don’t-tempt-me growl before snapping him up by the front of his shirt. The flight to Wakanda was filled with Klaue’s bothersome gibbering. She dropped him a couple times, just for the satisfaction of hearing his screams die away before she caught him again.
At long last, she plopped him on Wakandan soil, pinning him with a claw. She let loose a roar that resonated in the chest cavities of all who heard it. Before long, the king’s court, plus Shuri and the young prince, were all clambering out to see the source of the commotion.
Klaue gave a nervous chuckle. “Now, if it ain’t my good friend the king! ‘Ello again!”
“Ulysses Klaue, you have stolen from the country of Wakanda five hundred pounds of vibranium. For this crime, you are to face judgement by the king’s court.”
“What? Is no one going to address the fact that there’s a dragon standing over us?” Rose pressed harder. “Ow, not so rough. I’m sure ol’ T’Chaka will want to save me for himself!” Rose didn’t let up, not until King T’Chaka gestured for his guard to take him. She stayed for a moment longer to bow to her friends. They bowed in return, honoring that the debt had been repaid.
“All is not well, though. Without the location of the stolen goods, we have nothing to convict him with. I’m afraid that he will be merely branded as a thief and sent back to where you found him.” T’Chaka shook his head miserably. “But you have brought us what you promised. And for that, I thank you.”
Rose touched his forehead with her muzzle, then nuzzled Shuri. Spreading her wings and climbing into the jetstream, she turned toward Japan. She loved going at her own pace, because she could sleep on the wing without having to worry about losing her way.
Japan was East. She could do East, just following the sunrise. Rose had been a dragon for two months by the time she reached Iran, and for five when she reached China. Almost there! Just a few more miles, she coached herself. Her meals consisting of yaks and the occasional rhino, Rose was almost always picking hair out of her teeth with her tongue, often biting it, making herself bleed.
By the time Mount Fuji graced the horizon, seven months had come and gone, taking with them the snow and ice, leaving the trees to bloom along gravel roads, lacing the air with a delicate fragrance. Houses here on Shikoku had curved, clay-shingled roofs and elegant pillars. But she never touched the ground, as much as she wanted to. If the Earth Guardian was here, they’d be on a mountain. It was a feeling she had, a small inkling of intuition. The smooth shape of Fuji belied a treacherous climb to the top, making Rose glad she had wings. But there was nothing at the top, besides a nice view. Rose combed the tallest mountains of Japan, then the next tallest, until at last she saw something odd: a monastery. She’d heard about them, sure, but never been to one.
The monastery before her was enormous, more of a settlement, encompassing nearly all of the crater. It was embellished with symbols, but the one constant she found was like an odd trapezoid with a spiral on the inside, near the top. Eh, I don’t feel like doing this yet. Too peaceful. I’m gonna find some excitement.
So Rose, having found what she wanted, left the monastery behind and, reaching the base of the mountain, transformed for the first time since leaving Logan behind. Logan . . . I wonder how he’s doing . . . Her komoyo beads still worked, thankfully, but she didn’t use them. Everywhere she looked in the small valley town, mutants walked the streets. Some with green skin, some with glowing white eyes, or curling horns or wings. She did get a few stares, probably due to her clothing, which was a pair of fraying jean cutoffs, a white tee and a shredded denim jacket, donned after the assessment when she’d set her battle suit on fire.
Rose didn’t mind, though. But she did stop and buy some food, namely some noodles, tea, and an entire chicken, with a few Asian coins she’d “borrowed” from a thieving merchant in China after she’d frightened him half to death by eating a few of his goats. She did notice that the shop had a number of garments sporting an odd kind of dragon for a kimono: the wyvern, with its block-shaped head, two bulky legs and poisonous stinger. Yeesh. She dreaded the thought of meeting such a beast, in battle or otherwise.
Guessing that the Earth Elemental was the wyvern, Rose knew she better befriend whoever they were. Wyverns were no joke. Though only seventy-five feet long, they could spray a high-pressured, deadly acid stream from their mouths, and were formidable in combat. Their small, bulky frame, sharp, serrated claws, leathery bat wings and deadly poison stinger, even to a dragon Rose’s size, made them the most feared breed of dragons.
He needed to find her. He remembered, and Logan needed to tell her. He knew why she’d run off; because Charles was afraid, and of him. He didn’t want to be that kind of person anymore. But could he even help it?
No, he would never be the same. Not after all that. But he wanted to change so badly that he chased those thoughts away, leaving only the fact that he could, not that he may never be. He sighed, the weight of his newly acquired memories weighing down his spirits. So much death. Too much. Too many lives I’ve lived. He remembered Rose, sure, but he also remembered thinking she was dead. More than a bit mad at her though he knew it wasn’t her fault, Logan sighed, staring outside at the blackness of midnight.
“That’s it. I don’t care what Charley says, I’ve got to see her.” He left a note on his bedside table saying to tell Rose he was going home, and not to send anyone after him. He knew he was one of the team’s best members, but Rose was one of two living links to his past, putting her higher on his list of priorities. There was a smaller, less used plane in the hangar, under a dusty tarp and meant for only one person. Perfect, and yet . . . “Nope. I can’t. I’m not flying alone.” But before he could change his mind again, Logan yanked the tarp from off the craft, sending the dust flying. It was very tiny compared to the Blackbird. More likely, it was a spare escape pod for the Bird. But Logan managed to sneak it outside and fire it up. Once in the air, there was no turning back.
Thankfully, there was an overcast most of the day, so Logan could fly comfortably above it, essentially fooling himself that there weren’t thousands of feet between him and the ground. It took him two days to find where the Manor had once been, and when he attempted to land, he found out why it had been under the tarp. He wasn’t hurt too badly in the crash, but the craft was beyond repair, and the rolling overgrown back lawn now had a great big gouge in it.
The Manor was still standing, as a building, but it was devoid of life and all furnishings. Dust covered every surface, and Logan almost smiled at the thought of this grand old building in its younger days. Twin staircases swooped up to a second level, but he wasn’t done downstairs yet. He looked inside the dining room on the right, embellished with a fireplace. He approached the hearth to have a rat scamper over his shoe. He almost kicked it into the wall for its impudence, but recognized a symbol on one of the bricks. Long forgotten, it was his family crest. Taking out a claw on a suspicion gotten from a movie, he chipped away at the mortar until the brick came loose.
He found it was hollow, and stuffed with crisp, now-very-valuable bills and coins. Surely if Thomas Logan had known about this, he would have gotten a lifetime supply of gin and cheap whiskey. For now, Logan put back the brick with all the money inside it. The kitchen, prying back the oak door on his left, had a ceiling draped with strings where dried herbs still hung, lacing the air with good smells. The pots and pans were hanging on rusty nails in the wall, and the wood stove was occupied by a nest of blue jays.
The kitchen was designed for a team of chefs, so it was very large, with two long islands. Logan peered into the supply closet to find a broom. Of course, there was nothing inside.
Logan left the kitchen and dining hall behind to rediscover the sun room, a room that had a large hole in the second and quite possibly third floors and had rotten mulch strewn about the hardwood floors. The tree had taken out the left side entirely, but he had time to spare for fixing it. The windows were smashed into tiny pieces that crunched beneath his boots. Nevertheless, he could see it in all it’s glory of the old days. Rose would love this.
He ventured upstairs to the second floor, to find a few guest bedrooms on each side that looked mostly the same, save for the gaping hole in a few walls. There was also a balcony level to the library here, but the third had yet to be discovered.
The tree damage was the worst up here, but here was also where his parents had died, so Logan didn’t mind losing that room. In fact, the giant gap gave him an idea. A balcony! Yeah, a big balcony with a tall railin’. There was so much work to be done he almost didn’t feel like doing it. Logan sighed, heading up one of the spiral staircases to the third floor. The tree had taken out some nondescript room, and had thankfully missed the master bedroom. As a child, he was never allowed in here, but now, he opened the door and was greeted by two stained glass windows that let in the light, gracing the room in ribbons of color. Two normal windows led out to a small balcony with an outhouse. There was a mattress leaning on the wall, and a chiffarobe on the opposite end.
Everything was under one hundred years’ worth of dust, of course, but Logan had seen the Manor in it’s glory days, and knew it could be that way again. He left the house to the toolshed, and grabbed the rake. Getting the mulch out was the first step. He managed to get most of it before he needed to make himself a broom. Before the sun set, all rotting wood residue was in a pile on the outside of the house. Logan left again, scrounging up a whetstone and beginning to sharpen a rusty axe. Sure he could use his claws to make the planks, but too many memories lingered here; him killing Thomas Logan, the deaths of his mother and stepfather . . . he just couldn’t. But he could work much faster with his claws . . . No, respect the past.
He was still fighting with himself when the axehead settled the matter by crumbling under the whetstone. Logan tossed the handle aside, and headed out to find some oak trees. He was doing fine when an iron fence showed up. It was the graveyard. Stepping over the crumbling barrier, he found the biggest oak tree yet, and beneath it, his mother’s tombstone. His heart stopped. He’d watched her die right in front of him. Beside her was his stepfather, who had always been so kind, and next to them was Thomas’s grave, His vision flickered for a moment. He slashed the stone to rubble, and left it where it lay. But upon turning to leave, he tripped over a third stone that had fallen over on his mother’s other side.
He glanced at the name to see that it was his own.
Everyone in the town was either laughing or smiling, carefree as birds. She wondered why for a few minutes, until she realized that the mountains protected them from the sea on three sides, so raiders weren’t an issue. There were also no predators on the island, so all sheep and cattle weren’t remotely wary of her, just sniffed at her like something new and moved on.
People glancing at her and giggling made Rose nervous, so she headed into the mountains to the looming monastery. It was so steep at one point, she had to transform again and fly up. She was nearly there when a green flash bolted from over the cliff’s edge and knocked her off balance. What . . . ? Then she saw it. The wyvern was coming at her again, but she ducked to let him hit the cliff face. He swerved, and she spat fire at him. He was much faster than she was, with proportionally larger wings. His acid burned her side, but she dove after him, finally colliding with him in midair.
Rose raked her claws down his belly, tearing off a chestplate or two so they hung by a flap of skin. She got the same treatment, but he bit the exposed spot, creating a gash in her neck that made it rain blood onto the town below, making people look up and scream in horror at the fight ensuing above their heads. Now she was madder than a hornet, and roared so that the air shook. Her opponent’s eyes widened, and in his hesitation, she used her size and strength to drive him to the ledge. She felt bones break in his chest, and blood trickled between his teeth.
He wasn’t fighting too hard now, just barely clawing at her wrists, and as she stared into his luminous amber eyes, Rose saw he’d surrendered.
Rose could see now that he was past his prime. Eyes that had sparked with fury were actually sunken in, and the skin on his neck hung slightly loose. Rose backed off, an apologetic look on her face. But then, with one last burst of strength, he plunged his stinger into her side. She roared, writhing in pain as the poison coursed through her. She managed to fly someplace far from the monetary to change back and let herself heal. “Ow,” was all she could manage. About an hour later, she’d mustered up the courage to trek back down the mountain to her original destination, weapons donned and rope coiled around her shoulder. She stopped by the spot she’d left the wyvern, but all that was left was a smattering of dragon blood, and she anxiously searched the sky. Nothing.
Rose found no one at first, even as she ventured through the place, but then she heard a few voices in the distance. It sounded like heavily accented English, and, as she grew closer, she realized that it was. Someone was telling a story to their friend, and they spoke English!
“Then what happened?”
“Well, after I was slammed into the mountain,” a smack of hands for sound effects, “I stabbed her with my tail and she fell from the ledge. I don’t know what happened to her, but I gave her a good run, I think.” Laughter from both parties.
Rose peeked around the corner to find who was talking. Her face lit up. Animal People! This is the Japanese District! But then she saw that the one telling the story was a rat to a nightingale. She decided to come around the corner and speak, making them both jump. “Well this is awkward.” The rat reflexively flung out a hand at her, and a stone the size of her head flew toward her chest. She grabbed it, and using its own momentum, slung it around herself and back to the rat. He sidestepped it, and stopped it from doing any damage to the monetary wall, but he just stared at her in what looked like fear, nevertheless assuming a fighting stance.
He had the right to be afraid, at least. Rose was a cat, whose reputation consists of eating rodents, and she was rather annoyed. “Look, I wouldn’t push your luck. You got the better of me once before, but don’t think you will again if you decide to start another fight.”
“It was you!”
“Yeah, it was me on the mountainside. But I need you to come with me to find the others.”
“I thought I was the only one.” Rose knew he was talking about being a Guardian. She had felt the same way until she had learned about the others.
Rose let fire flicker through her fingers. “I’m afraid not.”
He bowed to her in a way of greeting. “Hello, Sister Fire. I am Chiba Ryuu. Welcome to Aeredale.”
She, respecting his customs though feeling rather silly, bowed back, addressing him the way he had her. “Hello, Chiba Ryuu. Please, just call me Rose.” And then relayed her tale and quest.
“You say that we need to find our two other Siblings?”
Rose didn’t answer. She’d spotted something hovering above the courtyard, and immediately scaled the tree and leaped to snatch it out of the air. It crunched between her teeth as she descended. “It’s a drone, and whoever is controlling it has discovered this place, and that our kind exists, and that we are dangerous.” She traced the emblem of an eagle emblazoned on a fragment of the drone. “You have to move, at least until they have searched the place and found nothing.” The sincerity in her voice was not to be argued with, though she was sad to leave the lovely place so soon. Oh, please don’t let it be the Facility again! Please, please, please.
“I trust you, Sister Fire. We will move to a new place, if you lead us there.” Chiba nodded.
“I might be able to contact someone, but I need to be alone to do it. Please.” Once the room was cleared, Rose looked up at the stars and closed her eyes, thinking as hard as she could about Charles, and the message she wanted to send him. She had no clue about the extent of his abilities and whether or not he could hear her all the way around the world, but she had to try. We need help in Japan. My race is in danger. Please send the jet! We need help in Japan . . .
All the dust was gone, now, and the damage from the fallen tree only needed repairing. The mulch was all gone from the floor, which hadn’t rotted, only had some serious mildew problems. But there was no point in scrubbing the entire floor free of mold when you still needed to fix the ceiling. Planks leaned against the sides, and the one Logan was sanding with homemade sandpaper was nearly as polished as the others. His second-to-last one, Logan’s hands were quite literally bound to the paper, his palms had blistered, broken, and healed twice, his skin wrapped around the folded edges.
A stallion and his herd of four mares hung around the property, likely descended from the horses that used to work on the farm, judging by their heads and large frames. Logan had been watching them for the past month. The herd made good companions, though stand-offish. Eventually, after Logan had patched up the wall, and was making it look like the rest of the exterior, the herd grew calmer, and allowed themselves to be subjected to such things as physical contact. Logan aimed to have a team of horses he could use for hauling a wagon, mainly so he could get to the nearby town; his already pitiful supply of nails was growing even thinner. It would be hard to tame the herd, but he’d made some considerable headway, and Logan already had the wheels in the shed, metal wheels, safe from rot and not too badly rusted.
It had been almost a year now, and the Manor was showing the effects of Logan’s diligence. Often, he wondered why he was restoring the place at all, then he told himself it was for him and Rose. It was the only place they had in common, that they shared in distant memory.
It was complete by winter, and the only thing that needed done was the refurnishing of the rooms. Logan had made furniture in his spare moments; rustic pieces made from tree branches. He ran a hand over the smooth surface of a table. Picking up a stone hammer, and some blessed extra nails he’d found in the toolshed, he set off into the forest once more.
This time he was going to make the dining hall table, and it needed to be very long. It would be hard to drag logs one by one to the Manor alone, so he began to search for his wanted helpers. He walked straight up to the stallion, whispering softly, and with a gentle hand, led him to the logs he needed to carry. They were tied with a length of grass rope, and Logan placed a set of homemade traces on the stallion’s shoulders and around his chest. He didn’t seem to mind it much, but rather decided to try and eat Logan’s rope. A sharp word kept him off it and with a couple tugs, Logan got him to move.
The log-raft scraped behind the stallion, and it spooked him. He bolted, and Logan’s instincts kicked in and he leapt on the horse’s back. Either the horse didn’t notice or didn’t care, but Logan stayed on the entire ride. Thankfully, they were pointed toward the Manor, and upon reaching it, Logan cut the rope that bound the horse to the branches.
Realizing he was free, the horse slowed, sweaty and gasping. “Wild ride, huh, bub?” Logan dismounted and rubbed the stallion all over. He bit Logan indignantly, and Logan pushed his face away.
He continued rubbing down the heaving flanks, then set the stallion loose back to the woods. He galloped to the edge, then looked back at Logan before wheeling around and returning to his mares. Logan went back to work, and managed to get the logs in the hall, but not without a mess of bark on the floor. It took him several days and the last of his nails to finish the elegant table; the first of the new furniture, and when he was done, he did a double-take. He was surprised he could make something so beautiful.
Running a hand over his creation, he sighed. There was still so much to do.
Help never came. Rose could only hope that between her and Chiba they could carry the entire monastery’s people. At least many of them were birds, and seabirds at that; Rose noted that there were albatrosses, alpine swifts, and the only disadvantage, that could also be an advantage, was that most of the Eastern District seemed to be grateful for her discovery of their imminent danger, generally accepting her as a joint leader with Chiba as they struck out South toward Australia.
This meant that their chances of finding the other two Guardians, or what Nao called Siblings, quickly and effectively were that much higher. Rose knew from experience that Animal People had abilities that came with the animal form; she had great speed and agility and could leap higher than any big cat, but wasn’t very strong compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. The ram on her back, however, was another story. The way he gripped her ruff almost hurt.
She had to bear all the heavier-set people, as Chiba wasn’t quite built for power and strength so much as agility. A storm cloud loomed ahead. Not afraid, she prepared to plunge directly into it. Suddenly she halted. That was no cloud. Well, it was, but not a cloud cloud. Following the smoke to its source, she and Chiba found who they were expecting. A tiny speck was struggling with a huge, bulbous orb of water in the midst of an enormous wildfire. The speck let go of its control and the water splashed in a big hissing circle. But it wasn’t enough. Nao swooped in and snatched the speck up in his talons. Turns out the speck was a teenaged sun-bleached blonde girl who was missing an eye. It was covered with an eyepatch.
“No! I got to stop it! Put me down, I got to stop it!” Rose and Chiba looked at each other. She couldn’t be more than seventeen and all she was concerned about was saving some empty houses, not that she’d been scooped up by a dragon and could quite possibly be eaten. They settled on a beach, and then the girl dashed into the sea and disappeared.
She didn’t come back up, and Rose and Chiba had waited for hours. Those who hadn’t flown themselves set up a ramshackle camp for the monks and nuns, and the birds rested their tired wings. Then they waited some more. “Sister Water devoured by the sea. I can’t believe it.” Chiba Ryuu shook his head.
Rose couldn’t either. The girl had shown no signs of drowning.
Then, about an hour after that, bursting forth from the waves, came the biggest creature Rose had ever seen. Its head alone was as large as Rose’s chest, and its teeth made Chiba’s stinger look like a joke. The dragon raged up onto the beach, forcing the Animal People to scatter and Rose and Chiba to take to the air. Even from up there, the sea dragon looked immense; her bat-like wings were easily five times larger than Rose’s, and she was three times as long. The sea dragon was also the most beautiful. Her scales were iridescent dark blue, and her crest was webbed and decorated with an intricate diamond pattern. The same pattern was echoed down the neck, side, and tail and fanned out along her wings. The pattern glowed blueish-white, as well as her eyes and tiny, white angler-ish orbs underneath her chin and along the bottom edges of the wings. She was muscular, too. Her legs and flight muscles rippled as she moved.
Rose flashed into a dive at the dragon’s head, and succeeded in wrapping her forelegs around the sea dragon’s snout without getting her talons snapped off, and succeeding in stopping the flow of ice-breath from her mouth. Chiba was still hovering, and she didn’t blame him. He’d given her a good bout on the mountainside, but he would be slaughtered if he attempted this. She looked back at the sea dragon’s face. Startlingly enough, the dragon only had one eye, but it didn’t seem like it had been gouged out; where there should’ve been a socket or something at least, there were only deep blue scales, as if an eye had never been there in the first place. She thrashed about, trying to free her muzzle, gave up, and transformed back into the little eyepatch girl they’d plucked from the fire, only bare of any and all clothing. The moment Rose had seen the bright glow of magic, she changed as well, and called for a blanket. The one-eyed girl began to clumsily punch at Rose, tears running down her face as Rose held her back from dashing into the inferno.
In a firm, deep voice, Rose ordered her to stop. “You can’t put out the fire on your own. Let us help.” She wrapped the girl in the blanket. Actually, she probably could. Rose thought. Why didn’t she fly above and use her ice-breath to put out the fire?
The girl began to sob. “I made a promise to protect my country, and now I am helpless as it goes up in flames. I can’t even save anyone trapped in any buildings, and I have to go back and forth from the shore because the ground is so hot that it evaporates the water I try and bring up and I can’t do anything to save anyone!” By this time, Chiba was also back to his proper look, and was walking toward them.
“Stop. Just stop. First, what is your name?” Rose asked.
“M’ name’s Anaconda, but most just call me Annie.” She looked at Rose and Chiba, then past them at the staring people in the camp. “What happened to you guys?”
“Nothing happened to us. Second, why didn’t you use your ice to put out the fire?” Rose asked.
“I tried to fly above it, but the heat and smoke was too much. I even tried crawling on the land, but after a while, my feet and tail began to burn. When I had gone back after I healed, all my progress had been undone.” She began to cry again. “I’m supposed to be a hero, I know that. But I can’t do it. I’m such a failure!”
“No.” Chiba spoke up, “You are not. A force of nature on any scale is too much for one soul alone to handle. Perhaps between the three of us, we can pen this firestorm.”
So Rose opted to go solo into the fire, searching homes for people. She didn’t find any, but managed to save some kangaroos, koalas, and a variety of other animals she couldn’t name. She herded them through the flames that she bent out of the way to the other side of the fire line, where the ground was charred and black, and the already sparse trees turned to coal-boned skeletons. Rose found that she was getting better at killing the small flames with her mind, something that she’d never really had to do before. It was still excruciatingly hard.
The flames licked at her pelt, but she couldn’t feel a thing. She could even breathe okay. She burst through to the other side, to find silent trees, green and beautiful. Rose stretched her arms toward the raging flames and willed them to go out.
Nothing happened. It was too big. Too wild. Maybe she could hold the fire back. She braced her feet, digging her claws into the earth as the fire advanced. Sweat soaked her pelt as she tried her hardest to hold back the wildfire. The flames stopped, as if confused, then roared onward, unstoppable. She could create fire, bend it to her will and extinguish it, but could not tame it, or keep it confined. She hung her head and trudged back to the beach, defeated by a piece of her very being.
Annie and Chiba were chattering about the success they’d had, Annie saying that she’d never thought, in all the commotion, to use her ice-breath to put out the fire. Annie was even trying to talk the Aeredalians, namely Chiba, into staying in Australia until they’d put out the fire. Of course. Both water and earth can extinguish fire. I can only make it worse, or not do anything at all.
He had taken a mandatory break from furniture-making. All the hardware was gone, and he needed more, plus supplies like food. Wild carrots and venison can only go so far. He mounted the stallion, who’d grown accustomed to accept Logan’s wishes, but no way was going to let a saddle touch his back, no sir, and headed into the general direction where town had been.
It was a lot farther than he remembered. But it had also grown considerably. Everyone stared out their car windows at the tattered man riding bareback on the increasingly anxious wild horse with the rope halter. The extra attention making him nervous, Logan pulled his mount up next to the hardware store, and quickly purchased three boxes of assorted nails, a hammer, a stainless steel axe, some real sandpaper and some polyester rope. The whole lot cost around a hundred dollars, and Logan fished out the loose cash he always kept in his jacket’s inside pocket; mostly twenties and fifties. He left his receipt and, sweeping up his change and purchases, left with a “thanks.”
Logan strung the bags together with the rope, draped it over the stallion’s neck, tied a loop around the axe, and slung it over his shoulder like a gun before mounting. The whole trip had taken ten minutes.
The stallion would have bolted from the little town if not for the cars zipping up and down the streets. He reared a little as a red sports car sped by. “Alright bud, let’s go.” Logan dropped the reins and clung to the locks of the stallion’s mane. The unrestrained horse bounded through traffic, leaping over cars, and skidding to the grass on the other side, then vanishing into the bushes.
It took several hours to get home. The stallion limped the whole way, as he had split a hoof in his mad dash. Logan had wrapped his shirt around it to keep it somewhat clean. He had only a handful of herbs to treat it with, and the horse would likely go lame. Stupid. So, so stupid to bring a horse into a city. You knew it would be a city, why’d you think that an unshod horse would be okay? You freaking idiot. Logan scolded himself as he walked the horse slowly home, avoiding mud and thicker brambles. It took so much longer on foot than on horseback. They arrived in the dead of night, and both man and beast were too tired to go their separate ways. Logan just plopped down on the front lawn, axe still on his back, and was out cold before his head hit the thick grass tufts.
He woke at mid-day, to find the horse laying down, nails, sandpaper and hammer still in their bags and still draped over his withers, staring at Logan as if to say, You gonna get this junk off me or not?
Logan sat up, stretched, and put away his things from the previous day’s adventure. Then, he glanced around in the Manor’s overgrown flower beds for something useful like echinacea for wound healing. There it was! Logan managed to sniff out goldenseal for an antiseptic, and chamomile for its soothing qualities. Logan dug up the goldenseal for its root, stripped the echinacea of its leaves, and chamomile of its flowers.
As he dried his herbs over the kitchen fire, Logan began looking around for a pestle and mortar, finding them in a cabinet below the island. Heaving the large stone bowl onto the counter, Logan checked on the plants. The leaves and flowers had crisped, but the roots needed a little more time. Each piece needed to be so brittle as to almost crumble at the slightest touch. Even so, Logan found a new respect for the old kitchen maids as he worked and worked the heavy pestle. Throwing the sliced goldenseal in the mortar, he ground and ground until it was as fine as he could get it. Then, a little at a time, poured in water to make a sticky poultice. Then, he took the operation outside. Smearing the green goop on a cotton strip that used to be a long table runner, the stallion showed no objection as his hoof was lifted and wrapped snugly in the cool herbal mud. Then Logan let him return to his mares, who sniffed curiously at the foot.
The horses were completely tame, used to Logan patting them, riding them, brushing them, but the stallion was actually fond of Logan to the point of coming when he whistled and checked his pockets for the crabapples he loved so much. Logan often found himself caring for the big buckskin more than the other horses. One of the mares bit Logan’s achilles’ tendon, looking for attention. Logan ruffled her forelock affectionately and rubbed her down, too. Logan noted the position of the sun, about three o’clock, and picked back up on the chairs he’d abandoned.
