In which Kitty and Clarice attempt to avoid dying in the Other, Erik and Kitty lay the groundwork for royally creeping everyone out, and Marie begins to learn a little bit more about just what gaining Logan's not-quite-immortality really means.
Clarice didn't think she was dreaming.
Oh, she knew she wasn't awake, but this didn't feel like a dream. It was as clear and vivid as the ship, but it was most definitely not the ship: she was standing in the middle of a swamp, the path before and behind her the only solid ground there was to be seen.
The place was familiar, though she knew she'd never been here before – she was pretty sure she'd remember that. It took a moment for realization to click, and once it did, she was…worried. She knew she'd seen it – or rather, the edge of it – in Sharley's last living memories.
The peace here was not nearly as strong as it was on the ship. She felt safe, yes, and welcome, but the feeling of home, that was so compelling, was absent. While she was tempted to explore, she was not tempted to stay.
Having nothing else to do, she wandered down the path. The pools of water on either side were smooth as glass, puddles of inky blackness that reflected the strings of lanterns that wove through the trees: merely blue at first, but growing more and more multicolored the further in she went. Though it was damp, nothing smelled of mold – instead there was the scent of smoke, and an assortment of spices she couldn't hope to name.
As on the ship, there were no visible people. She could feel them – she knew she wasn't alone – but there was nobody to be seen. And maybe that was a good thing – maybe she wouldn't want to see what actually lived in the Other.
Something – someone – darted across the path, and paused when it saw her. It was a little girl, maybe five years old, and she would have been absolutely adorable if she wasn't very obviously dead. Her hair was tow-colored blonde, and very long, with bangs cut straight across her forehead, and her eyes were dark – though one had a section of bright blue, and the other a chunk of lighter brown. They would have been pretty, if they hadn't been filmed over with death-cataracts. Her skin was pallid and bloodless, and her throat was slashed halfway across.
She didn't appear to be actually decaying, but she was still horrifying – at first, anyway. Once Clarice's brain had wrapped itself around the fact that she was looking at a goddamn zombie, it noticed that her expression was as animated as a living child's, those white-filmed eyes staring at Clarice with open curiosity.
"You aren't supposed to be here," the girl said, and though her throat was half destroyed, her voice sounded ordinary enough. Weirdly, her accent was Southern; it didn't sound much different than Rogue's. "You're one of the ones Mama's gonna get in trouble for, huh?"
Mama? She had to mean Sharley, because once Clarice's mind kicked itself into properly functioning again, she recognized this girl as the child that had died in Sharley's arms, in the memory the Stranger had shown them all. Whatever had brought this kid back, it hadn't been the same as what resurrected her and Kitty.
"Why would she get in trouble?" Clarice asked, wary. The little girl didn't look at all likely to hurt her, but she'd learned the hard way that you really never could be too careful.
"For bringin' you here and then takin' you back," the child said solemnly. "That's not how the Other's supposed to work. 'Course, half the time nobody knows how it actually is supposed to work, and I'm sure Mama'll point that out. You stay in the Swamp and not on the ship, and you might not get as stuck as you would if you went to the ship. Mama Tanya'll make sure you get home when you wake up."
Part of Clarice wanted to ask, but most of her…really didn't. Especially she knew she would find out sooner or later, whether she wanted to or not. "What happens if I do die?" she asked eventually. "If my…soul…stays here, and I die in my own world?" Would she be stuck in the Other forever?
The little girl shrugged. "Beats me," she said. "Nobody's ever done this before. That happens a lot around here, though, and if Mama doesn't deal with it, one of the other three will. You don't have to be scared of anythin' in the Swamp, but I wouldn't go outside it."
Well, that wasn't nearly as reassuring as she thought the girl probably meant it to be. She wasn't sure if this was better or worse than the shit in France.
Something tapped on her shoulder, and she almost screamed. She whirled around to find herself faced with a very tall woman, not quite as corpselike as the girl, but definitely not properly alive, either. Her eyes were much like the child's, completely mismatched, but there was no film of death over them.
"Hi, Mama," the little girl said cheerfully.
"Hi, Marty," the woman said, but those odd eyes were fixed on Clarice. There was a completely inhuman intensity to them – they practically burned. "I need you to talk to Marie," she said. "You need to tell her that she's got to have a word with me – with actual me, not the one in her head. She's gonna need your older telepath to do it, because I'm not draggin' you all in here just yet. There's some shit goin' on that you don't need to be a part of, but it means you and Kitty are gonna have to hang on a little longer in your own world."
Because that sounded so very easy. "Okay," Clarice said, more than a little uneasy. "So…what do I do, while I'm here? Before I wake up?"
Sharley gave her a grin that was absolutely terrifying. It wasn't an evil expression, or a vicious one; it was frightening because it was the only truly human thing about her. "You can come with me," she said. "My life sure as hell isn't boring, and you'll want to know some about the Other, before you really come here."
Clarice probably ought to be afraid of that. Shit, if she had an ounce of self-preservation, she'd tie herself to one of these trees until she woke up. She'd been wishing for everything to go back to normal, insofar as there ever was a normal with her group, but somehow, the thought of trailing this odd woman was too good to pass up. "I'm probably going to regret saying this," she said, "but okay. Let's do it."
Clarice was out of surgery, but Charles still couldn't make contact with her mind. Lying in her bed in the recovery room, she was vacant and completely motionless – only the faint beeping of her cardio-monitor signaled that she was even alive.
She was still there, but her mind was wandering somewhere so far away that he couldn't find it. He was tempted to go back to the mansion and try Cerebro, but somehow he doubted that would work. Wherever she'd gone, she was going to have to come back of her own accord.
"How come she's not awake yet?" Kitty asked. She'd kept nodding off herself, only to have Erik poke her awake every time, until she looked ready to murder him. While something in their dynamic had changed – something Charles did not want to contemplate – it appeared a few things remained the same, chief among them being the fact that Erik still had the ability to drive her to complete aggravation.
"Anesthesia doesn't wear off in a hurry," Hank said. "She just went through major surgery. If she woke up right now, she'd be in a lot of pain."
"Yeah, but she'd be alive," Logan said.
"She's alive now," Charles assured them. "Her consciousness is wandering, but it's still tethered to her. I can feel her – I just can't find her."
"I could try," Kitty said, leveling a glower at Erik, "if somebody would just let me go the fuck to sleep. You can always wake me up if I start to die."
"No, I don't think so," he said dryly. To Charles's immense discomfort, he brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "I won't exactly know if you're about to die, after all."
"I have to sleep sometime," she protested. "Professor's right here – he can tell if I'm close to kicking the bucket."