He’d finished carving the backs of them a while ago, and the pieces just needed nailed together. The resounding whacks of his hammer echoed throughout the empty house. After his sixth or seventh chair, Logan just sat and listened. A mouse scurried in the walls, and a bird sang outside the window. The leaves of the trees outside whispered to the wind. Logan leaned against the wall, doing nothing but feeling like the only man in the world.
Rose was leaving, going back to the mansion. She left Chiba in full charge because he was the oldest of all of them, and began the long, long flight back to the Americas. Rose coasted West on the warm equatorial winds most of the way, and it was rather relaxing and uneventful. She arrived in Brazil, and could not for the life of her find the Wind Guardian. Everyone spoke Spanish, and she couldn’t understand a thing, so she left, going North to New York. Professor would want an update.
The journey to New York seemed so much longer than that from Australia to South America. It was cold and sleeting in Ohio. She was so high up that the slush that fell on her wings and face froze to her scales, making her look like some kind of ice ghost. Every flap got harder than the last, with every layer of ice that accumulated on her feathers, Rose dipped lower and lower in the sky. She was flying blind, her eyes frozen shut, and all seven limbs were numb. She had no clue where she was in the state, but crashed into a random hayfield. Rose tumbled over and over until she blacked out hitting her head on a stone.
* * *
She woke up incredibly hungry and blanketed in the warm rays of the sun. She could hardly believe it was the same sun that had been so merciless in Egypt. Blurred human voices came into being.
“Yeah, few days ago it just dropped in my field, sendin’ my cattle runnin’ for the hills, ya know. I looked out there and I says to Wilma, ‘Wilma, what do you reckon is that out there?’ and she says, ‘I reckon that’s a dragon, Homer.’ So I went out after the storm was over, and I’ll be darned, it was!”
Cameras flashed, and a female voice asked if it was dead. The farmer said that it had to be because it was frozen solid by the time he got out there to check what it was, and that it had been lying there for days. Rose heard a click, and then, “Three, two . . . This is Cindy McCarter reporting live for Fox National News from Oberlin, Ohio. It appears, as you can see behind me, that what seems to be a dragon has mysteriously appeared in a local farmer’s hayfield, dead. A science team is on the way with two flatbed trucks to help deliver the beast to the Ohio Laboratory, where it is to be dissected.” It was then that Rose decided she needed to go. Not caring that the camera was still rolling, she lifted her head slowly and menacingly, stretched her legs and wings, the ice that was still caking her scales cracking all the while, then ruffled her wings and flew off. She circled a couple times, smiling to herself at their astonished faces before she roared and continued North.
That little incident was why she hated, hated, hated long flights. Something always happened to set her back, and that was only the second time she’d ever flown across oceans on her own. But now she could cross “fly all the way around the world” off her bucket list.
Luckily, Rose had little trouble finding the Institute again. It was an isolated, mansion-like building with various sports courts strewn throughout the grounds. She landed neatly on the basketball court, scattering the children like birds. She changed forms, and having her weapons and sack of clothes on the rope necklace, she expertly doubled it up and slung it across her body as she strolled up to the front doors. Grabbing the handle, she threw a look back at her silent audience.
Making a “give it to me” hand motion, Rose received the ball as it was thrown to her, then sank it in the hoop in one fluid motion. The kids went wild, and Rose went inside. She giggled to herself. Kids . . .
She sniffed the air. Too many scents, and not all of them were stale. Not much had changed in the year or so she’d been gone. Where is he? Where is he? It was like he’d never been here. She paused at each door, pressing her nose to the crack at the hinges, inhaling deeply. Not that one. Or that one. That one? Nope.
“Looking for someone?” In her diligence, Rose had let Hank sneak up behind her. Whipping around, she backed against the door. “Oh. It’s you.”
“Uh . . . Uh, yeah. Do you know where Logan’s room is?”
“Logan? He hasn’t been around since you left.”
“The Professor said he left a note, but I didn’t get to read it.”
“He did?” Rose thanked him, excused herself from the conversation, then hurried off to the big office, barely remembering to knock.
“Come in. Ah. You’re back. How was your vacation?”
“Long. Hank told me that Logan was gone.”
Professor sighed. “He snuck out one night in a damaged escape pod from the Blackbird. I suppose you’ll want to find him. He left this, but I don’t know what it means. I can’t even find him using Cerebro. He’s completely off the grid.”
Rose read the note aloud, just to herself. “‘Rose: I’ve gone back home. Find me if you can remember.’ Home?” Rose paced around the room. “Home, home, home, home . . .” The answer made her fur stand on end. “He’s gone to Canada.”
“Canada? Why there?”
“We’re not Americans like most think we are. Both of us actually hail from Canada, though Canadians are, by stereotype, the nicest people on the planet.” She shrugged.
“Well, if you know where he might be, I can’t stop you from going to get him anyway. Go on! Don’t come back without him!” Xavier smiled as Rose leaped out of the window and soared into the sky.
Leaving her weapons in Charles’s care, a thought crossed her mind that hadn’t in one hundred years. I’m going home.
The wagon was completely done, and the traces for his team were still only strips of moose hide, because it was softer than the polyester rope, and three poles. He had tried again and again to jimmyrig them together in a way that would even out the pressure on the mares’ backs, necks and chests, and he was staring dead-eyed at them as if they could simply put themselves together.
An idea struck him. Nothing needed to go around their necks! It was simply one pole in the middle, with two holes through it, one hole on the two outside poles, and a slack strap tied in the gaps. To keep the poles on the horses, a loose strip of hide between each pole was to go over their backs. Making each tie with ultimate care, Logan had himself a neat harness. He was about to put it on the first mare when he realized it would be very hard to do that without buckles. But he didn’t have any buckles, so Logan sliced the strips so he could tie them instead. It wouldn’t be as comfortable as a real fastening would have been, and would likely rub against their hides the whole way.
Logan needed food. The moose jerky in his pocket was all he had left, and that wasn’t even enough for a meal. He had a little under fifty bucks in small bills, and had found a farm a day’s walk away whose owner sold eggs, milk, cheese, butter, things like that, and he thanked his lucky stars he didn’t have to go into town again. After hitching the nervous team to the wagon and finally getting them to realize that the wooden monster that followed them wherever they went wasn’t going to eat them alive, they set off at a fair clip along the road Logan had painstakingly cleared to a farm that grew and sold their own products.
Through the gate, Logan was greeted by a Great Pyrenees with a deep roar of a bark. Logan growled at him from the wagon’s seat, using wolfish body language to tell him who was boss. The dog backed down, surprised more than anything, and followed the cart up the driveway. The sun reached its peak as Logan knocked on the door of the farmhouse. A woman’s face appeared briefly in the window before it was fling open by a man with a rifle. “What do you want?”
Logan kept his voice even as the double barrel was pressed into his chest. “I’m here to buy some supplies.”
“Oh.” The rifle was lowered. “I thought you were one of them cattle rustlers that stole fifteen of our best dairy cows and good ol’ Bess. Bess gave the best cheeses you ever tasted. They’ve been gone a couple weeks now. Tell you what? You get Ol’ Bess and the herd back, and you got yourself enough supplies to last you, your family, and your horses through the winter. I hear this one’s gonna be rough. I’d go myself, but I have the farm to look after.”
Logan almost told the kindly farmer that he didn’t have a family, but if it meant more food, he could let the farmer believe that he did. Unhitching his team and tethering them to a tree, Logan was off, following a wide trail of cow tracks to a broken part in the fence, posts askew where cattle had shoved them over. If the cattle had been stolen, wouldn’t the fence be cut? No, these cows had stampeded through the barrier in mad fright, galloping off into the woods. He crossed the road, picked the trail back up, and found the cattle grazing in a clearing. All sixteen were there, grazing contentedly.
Logan, annoyed that there wasn’t a fight to look forward to, Logan gave an angry shout, and the cattle’s heads shot up. He started waving his arms, giving orders to the stirring cows. “G’on, git! Git!” He slapped a rump and the afflicted cow yelped in surprise, picking up the pace. The rest of the herd followed in pursuit.
Herding cows is a lot easier with a horse and a helper. Cattle strayed, and he chased them back. Over and over again. The process took several hours, and the sky had burst into flames by the time every last cow was safe in the broken fence.
To keep the cows inside the fence, Logan cut down a couple small trees and arranged them so they fit where the slats had been. It wasn’t sturdy, but cows aren’t likely to try anything against something that looks solid, at least, not for a while. Logan herded the cows away from the broken part and down the hill. Then he knocked on the door of the house again. “Got your cows back.”
After they had examined the fence, Logan, the farmer and his wife had loaded the wagon with dairy products and hay bales. Logan heaved the last wheel of white cheddar cheese into the cart when the wife asked where Logan lived. “Oh, just follow the road that way until you see this dirt path that comes right up to it. I live down that way, the Manor at the end.”
The farmer gave him a funny look. “The Haunted Manor? You better get out of there, boy. The place was abandoned for generations, and now strange things have been happening there. I always knew it was haunted, but now the place has been fixing itself!”
“I used to live there a little over a . . . long time ago. I’m the one restoring it.” He snapped the reins and the horses trudged down the road.
Pieces of chatter floated after him. “Reckon that’s true, Ella-May?”
“I don’t know, Jake. He very well could be an angel from Heaven itself. I have an idea!” Hurried footsteps along the gravel made him turn. The wife was running at him, and Logan pulled the horses to a stop. “Would you care to come to dinner? I’m making chili. Bring a friend if you like; the more the merrier!”
Logan hesitated, then his stomach growled. “I . . . Sure, why not? Let me empty the wagon, and then I’ll come back.” He tipped his hat to her.
When he arrived at the house, The stallion and the one remaining mare were nowhere to be seen, and it was evident why. A cougar lounged in the sun on the front steps, letting it warm her belly fur. She didn’t even open her eyes as he approached. “Love what you’ve done with the place.”
“Well, you’re going to love what I’ve got in the wagon, and hope you didn’t spoil your appetite because we’ve been invited to dinner.” Rose stretched, shook herself, then began sniffing through the contents of the wagon. “Oh, please. I’m always hungry.” She sniffed the air, then nosed her way into the wagon. “Cheese? You have cheese?! How on earth did you get it?”
“Farmer down the road had some cow trouble. Convinced it was bandits. Something scared them, and they stampeded through the fence. Now that I think about it, it could have been bandits that scared them. A common trick down in Texas is to scare the cows until they break the fence, then try and find them and take off.” He shrugged. “Eh. Guess we’ll know it if they try again. Help me unload and tell me where you’ve been lately.”
Rose grappled with two milk cans. “Well, I went to Wakanda, and what I did there is highly confidential information, by orders of the king, and then flew to Japan where I found the Earth Guardian who’s a little weird. Then we had a bit of trouble with a drone finding his secret monastery and we had to move the whole tribe that was living there. We flew to Australia and it’s apparently on fire and putting out fires with your mind is a lot harder than starting one. We found the Water Guardian who’s practically just a kid and she’s a bit frustrated that she can’t save her country from a force of nature. So I left to go to South America to find the Wind Guardian, but didn’t find them, so I headed back to the Mansion where Xavier told me you’d left right after I did.
“Speaking of which, why did you leave? You’re one of their best fighters and you left them. Why?”
“I left because . . . well, I don’t know.” Logan’s eyes went out of focus, and for a second, he was taken back to a happier childhood memory of playing on the front lawn.
“Well, once you’re done reminiscing, we have dinner to attend. I’m starving!”
Rose smelled the farm before she saw it. The unique scents of horses and cattle drifted on the cold wind while they were still a good way away. “Whatever I say, just go with it.” Logan said.
“Why?” Came the inevitable question.
“Because these people were nice enough to give me enough to feed a family when I don’t have one.” Logan explained that if anyone asked, he was going to say Rose was his wife, and that they had no children, and they’d been living in the Manor for a little over a year. She half-wished that little tale was true. “Whatever I say about it is fact, got it? At least until we find out what these people’s stand on mutants are. Speaking of mutants, where’s your magic bracelet?”
“I have it right here. And it’s not magic, these are magic.” She twitched her ear, where the gold hoops fused to her ear glinted in the leaf-filtered sun, the amber teardrops dangling down wiggling about. The horses pulling the wagon were incredibly skittish around her, and when she‘d moved, one leapt forward, making the other one follow it. The cart hit a stone and lurched, making Rose grab Logan to steady herself. He looked down at her, surprised. She stared back up at him before hurriedly letting go. “S-s-sorry. The . . .” Logan raised his eyebrows at her, giving her a sidelong stare. “It-it’s not like that! You . . . th-the wagon . . . I didn’t mean to . . .”
“Re-lax, Rose.” His eyes returned to the road ahead. “You’re so funny when you get flustered. At least that didn’t change.” He snapped the reins and the cart jolted again as the team began readily trotting. Rose was ready this time, and when they’d reached the pretty little farmhouse, Rose had decided not to use the beads. If these people could accept her appearance right off the bat, then they were mutant-friendly, and they could tell the truth to them. She’d already discussed it with Logan, and he agreed it was a good idea.
A big, shaggy white dog bounded up, barking furiously at Rose, who hissed at him. He snorted in a way that said, Nothing’s ever scared of me these days, and sauntered off to his corner of the farm.
Logan knocked at the door, and as it was opened, the heavenly smell of chili wafted out. “Oh, it’s you!” A plump old lady in an apron answered the door. “Come in, come in! I just finished cooking! Jake! Company’s here!” Rose was astounded. No one even gave her a second glance! For all they cared, she could be a pink elephant with lime green, triangle-shaped spots. She looked at Logan, and they both shrugged as they sat down to steaming, spicy-smelling bowls of chili.
The husband sat down, then the wife, who’d removed her apron. “Jake, say grace.” Grace? I haven’t said grace over my food since before the Incident! But Rose bowed her head anyway. She threw a pointed glance at Logan, who hadn’t bowed his head yet. He slowly lowered his gaze, then closed his eyes. Jake blessed the meal, then tucked in heartily. Logan followed, then the women began eating. The chili had a considerable amount of heat in the recipe, and Rose loved it. Everyone at the table was quiet for a few moments as they took their first few bites of food.
“So,” Jake said between mouthfuls, “What do y’all make of that dragon on the worldwide news?”
Rose choked on her bite, and realized that Logan was staring at her. “Dragon?” He said, “I must have missed that part.”
“Um, yeah. I might know something about that. I hear that the sleet storm made it fall into that farmer’s hayfield.”
“The report didn’t say anything about a sleet storm, did it?” The wife asked.
“No, but the look on that reporter’s face as it flew away was classic!” He laughed, then turned to Rose. “You know, I remember the first time I saw a Protector. One of my cows got a leg caught in some hole or another. I go up there to check what the hollering was all about when I find that something beat me to it. It was a barn owl fully the size of Ella-May! It set my cow free, then took off.”
“That’s amazing! The last time I saw them around here was . . . about a hundred years ago.”
Silence. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” The wife said, dropping her spoon in her bowl. Logan gave Rose a meaningful look, and Rose shot back one that said, I think we can trust them.
“It’s not a good idea to tell people we just met everything about ourselves.”
“What are they going to do, come after us?” She hissed under her breath. “They’re just a nice old couple, and I don’t think they have many friends to share our existence with.”
She could see him thinking about it. “Fine.” Then louder, “You heard tell of mutants, right?” Nods from their hosts. “Well, you ever met one?” They shook their heads. “You have now. One of my abilities allows me to live longer than the normal human being. I’ve been around since the era of the American Civil War, and I’ve done things that no one should have to do.” Logan got up from the table, leaving his near-empty bowl where it lay.
Rose also got up. “I’m going to go speak with him.” She grabbed his bowl as well as her own, and, after asking what she should do with them, set them out for the dog. Logan was petting one of the mares in the team who’d been tethered to a ring bolted in a tree. “Hey.”
“I didn’t mean to spill to them like that.”
“Maybe you needed to. You’ve got one hundred and thirty-eight years of troubles and hardships bottled up inside of you. It was going to come out sometime. You just have to learn from your past. You don’t have to live it again, dwelling on the things you could have done differently. We need to live life as it is now, not waste it all regretting our choices.” She smiled up at him.
For the briefest of moments, she saw the age-old barriers come down as he smiled back and put a hand to her face, right on her jawbone, and she leaned into it, closing her eyes briefly. He stroked the fur on her cheek with his thumb once or twice, but as the wall went back up, his hand curled into a fist, withdrawing to his coat pocket. “I can’t . . . Not after what happened.”
“He’s dead, Logan. No one stands between us. We have a chance now. This is the very thing we dreamed of all those years ago!”
“I just . . . not after what I did. I couldn’t stand to hurt you again.”
“That doesn’t mean you and I can’t, you know, start over.”
“Why would we want to start over? I get my memory back after so long of not knowing who I am, and then you want to start over? How could you even suggest that?” Logan’s hands curled into fists and he felt his claws scrape against his hand bones as the fought to come out.
“I don’t know. Maybe I thought that if you saw what you had been, you would want to live a different life.” Rose dropped her gaze for a second.
Logan was silent for a while, chewing on what she’d said. “You’re right. I want to live a different life, I really do. But it can’t happen. All the things I’ve done and been through have shaped me into something that I . . . that I fear.” He looked across the field to where the sun was sinking below the tree line. “Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long.”
The generous couple had given them so much, not just food, but information and friendship as well. They couldn’t care less what breed of human Rose and Logan were, they were just all-around nice people. “So,” Logan was saying, “Want to see what I’ve done with the inside?”
“Hm?” Rose had been thinking about seeing the Canadian District again. “Oh, yes, I do! The only part I’ve seen is the front.” Logan pushed back one of the doors, revealing a wonderfully restored foyer. “Oh, Logan. It’s so beautiful, like we never left.” She turned to him. “So, you remember the Incident?”
He stalled. “Yeah. Clear as day. But some that were clearer are more blurred now, and there are some I can’t remember at all.”
Her hand went to her right shoulder. “It’s natural. No one should be able to recall a time when they were two or four.” She put a hand on his shoulder. She made herself sound cheerful. “You still have a mansion to show me!”
He looked at her. “Go explore it yourself.” Logan began to stalk off when Rose stopped him.
“I want you to show me.” Rose smiled up at him, his warm blue-grey eyes smiling back at her when the rest of his features wouldn’t.
“You know, there are quite a few things I remember about my old life. I remember the old church house, where we met. I remember the preacher teaching us about hell, and how to go to heaven, I even remember talking to him about it, scared to the point where I just accepted what he said about the matter and did what I needed to to avoid that fate.” He chuckled for a brief second.
Rose remembered as well. She’d been there, and they’d both obeyed the preacher and prayed along with him. But that was so long ago, she could hardly recall it herself. It was before Logan’s father had been murdered, and he had become an orphan. “Yeah.”
“So, this is the kitchen. I had to reconstruct the counters and clean out the stove, as well as sand the floor back down and knock a few rat heads before it was sanitary enough to cook in.” They left the kitchen to the dining room. “I built this table and all twenty-seven chairs, but that head above the fireplace was there when I got here.” They left the dining hall the way they came, and swung by the library. “I didn’t do much in here, just right a few bookshelves and put the books back on them. But the right side of the mansion is a completely different story. I had to rebuild multiple rooms on all levels completely.” He opened the door into the bare room that smelled lightly of oak sap.
Room by room, he showed her what he’d done, and then showed her the master bedroom, graced by curving walls and a canopy bed, not to mention the chiffarobe, vanity, and the tall windows that let sunlight stream in and flood the room in splendor. Then Logan showed her to her own, personal room, fitted with a feather mattress on a bedframe and a smaller, simpler chiffarobe.
“My own bedroom? You built this just for me? You know, you hide it well, but you are so sweet.”
Rose watched his reaction carefully as he regarded her with a raised eyebrow.
“Look, why don’t we go check back in at the mansion? Charles is worried about you.” She paused until he looked at her again. “I’m worried about you.”
“Why? Because my memories are fading again? Well, they’re not. Not all of them. I still remember living with the wolves, and past that to a point where my father loved me and my brother, and my mother was sane.” They sat down on Rose’s bed, sinking into the feather mattress. “When they both died, You and I ran off to the quarry, and Dog finds us, that’s when it cuts off. Next thing I know, I’m staring at a crypt a few hours later and thinking, I’m not going back.” Logan’s gaze was intense, yet far-off.
Rose could smell the faintest trace of sadness wafting off him. Making a split-second decision, she grabbed his hand. It felt cold, but that was normal, considering her gift. She felt its fingers close instinctively, interlocking with her own. Rose hadn’t the faintest idea how long she and Logan had sat there, but eventually, Logan grounded himself again. Quickly letting go, Logan got up.
“We’ll leave in the morning. For now, you should rest. You’re the one doing all the flying.” He left, leaving the door open and Rose to curl up under the blankets. Closing her eyes, it was a long time until sleep came.
* * *
The Institute was completely dark. The moon was shrouded by the branches outside the windows, making fractured pools of light on the floor. Everyone was asleep save a few restless souls, and a movement caught Rose’s eye. It was a single man, sturdily built and wearing lots of fur. His fingernails were overgrown, and he was peeking inside every dorm room, looking for somebody. He turned to where Rose was standing, and she could see his eyes. They were the eyes of a mad dog.
* * *
Rose screamed, a jarring, chaotic mix between a woman and a cat’s scream, and Logan was there in the doorway, panting. “What’s wrong?”
“We’ve got to go, now!”
“It was just a nightmare, go back to sleep.” He began to leave when Rose leaped up, grabbed his arm, and before he could react, they were outside. “What the . . .? Rose, what are you doing?”
Without a word, Rose, now a dragon once again, leapt into the sky, Logan carefully clutched in her talon. Aware of her own strength, she tentatively placed him on her head, where he froze, laying low and clinging so tightly to the feathers of her copper crest it hurt. She was going fast enough to rival the Blackbird out of urgency, and keeping unusually low so she had a larger supply of oxygen and needed breaks less frequently. In a mere hour, the moon peeked over the horizon, and the Institute was as still as Rose had ever seen it.
Barely letting Logan off, Rose signaled for him to be quiet. “What day is it?” She hissed.
“Some day in April. What are we doing back here?”
“In my dream, there was a man. He was inside the school, looking for something, or someone.”
“What did he look like?”
“I didn’t get too good of a look, but he was wearing furs, had long, sharp fingernails, and had malicious eyes.” Rose shuddered at the memory.
“Sabertooth.” He growled.
Her face lit up. Finally! “I remember seeing him, in the memory-restoration thing with Charles. Does he always come around the beginning of April?”
“Yeah, always about the same time every year.”
Rose and Logan didn’t speak after that exchange, and focused on patrolling the Mansion’s many floors. The first floor was clear, save for the stink of the man, but there came from the second a crash. Rose gasped. Logan was up there!
She leapt three stairs at a time, using her nose and night vision to navigate the maze-like halls. Another noise, this time a thump followed by curses, turned Rose’s head. Silhouetted against a window were two men, one significantly larger than the other, grappling in a corner. Shards of an insignificant vase littered the carpet, but Rose paid them no mind as they gouged into her pads. “Hey, knock-off!” She loudly exclaimed, not caring about who was sleeping. “Let’s take this outside!” With that, she tackled them both, demolishing the window and falling two stories to land awkwardly on the ground, Rose, of course, landing on all four limbs and ready to fight.
“You’ll regret that, kitty-cat!” Sabertooth growled. His voice was rough, like running a hand over tree bark. His teeth, although filed down to points, were nothing compared to Rose’s. It was like comparing a hunting-knife to her schimtar. But his claws, if one could even call them that, were twice the length of hers, if twice as dull. Logan was still on the ground, rather stunned, having been at the bottom of the pile.
Going on defense, she dodged each hit perfectly, lining it up for Logan, who’d recovered enough to join in, to get Toothy in a headlock. But then Sabertooth did something unexpected. He charged Rose, throwing Logan and grabbing her tightly. Her hands pinned, she became helpless, and after trying desperately to escape, she panicked and something snapped inside her. Thought became an obsolete concept as everything turned a different color. Snarling, she twisted her neck unnaturally and sank her teeth into his neck, once, twice, three times, and his grip loosened enough for her to slip out, landing on all fours. Bristling and spitting, she advanced on the slightly cowering Sabertooth. She roared, pouncing on her prey. She was knocked out of the way from the side. Shaking herself, she looked up to find Logan crouching between her and Sabertooth. She hissed at him, her mind not processing that he was trying to help.
“Rose? Rose stop this!” As she turned to attack him, Rose saw Logan realize what was happening. Rose wasn’t in control anymore, and she was scared. She knew she could kill them both. Maybe not easily, but that didn’t help the situation much. Sabertooth had fled for the year like the coward he was, leaving Logan to deal with the raging monster wearing Rose’s skin.
His gaze flickered to a point behind her as the sound of clothing rubbing against skin grabbed her attention. Before she could look, a sudden pain, like a set of claws tearing at her mind, made her screech and claw at her face and ears, and strips of gleaming metal peeked out from beneath bloodied fur. Rose’s consciousness faded in and out as she fought both for control and against the pounding in her head.
But Rose eventually collapsed, unable to stand under the crushing weight on her skull.
Though he hadn’t shown it, he had been afraid during the whole ordeal. Logan’s heart raced, and his blood ran cold at the vision of the terrifying, beautiful beast that had crumpled to the ground, thanks to Charles. He was always saving Logan’s sorry hide. Without a word Logan stooped to pick her up, her face still frozen in half a snarl. Bracing himself for the weight of the deceptively heavy woman, and walked with Charles to the Danger Room, then insisted that he be shut inside with her. Charles set the Room to the forest before leaving.
Putting her down gently, Logan sat beside her and began to think about what he’d do once she woke up. If she’s anything like me, she’ll be fine, restored to sanity. He paused, staring at her face, which, now fully relaxed, and although it was soaked in blood, showed no trace of the supreme fury that had been there only ten minutes before. He could still feel the tingling sensation in his palm from where she’d held his hand, and the tiny ember of warmth deep in his chest flared a little bit. But Logan had promised himself that he would never, ever succumb to it again. Not after Jean. Not after what had happened to her.
Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply. The sharp, sweet scent of the surrounding foliage had a natural relaxing quality. There was Rose’s scent, of course, easily distinguishable from all others. Hours passed, and Logan had explored the entire Room. No one had entered, but Charles occasionally checked in telepathically. If he was being honest with himself, Logan would have said he enjoyed the breaks in the monotony.
“I’m so sorry.” Though barely a whisper, the first real sound in six hours grabbed his attention.
Logan couldn’t bear to look at her, so he turned his gaze to the ground. “Don’t worry about it. It happens to me, too.”
“That was the first time it ever happened to me, though. I don’t know if I’m going crazy, or if the animal half of me is taking over.” He could hear her voice start to crack as she spoke. “Logan, I was scared. I could have killed you, I know it!”
Logan stared at her so intently that she grew quiet. “I said don’t worry about it. It may have been a one-time thing.” I hope that it is, for your sake. He took her hand, like she had done to console him back at the Manor. But she didn’t look at him. Instead, she clasped it tightly, and began to cry. Not sobbing completely, but her chest convulsed as silent tears rolled down her muzzle. Logan noticed, and the tiny ember flared again. “What?” He asked.
She could barely get the words out. “I-I . . . I remember . . . everything about those few . . . minutes. I remember the taste . . . of his blood . . . and how it was . . . Oh, Logan . . . it was d-d-delicious!” She embraced him, and he froze, with her scruff warm against his neck, and her tears soaking his shoulder. Rose paused to catch her breath before whispering, “I feel like a monster.” At this, Logan realized they now shared something besides a past. They shared a world where they each struggled with their own demons. Until now, it’d just been him. But this time, she was there, and he saw that they could help each other keep one another in check.
As she wiped her face dry, Logan tried to console her. “Like I said, it happens to me, too. More often that anyone realizes. More often than I care to admit.” Catching his walls as they slipped down, Logan said, “Let’s get you to a room.” Helping her up, he pressed the catch on the Danger Room’s door, deactivating it. Letting a messy-faced, but somehow still dignified mountain lion go first, Logan let the door close behind him. Unfortunately, it was during class change that they’d left the Room, so there were ample stares at the pair. Rose kept her eyes forward, but Logan, who the students very respectfully called Wolverine, glared at all who met his eye.
On the third floor, Logan found her a room to stay in across the hall from his own. It had a sign on the door that read, “Logan’s quarters. Trespassers will be stabbed. Repeatedly.” But she was too tired to notice, or either didn’t care at the moment.
He needed to keep her close because, though he’d never say it to her, he didn’t quite trust her around the students in this state. Sabretooth had gotten the best of her, and she knew it. Logan had seen it all. Rose getting trapped; the way her soft, green eyes had gone wild; how she’d turned on him.
Rose was curled on top of the sheets, tail over her nose and facing the wall. Logan left her to herself. Crossing the hall to his own room, Logan shed his buttonless, heavily worn jean jacket, ran his fingers through his jet-black hair, then fell chest-first onto the bed. Half his face buried in the pillow, he mumbled to himself, “. . . Gonna sleep for days.”
* * *
In reality, it was only sixteen hours; it was Rose who slept for a day. Logan had no idea when the last time she’d voluntarily slept was. Shoot, she could stay awake forever, it seemed. Every now and again, when he was sure no one else was watching, he’d check in on her, to find her in the same position, breathing steadily. On the first day, he’d spoken to Charles about what had happened. “I’m glad she got the message, but not about how it was resolved.” He’d said.
“You sent her a nightmare?”
“In a way. I was afraid for my students’ safety, as well as my own. I suppose the distress signal I had Michelle send, who happened to be in my office receiving counsel for her recurring headaches, may have been exaggerated by her own imagination.”
Michelle was a student at the Institute who could convey her own emotions to other people, whether it be those within a certain radius, or one person in particular. “Why Rose?”
“Well, I’d been thinking about her quite a bit. Honestly, I think she should join the team. We need her. “ Logan felt a bit awkward asking why Charles thought the team needed Rose when they were doing fine. “Well, just looking at what she can do, don’t you think that she can do things that Jean couldn’t?” An uncomfortable silence held its hands over the pair at the mention of Jean’s name. “I’m sorry.” Charles apologised in a low voice. “I know that both you and Scott had feelings for her.” Of course he knew. Logan disliked telepaths as much as he respected the Professor. The topic was quickly changed back. “But Rose is a new recruit, and I’d like someone to show her the ropes. Not to test her limits, we’ve already seen that, but just to welcome her to the team. I’m sure you remember the initiation?”
He did. It was a fight in the terrain, and against three X-Men, all of the recruit’s choice, yet the three chosen would agree on a circumstance of the terrain to make it more difficult, like a battle on a mountaintop, but on the night of a new moon. No blood was to be spilled, and there was to be minimal use of powers. It was almost certain she would choose him, and, at the time, Logan had considered adding a rule stating that females could only choose female opponents, and males could only select male opponents.
Guess it’s too late for that now, though. He rounded up the team, which consisted of Emma, Scott, Hank, Kitty, Warren, Ororo, Kurt, Bobby, Peter, Anna, Remy, Elizabeth, and of course, Logan himself. There were a few who were missing, as they were on patrol or teaching, but for the most part, everyone was there for Rose’s recruitment.
They reported to the Danger Room, and once Rose arrived, Logan and the dozen present X-Men lined up as Charles explained the situation. “I have decided to add you to the team. For your initiation, you must choose three of the members to challenge in a battle. However, the three chosen will agree on a hindrance. There will be no bloodshed, and the use of powers is to remain minimal. Clear?”
Logan noticed that Rose kept her voice small, and unsuspecting, hanging her head slightly. “Clear.”
Logan, glancing at his teammates, noticed a change in demeanor in a few as she met their eyes, scrutinizing each one. Having picked no one yet, she looked at Logan for what seemed forever before moving on. “Her.” She pointed at Ororo. Then, she chose Anna. “And then . . . him.”
Logan froze. Rose seemed to point at him. He was about to step forward, but then she said, “No, not you.” She jerked her head to the left. “Him.” It was Kurt! Logan’s shoulders couldn’t help relaxing. He wasn’t up for fighting someone he knew he would hold back on.
He caught the look she tossed his way. It was one of sad understanding, that she could see he was both afraid to and afraid not to hold back. It lasted an instant, and no one else saw. “Now,” Charles was saying, “where do you want to hold this event?”
“A deciduous forest. Not some holographic thing, either. I mean a real, living forest with animals and plants.” It was an unusual request, and she got weird looks from her challengers.
“What would we use as barriers?” Charles asked.
“Are there any natural landmarks? Bodies of water, roads, that kind of thing?”
“I see your point. There is a road behind the mansion, and a river to the left. The forest ends to the right of here about six hundred feet or so. That gives the playing field about a half-mile area.”
She smiled, showing her wicked-looking teeth, gleaming off-white. “Perfect.”
Inhaling the beautiful scents of the forest, Rose felt invigorated as she exhaled.
Even the heavy fog that supernaturally blanketed the place, drenching her fur, could not suppress the happiness she had here, out in the wild. High in a tree, she relied on the ears more than her eyes. They pivoted at any slight noise until, after a time of boring inactivity, she decided to go on the offensive. Although she barely knew her opponents’ scents, she could easily pick out the blue demon’s. He smelled lightly of stinking brimstone and smoke, plus a hint of the cologne he liked to wear. Of course, each person has their own, unique scent, combined with the chemicals corresponding with whatever emotion they happen to be feeling.
The blue demon’s trail smelled, at times, of two different fear-scents; wariness and blatant fear. Mostly, it smelled like contentment, which was harder to pick up on, because it smelled almost like nothing at all. Rose could tell that she wouldn’t be able to sneak up on him, not while he was so aware. She wasn’t sure what to make of the smoke and brimstone until she stumbled across him, wielding his katanas at the trees in shifting mist.
Freezing in place, she watched him, unsure if his teammates were nearby, and this was an ambush. Well, either way, it was a surprise attack. Careful to make no sound, she circled behind him. With her usual roar, she bounded into the clearing and straight into a purple cloud of foul-smelling smoke. And then he was behind her, and she began to question her choice of opponents. Why did it have to be a teleporter?
“Nice try, little cat. But you must be a lot faster to catch me!” He called from a tree. Rose whipped around, about to pounce, when a hand grabbed her tail. She turned, gnashing her teeth at her oppressor, Storm, making her let go. Rose would’ve pounced, but a bright flare of light burst through the misty dusk of the arena.
It was the professor. “We have a Code F in the city. Several teams have contained it, but there are people trapped inside the buildings. We need all hands on deck!” By the time he had finished speaking, the forest was clear, and Rose could see that her opponents, who were no longer her opponents, had surrounded her in a triangular position, broken when everyone made a mad dash for the hangar.
“Code F? What is that?”
“A fire. And a big one too, if other teams are all working to contain it.” Ororo replied.
Rose smiled. A fire! Just in time to prove myself! Rose reached the Blackbird last, only to be refused by Professor.
“Until you have passed initiation, I cannot count you as a team member, and therefore I consider you one of my students. You are not allowed to leave on this mission.”
Rose hardened her gaze so that it bore into the Professor’s equally stubborn eyes. “If you don’t let me go, people will die; more than already have. My gifts allow me to do things even Logan can’t! I can walk through fire, no matter how hot, and emerge unscathed. I can breathe air devoid of oxygen; smoke has no effect on my eyes or lungs; I can go for days on twelve hours of sleep; I can fall from great heights and land on my feet, and that’s to say nothing of–”
“I said no.” Professor firmly stated. You are not a team member, so I will not allow you to leave on a mission as dangerous as this.”
Rose couldn’t stand the injustice of it, and her voice began to rise in pitch as she snarled at him, “You mean to tell me that you don’t want me to go with them because of your standards!? Do you even know what you’re saying? You know what? I will stay, and then when a thousand people die, I can say that at least I tried to save them, but couldn’t because some blowfish-headed handicap told me to cower under my bed!” Rose could see how much her words had hurt the elderly man, and as the last one left her mouth, she snapped her jaw shut. She knew she was wrong to call him those things, and a look of regret washed over her face. But she didn’t take them back.
Instead, she turned on a dime, leaving the Blackbird to zoom off, and the Professor to muse on what she’d said. Of course, she had no real intention of staying put. Making sure that Charles saw her enter her room, Rose quietly opened the window and snuck outside.
Copper feather-scales flashing in the sun, Rose kept directly above the Bird, and as she looked ahead, there was a column of smoke miles across floating above the jagged city skyline. She rose even higher, and, using her sense of hearing to stay on course, Rose surpassed the jet and when the cover broke, her vision was filled with the darkness of the smoke cloud. Looking back, she saw that the bird was not far behind, so she transformed mid-dive, plunging headfirst through the sky.
Transforming just before she got the ground, Rose took in the scene. Fire trucks and ambulances dotted the streets. Several fire trucks had their ladders extended, with people in red jackets descending them. The fire chief was easy to spot. Rose shoved her way to him. His face was ultimately hilarious, but Rose had no time for anything funny. “How many people are still inside?
“Four that we know of. But the fire’s too hot for anything. Our men are retreating.”
“Not too hot for me, it isn’t. Keep one of those ladders up and two of your bravest men on it. I’ll go up the ladder first, then your men after me. They are not to go in after me. If you want to save these people, I suggest you follow my orders, Captain.”
“I wouldn’t have my men do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I’ll be the one on the ladder. But I’m the only one you’ll have.” Rose nodded and then ran off to clamber up one of the red trucks closest to the building. Taking the steps six and seven at a time on all fours, Rose was up the ladder in no time at all. She leaped through the broken window with abandon, earning herself a few scratches on her back. Snorting to clear her sinuses of ash, Rose called through the smoke, “Hello! Is anyone there? I’m here to help!”
“Help! Help!” The last word seemed to echo above the roar-crackle of the flames. Then Rose realised that it was a male’s voice shouting at her, so she ran to meet it. The man was using his own body to shield a tiny dog. Without a word, she scooped them up, and, bending a way through the flames, made it back through the window. The fire chief was there, and he took the man and dog from Rose
“There are still three others trapped inside, on the fifty-sixth floor. Everyone else is accounted for; dead or alive.”
“What floor is this?”
“Fiftieth.” Rose wasted not a second in climbing out the window and onto the first rung of the ladder. Springing up at the wall, she scaled the building, pieces of sienna brick raining onto the concrete below her as her adamantium claws forcefully provided foot and handholds.
She ascended rather quickly, and as the building shuddered under its own weight, Rose broke a pane of glass and slipped inside again. Waiting for the tremors to diminish, she listened very carefully. When no voice greeted her, Rose called out for anyone to speak up, and someone did. An older man, possibly in his seventies, his wife, and their fifteen-year-old granddaughter were cowering behind an upset chiffarobe. Rose couldn’t carry all three of them, and her indecision made the couple choose for her. They practically thrust the girl into Rose’s arms, and with a last long look, they smiled at her. The building trembled again, and Rose’s eyes watered with precognition.
She turned tail and ran, dodging the debris, taking a dive out the makeshift entrance. She managed to catch one hand on the ladder as she fell, causing the truck to sway and nearly tip. Hauling them both up onto the ladder, Rose made her way back down to the street. When the girl was safely on a stretcher and receiving medical attention, Rose turned toward the flaming structure that still clung to its pair of captives.
Just as Rose turned, the building collapsed with an explosion of firefly sparks and dust. She froze, ears flat against her skull, tail drooping in the dirty asphalt, and the expression of purified helplessness and utter loss petrified on her face. Rose couldn’t tear her pine-green eyes from the spot where she had failed, failed, to save someone. It had never happened before. A paramedic wrapped her in a blanket, and as the tears brimmed over, she stared emptily off into space. Even as she was checked for burns and wounds, tested for smoke inhalation, symptoms of a concussion or other head injuries, Rose was silent, staring unresponsively at the ground. She only reacted when they tried to draw blood, giving the masked personnel a blank look until he backed off, then resumed scrutinising the pavement.
She was ushered into her own ambulance, bumping along fire-lined roads, until they arrived at a hospital. Numb, Rose allowed herself to enter the place, which smelled horribly unnatural, and terribly similar to the Facility. Only when it hit her that she had sworn never to set foot in a place that smelled like death and bleach, that she twisted around, and walked out exactly as she had come in. The efforts of the paramedic were puny compared to Rose’s, but not wanting to shove past the man in front of her, Rose lifted her gaze all the way up his refrigerator frame to his terrified hazel eyes and flatly began to count. “One. Two. Three. Four.”
The man stepped aside before she reached seven, and without another word, Rose was out the revolving door and in the sky. She was done. She didn’t want to become a hero just so she could fail to save people. It hurt too much, she knew now.
Luckily, she knew just the place to go, where she could escape the madness of vigilantism and maybe start over.
Two days later, after the fires were smoldering or dead, the Avengers, Fantastic Four, S.H.I.E.L.D and the X-Men went their separate ways. The Blackbird glided into the air, and Logan threw back his costume’s hood, running his fingers through his hair. Leaning back in the seat, he reflected on the mental tally he kept. We saved one hundred and seventy-six lives. We lost eighty-four of them. We failed to save fifty-two. I wonder how many each team saved.
“Wolverine! Are you listening to me?” Logan’s head snapped up at the sound of the Professor’s voice over the coms. “I was saying that she’s gone. I cannot find Rose O’Hara anywhere in the Mansion.”
Everyone in the jet turned to him. “What?”
Cyclops spoke up after a second of hesitation from everyone else. “Don’t think the Professor didn’t tell us that you shared history with her.”
“So? What difference does it make?”
“He also said that you got your memory back slowly over the past year and a half.” Scott said.
“That’s mine and Charley’s business, and mine and Charley’s alone.” Logan growled, getting inches from Scott’s annoyingly blank face. The stupid visor obscured his laser-blasting eyeballs from Logan’s feral glare. “Well, did any of you guys stop to consider that maybe she needed some time off? I bet she’s at the Manor.” He waved them off as the com went silent. Back to the School they went, and what Charles said turned out to be true, not that Logan had doubted him for a second. The bond between him and the man in the wheelchair stretched back, back to a time when he had been drifting, searching for a place to call home. Perhaps Logan was more wolf than he’d ever realized; after all, what is a wolf without a pack? A lone wolf. The bloodied snout of the dark grey wolf devouring the flesh of the dead cubs made his lip twitch and his heart twinge. And lone wolves bring only trouble.
Rose had disappeared, along with her sword thing, bow and arrows and magic bracelet, and maybe it was for the better. Logan couldn’t concentrate with her around him, and if she were miles away, then he could finally focus on what mattered: stopping the Cure. It had appeared on the news yesterday; the science facility Benetech announced that it had discovered the base formula for a mutant “cure” and intended to complete it. How long it would take, no one knew, but Logan hated the idea as much as Beast loved it.
* * *
Rose stayed M.I.A. for nine months, and there was no sign of her ever coming back. The last they’d seen or heard of her was some scared paramedic babbling about a mutant with terrifying power unlike anything anyone had ever seen, a few clips on the news taken on someones phone showing Rose scaling the corner of a building and staring horrified as the building crumbled, and some artist’s scrawlings on a sheet of paper that didn’t capture half of the real Rose’s magnificence. The other X-Men and the medics who’d dealt with her said it was a stunning likeness, but to Logan it was dull and flat. The image lacked the striking emerald glow of her eyes, the way one of her ears was always held to the side, tuned in to the world around her while the other was shoved intently toward the person she was talking to.
Everything was fine for the first five months, but by the end of the sixth, when not on call or teaching, Logan found himself listless; not wanting to exercise, or even take a walk. He’d stare off into space for hours, letting his mind wander off to Rose and back again.
The seventh and eighth months came and went, and Logan was noticeably different-tempered, even to his students. In fact, they gossipped about him, far out of earshot, of course. His brow was furrowed with worry all the time, and he hardly raised his voice anymore. Logan spent most of his time isolated, and, once, forgot to keep his eye on all the coyotes running a Mexican slave trade, and nearly let one escape. On the ninth, the Professor was fed up.
“I called you here, Logan, to discuss this new demeanor of yours. You’re almost . . .” He paused, searching his mental thesaurus for the right word, when he looked at the other man. Logan’s mental walls had slipped down further than ever, and Charles was able to clearly read what was on his mind. “Go get her. No one else can do it for you, just go and do it. Nothing stopped you before.”
He sat down and sighed. “Last time, I was running from myself. Now, I’m running toward something that . . . that I don’t know I can face. What happened to Jean was my fault. I killed her. My claws took her life.” His voice became a whisper. “I made a promise to her memory that I’ve already broken.”
“‘Already?’ Logan, it’s been nearly six years since Jean’s death, almost to the day. She wouldn’t have wanted you to hole up your emotions, she would have wanted you to find someone new, and we both know that she’s out there, on her own. Don’t come back until she comes back with you.”
Having his heart so blatantly exposed, Logan’s ears turned at the Professor’s words of encouragement. But he was right, as usual. Logan still loved Rose, after all that time, he just needed the courage to admit it. But gathering that much fortitude could take a long, long time. “I don’t know how long it’ll take. Maybe even longer than I was gone. Do you think that the team can hold up without me?”
The Professor didn’t immediately reply, but then began to nod. Giving Charles one last steadfast look, Logan swept out the door. In his room, he threw on an extra flannel, his sturdiest jeans, a leather jacket, his boots and hat, and tossed some basic necessities, cash, spare set of clothes, toothbrush, comb, jerky and granola bars, all into a backpack. Then, almost like an afterthought, grabbed his helmet.
The expedition would require someone to fly the Bird back, so Logan took along Emma Frost, a telepath with the ability to turn her skin into pure, organic diamond. She could also care less if Logan left or not, so she wouldn’t try to stop him.
The ten-hour flight to Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada seemed to take twice as long to Logan. But when the jets of the aircraft ruffled the overgrown grass on the Howlett Manor’s front lawn, he hesitated to get out. Only for a second, though, and then he said, “See ya.” Then he stepped off the ramp and onto the ground and unloaded his motorcycle from the Bird’s underbelly.
* * *
After the Bird was out of sight, Logan entered the house to find that Rose was not there either, but he did find a single set of tire tracks on the trail. The horses were long gone, moved on to finer pastures, so the only animals Logan scared when he revved his engine was a fox and the quail it’d been hunting. Dirt spraying behind his rear tire, Logan bumped down the country road. The comparatively bustling city hadn’t changed since the stallion had broken his hoof. Now having transportation more suited to the streets, Logan bust out of the woods and into a traffic gap.
If Rose has a motorcycle, then she must have a job. Glancing back and forth from building signs to the road, he noted several “NOW HIRING” posters, and four that were being taken down. One at a McDonalds, another at a BP, another for a liquor store, and the last one at a bar. Surely no one would hire a fur-covered being at a food joint, Logan thought.
He stopped by the BP to refill the gas can he had on the back of his bike and to see if they’d seen Rose. His old picture of her still had some life to it, and his newer one was a photo that Cerebro had when she was first detected. After learning her identity, he’d finagled his way into secretly acquiring it, just for himself. No one there recognised her, but some guy driving a 4×4 said he’d seen the older, more human likeness of Rose at a local bar called “The Pits”. Logan thanked the man, got directions to the place, then split.
The Pits was a rowdy little joint, and he couldn’t see straight for all the flashing and waving spotlights. It took him ten minutes of leaning on a wall and smoking a cigar or two before his eyes and brain adjusted to where he could comprehend actual faces of people. He spotted her behind the bar.
Sitting down to watch her for a bit, Logan witnessed Rose, using her human face, throw out a person twice her size, whip up drinks as fast as the men could down them, and show up one man who catcalled her while she was waiting tables. Then, while she was back at the bar, he took his place next to a man ordering two rounds of Lamborghinis and flicked away the ash that had accumulated on his cigar. “What’s a nice gal like you doing in a dump like this? Seriously; I’ve seen cleaner outhouses.”
She glanced up from her dishwashing, not even smiling at his joke. “When you end up killing two people because you can only carry one at a time, that weighs pretty heavy on a girl. So I came here, looking to make a bit of a life for myself, and got hired here as a Jack-of-all-Trades; just doing everything from waiting to bouncing to security. So what’s a nice guy like you looking for me for?”
“Our gracious employer wants you back, and told me not to return until you agree to come with me.” Logan blew his smoke across the bar.
“‘Ey! Ain’t deze zupposed to be on fffire!?” The man next to Logan drunkenly interrupted. Rose gave the man a withering glare before whipping out a grill lighter and haphazardly tossing it at him.
“Anyway, I’m retired. No more hero-work for me. I’m done.”
“What? ‘Cause two people died on your watch? That day, out of all the people the team and I worked to save, one hundred and thirty-six are dead, and fifty two of them died ‘fore we could reach them! Don’t think I have any pity for you and your ‘woe is me’ attitude. The only power worth snot is the power to get up after you fall down. Everything else, all the fancier, flashier powers, that’s just extra.”
“I can’t face Charles after what happened. I wasn’t supposed to have gone, but I did. Now he knows that two people died because I was stupid and disobeyed him.”
Logan crossed his arms on the bar. “Well, seeing as I’ll be here a while, I’ll take a bottle of schnapps and a glass.”
Rose sighed, searched the shelves for his request, then gave him what he wanted. “Besides, it’s more than just that. What if I lose my head again? What if someone from the Facility comes back to haunt me, and then I find out that they implanted some sort of code in my brain that makes me bend to their will? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of something like that happening before.”
Logan gulped down a glass, and began to pour another. “You got all these ‘what if’s, and not a single ounce of sense to back it up. Take a break and grab a glass. You look like you could use it.”
“I can’t get drunk, if that’s what you’re implying I should do. I’ve tried everything from whiskey to drinks illegal down in America. I just can’t.” Rose hung up her apron on a hook somewhere behind her, then pulled up a chair from behind the counter.
“Neither can I. Funny story; I was at a bar a lot more rowdy than this one, and at the time of World War II, I’d made more’n a few enemies.” He poured Rose a glass, then continued. “I was polishing off my second bottle of vodka at some German bar, and turned my back on it for one reason or another. By the time I’d finished the bottle, I was feelin’ dizzy.” He took a sip, then swirled his glass on the counter. “About the time it passed, I originally thought that I’d learned my limits, but by the way that one table of people were starin’ at me, then bolted for the door, well, I just knew one had tried to poison me.”
“What happened?” Rose asked, shooting down her drink and wincing a little as the aptly named firewater sizzled down her throat.
“I didn’t know who’d done it, so I turned ‘em all into mincemeat and let the dogs in.” Noting her expression, he said, “War’s war, and the tensions were high. Every town ‘cross the continent had posters with my face plastered on at least one pole. Back then I was . . . not exactly a hero, but i wasn’t a villain either. I was more of a weapon. A thing that could be toyed with and tested. I was wiped again, and again, and again until all I knew was to take orders.” He sighed. “Eventually, sometime after the treaty was signed, I regained my senses, fled to Japan, and lived there for a good while before—” Logan stopped himself, realizing what he’d been about to say. “. . . Before somethin’ came up. Then, I moved to the States. When I first came to Alaska, I was tryin’ to hide from myself. Walk away from who I was. What I am. But that was a selfish kind of thinkin’.”
Logan tipped the bottle back, draining the dregs before roughly thumping it down on the counter. He stared into the tinted glass bottle absent-mindedly. “Best way to earn my oxygen is hurtin’ people who need to be hurt. So, I have and will put these claws to good use. I may not be the best kind of hero, but sometimes that’s what the world needs.”
“Well,” Rose said, smoothly sweeping the garbage into the glass bin for bottles and broken cups, “It sounds like you’ve been around.” She thought rather highly of him for sharing as much as he did. Granted, there were more than a few holes in his tale, but Rose had been moved by it. “You already know half my story; I was kept as a perfect girl, who had the perfect life, and then you came along. Next thing I know, we’re off to the quarry and then the Incident happens.”
She waved her hand in loose circles as she continued, “La dee da dee da, and I end up with the Animal People, learn the extent of my powers through a few legends they tell me, I teach them how to fight, blah blah blah, I leave them to find myself on the Facility’s doorstep.
“But I ended up at the Facility because I was tracking you. I didn’t need the stupid metal for my bones and claws to be unbreakable. I already had that when I received my gifts. I didn’t need any thrice-cursed, lifespan-shortening vibranium knockoff. I could have lived close to four, no, five hundred years if it weren’t for the alloy that lines my skeletal system.” She looked away, disgusted at her misfortune. Then she gave Logan a fake smile. “So? How’s your day been?”
“First off, don’t dis- the adamantium. It’s saved me more times than I care to count. Second, what do you mean it shortened your lifespan?”
“Don’t you know? At this very moment, our healing factors are working to keep the poison lining our bones from killing us completely. When we are injured, they tend to focus on the wound instead, leaving the metal to seep into our blood for however long it takes us to heal.” She finished drying the last cup, and set it down. “The normal lifespan for a success like us is about three or four years. But I suppose as far as you’re concerned, you’re right. The whole procedure probably lengthened your life, with all the war and whatnot you’ve been through. But overall, if you had lived a quiet, easy life, you could have seen the next three centuries!” She noted his blank, careless expression as he listened. “Doesn’t that make your blood boil a little?”
“Yeah. But there’s no point in bein’ mad about the past. You gotta live the present. Jeez, I sound like Charles.”
Rose smiled, but then it faded into a sigh. “You’re right, though.”
“So you’ll come back now?”
“No. Not yet. I’ll give the thing a little more time to cool down, and then I’ll consider it.” Rose couldn’t bear the thought of Charles mad at her. What if he kicked her off the team? She wouldn’t get to see Logan anymore, and quite frankly, she was glad for his company at that moment.
She took a deep breath, then finished out her shift, clocked out, and left the building, making sure everyone else left, too. Logan was already out there, dozing on a bench. When the last person had left, only then did she deactivate her disguise.
He woke as she passed him. Stretching, he roused himself, then walked over to Rose’s bike. It was a Harley, used, but it only had a few thousand miles on it; most likely it had been purchased by some guy in his mid-life crisis, and then kept in the garage for the most part. After she’d put a muffler and off-road tires on it, she rode it everywhere. Logan asked if it was hers. “Mm-hmm.” Then she got an idea and a mischievous look in her eye. “It’s faster than yours, too.”
Logan raised an eyebrow. “Bet?”
“Bet.” She gave him a grin, then, in a flash, was saddled up and ready to go. He was a second behind her. “Race starts when we get on the trail!” Logan revved his engine, then roared after her comparatively silent motorcycle. Rose reached the agreed starting line first, and waited until her competition caught up. Then, they were off!
Down the path their cycles growled, and it was neck and neck for most of the way. Right near the end, she was ahead, however, with Logan’s front tire nearly scraping her back one. Suddenly, she heard a curse from behind her, and as she turned to look at what had happened, she was knocked from her bike by Logan, who’d been thrown by a rock. The pair were going so fast that when they collided, they instinctively clung to one another as they tumbled across the finish. Logan ended up on top.
Apparently, Logan had forgotten to buckle his chin strap before the race, and his helmet had come off during the tumble. It lay a yard away, and Rose realized how close their faces were; they practically brushed noses. They both wore similar expressions; shock, embarrassment and exhilaration from the ride all mixed together. Rose’s heart beat so hard that she was sure he could feel it; or was she the one feeling Logan’s heartbeat?
They stayed like that, just staring at one another until Logan hastily retreated, red around the ears. “I, uh . . . sorry.”
Rose dusted herself off, then retrieved his helmet for him. “There’s nothing for you to be sorry for. It was the rock’s fault.” She picked up her bike, and wheeled it over to the newly organized toolshed, where there was enough floorspace for the pair of motorcycles. Suddenly, she cried out in pain. “Gahh!” She began to hop about on one foot
“What’s the matter?” Logan peered into the shed.
“I’ve stepped on a nail!” Rose grasped the afflicted paw.
“Lemme see.” Logan held out his hand, and Rose placed her foot in it. Immediately, he yanked out the nail.
“Owwwww!” She swore. Logan flicked the bloody nail into the shadows.
“Yeah, I noticed.” She snapped, and then softened after a few seconds. “Thank you, for getting that out before it healed over.” Logan nodded at her.
After both bikes were safely away, Rose cooked fried rice and they ate in silence on the top-floor balcony.
Logan broke the silence between them. “You made some touch-ups to the place.”
“Just some curtains and a few rugs. I tried to go for a rustic-and-silver color theme.” Rose took another bite of food.
“I noticed that you added cushions to the chairs and couches, too.” He looked at her with that teasing way that old friends have.
“Yeah, well, until you grow a tail and try to sit on something totally flat that has a back, I don’t want to hear it. It’s hard enough to get comfortable out here.”
He paused, considering. “Can’t you just sit like . . . y know.”
It took her a bit to get what Logan was saying. “Oh! Of course I can, I just prefer to dangle my legs. I only sit like that when I have to, like, on the ground.” Rose scraped together the last of her meal, then set the bowl on the deck.
Rose scooted closer and leaned into him. The Canadian night wind bit right through her shirt and thin summer coat of fur, and she shivered. One of the downsides to being the living embodiment of fire itself was that everything cold was amplified; taking a dip in a cool lake felt to Rose like she’d fallen through the ice on a frozen stream. They watched the sun sink below the distant mountains, just enjoying their time together.
Hours passed, and Rose grew tired. She’d been up for two days straight, and had exhausted her extended energy her fire provided. As she dozed off, she felt Logan say something unintelligible, his gravelly voice rumbling in her ear fur as she leaned against him. Rose just sighed and buried her face deeper in his arm.
* * *
She woke in bed, and the sun was already up. Venturing out in the hall, she smelled something like bacon, and her stomach growled. Another downfall to being the Fire Guardian was that she had to eat a lot. Fire was never satisfied; it could eat and grow for all time and still be just as hungry as when it began. Thankfully, Rose could eat and be full.
The bacon-like aroma turned out to be ham and eggs, still warm on the wood stove and waiting for her. The meal wasn’t enough to satisfy her, but it would stave her hunger until she could catch something more, if she had the time to. Besides, it was kind of sweet for him to make breakfast. After all these hard, hard years, we’re both still . . . still . . . She wasn’t quite sure how to finish that thought.
She sat down in a dining room chair and chewed slowly, thinking about Logan. After all that time she still loved him, she knew that, but she didn’t know if he loved her, and that made her reluctant to share her feelings toward him. I remember a time when we stuck by each other through thick and thin. I wonder if it could ever be like that again.
But the more time she spent around him, the more Rose began to feel that, buried somewhere in him was his feelings toward her, and she had glimpsed them a couple of times; when she had first woken in the Danger Room, how he had been her shoulder to lean on, when she had gone to fetch him from this very house and he’d held her hand as they’d stared out the window, and last night.
They could just be nothing. She told herself. Just a few moments of kindness between friends. But she thought about the fearsome reputation Logan had among his students, his teammates, and the whole world, and reconsidered her judgement. Maybe, just maybe, it could work out between us again? Rose glanced at the clock on the wall and realised she’d overslept for work.
The moose had no idea he was there. It would feed them both for about a week. A huge animal with a fantastic rack of horns and a shaggy coat of fur, it was unusual to find such a beast grazing alone. Creeping along on hand and foot, Logan’s time with the wolves seemed fresher than ever in his memory. The thrill of the hunt, the red of the snow as their prey’s precious life-blood poured out onto it; and then the memory of Essex’s bear . . . Forcing himself back into reality, Logan continued to wait for the opportune moment. Not yet. Not yet. The moose swung its massive head around, listening. Not yet. Bunching his muscles and slowly unsheathing his claws to prevent their characteristic metal scrape, Logan prepared himself for the final leap to victory.
He sprang, covering easily twenty-five feet to his quarry. Logan slit the moose’s throat and it crumpled to the ground where it died. The rush of adrenaline fading, Logan grabbed the bull’s hind legs and drug it through the woods, pausing often to catch his breath and to untangle the horns from some obstacle. Eventually, though, he did make it home, and strung it over the limb of a tree to bleed and skin it. Beheading it at the base of the skull, de-braining it into a bowl fetched from the house, and then hanging it to bleed, Logan decided that he would not bother to skin it now; that alone would take the rest of the day, but he had no desire to leave his fine catch to the flies and foxes. So he climbed up into the tree and tied the carcass to several branches, climbed back down, drug himself back into the house, and plopped down on the couch he had made.
Physically taxed, but not mentally, sleep refused him. He had no energy, but his mind raced with everything he could be doing at that moment. He looked over to his left and there was a side table with a small selection of books piled onto it, and Logan recognised some of the titles. They were books that he read as a kid. Never having any of the wussy picture books that kids now-a-days have, he’d learned to read early on, and by age eight, was reading chapter books. He picked up the copy of Robinson Crusoe and smiled faintly at nostalgia.
Although his long-ago memories were still fading from when Rose and Charles had brought them back, all of them from the time he was two until he met Xavier for the first time, he could still remember stumbling through this book, trying to read words such as “island” or “shipwreck” for the first time and imagining for hours what he would do if he were stranded on a desert island. Survive. Logan flexed his hands, feeling his claws shift ever so slightly in his forearms. That’s what I would do. I would survive. As much as he disliked his claws and disliked using them, he couldn’t imagine life without them.
He lowered the book onto his lap, and focused instead on the vase of chrysanthemums on the end table. Logan’s brow furrowed at them, wondering why Rose would spend money on something so trivial as flowers when it occurred to him that they were fake. Ah. Of course. Rose’s nose was naturally five times more sensitive than the average human’s. Logan’s own sense of smell was sharp, but not quite as sharp as to let something so small as a little flower bother it. Actually, he wasn’t sure who had the better sniffer between them. We should have a test someday. Someday.
He got up, feeling slightly refreshed by his momentary rest, and decided to re-explore the Manor. It seemed smaller than he remembered, being filled with both the furniture he had made himself and additional decorations Rose had bought or made, like the curious little statues of what could only have been the other Animal People. She must miss them, Logan thought as he turned over an eight-inch-tall wooden figurine of a stag, clad in battle armor and wielding a vicious spear fashioned after antlers. He held it by his side, resting it on the ground. The stand said that his name was Timothy. Logan set Timothy down, and wandered over to a taller statue of a tiger named Griffin, who was holding a sphere of some kind.
From then on, Logan procrastinated about the moose and instead made it a point that day to meet all the little wooden figurines stationed like tiny guardians around the Manor. There was a little barn owl, an eagle, an elephant, an ox, a horse, several different kinds of dogs, cats and rodents, even a lemur, and every one was made out of black locust wood. Each little effigy was carved with supreme detail, putting even the work he had done on the furniture to shame.
He had no clue that Rose was so skilled at woodcarving. The only room left to explore was the master bedroom, and he creaked open one of the narrow double doors. The whole place looked very different from the last time he had been up there. The brown-and-silver rug matched the silver drapes, and the chiffarobe had women’s clothes in it, eighteenth-century dresses hanging up, and, folded neatly on the floor of the wardrobe, were Rose’s clothes, cut-off jeans and T-shirts, mostly.
Looking around the oval room, two more figurines on the bedside table caught his eye. Picking one up, he realised it was Rose. Sitting down on the bed, he turned the tiny wooden Rose over and over in his hands, marvelling at how skillfully it had been carved. After fifteen minutes of inspecting every little detail of the figure, he took up the other one, and was slightly startled to find that it was of himself. Blinking several times in astonishment, he held it quite close to his face as to take in every aspect of himself.
The most notable feature of the carving was the face; she had carved him smiling a small, content smile. His face was relaxed, with no trace of the justifiable worry that was almost constantly there. Logan remembered a saying he had heard once, that an artist’s work reflects two things, how they see the world and how they feel about it. That’s how she sees me. That’s how she really sees me.
He set the statuette back down where he had picked it up, and left the room, thoughtful. Logan had always, always seen himself as an immortal, raging, horrible monster, but seeing that little glimpse of how someone else saw him made him reconsider. He sat down to think. The people I killed, was that me, or do I have another side of myself?
Logan let himself have the benefit of the doubt and decided that, yes, he did have some version of bipolar disorder. The beast inside of me, I keep it caged but I can’t control it.
Little by little, he realised that he and his battle buddy Hulk were more alike than anyone knew. Eventually, Logan decided he was tired of sitting and tired of walking around, and decided instead to lay down and stretch out. Moving to one of the guest bedrooms, he plopped down on the bed with a phoomph, and, without meaning to, fell asleep on top of the covers.
* * *
When he finally stretched awake, rubbing his face, it was well into the twilight. He decided that he needed to check on the moose, and managed to scare off some tree-scrabbling stray dogs, but not before they’d made off with a haunch and half a rack of ribs.
In the light of the lanterns, Logan saw that the carcass was completely bled out, if mangled, and left him free to skin and butcher it. A swift slash and the moose’s guts spilled on the floor. Then, with careful, measured movements, he deprived the corpse of its hide, rolled up the bloody skin and tossed it on the counter next to him. Then, he cut out the parts touched by the dogs. What a sorry waste, he thought.
With quick flicks of his wrist, he severed the limbs at the joints. Great hunks of meat littered the counters, and Logan had no way to preserve it all. Staring at it all, he could only see disappointment. He abandoned the project for now, and wandered to the library. Logan was staring out the big, arching windows when Rose came home.
“I’m home!” She shouted when she entered the door, hanging the keys to her motorcycle on their respective rack. “Today was payday, and I cashed my check at the bank. And, I put in my two weeks’ notice; I’ve made up my mind to . . . Logan?”
She smelled blood. She walked into the kitchen to find bright red bootprints littering the floor, and a pile of guts and organs at the epicenter of it all. Her first instinct was panic; something must have happened. Then the sight of the cuts of meat organized neatly on the counter made her sigh with relief.
She looked around for Logan, to find him in the library of all places. He stood staring out the window. “Hey, I saw you did a little hunting.” Her only response was a grunt. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve no way to keep the meat. I killed that animal, and I can’t even—” His words were drowned by a splintering crash as the floor beneath Rose suddenly gave way. “Rose!” She heard him exclaim. As the carpet fell into the yawning darkness, she clung tenaciously to the edge of the hole, feet dangling in empty air. Finally, her right paw came into contact with a rusty metal bar. Rose put weight on it, and it held. Halfway out of the hole, her support broke, and she heard it clang to the ground a good way below her. Eyes wide and scared, she scrambled for some kind of foothold, but found no purchase.
A big, rough hand grasped her forearm, and she transferred her grip. Logan hauled her out of the hole, and when she had sufficiently calmed down, Rose noticed that Logan had a rope wrapped around his arm and tightly gripped in his hand, the other end tied to one of the pillars that supported the ceiling of the library. “What’s that?”
“I think it is something.” Rose pieced together the situation and the reaction, remembering the time when she had forced Logan into flying on her back in April. She grinned. “Are you scared of heights!?”
“You’re lying. Don’t try denying it, we animals can sense that sort of thing. That’s why the Animal People are so honest.”
“. . . Fine. Alright.” He threw up his hands. “I’m scared of heights, okay?”
“Ha! Really? Well, you at least deserve to know that I really couldn’t tell you were lying; you could’ve said that you didn’t want to fall in because then we’d both be stuck and I would’ve believed you.” She laughed. “Tough old Wolverine is scared of heights!”
“You tell the Team and I’ll shred you, wait for you to heal, then shred you again.”
“Sheesh, alright, Mr. Defensive, I’ll tell you my irrational fear.” She cleared her throat. “I’m scared of frogs.”
Logan raised an eyebrow at her. “Frogs? Really?”
“And toads. Their dead eyes and slimy skin and general amphibious nature are just so . . . Blech. Can’t God have just decided to make them land or water creatures? Why’d it have to be both?”
Rose could tell he wanted to laugh, but pride kept him from doing so. “Alright; frogs and heights. So, are we going to see what’s in this hole, or not?”
It was a cellar. A cellar full of salt barrels and preserves. Logan looked around, astonished. “This is it! We don’t have to waste the meat; we’ll make it through the winter!”
“Yes, but how are we going to get back up? I mean, it was only a ten-foot drop, and I could just jump up and you could pass me the barrels of salt, but how are you going to get up?”
“The rope. Unless you can lend me your tail?”
“I’ll get the rope.” Rose readied for the jump, and sprang clear out of the cellar, neatly staking a landing. Untying the rope from the pillar, she dangled it down the hole. Feeling weight on it, she pulled.
“Not yet. Okay, now!” She pulled again, and hauled up a barrel of salt.
“What the . . .”
“Well? Toss it back down here!”
“Okay, if you say so . . .” Rose shrugged. Then, knowing full well that Logan wanted the rope, pushed the barrel threateningly close to the edge.
“The rope, you fish-brained feline!”
“There ya go.” Rose snatched the barrel from the brink and tossed down the coil. After a sufficient amount of salt barrels were brought to the surface, they brought them to the kitchen, emptied them into bushel baskets, and layered the cuts of meat with salt in an alternating pattern. When they were full, They both nailed the lids back on the barrels and scooted them to a far corner of the kitchen. Then, they sorted them into categories: wines, salt meats, coffee, honey, tea, herbs, and spices, sharing stories of each other’s past as they worked. Rose learned that Logan had been everywhere from Japan to the Poles, which was more than she could say for herself, but she still loved hearing his stories and sympathising with them.
They both trudged to the living room when they were done and sat on the couch. Silence ensued for several minutes before Rose said, “You know, the first time I transformed I was thrown off a cliff?” Logan looked at her. “Yup. The Animal People said that I could do it, that I really could turn into a dragon, and I doubted them. So they forced me off a cliff.”
“And how did they force you to jump off a cliff?”
“Slowly pushed me back at spearpoint. They knew I wouldn’t hurt them, and during the whole ordeal, I could tell that they really didn’t want to do it, so I turned tail and leaped off the cliff myself.”
“They were right; I instinctively saved myself before I was bashed to bits on the sharp rocks at the bottom.” Rose shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal, I would’ve survived anyway.” She could tell that Logan didn’t think that it was no big deal, but he didn’t say anything. “I wonder if any of my friends are still alive.”
“We could find out before we leave. Oh, and I’m not flyin’ out of here; we are takin’ the roads this time.”
“If you insist. And, as far as the Animal People go, they’ve had trouble with humans for longer than either of us have been alive, so try and be on your best behavior.”
“Aren’t I always?” Logan raised an eyebrow at her. Rose flattened her ears at him, giving him a “seriously?” kind of look.
“Honestly, I hate to abandon the place; we’ve really touched it up.” She looked around.
“I’m sure we’ll be back. Real sure. The government leaders are looking into forcing mutants to register themselves. Name, birthdate, current address, abilities, the works.”
“But that’s wrong!”
“I know. They’ve even made a “cure”, as if being a mutant was some kind of disease. Next thing y’ know, it’ll be mandatory.”
“That’d kill you. Surely you know that.”
“I know it. That’s why when that happens, I’ll end up bein’ an outlaw.”
“I will, too. It’s not like they can do anything about the way I am, and besides, I’d just end up living the rest of my life in a lab as they test to find out why this and why that.” Then she added in a smaller voice, “It’s not like I’d ever leave your side again, anyway. These past few months were so bland I could hardly stand it. I missed you.”
She missed me? Admittedly, he had missed her as well, but his mouth could not seem to form the words. Instead, he pressed on something that intrigued him. “About the Animal People?”
“Hm. Well, they found me, I didn’t find them. I was near drowned and half froze by the time they found me floating in the river. They attempted to save me by transforming me into an animal that could survive the Canadian winters well, but honestly, a cup of hot tea would’ve done just as much. I’m quite relieved they didn’t decide I needed to be a bear or a moose. Credit to them be given, though, because the thick fur they gave me has provided both protection and warmth when no tea was to be found.”
“They sound like a peaceful, giving race.”
“They are, but incredibly wary of humans.”
“One thing we have in common, then. Sapiens are turning against mutants. I don’t trust any human anymore. Not completely.”
Rose nodded. “I agree. I am more thankful than ever to Shuri for giving me the komoyo beads some two years ago. I should give her a call someday.” Then she got up and went around the room, then the mansion, blowing out all the candles until Logan could only see the emerald ember-glow of Rose’s eyes. Then she pressed something into his hand. After she lit it, he could see that it was a candlestick. “No, I haven’t forgotten you can’t see in the dark. We’ll try and find the Animal People tomorrow.” She led him by the dim light of the candle upstairs to the master bedroom. “I don’t have a room fixed up for you, but this is the best room in the house, so I guess you can stay in it.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve been using the little room you furnished for me. If I sleep at all tonight, I’ll sleep there.” She smiled gently at him. “Goodnight.” Then she vanished into the shadows.
“Goodnight.” He whispered back.
Wrapping up in the blankets and placing the candlestick next to the figurines, he took one last look at Rose’s self-sculpture and blew out the candle.
* * *
The first light crept through the curtains. Logan lay in bed, not wanting to move. A breeze stirred the room and something above his head moved. What . . .? A dreamcatcher? The actual weaving was no bigger than his palm, and had strange stones entwined with the string. Six grey-brown feathers hung from the frame. Clutching it in his hand, he stretched. Maybe the Indians were onto something with these things.
Changing clothes and following a delicious smell to the kitchen, Logan found Rose cooking happily over the wood stove. Cleaning and sorting as she went, Logan leaned against the threshold to watch. “What’re you doing?” Rose jumped, nearly sending a crate of chicken bouillon powder flying. “And where did you get all this?”
“From the basement. As it turns out, there’s more than one level to that thing. I’ve found casks of wine and vinegar, jars of honey, crates and barrels of rice, dried onions, salt pork, yams, coffee,” She pointed to each container in turn, “Tea, salami, bouillon, hardtack, jerky, there was some salt-dried fish, but I got hungry and ate it, a wheel of cheese, and even two jars of just bay leaves!” She picked her way through the food to him. “We may as well take it along. It could be a while until we cross paths with them; they’re very secluded. Plus, if we give them some of these things as a token of our goodwill, they might be a little more accepting.”
“I thought they already knew who you were.”
“They do. But they don’t know who you are.”
Fair point. “I’d get the wagon, but we’ve no horses to pull it.” Logan pointed out. “They’ve all moved on.”
“I’ll pull it. Or carry it, or strap it to my back or whatever.”
“So you want me to use the moose hide to make the wagon into a dragon saddle?”
“Perpetually. I wouldn’t mind. Oh, and how did you sleep? I hope my little trinket helped.” Rose nodded at the dreamcatcher in his hand.
“Yeah, actually. I didn’t know these things actually worked.”
“Most of them don’t. They aren’t made with the right things.” She held out her hand and he passed it to her, then she held it up. “The frame is made from braided birch twigs stiffened over a fire, which gives off an aura of peace. The strings are dried, braided ratgut, which serves no particular purpose. The stones are scapolite, which glow faintly to repel nightmares, and the feathers are nightingale feathers, which are to help you fall asleep quickly and wake up more refreshed.”
Logan was handed back his gift, and he looked at it with higher appeal. “Interesting. But as far as the dragon saddle goes, you’re walking. No flying.” Logan placed the dreamcatcher in its own pocket in his bag, then they left the building and got to work.
Wearing their makeshift wagon-saddle wasn’t that great. While she was wearing it, and it was full, she could never change back, never lay on her side, never fly, run, hunt, basically anything fun or comfortable was eliminated. Rose even had to keep her head below the tree level, and step gingerly everywhere she went because Logan didn’t want her to leave an overly obvious trail to follow. At least she could keep him warm and dry at night. When they went to bed, she would spread a wing over him, her heat-radiating scales making a neat little tent of warmth. It often rained, and Rose made sure to try and keep a wing over Logan’s head, the stiff feathers keeping out the rain and most of the mosquitoes.
On the quiet nights, she would hum herself to sleep with the old songs and lullabies taught to her by the Animal People. She woke up one day, after having wandered for weeks, to find a young weasel staring her in the eye. He jumped back. He was definitely an Animal Person; wearing armor specially tailored for him and wielding a spear. Rising to her full height, she watched the little weasel cower in fear.
“Hey . . . !” Came a protest from the ground. Logan, who’d been disturbed by Rose’s movements, used her foreleg to assist him off the ground. “By the wolf’s howl, Rose! What do you think you’re—” He noticed their unexpected guest. “I guess you weren’t lying when you said there were more of you.” She swung her head down and stared at him with one jade eye fully as large as a basketball. “What? It’s not like I explicitly said I doubted you.” Rose rolled her eyes.
Swiveling her head and neck toward the boy, and he feebly wielded the spear at her. Plucking it out of his paws with her teeth, she spat it out and it landed a few yards away. Backing him up against a tree, she managed to get close enough to get a good sniff of him. Retreating, she made an amused noise at his fear. She nudged Logan forward and he began to explain their purpose while she carefully uncovered and unloaded the wagon-saddle into the ground, finishing by tearing the whole thing off, ripping the hide straps that had been threaded through the wheels and gently setting it down to be a wagon again. Stretching her wings and rolling her shoulders, Rose was relieved to be rid of the thing.
The kid turned out to be named Finn, and he had just become a full-fledged soldier yesterday. He was eighteen, which was typical for new soldiers to be, as it was every young boy’s dream among the Animal People to defend their home. Rose, finally a cougar again, politely asked to be led to the town.
Finn led them to a dismal, abandoned village that wasn’t too far from where they’d made camp. The gloomy, deserted houses were only shells of their former selves, and many of the roofs were caved in. The broken boards jutting into the sky made the street they walked look more like the half buried ribcage of some ancient beast. Finn led them through the baker’s shop, to the cellar, and even beneath that, down a pitch dark hole barely large enough to slither into. It widened and broadened as they crawled on, creating enough space for two people to walk side by side.
“One of the scouting apprentices is a falcon,” Finn explained as they walked along the long dark tunnel. “She found a cavern full of tiny crystals through a great sinkhole. At the time, we didn’t think anything of it, but when we were threatened by the humans, we had the family of moles dig this tunnel, and we retreated here, rebuilt, and settled.” The chasm was immense, with a waterfall flowing through a great hole nestled in the valley of two hills. The water came in the roof, from the surface, into a pool, then down a river to deeper places. The light from the hole glanced off the tiny quartz spires and lit the place like it was sunhigh, even in the small morning light. The homes below reminded Rose of the adobe cliff dwellings: well hidden yet functional and attractive. They were made from stones stacked on top of one another, with dimly glowing mortar in between.
“What did you seal the blocks with?” asked Rose.
“One of the children fell down a cliff and landed in a patch of bioluminescent mushrooms. They stuck in his fur for a month, and one of our carpenters discovered how to make a kind of cave cement by mixing the mushrooms with dust. The only side effect is the glowing, and that we have to trim back the fungi that grow from it. It’s almost like they’re indestructible. But in the upside, we have a virtually endless supply of mortar.”
The cave dwellings wrapped almost all the way around the cavern, save one spot where an overhang sheltered one little house. “Is that where Lea lives?”
“How do you know Lea?”
“She taught me everything I know.”
“You must have learned shapeshifting from one of the other Districts then, because we don’t do that kind of Magic here.”
Logan spoke. “Look, we just need to talk to your leader.”
“Lea is busy teaching right now.” Finn pointed to a flat place in the floor where people milled and occasional sparks of light flashed.
“She’ll see me.” Rose stated. Leaping off the cliff, she dove until she could grab a stalagmite, swung herself onto it, then propelled herself into a flaming display of agility and finesse. Flips, dives, leaps, kicks, and spins alike were accented by bursts of golden fire. Executing a triple front flip, Rose landed square in the middle of the training flat. Lea, the old elephant, was standing there, applauding. Her students were too astounded to speak. “Well done, my old friend. I knew it was you from the start! No one ever could pull off a back handspring-corkscrew combination like you.” She pulled Rose into a hug.
“It’s good to see you too, Lea. I found James, the one I told you about, remember? I found him!”
“That’s wonderful! Is he still as amazing as you described?” Lea turned to her class, bowed their dismissal, giving time for Rose to recompose herself from Lea’s little comment, then continued. “Tell me all your adventures, my friend. Spare nothing!”
At the end of Rose’s outlandish display, both men were speechless. Finn broke the silence. “She yours?”
Logan looked at him. “Boy, she’s out of both our leagues.” Then he jumped off the cliff himself, less gracefully bounding through the stones, but still managing to toss in a few acrobatics. It wasn’t his fault he was more tuned to head-on-head combat than fighting around obstacles. Rose was telling her friend about her experiences of the past sixty-something years. Uninterested in the conversation, Logan turned to the conversation, Logan turned to look at the children, who’d been dismissed and were trotting off with their quarterstaffs. They were lively and talked among themselves. Searching for Finn at the cave’s entrance, Logan found him walking a beaten path down and around the rocks.
“. . . Now, whatever you do,” Rose was whispering to her companion, “Don’t mention his name. That’s a long and complicated story you don’t want to know about.” She raised her voice. “Logan, come meet Lea, the leader. Lea, this is the man I was searching for.”
Logan nodded a greeting. “Doesn’t talk much, does he?” Lea quipped.
“I talk just fine.” Logan halfway growled. He didn’t like being talked about as if he didn’t exist. “I hear you have some trouble with humans. So do us mutants. The folks up on the surface are on the brink of declaring my kind illegal.”
“That’s horrible! You can’t help the way you were born any more than I can.”
“You speak well, Lea.” Rose said. “I myself have had to hide in plain sight. We have also brought food and drink as a little gift.” She motioned toward the skylight where the avian-type Animal People were struggling with nets of barrels and crates. Finn must’ve sent them to collect it.
“Oh, thank you. Please, stay for dinner. I promise you won’t be disappointed!”
* * *
The dinner was superb, with roast hog, soups and stews, raw and cooked vegetables, salads and pies. The whole village was there, everyone bringing their own specialty dish, and Logan was the target of a lot of stares. Making a point to use his claws to slice off his portion of the meats, showing that he wasn’t exactly human. No one worried about being exactly civilized; some ate with their forepaws, others used only a fork or knife, and many herbivores simply served themselves then dipped their muzzles into their bowls to eat. Nobody bothered about always passing the salt to the left or keeping their elbows off the table, or any of those nonsense rules he’d been taught as a boy.
“A toast!” Lea stood up, raising a glass half-full of the wine that had been given to them, “To welcome Rose and her friend Logan to the town of Arkala!” Cheers and glasses rose from the crowd, and there was a second of silence as they all took a sip.
Everyone but Logan chatted with the person next to them; even if he tried, he wouldn’t know what to say. He ate slowly, keeping his mouth full so that no one tried to talk to him, because though everyone ate differently, everyone knew not to talk with their mouths full and to eat what they took. He was glad of their hospitality toward non-humans; it could come in handy should mutants need to flee from sapiens. He hated to use people like that, but if it came between violating morals and the survival of an entire subrace of people, well, the choice was rather blatantly pre-decided. Thankfully, though, the world was still on the fence.
Abruptly and silently excusing himself from the table, Logan stood off to the side for a while to clear his head. It didn’t help. A tickling sensation around his ankle snapped him back to reality. Rose had seen him leave, and had come up beside him, curling her tail around his leg to let him know she was there. “Hey.” He acknowledged her. “I never got to thank you for looking for me.”
“You mean, looking out for you?”
“No. All those years wandering the wilderness alone, I thought that no one cared enough to come searching for me.” And then he growled, as the memories of the last days at the quarry returned once again, “Except for Smitty. Come to think of it, I seem to recall a certain bond between you and him, or am I wrong?”
Rose was silent, and he felt his skin prick with anger. But before he could say anything, Rose spoke up, barely audible above the background clamour of the feast. “No. You’re not wrong. I did love him, before I knew I loved you. We grew up together, Logan, and, when we were kids, you were always like my brother, and I loved you in that way. That made it hard for me to know when my feelings toward you changed. Smitty helped me to realise, upon his death, that, even though he was gone, I still felt the same yearning I’d had for him for you.”
Her words made him think, but he found it hard to forgive her. Although Smitty had lived over a hundred years ago, and he had been rather nice to Logan, seeing him and Rose together had made him feel so insignificant that a seed of hatred was sewn toward his friend. “I don’t know if I can ever forget that again.” Her ears accented her every emotion, and now they were back flat as she gazed up at him with sad green eyes. To prevent himself from cracking wide open, Logan looked away. He composed himself, then said, “I need to be alone. Go back to the feast and tell everyone I took a walk.”
They lingered at each other’s side for a moment, then Logan started off down to the lowest point in the cavern. There, a stream burbled into a pool, and shining moss grew on the rocks. It wasn’t quite like his usual spot in the woods back at the Institute, but it would do. Logan sat down on one of the mossy rocks, closed his eyes, and just listened. He could hear the children playing, the adults talking, and even the birds far above ground. A mouse scuttled across a rock. He could smell the food, the water, the faint scent of pines as the air drifted down from the hills. He could smell smoke from the hearthfires, the earthy scent of stone, and the scent of every Animal Person who lived in that cavern. He felt grounded, secure. He relaxed, and all his troubles suddenly seemed smaller than they had before.
Logan had no idea how long he had been there until he realised that he was cold. The sun had moved, plunging the cave into darkness. Only the mushrooms and the shining moss gave any light, and it would’ve been better if they hadn’t. The dim light of the flora only served to distract the eye from what mattered: the terrain. Logan could make out the geometric shapes of the bricks making up Arkala’s houses, outlined by the mortar. When he reached the place where the feast had been, the food was gone, leaving an empty, lonely-looking table. A few people buzzed about the streets, heading to bed. Rose stood outside a doorway.
“Hey, you!” She called, seeming to forget their spat. To be honest, Logan had nearly forgotten it himself; it seemed so trivial and pointless. Smitty had lived over a hundred years ago, and Rose had moved on. She led him into the little adobe-like structure. “I hope you don’t mind sharing the same bed for a few nights; they couldn’t spare two houses, and in fact, they can’t even spare one.”
The place held a certain charm, with its one room and simple furnishings. It was surprisingly warm compared to the cold damp of the cave, the only source of heat being a little wood stove placed next to one of the walls. The bed was large enough to comfortably accommodate two people, and it was essentially a giant sack stuffed with dry pine needles and lavender, which gave the dwelling a haunting but lovely aroma. Logan had no doubt that he would sleep well.
The bed was surprisingly comfortable, and, despite what she had thought the night before, she did not wake up with pine needles sticking in her fur. Well, duh. Obviously the Arkalans wouldn’t sleep in beds that inconvenienced them. She was the first one awake, and turned to look at Logan. He faced away from her, but she didn’t mind. Among animals, being willing to turn your back on someone was a sign of trust. He looked completely at ease, and, at that moment, it was hard to imagine that anything had ever troubled him.
Already dressed from the day before, Rose softly got up and left the little house. She stretched as only a cat can; long, and luxuriously. In fact, the entire village was still fast asleep, and it was the dead of night. Rose had only slept for a handful of hours before her body had said that it would be enough. A great diamond canopy panned above her, and it took her back to the night when she had flown the Wakandan royals above the clouds. Now, she soared once again, and, having no passengers, was free to dip and swoop and dive as she pleased, copper scales flashing in the moonlight.
Something caught her raptor-like vision. A faint blur of motion; a scouting patrol poking through the rubble of the previous Arkala. But this time it was humans, humans wielding guns and dressed in ghillie and camouflage. They moved like they were searching for something. Rose landed and stalked after them, just within the treeline. Perhaps if they knew that a dragon lived here, they’d leave Arkala alone.
She tried to wait to reveal herself until the soldiers or scouts or whatever they were had their backs all turned, but the humans had a funny way of never letting their guard down when in the wild. So, when only two were looking in her direction, she slithered from the trees, ivory teeth bared and feathered wings half-spread and pointing threateningly downward. Her luminescent jade eyes were fixed unblinkingly on the soldiers, and the two fired. She shut her eyes as she felt the bullets spark off her scales, increasing in number as the rest of the squadron joined in. She tried to tilt her head or tuck it in to no avail. The sensation of the incessant tapping drove her back a step, and it got to the point where she began to wonder if they would ever stop. When a full minute had passed, Rose decided she’d had enough. Eyes still closed, she barrelled forward, scattering them like pigeons. Trying not to use deadly force against her home country’s militia, Rose slapped three or four of them aside with the flat of her tail-feather-fins. They flew for a few paces before wisely running off. But since Rose couldn’t let them leave and gather more troops, she herded them back and cornered the whole group in the remains of the old church house. There were seventeen in all, two with large packs and cleaner-smelling clothes. She could see hints of white beneath their green and brown jackets. Scientists. No doubt here to capture and experiment on the Arkalans.
“Easy. Easy, now . . .” One of the smaller soldiers held out a hand to her, and she realised that it contained a large portion of beef jerky. What does he think I am? Some petty dog to be tamed with a scrap of meat? She snorted contemptuously and the hand was snatched back.
She extended one mighty claw toward the group, and they cowered delightfully. Unable to speak, Rose began instead to gouge a message in the overgrown cobblestone path. Writing upside-down and ever so slowly (because writing upside-down is hard, especially if one learned to write later in life and still hasn’t quite got the hang of it), Rose scrawled a word into the dirt and stones. LEAVE, it said.
“We can’t leave!” One of the scientist-types protested. “We haven’t— AYIEE!” He yelped in fear as she scorched the air above their heads. Of course they left after that, and of course Rose went back to bed, because shapeshifting requires quite a lot of energy; that, plus her only real excitement in weeks left her quite tired. Soft as a feather falling, she slipped back into bed with Logan, distanced herself from him, and with little trouble, fell asleep.
* * *
She awoke to find her long fluffy tail had subconsciously wrapped itself around Logan’s leg. She carefully untangled herself, and, much to the surprise of Lea and the other Animal People out that early, soared up through the skylight. She returned to Old Arkala to find that nothing was there. Perhaps she’d worried too much about letting the people go. She settled down and decided to wait and see. Poor Logan must be waking up by now. She could imagine how he’d react, waking up to find her place still warm. He’d probably shake his head and frown. He frowns a lot. I should do something to make him smile. Let’s see . . . That thought would have to wait. She had company.
A huge battalion of men and women were making their way through the woods. She could hear them tromping and tramping and cutting their way through the brush, but still remained curled up in the church as if she hadn’t yet realised what was going to happen. Then, for a moment, everything was silent.
One man rode forward, standing in the back of a Jeep. “Mighty dragon, we have no quarrel with you! Let us scour your land and conquer our enemies and we will leave you in peace for the rest of your days, long may they be.”
Rose stood to her full tremendous height, growling deep in her throat. She reached out to a wall of the church that still stood and scrawled a sentence onto the bricks with her claws, which the man driving the Jeep read incredulously. “Flattery . . . will . . . get . . . you . . . nowhere.”
“We do not say these things emptily, O great brazen beast.”
Rose began to scratch again, keeping a wary eye on the soldiers. “My . . . subjects . . . are . . . not . . . your . . . enemies.” Rose moved to a new wall. “Their . . . lives . . . matter . . . as . . . all . . . lives . . . matter. . . . Leave . . . here . . . and . . . never . . . return.”
“We cannot.” Rose blasted the air with a jet of white fire, and the men gasped and faltered. That needed no translation. “Charge!” The general in the truck sounded.
With a tremendous battle-cry, the soldiers burst forward, swarming like ants over honey and bread. Tanks and bazookas and grenade launchers and all sorts of little army toys poured from the trees. Rose leapt to her feet, and for a second was paralyzed with fear. This many could certainly kill a dragon, that much was true. The mass took heart at her fear, but Rose was still quite a force to be reckoned with. With a few beats of her vast wings, the front lines lost their footing and slid back, mingling with the other troops. She roared, a distress call as well as an intimidation tactic, and the ground trembled. At least a dozen men turned tail and ran. No longer determined to use nonlethal force, Rose cut away at their ranks with broad swipes of her claws, flicking talonfuls of soldiers into the air, and occasionally used her horns to do the same. She snapped at their front lines and burned the trees down on top of them, but still they came.
The tanks were carefully torn apart as if they were paper toys, swathes of fighters were felled by her mighty tail but it wasn’t enough. She began to grow dizzy from all the whirling she had to do, she had a pounding headache from all the constant noise and flashes, was covered in bruises from the tank shells she had taken in the sides, and one eye was swollen shut from a grenade blast.
Then she heard it. The resounding horn echoed down the mountain range, and she knew she’d been heard. She roared back, and found new strength. Help was on the way.
He’d been awakened by a sensation of cold, and found that Rose had left only recently. Her place was still slightly warm. He sighed, knowing that she probably couldn’t sleep all through the night, considering that mountain lions were only partly diurnal. He stretched, and began to search for breakfast.
He found a few mushrooms growing out of the mortar and ate them raw and bland. Sure, he had no clue which glowy mushrooms could hurt him and which wouldn’t, but it’s not like they’d do much anyway. The most that any deadly mushroom could do was give him a stomachache. He waited a few minutes and felt fine. Not sure what to do, he decided to look for something.
He wasn’t sure how to get up out of the cave without using the way they’d come in, aside from asking for help; something he wasn’t accustomed to. So he went around and studied the Animal People. The scouts were on their way to the surface via a hidden, steeper, wider tunnel for patrol, and each of them carried a spear and a bow, plus a tiny cornet on their belts.
There were enough species of them to shame a king’s menagerie. Strikingly beautiful snow leopards, shrewd foxes, wise-looking red pandas. Lemurs, bears, horses, owls, house cats, songbirds, wolves, dogs, hares, lions, crows, ravens, deer, falcons, eagles, mountain goats, komodo dragons and more bustled about Arkala. Predator and prey were perfectly happy together.
He also took note of the buildings. The most notable was the church standing in the center of the town, and, curiously enough, there was a curling horn where the bell should’ve been, and there was no roof to the horn-tower. Even from his standpoint, he could see that the metal instrument was ornately carved with scenes of battle; animals versus humans. Strange that such a peaceful little town has a battle-horn, but it also makes sense. He walked about, returning the polite nods he got from the Arkalans. He had just memorized the place of the bread shop when a strange sound echoed off the foothills surrounding the skylight. Everyone in the town froze and listened.
Not just any strange sound. A dragon’s bugle. It carried with it a note of anguish, and he knew help was needed. He made a mad dash for the horn-tower, climbing up through the church, out a window and onto the roof. Shouts from below made him look down. People were pointing at him, and at the skylight, wondering what could have made such a noise when the sky was clear. Focus! Logan scrambled for the mouthpiece, and hesitated. A call to arms could mean the death of so many Animal People . . . but Rose wouldn’t have called out if she hadn’t desperately needed help. He took a deep breath and blew.
The horn-tower shook, but Logan retained his footing. The rich note sang throughout the cavern, amplifying the sound and sending it for miles. When his breath had run out, he stopped and listened. Another bugle sounded off, and this time it was full of hope and newfound courage. Hold out, Rose, just a little bit longer. The square burst into motion again, no one seeming to care what had just passed.
Logan leapt down the tower, shoving through the crowd to the entrance. Whatever the danger was, it must’ve been big for a dragon to call for help. He ran into Lea. “Why is no one doing anything?!”
“The last time the warhorn was sounded, we lost half our people. No one can afford such a loss again.” Lea plodded sullenly into the crowd.
Fine. Logan growled. I’ll do it all myself!
With his inhuman speed and stamina, it had taken him a total of fifteen minutes to get to the surface and to the battlefield. Rose was nearly overwhelmed with soldiers bearing the red maple leaf flag. The scales underneath her feathered wings were off-colored with bruises, and she stumbled around as if she were dazed, but she was still fighting her hardest, short bursts of fire licking out from between her teeth.
Logan roared as he dashed into the fray, claws flashing in the sun. Whirling and slashing, he could feel every movement he made burning with anger. Acting only on instinct, Logan struggled to keep the beast in check, though nonlethal force was not an option here. The copper dragon looked up from the battle, and an expression of pure delight spread across her face. She took heart and began to mercilessly crush and claw and bite troops. Eventually, Rose took to the sky, plucking Logan from the tumult and flaming down on the ranks before they fled. Her victory cry was long and rightly deserved before she transformed into her regular self and wrapped him in her arms.
“I was so worried no one would hear me. I thought I’d have to retreat to Arkala and lead them straight there.”
Logan didn’t reply. He just hugged her tighter.
“I came as soon as I could. I just had to get you to keep fighting, so I blew the horn on top of the tower.”
“You blew the horn?” Rose looked up at him.
Rose stared dead-eyed at the carnage they had caused together, her distaste written on every inch of her being. “At what cost?” She whispered. “At what cost?”
“What happened last night?”
“I went out flying. There was a scouting patrol of maybe sixteen or seventeen people. I terrified them into leaving because I didn’t want to kill or eat them.” At the mention of food, Rose’s stomach growled. “They must’ve told their commanding officer.”
“What were they out here for?”
“The Arkalans. I’m certain of it. I should’ve just let them go about their business, making sure they didn’t find anything, but I just couldn’t do it, you know?” She shuddered. “The horrible things the biologists alone did to me at the Facility . . . I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Logan nodded, understanding. He hadn’t known the cruelty of the Facility like she had, but it had still been horrible and terrifying. He continued to stare at the battlefield. If the Arkalans can get a hold of some heavy machinery and guns, or maybe even some advanced weaponry . . . “What did you see on your trip to Wakanda?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Imagine how the Animal People would fare with proper weapons! They could unite; be their own nation if they wanted to!”
“I told you before,” Rose replied. “I can’t say.” She began to walk off, holding her elbows and hanging her head.
“Rose! People, your people, would’ve been slaughtered.” He waved a hand at the carnage. “Can’t you see that?”
“Of course I can see that! You think I don’t care? I know that the Animal People as a race are endangered.” Fire began to leap through her hackles. “There are only seven districts scattered around the world, and half of them don’t even know the others exist!”
“All the more reason why they should band together and form their own country, their own militia with cities and bases and strongholds. Imagine what they could do if they banded together under one leader!” His voice softened a fraction. “You have to trust me when I say I want the best for them.”
Rose’s fire fizzled out. “I believe you. But I don’t know if any of the leaders would agree to band together. And it frightens me what they could do with modern weapons. They held their own today.” Rose flattened her ears. “I can imagine all the good it would do them, having their own designated plot of land; being known and whatnot. But I can see all the problems it would bring as well. The world would classify them as mutants, and that would put a target on them. I can’t do that.”
“But think! What a safe haven it would be for mutantkind! If we could combine forces with them, maybe we could survive.”
Rose pondered on this. “Maybe. Perhaps Wakanda could support us. Tell no one what I’m about to tell you, and technically, I shouldn’t even tell you.” She lowered her voice drastically and leaned in. “Wakanda is hiding a massive amount of vibranium, and they use it to make weapons and tech beyond imagining. But if we were to gain some of that, it would be incredibly dangerous. What if a leader rose to power that wanted revenge on the world? No one would stand a chance. That’s just with the Animal People fighting. Now add a thousand, angry, super-powered mutants with guns and tanks. We can’t give anyone that luxury.”
She’s right. “Well, I know that if humans declare non-humans illegal, then we had better find somewhere to be.”
“I’ll get on that. I . . . I could use your help, though.”
“Well, we can’t just leave them like this.” Logan pointed out. Rose nodded, and they began piling mangled bodies for the pyres.
* * *
As the moon rose over the mountains, wreathed in smoke from the fires of the bodies of the enemy, Rose began to sing a wordless song, keening her grief to the sky. He could understand why: just like mutants and Animal People, these were lives ended before their time, no matter who they’d been or where they’d come from. When the song faded into an echo, he felt as if hours had passed, and, simultaneously, like no time had passed at all.
He walked along with the song of lamentation playing over and over again in his mind. It was something he had not witnessed since his time with the wolves. But there had been no song for the dead when Essex’s bear had torn his family limb from limb. After he had slain the bear and left the horrible place, the sadness had come crushingly fast, and he’d been alone; so, so alone. Logan felt his nose grow hot and his eyesight went out of focus rather suddenly. He looked beside him and found Rose, stoically padding along, and the little ember inside him flared up.
“Hey.” Rose put a hand on Logan’s shoulder, and he snapped back to the present. “You zoned out there.” He didn’t say anything, and she didn’t press him. He looked, at least through her night vision, like he was about to start crying for a second, and she spared him his dignity. Rose herself was on the verge of tears as well, but something must’ve triggered a memory for him to get like that. Whatever it was or might’ve been, she stopped walking and wrapped her arms around his neck.
He froze for a half-second, then returned the embrace. And then, so quietly she almost missed it under the song of a blue jay, he whispered into her fur, “I . . . I missed you when you left. I just never can seem to find the right place and time to say it. Almost losing you in that battle today . . . it . . . I . . .” He didn’t finish the thought.
Rose purred. She couldn’t help it. Well, this is embarrassing, a big, tough mountain lion purring like a common house cat! But she couldn’t stop it as she said that she’d missed him, too, and didn’t correct him about the fact that if she hadn’t called for help, she would’ve never lived to see this moment. It scared her, knowing that she wasn’t invincible, and yet it pleased her as well. Immortality is so overrated. “We’d better pick up the pace if we want to make it back before sunset. I don’t remember these woods like I used to.”
A brisk run through the woods later, they again found themselves at the entrance to the cavern, and again inside of it, surrounded by worried animal faces. They said their goodbyes, and Rose gave her word once again to help someone. But this time, things were personal. They left the wagon behind; it had gotten destroyed during the battle. Logan wanted to walk back to the Manor, but there was no way that Rose was going to walk all that way again. She’d promised that they’d drive back to New York State, but they weren’t going back just yet. She insisted that Logan fly with her.
With Logan between her shoulderblades, clutching her ruff so tightly she could feel it, and his knees dug into her side, Rose kept quite low, almost skimming the treetops. She didn’t even go too fast, and eventually, Logan relaxed a little. By the time they landed at the Manor and Logan shakily dismounted, it was clear that it hadn’t been as bad as he’d anticipated.
They packed their bikes’ saddlebags, said their last goodbyes to the old place, then locked up and roared off. With the wind playing in her fur, Rose felt free. They bumped down the trail, and as they leaped up onto the asphalt, Rose realized that she didn’t have her disguise activated. Oh well. Mutants weren’t illegal . . . yet. She didn’t wear a helmet, not that she could anyway. Her leather jacket and bell-bottom jeans flapped as she and Logan flew down the interstate. It may have been faster to fly, but this? This was more fun. Down here, there were obstacles to dodge and idiots to watch out for, and trees whizzing by you. Up there, nothing could touch you; that was both exhilarating and a little boring as well.
She noticed a little boy in the back window of a car. He held a tiny mountain lion in his hand, and was making it fight a velociraptor held in the other. When he saw her coasting in the other lane alongside him, he dropped both toys and pressed his face to the glass. Rose turned and winked at him, giving him a smile. He smiled back, a big, innocent, child-smile. He grabbed his father’s seat and shook it excitedly, saying something to him. The father’s face turned sour in the side view mirror before actually looking at it. When he did, his jaw dropped. Rose sped past them, catching up to Logan.
That wasn’t the first encounter she had of that kind. One lady actually called the police on them, and they both pulled over to let the officer check their licences, inspect their bikes and what not. When the officer asked if she was the only one of her kind, she lied and said yes, and that it got pretty lonely. She’d gotten used to lying through her teeth to protect her people. If the humans knew they existed, well. She’d already seen what happened when they had their suspicions.
After that, she turned on her disguise and switched out her licenses; she had one for each face she wore. She had no more trouble after that. She and Logan had to spend all their money on gas and food and water. They couldn’t even afford a motel for one night; they slept outside, on the side of the road. But Rose didn’t mind, and she didn’t think Logan did either. After all, the outdoors had been their home for years on end at one point.
It took them a little less than a week to finally see New York City on the horizon, the cool spring breeze ruffling her fur. From there, they followed the signs for the “Xavier Institute for Higher Learning” and found their way back to the Mansion. Stiff, Rose clambored off her bike in the garage, fumbling with the stand before stretching her legs and arms. “Ohhh, man! What a trip! I’m so hungry I could eat a whole roast hog and then some.” Then she remembered how she’d left against Charles’s wishes. “Do you think he’ll be mad at me for leaving?”
“Probably.” Logan answered.
“Great. Next thing I need aside from a meal is getting chewed out by a cripple. Way to get on the team, Rosie! Great job.”
“He doesn’t stay mad too long. You might be put on a watch for a while, though. And who knows? You might still be put on a team. You may want to go apologize yourself; if Charley finds you first, you’ll be a lot worse off.”
“Thanks.” She paused with her hand on the doorknob, an unanswered question bubbling up in her memory. “Can I ask you something crazy?”
He looked up from checking the oil on his bike. “Shoot.”
“Wh . . . Why did you get so upset about me and Smitty? When you brought it up, you became . . . agitated.”
Logan’s face went slack, and his eyes became distant for a moment. “I dunno. It was hypocritical of me to get that way. I just . . . I don’t know.”
“What do you mean it was hypocritical of you?” When he didn’t answer, Rose became afraid of what his answer might be. “Logan? What do you mean?”
“Y’ know that I only recently remembered who y’ were. I wasn’t always lonely throughout my years. I loved before; more’n once actually. There were two occasions where I was actually married; one I was blackmailed into before I called it off. The other was to a Japanese woman named Itsu.” He sat down in a chair that had been leaning up against a wall. “She was so beautiful. We had a son together. I came home one day to find her murdered. I thought our son was gone too, but he wasn’t. His name was Daken, and he was kept alive and taught to despise me. When he was a man, I had dealings with him, and found he’d inherited my abilities, in one shape or form. He . . . he had to be dealt with. Permanently.” He bowed his head.
Rose was astounded. A son!? He had a son and he was mad because I was merely engaged! But still, Rose could see that it hurt him to confess, and her anger quelled. “I . . . I . . . I see. Thank you for telling me.” She opened the door, stepped through, closed it, and leaned back against it. A son . . . She could honestly say that she didn’t know what sort of pain he was going through, but just the fact that he hurt made Rose want to share his pain; to ease his burden. She sighed.
I’d best let him alone until later. For now, I have my own problems.
She had an apology to make.
By the time he went to bed, it was well into the night. No one was up, not even Rose. It must’ve been at least three or four days since she had last slept. Logan just lay in bed, thinking about how life would’ve been different had he stayed home that day. Would he still be in Japan? Would the murderer have waited until Logan wasn’t home to do his deed? He turned in bed. That didn’t matter now. He remembered his star promise he’d made when Rose had first come to the Mansion. What did it mean to him now? Nothin’. It means nothin’. And thus he forgot it entirely. Tomorrow he would talk to Charles about putting her on a team, or maybe in charge of a class. Sleep tugged at his mind with unbreakable ropes, and Logan felt himself drift off.
* * *
“You know, Rose wouldn’t be a bad teacher. She’s got a lot she could give.”
“Indulge me.” Was all Charles said.
“Well, for one thing, she trained for decades with a super-secret cult of humanoid animals. I’m sure they know some things that no one else does.”
“Like magic.” Said a voice behind them.
“Eavesdropping is considered rude, Rose.” Charles slowly turned his wheelchair around.
“Magic?” asked Logan incredulously.
“Yes, magic.” She shot back, mocking him. “Do you really think that the first time I transformed, my clothes didn’t tear to pieces and instead transported to the ether all by themselves? The first time I changed back, well, I guess you can imagine. Between the time I got redressed and the next time I dragoned-up I was given these earrings. They’re what makes sure that doesn’t happen again.” She fingered one of the gold hoops that dangled in her ears, tracing the amber teardrop with a claw.
“We’ve no desire to teach our students magic, thank you.”
“Teach it?” She laughed. “ No one but the Changers know magic, and there are so few Changers, that not every district has one. I’ve other little tricks. I can survive in the wild without the aid of modern conveniences.”
“And with any luck, we won’t be needing such primitive skills. Anything else?”
“Eh, that’s about all I have that I can teach.”
Xavier thought for a minute. “We already have a History teacher . . . ”
Rose gave a single nod. “Besides, I didn’t so much live it than live through it.” She looked at Logan meaningfully. “Sorry.”
“Well, I can’t very well make you a team member just yet. Granted, I heard you were brave in the New York City Fire, but I can’t let disobedience go unpunished.” Xavier’s tone was firm, but not unkind.
Rose just flicked an ear amusedly at him, then shrugged. “Well, that’s about all I’m good for; knowing which berries are food and which will kill you. You already have everything else covered.”
Logan interjected. “How about cooking?”
Rose’s face brightened ever so slightly, as Logan had predicted it would. He knew that she had a knack in the kitchen. “Fine.” Xavier was saying, “You’ll be on kitchen duty until I say so. Your first assignment will be dinner. Make enough for twenty people. The real chefs handle the students, so you don’t have to worry about them . . . “ They walked down the hall and out of earshot.
Logan had a whole day to himself, and he really wanted some action. Real action, not some holographic robot action. So, he drove down to the bar on the city outskirts to see if he could find some. After a few Coors and a couple cigars, trouble walked right in, sporting ripped denim jeans and jacket, a pastel pink t-shirt and holographic autumn-red hair flying wildly about. She ordered a bottle of whiskey for herself and sat two chairs away, not even acknowledging his presence. She was probably still upset over his confession, but Logan had no regrets. He wouldn’t change a thing.
“What’re you doing here?” He asked her, staring down into his can.
“Same as you. Looking for a little fun in the first bar I saw. I set the roast to marinate for about four hours, the potatoes on low heat and the brussel sprouts are soaking. Just ‘cause I’m on kitchen duty doesn’t mean I need to be in the kitchen every minute.”
Rose didn’t have to wait long for trouble. Three men sauntered up and the African one leaned on the counter between him and Rose, so he couldn’t see much. But he heard everything.
“Hey there, sweet thing.” The one between them said. “What’re you doing all alone here?” Logan could imagine her penetrating stare, glowing green eyes unblinking and cold as she told them to make like bees and buzz off.
“Oh ho ho, sweet little kitty cat wants to come home with me, doesn’t she, boys?” One of the thugs made a sort of woofing sound as the one between Logan shifted and slipped his arm around the small of her back.
In that moment, two things happened: Logan’s vision flickered red as the bars of his monster’s cage shook and strained, and Rose’s hand flashed with inhuman speed as she twisted, seizing the man’s throat. Not too hard, but just enough. She began to lift him off the ground, letting his jawbone support his weight. The man’s eyes bugged out with surprise and Logan could smell something burning. The other men were too stunned to do anything. “Call me ‘little kitty cat’ again, and you’ll find out just how ‘little’ of a ‘kitty’ I really am.” She released him, and he could see white blisters beginning to bubble in the shape of Rose’s pads around the man’s throat. Logan shook his head. The goon wouldn’t try anything like that for a while, at least.
“So.” Logan began after they were gone. “Got any for me?”
“Eh, go find your own. That was the first relatively good bounce I’ve had since Canada.”
Suddenly, two policemen walked in. At first glance, no one could tell that they were police, but Logan had helped one of them before. “Cops,” he whispered. “Things could get spicy.” Rose growled with pleasure.
Spicy it was. Turns out, the cops were expecting to arrest only one man: a man named Abrams. They weren’t expecting to have to fend off six gym rats while their guy fled the scene. Once that little skirmish was over, Logan talked to the cops. “Thanks for helping us with the bust, man. We’d’ve been toast if it wasn’t for you and ya girl.” Logan almost protested, but the cop went on before he could begin. “If you see this dude,” he handed Logan a flyer with Abrams’s face on it, “Call us. He’s in league with Arcade.” Logan’s face contorted into a snarl. Arrrrrr-rrrrrrcayyy-yyyde. “You know him.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah. We’ve crossed paths a couple of times. Believe me, I want him dead just as much as you do.” Both cops’ faces darkened with silent agreement. The X-Men had confronted Arcade more than once, and both parties had come to a draw half of the time, with the other half being Arcade’s hasty and unforeseen retreat. Both halves left the team exhausted and beaten.
“Who’s Arcade?” Rose butted in.
“Bad news. I thought he left town for good last time, but I should’ve known better than to get my hopes up.” Logan waved to the officers before climbing on his bike and leaving to report to Professor. Rose followed.
When they got back, Logan didn’t even bother putting his bike in the garage, instead leaving it in Rose’s care. He burst into Charles’s office. “It’s Arcade. He’s back, and now he has a team working for him.”
“Well I’m afraid I have some bad news as well, old friend. I received word yesterday that there is a secret organization within the C.I.A. They call themselves the ‘X-Desk’ and they have been working as hard as they can to make sure that mutants become illegal. It just doesn’t make sense as to why, though.”
“If it doesn’t make sense, there’s a buck in it somewhere.”
“Hm. And that’s not all. The world leaders are to come together a month from now and decide our fate.” The Professor’s face was grim. “The X-Desk will most likely have a hand in the outcome.”
“Undoubtedly.” Logan put in. “They can do anything they put their minds to.”
As Logan had predicted, mutants, as well as all vigilantes, had to register their powers or become illegal. Mutants were subtly declared to be freaks by the liberal news media. There was a big to-do over the registration ordeal; even the Avengers split up after almost destroying an airport. But for the mutants, it was worse. They were assaulted in the streets and no one cared. The word “mutant” or even “mutie” became as worse an insult as “nigger” or “retard.” Of course, the situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the Brotherhood insisted on terrifying government leaders in an adverse attempt to reverse the registration act.
Of course, the entire School was filled with unregistered mutants, some considered to be high on the human-made danger list. Luckily, no one but the Brotherhood knew where the School was, and Magneto, the one Charles had told Rose led the Brotherhood, wouldn’t betray them . . . she hoped. If he did, Rose would personally make sure there was recompense in blood.
Rose was still upset at Logan, though not as much. They had to stick together. She wondered how Shuri was faring, and remembered that she could call her on the bracelet. After pressing a few beads, she finally got the hologram to pop up. For a minute, it showed herself, sitting on her bed, and that it was ringing or whatever was happening before she answered. “Hello?” Shuri said. “Who is this? Oh, it’s you! I’m glad to see that you haven’t forgotten about me!”
“I’ve been insanely busy. You look a lot older. How’s the king?”
“He . . . he’s dead. My brother is king now.”
Rose was shocked. “I’m so sorry. Tell your brother and Okoye that I said hi, and that I’m thinking about them. I guess you heard about the mutant thing?”
“Yes, I did; it’s all over the news.”
“If worse comes to worse,” Rose pressed, “Would it be possible for mutants to hide in Wakanda?”
“No. T’Challa started the Wakandan Outreach Program, and we are no longer hiding. We’re an open country now. No mutants would be safe.”
“Who are you talking to?” Logan knocked on her door.
“Who’s that?” Shuri asked.
“Do you want me to introduce you?”
“Sure, why not?”
Rose opened the door, and all the feelings that had been repressed bubbled up again; resentment, regret, affection. She rotated her arm to be parallel with Logan’s body. “Shuri, this is Logan.”
Logan nodded to the hologram as Shuri greeted him. “So you’re the one who made this bracelet-thing?”
“Yes, I did make ‘that bracelet-thing,’ thank you, and I also programmed it to project the holographic disguise she uses.”
Rose’s ears flicked up. “I meant to thank you again for that. Now that mutants are practically illegal, I use it every day to go out and buy groceries for all of us.”
“What do you mean ‘all of you’?” She gasped. “Is he your husband? Do you have kids now?”
Rose began panickedly denying, while Logan looked taken aback. “We– We live in a boarding school for mutants, so we need a lot of stuff. All the human-looking ones among us go out to different stores with a hundred dollars each and buy as much as we can.”
“Where are you? We could send you food!”
Logan shook his head. “We can’t tell you that. Information has a funny way of getting into the wrong hands. It’s bad enough that you know we harbor mutants.” He threw a meaningful glance at Rose.
Rose rolled her eyes. “I’ll tell you what: if you really want to help, we need a new home. Somewhere where mutants aren’t being persecuted. Can you find that?”
“Give me one moment.” The sounds of furious typing and concentrated noises came from off-hologram. “I found a place! It’s an island country called Genosha, and it says that all mutants are welcome there. I can’t find much more information on the place, aside from pictures of mutants lounging on beaches, walking through a city, and things like that. Seems to be alright!”
Logan wasn’t that optimistic. “If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s just north of Madagascar. I think it’s at least worth a look.”
Rose looked at Logan. “I’ll fly over there and check it out this week. I’ll leave today, and come back soon. Thank you, Shuri. This information is invaluable. Don’t forget to say hi to Okoye and your brother and mother for me, okay? Bye!”
* * *
After a long flight and avoiding government airspace, Rose finally landed on Madagascar. She was equipped with her weapons from Egypt, just in case. Rose winged north until an island caught her eye. It had a little town on its outskirts. Hovering above it, Rose could see movement; there were people down there! Most were blatantly mutants. As she focused in, she wanted to retch up the whale she’d eaten for lunch. This wasn’t a happy little town full of mutants living harmoniously in their own little island country. This was a giant concentration camp.
Mutants were shaved and dressed in prison stripes, and forced to use their powers to mine coal and gas and oil, to make steel, cut timber, or run mills. Those with powers that couldn’t be used to do such things were made beasts of burden; hauling carts and carts of barrels On the other side of the island, it was the wonderful paradise that she had pictured: with an airport and empty hotels and pools and white beaches. It was a literal tourist trap; only the humans were allowed to leave.
That explained where the mutants went when they were exiled from whatever country they were from. The souls in the camp moved like zombies, with numbers tattooed on their foreheads. She knew that look they bore. Many of the freshly wiped people in the Weapon X Program had the same look before they learned their new purpose and formed new memories. Rose was furious. She was so enraged that she made the flight back to the Mansion within twenty-four hours. She wasn’t tired at all. She wanted to lash out at something.
A hapless shrub was her chosen victim. She tore it to splinters before she had calmed down enough to transform and walk into the building civilly. Even then, she was still practically foaming as she spat out the story of what she had seen to Logan and the Professor, who began to speak. “You’ve a right to be angry, Rose—”
“Angry? Angry!? If I was just angry I would tell it to you calmly.” She cursed the people whose idea it was to exploit mutants.
“Calm down, Rose.” Logan reached out to grab her upper arm.
She tore it from his grasp. “Says the man with rage issues! If anything, you should be the one inclined to help me destroy these two-tongued sons of vipers. You’ve seen how it is! You’ve seen how it is in the camps of World War Two; you were there!” Rose snarled, jabbing a finger into Logan’s chest. Charles’s desk began to look like another chew toy. When no one moved and no one said anything, a look of darkness and malice spread across her face. “Fine. I’ll do it myself.”
She stormed out of the Professor’s office and toward the main doors. But before she could make it there, Logan, who’d been hot on her heels, grabbed her, and before she could resist, pulled her into a kiss. It was so sudden and unexpected that Rose couldn’t react. It only lasted for a moment, but when that moment ended, Rose was frozen. Logan wasn’t. His voice was soft as a flower petal when he spoke. “Don’t leave again. You need to think things through. Yeah, I know how it was when we stormed the camps. But I also know that the whole thing took serious planning and preparation. We need an army.” His eyes bored into hers, and she just stood there, frozen in shock.
Rose couldn’t take it. She broke down, silently sobbing into Logan’s shoulder. Her anger melted into bitter tears of sorrow and helplessness. He was as surprised as she had been when he’d kissed her. After she’d finished, she wiped her nose on the back of her hand. She felt much better; more clear-headed. Her tone was firm and unwavering when she spoke. “I have an army.”
Where did she get an . . . oh. The Animal People. Of course. He’d seen them wipe out the better part of a thousand men armed with tanks and heavy artillery where they had only spears and swords. He still thought that they should have guns. Rose was with Charles and the other X-Men, explaining her plan. She was in a much more sane state of mind than she had been a half-hour ago. Class had been cancelled for the students, but Logan still walked out into the woods. He listened to the birds, the water, the wind in the trees. He breathed in the moss, the leaves, the animals, the crisp, clean spring air. Unable to meditate with so much on his mind, Logan lit a cigar he had in his pocket.
He wondered where Toothy was. He’d been MIA ever since Logan had been moving around a lot. Logan had a feeling he would attack as soon as he’d found him. No, don’t think about it. One deep, slow breath after another, Logan felt himself begin to calm. The truth of Genosha had stirred something in him that he hadn’t felt in a while: pity. Of course they would need to be rescued, but not now. For now, they could stay put. As long as they served a purpose to the humans, the Genoshans would be kept alive. For now, they had to focus on finding a safe place to put everyone. The School would work. There was a network of catacombs beneath their feet that could be refurbished and used as a bunker for a good three hundred extra mutants, maybe more if they used their space wisely.
“We need the other Guardians.” Logan said at last, disrupting the forest stillness.
“Naturally.” Rose’s voice startled him into drawing his claws. She was crouched by the stream he had his back to, lapping the clear, cold water. Sometimes he wasn’t sure whether she was more human or animal. “They were already part of the plan. I don’t know where the Wind Guardian is, but I can tell you roughly where I left the Water and Earth Guardians. They’re the first step here. With their help, we can easily transport the colonies somewhere safe. I’m thinking Wundagore.”
“Isn’t that the place with all the secret technology and themed around big black cats?”
“Ah, no. That’s Wakanda. Wundagore is the first and largest settlement of Animal People. I’ve never been there, so I don’t know if they’ve any sort of tech that could be useful in the battle.” Rose wiped her mouth. “Put those things away, will you?” Logan grumbled and retracted his claws. There was a moment of silence between them before Rose spoke again. “So. Do you want to talk about it?”
She looked up at him, one ear tilted slightly to the side. “You kissed me, Logan.”
Logan wanted to tell her how he’d felt last time she’d left, the loneliness and emptiness. But instead, he said nothing and looked away. He felt Rose’s rough pads slide down the inside of his forearm, and the soft fur of her hand tickled his fingers as she entwined their hands. There was a tan blur at his peripherals as she wrapped her tail around behind him. What is happening to me? Logan shot up, suddenly and stiffly. “I need to just . . . clear my head.” He walked a few paces before bracing his arms against a tree and bowing his head on them. What has happened to me? I used to be fierce and wild! I used to go wherever I wanted to, whenever I wanted to, or almost whenever. I used to go to bars and rouse up a fight now I let the fight come to me. Now, I feel like wherever I go, I want to know that she’s safe where I left her or take her with me. Now, I can’t stand the thought of being angry with her for fear of releasing the monster. He knew the feeling well, and he hated to admit it after all his previous dealings with women. Logan knew from experience that a life of love wasn’t the kind of life cut out for him. But after having a small taste of what it was like to have a family, it was the kind of life he had craved. Maybe I’m just a big softie on the inside. The thought went against his self-image, but in a way, it was good to know there was still some humanity left.
He could remember what it was like, the immense joy he’d had at the prospect of a son, and the pain, the pure, murderous pain he’d felt when it’d been stripped from him. Logan clenched his jaw, trying to focus on the present. He knew he should say something to her, he just couldn’t find the words. But he could try, at least. Logan turned to address her. “I-” What am I doing? “I can never find the words to say it. To- to say- that I just can’t stand the thought of losing you after I got y’ back. To see y’ hurt, or to think of your torture, or-”
Rose had walked up to him and stood toe to toe, staring up into his eyes. With slow, deliberate movements, she grabbed the collar of his jean jacket and pulled him down to her level. Logan didn’t have time to ask himself what she was doing before she kissed him, soft as a flower petal. It lasted a mere second, and when it ended, with a feathery voice, Rose whispered, “I love you, too.” Logan’s heart was pounding as he tried to process what had just happened before he gave up and told himself to roll with it. Rose suddenly shoved him and leaped away, landing on four limbs as she lashed her tail, a grin as bright as the moon on her face. Logan stumbled back against the tree, hesitating before he figured out that this was the cat language for play. A smile spread across his dumbfounded expression, and he gave chase.
The hunt was on!
Tearing through the woods, Rose glanced over her shoulder. Logan was close behind her. She gave a cry of mock fear when she spotted him. He was faster than she’d anticipated; stronger, too. She heard him barrel through a bush that she’d jumped over because it had been too thickly foliaged for her to maneuver. His fingers brushed her tail as he reached out to grab her. Even on two legs, he was astoundingly fleet-footed, and Rose suspected it was a trait he’d developed while he was running with the wolves.
Rose swerved to avoid a tree, half-hoping he’d run into it. He didn’t, and instead made a wild pounce for her haunches. She stopped suddenly, and Logan cleared her head, landing in front of her. This time, Rose jumped over Logan, like a brief, mad game of leap-frog, and took off running again. The chase ensued once more, and for a half-hour, the pair romped throughout the forest, Logan almost catching Rose before she slipped out of his grasp again. When he finally leaped to catch her for the second time, he judged his distance for Rose’s little trick and caught her. She yelped, and they tumbled to the ground, laughing and exhausted.
Rose smiled inwardly at Logan’s whooping baritone laughter. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard such a sound from him. In fact, Rose herself hadn’t had this much fun since her time with the Arkalans. They lay there, sprawled on the grass, smiling at the sky. The wind shifted, and they both caught the scent at the same time. There was someone else here, someone trying not to be seen. Rose and Logan looked at each other, and Rose saw him tense, getting ready to leap up. She shook her head, ever so slightly before raising her voice, “Come out or I’ll let him find you.” Rose shifted into a cat-sit position facing the direction the scent blew from. Two children, likely siblings, emerged from behind a thicket. They tentatively tiptoed closer, likely imagining all the trouble they’d get into for spying.
“P-p-please Mr. Wolverine, we-we-we didn’t mean t-to see anything! Honest!” The oldest girl stammered. Rose stretched, lowering her chest to the ground and curling her tail over her back. She righted herself and stood up, and it was then she noticed Logan looming behind her. He stalked over to them. “W-w-w-we were j-just taking a walk a-a-and I heard s-s-some . . .” The two kids cowered in Logan’s shadow, terrified.
“Tell anyone what y’ve seen, anyone at all,” Logan snarled, “And you will know fear.” The girl grabbed her brother and shot off into the woods. Rose watched them go.
“Don’t you think that was a bit harsh?”
“I’ve got a reputation to uphold with my students. If they see me as soft, they’ll treat me as such.”
Rose leaned against him. “Okay, you knucklehead.”
“I could literally eat an entire side of beef right now.” Rose’s stomach growled.
“I know this great place: they serve the best kebabs this side of New York City. Try not to rack up the bill too high. I may be a millionaire, but I try not to spend like it.”
Rose was astonished. “Since when did you— Oh, right. The Howlett family fortune.”
Logan nodded, and began to walk in the direction of the School. “That’s part of it. I also had jobs as a government-employed assassin. I don’t like to talk about it.”
My Logan? An assassin? It made sense, given his history. Really, Rose was just worried about eating something, preferably something that used to be alive. She followed after Logan.
The diner was quaint, not too many people and not too many options. It was one of his favorite places to eat. Rose, with her holographic human disguise, decided on the variety platter, with shrimp, pork, beef, chicken and vegetables while Logan had steak kebabs and a salad. As they waited for their food, which was taking an awful long time, it seemed, Rose started a conversation. “So, what all do you remember from your past life?”
Logan thought for a moment. “My earliest memories are from one Christmas, the one where John gave me Callie.” Rose nodded, remembering the little puppy. “And then I remember the day when you and I were on the island in the river, and the day when Dog decided I needed to be taught a lesson for messin’ with ‘his girl’ and killed him in front of me. Callie was so brave, right up to the end. I remember my father killin’ John, my mother killin’ herself, and me killin’ my father; there was a lot of killin’ in my past.” He gave a half-hearted chuckle. “We fled to the quarry pretendin’ to be cousins, and met Cookie and Smitty and all the rest. I remember that Cookie liked to starve us, so we went and found our own food; I hunted, you cooked, that sort of thing.” At this, Rose smiled. Those had been dismal days, but they’d been happy as well. Rose and Logan hadn’t had much, but they’d had each other and it’d been enough. “I’d actually already found the wolf pack by then, and they made great huntin’ companions and teachers. And then, when the Incident happened, I left to join them. Smitty came looking for me the first day, and I remember looking at him from on top of this crest, with the wolves behind me. And I left him standing there. That was the last time I saw him.
“The wolves were good to me; fair, just. You had your place in the pack hierarchy because you earned it, not because you were beautiful or because you were born into it. There was Red Streak and Grey Scar. They were the closest to me, as well as the pups; we all took turns watchin’ them.” He smiled at the memory, and then the smile faded. “Then there was the Lone Wolf. He followed us wherever we went, and all of us knew that if we let down our guard, he’d devour the pups. For a while, everythin’ was fine, and we traversed the wild, but of course, it didn’t last long. There was a white bear with a silver circle embedded in its snout. It’d been released into the woods as an experiment, and initially, I had pity on it. I shouldn’t have; it slaughtered the wolf family before I could do anything. I gutted it, but with its dying breath, it tore out my throat.”
The waiter, a skinny, nervous kid with a fade and a thin beard, brought out their first plates of food, and they both began to eat. Logan smiled, devouring an entire stick. Not a lot of things put a smile on my face. But grilled meat? Grilled meat makes me happy. He went on as his smile faded, “When I came to, the Lone Wolf was eatin’ me, and I plunged my claws into his side. That’s just the beginning.” Logan looked around, self-conscious. If anyone overheard and suspected he was a mutant, they’d hand them both over to the authorities. “I’ll try and tell you more later; I’ve been around the block and through the mill a few times, I’ll tell you that.”
“I know.” She chewed thoughtfully on a bite before she pointed her fork at him, opening her mouth to speak.
“I don’t like being pointed at.”
Rose took the hint, and continued with what she’d been about to say. “I remember when I saw you for the first time, back in Egypt. You struck me as familiar, though I couldn’t put my paw on it, and eventually, I’d forgotten it. I saw you come over the dune with that little ghost girl–”
“Kitty, then. I saw you on the dune with Kitty, and when I tackled her, the only thing I could think was that you might be more robbers after the caravanners. When you stabbed me and I collapsed, I heard you talking about a team and I was just like, ‘Man, I messed up!’ Not going to lie, though, I did want to wreak some serious havoc, but just wasn’t feeling up to it then. When . . . When you left, in the jet, after you’d told me your name, I began to piece things together. I was so unsure that it was you until I caught your scent one more time.” Rose’s eyes grew glassy as she relived that moment. “I’d followed your trail for years after I said good-bye to the Animal People. To have both found you and lost you tore me apart and gave me hope at the same time. I wanted badly to follow you, but the chip in my spine wouldn’t have allowed it. The Facility decided that after losing you, they needed to track all their other Weapons. That’s what that was: a tracker. If I’d have left Africa, they would’ve hunted me down, recaptured me, and then really wiped my mind. I’d lose you forever if that happened.” Rose shoveled in more meat and vegetables, washing it down with a swig of water.
They made small talk for the rest of the meal, and on their second plates, Logan began to feel woozy, drunk almost. Red spots swam in his vision. Then he could see that Rose began to feel it. Logan knew instantly that they had been poisoned. Logan stood, about to lunge for the waiter who was apologetically standing nearby. but the moment he stood up, his muscles gave out and he crumpled, hitting his head on the table so hard, it was cracked in half, destroyed. Logan was forced to watch from the floor, through fading vision, as Rose fell, too.
With her last morsel of strength, Rose reached out toward Logan, and he tried to reach for her hand. Then he watched as her eyes drifted shut before the darkness consumed him, too.
The first thing she regained was her thoughts. Logan! Where’s Logan?! Rose attempted to strain against her bonds, but either they were too strong or she was too weak, because she couldn’t move at all. She sniffed the air, trying to determine where she was. Circus peanuts and gun oil . . . What? She kept searching, but the air was so still she couldn’t smell anything of Logan. What had happened to him? Rose’s feeling and motor skills returned, and she again tried to move, only to find she was swaddled in thick chains, her tail pinched painfully between two wraps. Her komoyo beads were still with her; she could feel them pressing against her hip. Whoever had captured her didn’t know their value, or just didn’t care.
Rose’s mouth felt dry, and she tried to swallow, only to find she’d been gagged with a thick cloth that muffled every sound she tried to make. Finally she opened her eyes, blinking quickly as they adjusted. She was dangling, upright, over a pot of lava. It could have easily been molten metal, but it was hard to tell without taking a dip in it. Whoever had done this couldn’t have been too smart. Rose could swim in lava easier than she could swim in water. Across what seemed to be a large silo, there was Logan, arms trapped tightly in two stone pillars, his feet dangling off the ground. Seeing him so helpless filled her with rage. She gave a muffled snarl and thrashed in her bonds. It only made her bounce and spin before a wheedling, grating male voice came over a loudspeaker.
“Well, well, look who’s awake! You were supposed to be dead, y’know. When I dragged you back here and found that you were still alive and kickin’, I decided to make you part of my little game: you, Wolvie and that little tool of a waiter I used to administer the poison!” He gave a laugh that made Rose’s fur stand on end through the loops of the chain. “What?” The voice taunted, “Nothing to say?”
Rose tried a trick she’d only done twice. Focusing on her throat, she let the glow of fire spread up to her mouth. She couldn’t breathe fire, but she could still manage to burn the rag choking her. Swallowing the ash and letting the rest of the binding fall into the pot of lava, she spoke, her voice raspy from the ash, “I think you’ll find I have plenty to say.”
“Oo-hoo! Managed to work off the gag, did we? Fierce little bugger aren’t you?”
“Untie me, and let’s find out.”
“I don’t think so! I have a little game I want to play first! If your scruffy little boyfriend can reach you and the hapless waiter before my meter fills up, I’ll let you all go. Unfortunately for all of you, though, he’ll have to choose which one of you he wants to let live!” He laughed again, and Rose looked around and saw that the waiter was directly across the silo-type structure, huddled in a cubical cage, over which a bulbous contraption loomed. “But of course, I can’t have you shouting warnings to him as he tries to make his way to the top. Good thing I rigged your chains to this switch! I wonder what it does? I guess we’ll find out when the time comes! Oh, and look! Our star is waking up!”
Far below her, Rose saw Logan stir. “C-congrats.” he muttered, his wavery voice echoing in the silo, “Bloody hard to drug me.”
“Hard? I should say so! I had to find something odorless and tasteless, not just to human senses but to your ugly little snoot! And then, I had to force those nice people to give you enough to kill an elephant just to knock you out for a couple hours! Then I had to witness Miss Locke dress you in your playclothes for our little game.” There was a pause as their captor seemed to shudder. “So much body hair.”
“I know your scent– gun oil and circus peanuts. Arcade!” So that was the infamous Arcade! Or at least his voice.
“In the flesh, chief! And over here, on Side A, we have your lovely girlfriend, strung over a bubbling pot of molten steel, and on Side B, we have that poor little sap who served you the poison.”
“Rose shouted down to him, “I’m fine, Logan! Save the kid and don’t worry about me, you know I’ll be–” Her reassurance was cut off. Arcade had apparently flipped the switch, because a thousand joules of electricity shot through her body, amplified by the metal coating her bones. Her muscles spazzed and seized, and although the electricity couldn’t burn her, she could feel it coursing through her body, lengthening every second into an individual eternity. When it stopped, Rose was left exhausted and hurting. Logan howled and raged, cursing at Arcade and vowing to kill him slowly, relishing every moment. Don’t worry, Logan. By the time you get around to it, I’ll have already done it myself!
“Now that your lovely girl has learned not to speak to you during our game, let’s get started! Here,” a red-and-white bar lit up on one of the silo walls, “Is the Murdometer! You have until it fills to reach the top and free one of the two victims. Ready? Set? GO!” With that, Arcade released Logan. Immediately, four things happened: Rose noticed a harsh, metal grating, realized her chain was slowly dropping, the Murdometer began to fill, and Logan began to run faster than she’d ever seen him run before. A suit of armor, oiled black, popped out of the wall and charged down the spiral ramp toward Logan. He slashed through it with ease, and Rose’s spirits soared.
And then she felt her chain drop suddenly, and she yelped. It continued to descend at a slightly faster pace. The metal sound began again, and she realized it was the strange contraption making the noise. Logan had noticed it too, and turned to look.
“That, Wolverine, is the Red Dragon. Every time you kill one of my black knights, the meter fills even faster. Once it fills completely . . . well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. Of course, maybe you can make it to the top without smashing any more, but I wouldn’t count on it. You’re a beast. An animal.”
No! My Logan is more human than you’ll ever be! But Rose could see that, although Logan was trying hard not to smash anything, it was proving impossible. Without even meaning to, he destroyed two more. She watched as he went on the defence, dodging and weaving like she’d never seen him do. He was absolutely amazing to watch, and she could have done so all day, but this was a life-or-death situation. One of the black knights raised an axe behind him. Without even meaning to, Rose cried out a warning, earning herself another shock.
“Ah-ah-ah! We can’t have you spoiling the game, now.” Arcade said. Rose growled at him, curling her invisible muzzle. “Oh, Wolverine! Why do I get the feeling that you and your girlfriend are both savage beasts? Oh well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. It just means you’ll make a great pair!” He chuckled maniacally. Rose wanted to clone him a hundred thousand times and brutally slaughter each of them in a different way.
The Murdometer filled, faster and faster. The “mouth” of the Red Dragon widened more and more, and Rose got lower and lower, but she wasn’t concerned about that. Craning her neck, Rose could just see the top of the “mouth” of the Red Dragon, but that was it. Logan was almost to the top when her feet felt the molten steel. As the Murdometer filled all the way to the top and Logan reached the boy, Rose took a deep breath, and as expected, the chain was released and she plunged into the vat. Rose may as well have been swimming in mud for all it harmed her. She only had to let the chains melt before she was free. She prayed her komoyo beads wouldn’t be damaged. When she could move again, Rose paddled her way to the surface, gasping for breath. Iron chains took longer to melt than she’d thought. With a roar, she hurtled from the cauldron, the liquid metal revealing her cat form, even when her komoyo beads, which remained blessedly unharmed, were still active. Shaking most of the metal from her coat, She watched as Logan sliced off the lock to the cage and it fell open.
“CHEATER!!!” Arcade exclaimed. Rose could only imagine what he’d done. “And what’s up with her?! She just took a dip in lava like it was a day at the pool!”
“It’s done, bub. Your little game is over.” Logan snarled.
Rose sniffed the air. There seemed to be a draft now, and strong Arcade-scent wafting from somewhere. Logan smelled it, too. Rose clambered up onto a platform and raced after Logan. They snuck up a flight of stairs in a dark hall, and into a dark room overlooking the silo. There sat a little red-headed kid, smartly dressed in carnival colors and sneering out the window. So this is Arcade. Rose watched a cynical grin flash on Logan’s face before readily severing his head.
Logan snarled angrily and threw the head at Rose’s feet. It was the head of yet another robot. Rose was already on the ground, sniffing at every crack in the floor and walls. “His scent’s everywhere. I can’t find where he left.” Rose growled. “We’ll just have to leave.”
They grabbed the kid and left the whole thing behind, Rose flying them out of there before landing on an NYC rooftop and setting them down in an alley. Logan said goodbye to the kid, then they both left to report to the Professor what had happened. The flight was low, skimming the trees out of courtesy to Logan. He was much more relaxed on the flight than he had been on previous ones, probably because he was still a little shaken from the whole Murderworld thing, and found facing his fear of heights preferable to putting someone’s life in danger. Rose picked up the pace a little.
It didn’t take long for them to arrive at the School. Rose didn’t bother changing her shape. The students who’d been playing basketball and volleyball raced over to see her more closely. Of course, they were extremely cautious, but Rose lay down with her head on the grass, and when they figured out she wasn’t going to hurt them, the children began climbing all over her. Eventually, a few teens decided it would be a good idea to get on her back and begin kicking her sides, as if they were trying to get a horse to move. More began to join in. Alright. You want me to move? I’ll move!
Rose stood, and the children that were not on her scrambled away in renewed fear. Turning one eye toward the petrified children on her back, Rose snapped open her wings meaningfully. Swivelling her head back around, Rose began to run. Beating her wings, she rose above the trees, her unwitting passengers screaming all the while. It was almost like giving the Wakandan royals a ride again, only these people had no problem expressing their emotions, and this was during the daytime. Still, Rose swooped and dove, careful not to throw anyone off, though the feathers of her crest gave fantastic handholds. She dipped through the clouds and skimmed the ground, twisting into fantastic aerobatic stunts before landing with a flourish where she’d taken off. After the initial shock of the ride, her passengers begged for more, gleefully slapping her sides. Logan wasn’t back yet, but she spotted several adults rushing out of the building from the side. They must’ve heard the children’s shouts. She recognised some from the initiation ceremony: the girl with the white streaks in her hair, the guy with the weird visor and the girl with long purple hair, plus the man always playing with cards, the buff metal dude and a man made of ice.
They looked ready for battle, and Rose realized too late that none of the ones who were out on the lawn knew of her shapeshifting ability. Rose growled. They’d know soon enough. She lay down and gently deposited the kids in the grass before flapping over for a little confrontation. The visor-guy didn’t even let her land. He blasted her in the face with such precision Rose could hardly believe it. She didn’t want to fight these people; they were supposed to be her teammates, eventually! But, to get them to stop fighting, she’d have to resort to . . . less than honorable means. The ice-man had created a bridge of ice that neared her head level, and as he skated closer, readying an attack, she snapped him up by both his arms before tossing him around a bit so that he faced frontwards, even if he was upside down and hanging by one very cold leg.
The heroes below shouted in dismay. That’s right, I have your friend! You gonna attack me now?
At that moment, Logan burst from the building. “Rose! What’re you doing?! Put him down and let’s talk this out!” The other heroes looked at him like he was crazy, and then with admonishment as Rose very gently laid her captive down on the grass. “Now, can you come down here and explain yourself?”
Rose complied, changing shape. “Hey, it wasn’t my fault! I took a few kids for a flight and they,” at this she gestured to her attackers, “Decide that I’m the enemy here.”
Logan sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I go inside for ten minutes and y’ manage to aggravate more’n half the X-Men.” He looked at the guy with the visor. “Though with you, that’s nothin’ new. Yer always aggravated.”
“You know, now that I think about it, he did strike me as the silently-hating-you type when I first saw him.” Rose chuckled.
“I remember her!” The girl with the white streaks of hair spoke up. “Professor wanted her on the team, but the initiation was interrupted and she vanished before it was finished. I thought she was dead!”
Despite her joke at his expense, visor-guy extended a hand. “My name’s Scott, codenamed Cyclops. I’m a team leader around here.” He pointed at each of his crew, introducing them in turn. “The cold one is Bobby, AKA Iceman. There’s Remy, called Gambit, Anna, called Rogue, Elizabeth, called Psylocke, and the big one is Peter, who’s called Colossus.”
Rose shook his hand kindly. “Rose, codenamed Death Wish.”
Logan raised an eyebrow. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. You come up with that yourself?”
“No. The Facility gave it to me shortly before I was released.” Rose took note of the sun’s position and guessed it was around three o’clock. “I’d better get back to cooking dinner.”
The roasted hog was fantastic, the baked potatoes were soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside, and the asparagus was tender and savory. Rose had even baked fresh bread, and all the X-Men agreed that Rose could cook. Afterwards, Logan and Rose sat on the balcony where he’d taken her that first day and leaned against each other as they watched the stars come out, a peaceful end to a hard day.
“This might be a little personal,” Rose whispered, “But . . . would you ever want to have a family again?”
Logan hadn’t really thought about it, only tossed the idea around a few times. He’d often imagined what it would’ve been like if Daken had grown up with a normal childhood. “I tried to have a family once, after the whole thing with Daken. My fiance, Mariko, and I adopted an orphan named Yukio. By that time, I had joined the X-Men, and we were so wrapped up in our daily lives that we had to send Yukio to a boarding school. We tried to visit often, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, though, we got things sorted out and lived happily for a while.” He smiled ever so slightly at the memory, then let the corners of his mouth drop again.
“What happened? With you and Mariko, I mean.”
He responded with little emotion. “She left me at the altar.”
“It’s not your fault.” He felt her nose press lightly under his jawline in a sign of sympathy. “When . . . when I killed the white bear, somebody found it; a guy by the name of Essex. I guess he went after me for a while, and he might’ve found me, but some other guys got to it first. They sold me to a circus.” He felt Rose tense beside him, and she growled, but he went on, “They fastened a collar around my neck, and kept me chained by it inside a cage barely big enough to stand up in. If I refused to put on a show, they’d electrocute me until I did. The newspapers said I was a fraud, and Essex offered a good chunk of cash for me. Between the two of them, I’d rather have continued being a circus freak.
“Essex kept me strapped to a table, and took enjoyment from my suffering. So many cuts. Hours of incisions. I dreamt of ridding myself of the pain of living. Essex said he had a solution, quite literally. It was a potion concocted to end even the hardiest of men.” Logan looked at his companion, her softly glowing pine green gaze intent and full of emotion. “But I didn’t take it, though there were days I wished I had. Now, I don’t regret anything, because it all brought me back to you.” The twin green lights vanished for a moment as Rose blinked. The ember in his chest was now a crackling flame, and it flared as Rose snuggled against him and he put his arm around her.
This was certainly something he never thought he’d find himself doing again. “Did you ever have any trouble with a circus? I noticed you reacted when I mentioned it.”
“I did, for a time. I decided I wanted to change things up for a while, you know, relax and do something fun after you’ve been working for a long time. So I promised to, for one month, be a trapeze artist for a small circus. They tricked me and locked me in a cage-wagon instead. So I melted the bars and burned the wagon and the big top, Then I set all their animals free in the forest, and had a very productive and deliciously terrifying lecture with the entire crew before stealing what I would have been paid for the month.”
“Sounds like something I would have done.” Rose laughed, even though Logan hadn’t meant it to be a funny statement.
“Overall, it wasn’t quite as bad as your story, but still pretty heartless of those guys.” Logan only hummed thoughtfully. “If, just hypothetically, of course . . .” Logan was already on guard for what Rose was about to say. “What if we ever decided to have . . . um, you know . . . a family of our own one day? It’s always been a hope of mine, to have a child.”
Logan was silent, scratching his muttonchops in hesitation. “I don’t know. I haven’t exactly had the best of luck with families or kids—”
Rose stood up. “You know, forget it. It was a stupid question anyway; I don’t know if I can even have kids still, so just . . . forget about it.” Her ears drooped and her shoulders slouched as she left, undoubtedly headed for the library.
Logan had an idea. He wanted so badly to make her happy, and if his plan worked, she’d smile again.
Putting away the books she’d read last night was no easy task. She’d gotten so lost in the tales they told that she’d forgotten where they went, but eventually, she got it right. Descending the ladder, she ducked beneath it to examine the shelves there more closely. Logan materialized out of the shadows, making her jump four feet straight up into the air and cling to the underside of the ladder. “Very funny.”
“I thought so. I’ve got a surprise for you. While you spent all morning trying to put two books away, I talked with the Professor. He wants to see you.”
“Am I on the team now?!” Rose’s ears flicked up with hope, but Logan was revealing nothing. She practically bounded down the hall, though by the time she reached the Professor’s office door, curiosity overcame her initial excitement and she cautiously crept in, looking about. Nothing was amiss.
“Ah, good. I was hoping you’d come.” The bald man’s smooth voice rang clear in the quiet office. She quickly noticed that Charles wasn’t as far under his desk as he could be.
Sniffing, Rose could make out an unfamiliar scent. “Am I permitted to be on the team, Professor?” She asked respectfully.
“Actually, I’ve been thinking about that. But there are other matters to be addressed first, and then you may decide whether or not you’re still up for the task of becoming an X-Man.”
‘Other matters’? Rose wondered.
“Logan told me that you harbor a strong mothering nature. Is this true?”
Rose looked to Logan, only to find he wasn’t in the room. Come to think of it, she’d never seen him enter with her in the first place. “He told you that? I mean, last night I said that I had always wanted a family, and I still do, of course, it’s just . . . I’m sorry, this is not what I expected, that’s all. I suppose the answer to your question would be yes, I think I’d be a great mother.” With no father? I guess it could work out. But what is he getting at here? Do they have a secret nursery or something?
“I’m afraid we don’t have any nurseries, but I do happen to have this one little mutant girl. Her parents were killed in the New York Fire. She’s hiding under my desk if you want to see her.” Charles wheeled out from behind his desk.
Rose blinked. Was he asking her to adopt this little orphan? What about the team? Rose got down on four paws and poked her nose under the center of the piece of furniture, laying down on the carpet in order to do so. The strange smell was much stronger under here, and as she inhaled it, a pair of very cold and tiny hands plapped on her nose. Surprise made her jerk up and bonk her muzzle on the heavy oak. Ouch.
Going around the desk instead, Rose kept low to the floor. The moment her nose appeared around the corner, the little cold hands were on it. This time, Rose could see their owner, and the owner could see Rose. In front of her crouched a small girl, maybe two or three years old. She had dark skin, like rich hot chocolate, and wild curls of black hair flying everywhere. Keeping her head on the carpet so she didn’t scare her, Rose whispered a hello. “Kitty!” Came the enthusiastic reply.
“Rose, meet Cody. Her powers are mainly empathetic: she can sense that you mean her no harm. To be specific about her abilities, Cody can see people’s auras and sense their intentions. She can also sense danger in her environment, and when she is in danger, her perception of time slows down, and she is able to think and react with fantastic speed.”
“And you know all this, how?” Rose scooped up Cody, who began to play with her ear.
“I looked into her mind while conducting a private study on her. It began when I knocked a glass paperweight with my elbow, and it nearly fell on her. When she reacted and caught it, I began to wonder. I put a portion of my consciousness into her mind–”
“You can do that?”
“Not with adults, but the minds of young children are especially open to me. But when I was in Cody’s mind and I looked at myself, there was a faint halo of colors swirling about my body that reflected both my current emotions and the general color of my past, and there was the strong sense from Cody that I was her friend. And when I reconstructed the incident with the paperweight, time seemed to slow and I could see the trajectory the paperweight would make as it fell a full five seconds before she caught it again.”
“Wow.” She held Cody at arm’s length. “You, little missy, have some seriously useful powers!”
Professor Xavier cleared his throat. “Do you think that you can manage raising Cody and being on the team?”
Rose thought about it. Ten minutes ago, she was so excited to be part of something greater, but now she was looking at things differently. “I’ll give it a shot, but if I can’t do both, I’m willing to wait until Cody can care for herself.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to wait long. She’s three already, tuning four next month; when she turns five, she’ll be able to take classes to learn to use her powers.”
Rose shifted Cody onto her hip before giving the man in the wheelchair an awkward hug. “Thank you.” She then set Cody on the ground, clasped her tiny hand and walked out of the office.
Logan was waiting outside. “She’s cute.”
“I love her. She is the sweetest thing– watch!”
Rose crouched down to the kid’s level, and Cody put both hands on her nose again, before loudly exclaiming, “KITTY!”
Logan stooped as well, holding out his hand. “I doubt she’ll trust–” Cody made no hesitation in seizing Logan’s hand and jumping up and down with it, jostling his arm and laughing gleefully. Logan was astonished that this little kid wasn’t afraid of him, and even more so when she climbed into his arms and hugged him. “Be happy!” she chirped.
Logan didn’t say anything, just peeled her off him and stood up. “You take care of this kid, Rose. I managed to get Charles to let you be her mama, now do a good job.”
“Hey, I’ve never had a kid before, cut me some slack!”
“Up! Want up!” Cody began jumping with her arms above her head, begging to be picked up. Rose plopped her on her shoulders, and Cody gripped her ears, tilting one in the direction she wanted to go.
“Thank you for getting her for me.” Rose grabbed Logan’s hand in appreciation. Cody pulled harder on her ear in the same direction, and the pain made her wince. “Something tells me I gotta go. I’ll see you later, okay?”
“I’ve got nothin’ to do. It’s summer, and school’s out.” Logan began to follow them around the mansion, just watching them interact.
Wandering where Cody wanted seemed to prove useful to Rose, who was amazed at almost everything she looked at. She talked to the girl perched on her shoulders all the while, saying, “One day, you’ll be big and strong, and you’ll learn to fight and things like that. You’d like that? Maybe I can teach you one day!” Eventually, Rose had to set her down. “Phew, you are heavy! I gotta set you down, C.” Cody immediately began to ask Logan to pick her up, and when he ignored her, wandered off on her own. “Where are you going?” Rose followed her into Logan’s room. It was unkempt, though not unclean, not that Logan got many visitors. The sign on the door made sure of that.
Walking in after Rose, he found Cody reaching into a corner between a nightstand and the bedpost. Logan leapt across the room once he saw where she was looking and swept her up. What Cody had been tugging at fell from its place leaning against the wall. It was the Muramasa Blade, its golden crossguard and pommel gleaming in the light as Rose picked it up. “What’s this?”
“Put that back; it’s nothin’.” Rose drew the sword, and was noticeably startled to find that the blade itself was deep crimson as well. Rose ran the pad of her thumb along the edge, not getting a half-inch before it sliced through the thick skin.
She hissed with pain and put the afflicted finger in her mouth. When she took it out again, it hadn’t healed, and was still bleeding. She began to panic, throwing the blade onto the bed and grasping her hand. “It’s not healing. It’s not healing! Don’t tell me I lost it now! Of all times, and just when things were going right! I–”
“Relax. It’ll heal in a couple o’ days.” Logan set Cody down, who promptly sat on his foot and hugged his shin. He stooped, picking up the blade, careful not to let it touch the child on his foot. “The Muramasa Blade was forged with my soul. It’s perfectly balanced and the perfect length; designed for ease of use with either one hand or two. It’s everything dark inside o’ me made sharper, harder. More deadly. It’s unbreakable, undullable, and can cut through anything with relative ease.”
“By the fox’s tail, Logan! Why on earth would you have such a weapon made?!”
“For two reasons: vengeance.”
“That’s only one reason.”
“I know.” Logan pried Cody from his leg after walking to the bed, and handed her to Rose, who hugged her and rubbed her back. “The second was as a failsafe. Just in case I end up raging and I can’t get back in control.”
Rose’s eyes widened with understanding. “I’m sure it won’t come to that.”
“No, you’re not.”
Rose changed the subject and asked, “What do these symbols mean?” She traced a claw over the three Japanese symbols engraved on the sheath.
“Why not just call the blade Omega, then? It’s easier to say than ‘the Muramasa Blade,’ don’t you think?”
Logan didn’t reply. He had called the sword “the Muramasa Blade” for so long that he didn’t want it to change. He stood and placed the weapon on a high shelf, well out of Cody’s reach. Rose stood as well, this time down on all fours, with Cody riding on her back like a horse and gripping her scruff so she didn’t fall off.
“Hold on, little one!” Rose said, before trotting off, out of the room and down the hall. Logan followed at a distance, Muramasa Blade in hand and cowboy hat on his head, intending to practice some forms. The sun’s rays accentuated all the colors of the outdoor world, smiling down on the students playing outside. Rose was tussling in the grass with Cody, play-fighting like two little kittens. Logan shut out all noise, and began, drawing the blade and dropping the sheath on the ground.
Each movement he made was useful; no amount of energy he spent was wasted. Every leap and twist and thrust and slash counted. From the fleeting images in his peripheral vision, he could see Rose beginning to watch intently, ears pricked forward in a curious manner, and sun haloing her overcoat. Logan finished the forms after an hour and a half of practicing and going through the moves one time each and spending roughly ten minutes on each form. He sheathed the crimson sword, and was walking back to his room when Rose was suddenly beside him. “Spar me,” she commanded.
“Yes, now! Just me and you and whoever chooses to watch.”
Logan looked around. “Where’s Cody?”
“I asked Kitty to watch her. They’re playing catch.” Rose pointed, and, sure enough, there was Cody and Kitty, playing with a baseball they’d found somewhere.
“Alright, alright. I’ll spar you. Just . . . lemme put the sword away first.” He took his sweet time getting there and putting it up, even pausing to straighten things a little. Last time they’d fought, she’d been in a rage. He was already having flashbacks, seeing her bloodied muzzle and teeth, her frenzied, slitted eyes and her mad lunge for his throat. Though he’d never admit it, it had frightened him a great deal; almost as much as Proteus had. Logan shivered. Proteus. It was a good thing he’d been dealt with a while ago.
He shoved both thoughts away and tried to look forward to a little friendly competition. He found himself walking faster, and was soon back on the lawn. Rose was stretching, her back caved and her chest low to the ground, while her legs were straight and her tail curved high over her body. “You ready?” Logan asked.
“I’m the one who asked you for a fight. I should be asking you if you’re ready.”
“I take that as a yes.”
“One rule, though: no–” Logan charged at her, not giving her time to finish her sentence. Rose yelped, and sprang into the air like she was a coiled bedspring.
Logan landed right where she’d been but a moment before, his expression one of wicked pleasure. “In a real fight, there are no rules! I can do what I want!”
Turning mid-air as only a cat can, Rose dropped about a yard from where Logan crouched. “I can dragon up and eat you; would that be cheating or no?”
“But you wouldn’t!” Logan slashed at her belly and she twisted so that he scraped her back instead. She planted a sidekick firmly in his ribs, and, although they had been sheathed, her hind claws left four shallow scratches that knit almost instantly. The force of the blow sent him stumbling.
“You are insufferable.” Rose ducked low to dodge Logan’s leap before grabbing his torso and wrangling him to the ground, earning a punch to the jaw that made her release him. He was barely on his feet again before he had to avoid a roundhouse to the face. He knocked it aside, sending her spinning onto all fours. Baring her teeth in defiance, she yowled and leapt for his throat. Logan ducked and punched her in the sternum. Rose’s eyes bugged out of her head and she landed heavily on her side. Logan began to wonder if he’d really hurt her. Stalking cautiously over to see what was the matter, Rose suddenly planted a hind paw in his gut. “You said no rules!”
Shaking off the shock, Logan countered her second kick by pulling her tail, which had carelessly flicked into range. Rose screeched, throwing a wild fist in his general direction. Grabbing Rose’s haymaker, Logan kept it suspended in the air and tried to pin her other arm to force her to the ground, but missed. His hand landed on her ribs. The same instant, Rose stepped in and attempted to get him to the ground as well. They tried stepping around each other, snarling up into each others’ faces until, suddenly, Rose smiled, released his shoulder, and twirled away until their arms were taut, then twirled back. It was then that Logan realized that their fight had quite spontaneously turned into a dance.
“You,” Logan gave a small smile himself, “Are insufferable.” He released her hand and let her go, and for the first time noticed the large audience of mutants that had gathered to watch them, thirty feet away. “Show’s over!” He growled. Most of them scurried away, afraid of anger in him even further. The rest pretended to resume what they had been previously doing as he and Rose walked back toward where Cody was quietly playing with Kitty’s watch.
“That was a good match. I didn’t expect you to be so agile before I saw you practicing.”
Logan gave a soft snort. “As far as the world knows, the Wolverine is a blunt-force weapon. They’re wrong. I’m way more ‘n that. Fact is, I’m the best there is at what I do.”
“And that is . . . ?”
“Killing. I know every way I can kill someone with just about every weapon. ‘Course, you know as well as anyone that I don’t even need a weapon. I can just as easily gut a man with my claws as I can cave his skull with my fist.”
“Ah. I suppose I can relate. I learned everything about the human anatomy there was to know. I can sever an arm at the joint as easily as a butcher can. I know every pressure point and what they do, though in some cases, there are a few extras.”
“What do you mean, ‘extras?’ How would you know that?”
“Well, there’s this one, for starters.” Rose seized his right forearm and pressed a spot an inch below his elbow. Unbidden, his right claws flashed into the sunlight. He was impressed, truly, but he just gently pulled his arm away and sheathed his claws again.
“Don’t do that.” Cody noticed them walking to where she was, and clumsily ran over, all smiles and dust.
“Oh, you are filthy! Lemme get some of that for you–” Rose began to lick the dirt from Cody’s curls, the barbs on her tongue fine-combing the little girl’s hair. Cody giggled at the attention.
For the next hour, Logan amusedly watched Rose give Cody a bath in the bathtub, one getting just as wet as the other. Getting Rose to parent the girl had been a good decision for both of them. Logan had never seen her smile so much, not even before the Incident.
Late that night, after Rose had tucked Cody into her bed, she peeked into Logan’s room and found him sleeping. Just as she was about to shut the door, she heard him turn and mumble something. Creeping closer, Rose could make out his words, interspersed with gasps of horror as he continued to twitch and toss.
“No . . . No more . . . Please . . .”
To hear him beg for mercy struck Rose and nearly broke her heart. She nuzzled her head under his arm as she crawled into the bed with him, on top of the covers. The effect wasn’t instantaneous, but eventually his heartbeat slowed and he stopped moving.
“Uhnnn . . . ” Logan gave a ragged sigh before settling.
Rose began to purr. She was happy; she had her Logan, her Cody, a great team of people to be around, her belly was full and everyone was safe. All was right with the world. Closing her eyes, Rose found that she was tired after all. Maybe she could just doze off for a little bit.
* * *
The midmorning sun glared through the curtains, waking Rose the next morning. Stretching, she discovered she was alone in Logan’s bed with a pillow under her head and covered with a blanket. She stayed there for a moment longer before stretching again and throwing back her covers.
It’s been sweet of him to make sure she was warm. Making sure no one was in the hall,she slipped quietly out of his room. It wouldn’t do if she was seen. Rumors would spread throughout the School within the day.
Remembering Cody, Rose panicked. Dashing to her room and tearing through the door, Rose found it was empty. Following her scent through Cody’s various wanders, Rose was mindless in her pursuit. She relaxed when Cody’s scent crossed with Logan’s not twenty feet down the hall. Knowing for sure she was safe, Rose had another concern: breakfast. Hunting down something living would be preferable, but for now, she would have to settle for whatever she could find.
After a whole loaf of toast, two hams and a baker’s dozen of eggs, Rose found Cody playing with Logan on the pool table of the empty rec room, radio playing a jazzy tune. The sight was so unusual, she stopped and just watched them, peering from around the corner. They were engaged in a game where Logan would patiently build a tower from Jenga blocks, almost getting finished before Cody destroyed it again. Logan would throw her a “well, you did it again” look before rebuilding the tower.
Sometimes, there’d be a break in the game, where Logan hesitated before slowly adding the second-to-last layer, Cody watching him carefully. As soon as he released the blocks, Cody would bowl them over, never letting him finish the tower. She chuckled, and Logan startled, leaping to his feet and spilling the stack again as he whirled around.
“Whaddya think you’re doin’, scarin’ me like that!?”
“Scaring you, am I? Really? The big, tough Wolverine is scared of a lil pussycat like me?” He growled at her.
Cody giggled, grabbing Logan’s shirt. “Thunder! Thunder!”
Rose looked at Logan questioningly. “She jus’ started that today. I really don’t know why.” Cody whispered in his ear. “I . . . look like thunder?”
“She speaks to you?”
“Sure. All the time.”
“I didn’t think that she’d be so sociable after the fire.”
“Kids are like that. Resilient. What do you think she meant by that I ‘look like’ thunder?”
Rose had to stop and think of how to explain. “One of her powers allows Cody to see peoples’ auras, the energy—“
“I know what an aura is.” Logan snipped.
Rose’s ear twitched in annoyance before continuing, “She can see peoples’ auras. Yours must reflect everything you’ve gone through in your life, so it must look somewhat like a thunderstorm. That’s the only explanation I can think of.”
To her surprise, Logan smiled. “I mus’ be a better person than I think I am if all she sees is a thunderstorm.”
“Well. to know you’re a better person than you think you are.” She rubbed her head under his chin, wrapping her arms around him.
“Quit that,” Logan said, not unkindly, “It wouldn’t do if rumors were started. It’s bad enough that those kids saw us in the woods.”
“There’s no one here but Cody. Surely you can smell that, too.” She whispered back, her whiskers tickling against his neck. She could feel his heartbeat increase, hammering against his ribcage.
He gave a pleasured hum, giving in and beginning to stroke her head and neck. It felt good, and she could understand a little bit why domestics liked it so much. A slow piano song came over the radio, and Rose began to dance. Logan didn’t resist, moving with her to the music. It was Rose’s turn to hum with pleasure.
Cody laughed loudly. “Purple! Purple! Purple clouds!”
Purple must mean “love” to her. Heh. “I love you, Logan.” She breathed, “I’d give my fire, if I could, just to hear you say it back.” He stiffened in her arms. “I . . . I see.” Prying herself away from Logan, she scooped up the giggling girl from the fuzzy green of the pool table. “I’ll be outside.”
He watched her leave, sadness brewing in his heart. Unexpectedly, he found it transformed into determination. “Wait!” He called after her. “Wait! Rose!” He dashed down the hall with abandon, chasing her scent. She turned and looked at him, her hand on the doorknob that lead outdoors. “I’m sorry, and I don’t say that very often to very many people. I was selfish.” Roses ears slowly pricked up. “I do love you. More than you know and more than I can show it.” He wilted a little. “I . . . I’m sorry.”
Rose reached up and laid her hand on his jaw, just below his ear. “I forgive you, dear heart.” And then she walked out the door.
Dear Heart? Logan thought. He smiled at the term. I should do something for her. I should. What could she need though? She could provide for herself. That would require some thought.
For now, a sense of foreboding had settled over him and he viewed his surroundings with suspicion. A small growl escaped him as he tried unsuccessfully to shake the sensation.
Throughout the day, Logan patrolled the grounds, hoping against hope that whatever had set him on edge wouldn’t show up. He even ignored Rose, who walked with him from time to time, his responses to her short and curt. Eventually, he told her that he needed to focus and she distanced herself, instead teaching Cody how to punch and block effectively. Logan hoped that whatever was coming, Cody would survive it.
As the day wore on, Logan grew more and more apprehensive. For him to sense something so early in the day, it must be something big. As he rounded the corner of the mansion’s front, he paused to watch the leaves of the vines flicker in the evening breeze. The vines grew all over the mansion’s yellow bricks, giving the outside a kind of old look. He liked it.
A faint tremor in the air made him turn his face to the horizon. “X-Men! We’ve got company!” He roared.
Rose was there in an instant. “Cody’s inside, with Professor. What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know. Something’s coming. Can you feel it?”
“I’ve been feeling it all day.” Logan’s scowl deepened as the team rushed out. Everyone was there, and for that, Logan was grateful. He didn’t want to face this alone. “Is that a dragon?” Rose had spied Lockheed.
“Sorta.” Logan snipped. “Focus, Rose. You can get to know him later. First we have to save everyone.” She shook her head and squinted into the scarlet sky. Dots began to materialize just above the trees. Rose crouched on the ground.
“I’m not going to wait for them to come to us!” She tore across the lawn, throwing clods of dirt behind her as she began to glow. Logan was close on her tail, reaching out and grabbing her feather-fins as they brushed the ground. She was in the sky by the time she had reached the treeline, winging as fast as she could toward the oncoming fleet of sentinels. He climbed her ruff until he was between her shoulderblades, balancing as though he were surfing. His balance was lost as Rose reared back to tear off the head of one robot. He leapt to the back of another that whizzed by. It gave a seemingly distressed whir before Logan severed it’s head, jumping to Rose’s leg as it crashed to the ground. Bursts of fire flashed and the screech of teeth on metal as Rose fought two sentinels at a time, Logan dancing along her neck as he struggled to help her from both sides.
As hard as they fought, it was too much; there were too many of them. They fell back, Rose swerving to land behind the team. Logan leapt down off her shoulder. “Sentinels. Fifty at least. This ain’t gonna be pretty.”
“Is it ever, dah-ling?” Psilocke gave a grim smile.
The sentinels landed on the grounds, shaking the earth. “DESTROY. ALL. MUTANTS.” They chorused.
Rose straddled the team protectively and gave a frightening roar, her tail lashing. The sentinels hesitated before her. She blasted the ground in front of them with a short, explosive bolt of fire. The crater it left in the cobblestone road smoked as its coals burned themselves out. Logan could hear her enormous black claws gouging determinedly into the stone, piercing the ground below. The lead sentinel raised it’s hand, the repulsor beam glowing. Rose bathed it in white fire, melting it into a glowing puddle. Coughing, she discontinued the blaze. As one, the army of twenty-foot-tall metal robots marched forward. Logan took one step, but Cyclops stuck out an arm.
“Enough of this.” Cyclops snarled. Taking off his visor. He opened his eyes.
A field of red energy made everyone flinch and shield their eyes. The robots were incapacitated, lying dying on the ground in smithereens. Rose had ducked her head underneath one giant paw. “Every now and then, Summers,” Logan said in awe, “I remember why you’re still in charge.”
“Rip their guts out.”
Rose gave a menacing dragon-smile at the same time Logan said, “With pleasure!”
Not one of them escaped, though Logan would’ve liked for his prey to be more . . . alive, or at least have some semblance of life. Rose didn’t seem to care. She happily pounced on her robots and reduced them to scrap metal. Logan guessed thinking of Cody was what gave her her zeal. With every passing week, Logan found himself smiling more often, loosening up, even joking around with his students, albeit in a roundabout manner. The change was Rose. She gave him security and helped him find himself in a way that the samurai never had.
Summer vacation rolled lazily by with no further incident, and the X-Men celebrated Cody’s fifth birthday. Her favorite present was the little wooden sabre Logan had carved her from an oak branch. She had swung it around all day, clicking it against marble countertops, walls, tables and anything else she could reach. Naturally, it wasn’t sharp at all, but she could still pack a wallop with it. Cody was in class during the moment that Rose and Logan had together. During the school season, Rose had been assigned to the position of librarian, and had set up a simple method of book checkouts involving color-coded bookmarks.
“So, you said once that you were a teacher?” Rose asked, disbelief scrawled all over her smiling face. “What do you teach?”
“History. And art.” He didn’t even look at her.
Rose burst out laughing, the sound ringing off the walls. “Ah-ha-ha! Art? For real!? Ha-ha-ha-ha!” She was uncontrollable for several minutes before she finally stood up straight, wiped her eyes and stopped long enough to say, “So do you specialize in drawing or painting?”
“Oh.” She composed herself before grinning again. “But how funny would it be if you were a painter?”
Logan didn’t say anything, just ducked into his room to change and grab a backpack. It was History day, the one day a week he wore nice clothes. He straightened his tie as he opened the door. Rose was leaning on the wall across from him.
“Well! Don’t you look handsome! Black tie, white button-up, black slacks. It’s a shame we can’t go anywhere.” She hooked one finger under his tie, which always hung loose until the last moment. Pulling him close, she whispered, “I can still do this, though . . . ” She kissed him deeply, backing him up against the wall. When the kiss was broken, Logan gave a tiny frown.
“What if someone sees us? Not to mention all this.” He brushed at the front of his shirt, tawny hairs clinging to the calluses on his hands. “It wouldn’t do for word to get out.” They walked down the
“So what if word gets out? What can anyone do? Professor X already knows about it, and he hasn’t forbidden us yet.”
“It’s not Charley I’m worried about. It’s Scott. Jean’s death was as hard on him as it was on me. Maybe even more so. They were intimately close.” He began walking, having brushed all the fur he could from his shirt and tie. “Her power began to control her, and she let it. She did horrible things, to the point where, even though I loved her, I killed her. If he were to see you and me, there’s no telling what he’d do to you out of jealousy.”
“Thank you for sharing that with me, dear heart, but I’m sure it won’t come to that. He seems like a level-headed, sensible man.”
Logan remembered her present. “I’ve got something for ya. I didn’t make it, a student did, but the idea was mine.” He brought out the gift from the bag beneath his arm.
“Oh, you didn’t have to do this!” Rose tenderly accepted the boots from him. They were a deep, faded red, with black laces and soles, ebony stitching outlining a dragon on the outsides of each boot. Logan had made sure that nothing could easily get through those boots, and that they would be comfortable, even without socks. “Is this fur lining the inside?” Rose felt around inside, feeling the brown faux rabbit fur with great delight. It hade been a nice touch, one he hadn’t actually been sure she’d appreciate.
“It’s fake stuff, so it won’t fall apart so easy. You could wear those boots for ten years and it’ll still be just as soft. It’ll keep y’ feet warm, too. I know how y’ are with the cold.”
“Oh, thank you so much! I’ll have a reason to relearn how to tie laces now!” She chirped.
Logan smiled. Now she wouldn’t have to fear any more rusty nails or glass shards, and that was the main thing. “I can teach yuh after class if y’ want.”
“One day, I’ll have to teach this class of yours myself. I know a good bit of Animal People history, when I can remember it all.” She chuckled.
“I might sit in on that. In fact,” he looked at his watch, “I have a few minutes; why don’t w’ go ask Charley if y’ can do that today?” The expression on Rose’s face went from delight to anxious so fast, if he’d blinked, he’d have missed the transformation.
“Today!? But I’m not dressed!”
“Who cares? You’re not a teacher.” Logan shrugged.
“Well, I can at least . . . there!” She tied the bottoms of her shawl together. “Could you help me with these?” She slipped one paw into the right boot and pulled it on, finding they went three-quarters way up her calf, exactly as he had intended them to. Tightening the laces, Logan talked her through tying them into a bow. Her fingers remembering, the second boot was equipped. She wiggled her toes and smiled. “Even my dewclaws are comfortable.”
“You have dewclaws?”
“Of course. They’re covered a lot of the time, but they’re there, getting caught on my jeans a lot of the time.” She stated matter-of-factly. Logan just took a deep, contented breath.
“Professor Logan is taking the day off today,” Rose nodded to the back of the class, where Logan was leaning back, hands behind his head, in the rolling chair taken from behind his desk, “And has asked me to teach you about other Nonhumans.”
“You mean aliens?” Someone piped up.
“No, not aliens. I’m talking about the Animal People, scientifically classified as Homo animalia-chimera, are people like me who are half animal, half human. The world fears them just like it fears you mutants.”
“If they’re considered a species of human, like us, wouldn’t that group them with mutants?”
“Well, yes and no, I suppose. They have been around since . . . since before medieval times, whatever time period that was, and have lived in seven separate Districts, this surviving for so long. Some of the Animal People used to be human, and were Changed using a special magic, like I was, into being one of them. Not all Changers have perfected their art, and the ones improperly transformed don’t tend to survive long, so it’s important for the Changers to have gotten at least ten years’ worth of practice before even attempting to assist with a Changing.”
“What are Animal People, exactly?” One girl with pitch black eyes raised her hand, “Are they like furries at all?”
“In some ways. Animal People take the forms of animals, yes, but instead of being childish and rather stupid, we are fierce warriors, proud and strong. Our differences and unique abilities combined with our human intellect and sense of right from wrong allow for even greater strength.
“It was the High Evolutionary that created the first of us from normal animals, placing them on Mount Wundagore. They were knights, all of them. The First Ones’ names have been lost over time, but I know there was the Ram, the Bear, the Black Panther, the Horse, the Lion, the Dog, the Goat, the Bison, the Rat and, quite by coincidence,” she nodded to Logan, “The Wolverine. But not all of them were as pure as the High Evolutionary had hoped. You see, he had created the New Men, another name for the Animal People, because he found that humans were . . . lacking.” The students nodded in agreement. “Some of the New Men rebelled, and, to make a long, long story short, they were devolved, returning to their original forms. The Animal People nowadays live in fear of men, and almost all New Men today were born as they are. I was the first Changed One since the old times.”
“Why’d they make an exception?”
“I was dying.” That snatched their attention. “It was in the middle of the Canadian winter that it happened. I was following him,” she pointed to Logan, “And found myself in the middle of a wild blizzard. If not for my inner fire, I wouldn’t be here. I tripped and fell down a steep bank into a frozen river, where a moose, Antlyris was his name, happened to be ice fishing. He pulled me out and hauled me back, where it was determined that if I was to survive, I must be Changed. They made me as I am today, and I must admit that I am far better off than I was before. My fur keeps me warm, I can see in the dark, and I’m stronger and faster than ever. There are times when I miss my old face, but they don’t last long.”
“Why don’t they come here?” An older boy asked
“There are hundreds of them in one District alone. We couldn’t house that many here in the School. Anyway, the Knights protected the lands surrounding their city, but men, in their fear, scorned their help, and so the New Men vanished. They have been rediscovered, however. Humans have begun hunting them. Logan and I had to fend off an entire army to protect the Canadian District, Arkala.”
Logan smiled from his position in the back as someone asked how she had managed that. “It’s not something I like to talk about. Please don’t ask again. Any other questions?”
A girl’s disembodied voice asked, “Are you and Professor Logan gonna get married?”
Rose felt her nose grow hot with embarrassment and Logan stiffened from his position in the rear and f the classroom. “Well, I . . . I don’t really know. I mean, the future could hold anything, I suppose, but–“
She interrupted, and again Rose couldn’t pick out who was talking, “Are you in love with him?”
“I-I-I . . . Er, well, I . . . ” She looked back at Logan, his grey-blue gaze boring into hers. He leaned forward now, his arms crossed on top of his knees. The bell rang, but Rose never heard it, and the students simply ignored it, on the edge of their seats. Mild fear gripped her heart as she whispered, “Yes.”
The class began to giggle, and Rose suddenly became defensive. “Oh, clear out, you tittering romanticists. I’ve better things to do than listen to your chatter!”
The room cleared, and Logan frowned. He walked over, saying, “Thought we agreed to keep this on the down-low.”
“They asked an honest question, I gave an honest answer.” Rose stared guiltlessly up at him, the fear from a minute before returning. What would he say? What would he think of her?
“I don’t want to jeopardize my reputation.”
“James Howlett! Is that all you worry about; your rep around here!? Let me ask you something: which do you care about more? Me or the way you look to the people around here!?”
“You, of course, but—“
“But what? What could there possibly be a but there for?”
“But I wanna protect you!” Logan’s voice grew to nearly a snarl. “I can’t do that if everyone ’round here thinks I’ve gone soft! Do you know how much I want to laugh with you, to do everything you want to do with me?! To go on those deer trails an’ wrestle in the grass?! Do you know how hard it is to mingle my life at the School, as a teacher and a warrior, with my life with you, as a partner?!”
She had to admit he had a point. His life was hectic enough as it was. “Then let me help you, James. You don’t have to do everything, like teaching two classes, for instance.”
“I like teaching two classes. Y’ can’t imagine how monotonous teachin’ the same thing every day can get.”
“Oh, yes I can. Every day, it feels like I have to teach you that the fate of the world doesn’t rest on your shoulders alone. People are there to help you.” A dark look crossed her face. “Speaking of helping people, don’t think I haven’t forgotten about Genosha. Those mutants need to be liberated. We could leave now, find the other Districts and unite the Guardians, creating an army no one can stand against. We could form a battle plan together, as co-leaders and crush them to oblivion!”
Clearly her passion surprised him. “It’s not so easy.”
“This could be a stealth mission! We wouldn’t need a lot of people to pull it off; in fact, we could do it with a small battalion of Animals. This is so simple, The youngest of the X-Men can understand!”
“But I don’t think you do! The losses . . .” He paused and cleared his throat, “If it fails, I’ll lose you! If we lose, we’ll both become mindless, thoughtless beings, complete strangers and prisoners. We’d lose the team, the students, the School, because they could get the information outta our heads. Not to mention what they’d do to yer people! D’ya really want to take that risk!?”
“I’d thought better of you, James. The Wolverine I know would never let anyone remain trapped, least of all a fellow mutant. The Wolverine I know wouldn’t hesitate to rescue someone!”
He growled at her, knowing she was right. In all the years that Rose had known him, she’d never seen him run from a fight. But then he softened. “This time, it’s not just me I hafta worry ’bout. If something happened to you I’d never forgive myself!” He pulled her close to his chest, and she let him, feeling his thick muscles writhe as he wrapped his arms around her. “You know that.”
Her anger melted away, but she couldn’t forget about the Genoshans. Something needed to be done, and as soon as possible. His heartbeat thundered in her ears, drowning out her worries. “I can’t stop thinking about them, Logan. Promise me you’ll let me help them.”
“For now, let’s just focus on gettin’ through the day, hm?”
After school, a compromise was made. Logan swore to walk the woods with Rose. No hunting, no training, just walking around in the green-filtered sunlight, boots crunching in the dead leaves leftover from last Fall. Rose promised that she and Logan would enter the woods separately and randevu at the twisted tree after making sure Cody got to class alright. Logan was just beginning to feel the sunlight warm the metal of his bones when something fluffy nudged his arm. Prying one eye open, he found himself with an arm wrapped around a very cuddly Rose. “I like this much more than taking a walk.” She whispered into his shoulder. Logan stroked the fur of her back and she began to purr. He felt the most relaxed he had in years, more at peace than when he was meditating.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too, Logan.”
He lifted her chin and kissed her, just for a moment, but it was long enough to reinforce his previous statement. Carefully, he gauged how he should say his next words, giving up and just deciding that a simple and direct approach would be more acceptable. “Will y’ marry me?”
“Oh, Logan . . . I—“
“I can’t stand not havin’ you by my side at every moment. Can’t stand the thought’a y’ gettin’ hurt. I want to be there to protect you every day, no matter what. I can’t promise nothin’ will ever go wrong in our lives but I can promise I’ll be right there by your side, and I—” He broke off as he realized Rose was repeating his name.
“James, James! The answer was ‘yes’ already!” She kissed his cheek.
“I ain’t got a ring.”
“That doesn’t matter to me, but it might be a good idea.” She winked. “Keep the other men from drooling all over me.”
“I’ll ask Hank if he’ll make something. You’ve gotta have something special made.”
“Oh, you don’t have to!” Rose reassured him.
“No, I do. Don’t want y’ melting five hundred dollars off yer hand.”
“Hm. You’re right.” She sighed contentedly, “But we can stay here for a while.”
Beast was more than willing, once he’d heard the good news and after Logan swore him to secrecy. “You’ll need a ring of purest tungsten. It would take me a while to purify enough for the both of you, but I assure you, it will be done. Ah, I still can’t believe you’re getting married!” He wrapped Logan in a big hug and Logan clapped him on the back in return.
“It’ll never be official, of course,” Rose said, “Not with the way things are. But we’ll know, and that’s what matters.” She wound her tail around his leg.
“Well, who cares about that?” Hank waved a hand in the air. “My friend is getting married! And,” He added, pointing a blue claw at Rose, “You’d better not leave him at the altar.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t. More than half my life I’ve searched for this one man, and I don’t plan to let him go so easily!” As if to emphasize her point, Rose wrapped her arms around one of his, holding it tight. Logan buried his nose in the top of her head, inhaling her sweet, sweet scent. This was how he wanted it to be, forever.
Out on the balcony, where Logan had taken Rose on her first day there, they watched the sun sink down beneath the trees, turning the clouds above it gold and pink. She was purring as she leaned against him, a deep vibrato hum resonating in her chest. “Want to take a flight?” Logan asked her.
“You would do that for me?” Logan shrugged. It would mean the world to her, getting over his fear of heights just for a little while. “Don’t worry, I’ll be easy with you.” She reassured him as she leapt off the balcony. A flash of light assailed his eyes, until before him stood the copper-scaled beast. She rested her chin on the open deck, inviting him onto her head. Trying not to think about the three-story drop between him and the ground, Logan grasped one of her horns and placed a boot on her eye ridges. He hesitated, not wanting to hurt his fiance, but Rose just twisted her head, throwing him the rest of the way onto her. Grabbing her feather crest, Logan worked his way down into the hollow where her neck met her shoulders. Shoving aside some of the stuff, scaly feathers, Logan situated himself to where he felt somewhat safeish.
Rose’s wings opened halfway, and with a running start, gently cleared the trees. Eyes tightly closed, Logan felt her leave the ground, and heard her feather tail fins brush the top branches of the trees. The cool mist of the clouds startled him into opening his eyes, and what he saw made his anxiety vanish. Just a few feet below him were rolling fields of pink, purple and gold, and above him was a canopy arrayed with the finest of colors. “Woah. I see why y’ like this so much.” Between his knees, Rose sighed in agreement. “Just seems like the world don’t exist anymore. Y’ve found something new and y’ never wanna leave it behind. How can you ever come down?”
Rose hummed in response. He felt her neck and chest grow warmer as she breathed out a gentle tongue of flames, just because. She found an updraft and stayed within it, circling until well after the last light faded and the last of the stars had shown its face. “For once, my future looks bright,” Logan whispered as he lay on Rose’s back, “And I’m not afraid anymore of what could happen because I won’t be going into it alone.” Rose crooned at him, probably glad that she wouldn’t be alone either. Her body grew rigid beneath him, and Logan shot up, gripping her crest for balance. “What do you see?” She hissed, flicking an ear. And then Logan saw it, too. “Sabertooth.” The cur slunk across the ground, silent as a snake. “Let’s have a little fun, eh? See how quietly y’ can land.” Rose obliged, finding a tight and chilly downdraft to ride, never flapping her wings, never casting a shadow, never making a sound. It was frightening and thrilling, witnessing such an enormous and powerful creature meld into the shadows and move as quietly as the passing of the crescent moon above them. She stretched out on the back lawn, keeping her silhouette below the trees.
They watched as Toothy slid through the bushes before stopping and scooping up a piece of pathway gravel and hefting it at Logan’s bedroom window. The crack of the pane splintered the early morning silence. Logan bent to whisper in Rose’s ear. “I want this to be just me an’ him. You make sure he don’t escape, an’ see about makin’ him wish he never came.” Rose flicked her ear, the only move she could make without giving herself away in the scant moonlight. Logan slid down her neck, slowly drawing his claws to muffle the scrape of metal on metal. Sabretooth, oblivious to the dragon and to Logan sneaking up behind him. The pale fur of Toothy’s vest was easily spotted in the dark. Up in Canada, Logan would have been the one most easily noticeable, but not this time. The night breeze flowed from Sabretooth to Logan, so it wasn’t until when Logan didn’t come flying out his bedroom window that Toothy looked around . . . right into the face of a maniacally grinning Wolverine.
So deep was Creed’s hatred for Logan that he wasn’t surprised. He instead lunged for Logan’s throat like a mad dog. Logan dodged and sank his claws into his side, spinning him around until they slid out and Toothy smacked into a tree. The scent of blood tainted the cool darkness. Over where Logan had left Rose, only two spectral pine-green orbs floated there. They vanished for a moment as she blinked. His distraction was rewarded with a rake across the ribs, which Logan promptly returned. Roaring, the two rivals leapt at each other, and Logan lost himself in the battle and in the snarls, curses, snaps and growls.
Suddenly, just when Logan could sense that he wasn’t going to win this one, Rose intervened. With her maw open and with flames licking from between her teeth though staying within her throat, she advanced on the pair. The light from her fire, which made her scales, especially her chestplates, glow from beneath, where they rooted in her flesh. The light suffused Rose, the ground she walked on and anything else that nearly brushed her scales as she walked, giving her the appearance of some ancient fire spirit. An angry ancient fire spirit. If Logan hadn’t known that this dragon was his fiance, he would have thrown Creed to the monster and fled. Creed was rooted to the ground with fear, but that didn’t last long. Even though Sabretooth was cruel and hateful and determined to make Logan’s life miserable, he was no idiot. He grabbed Logan’s shirt and swung him around until he flew into Rose’s face. Rose caught him by the leg, breaking his fall and only bruising him a little bit. Setting him down and reviving her glow, she charged after Sabretooth. Logan couldn’t help a chuckle. “He won’t be back here, that’s for sure.”
Rose, cat-Rose, came from around the corner. “I chased him down the driveway and into the woods. There were times when I thought about eating him, just to make sure he didn’t come back, but the damage he’d have done to my insides wouldn’t have been worth it, ya know?”
“Hm.” Logan wrapped his arms around her, enjoying her warmth. “Where were we?”
“About a mile in the air, last time I checked.” She whispered into his ear, her hot breath tickling him. “But I think we can continue just fine down here.” She abruptly shoved him into the grass.And then she pounced on him, rolling him over into the soft new grass. After wrestling for a while, Logan tired of the game and turned over on his back. The clouds were clearing, and he could just see the stars peeking through them. Rose pressed herself beside him, laying her head on his chest, and her warmth spread through him. The undulating vibrations of her purr lulled him into a restful, dreamless sleep.
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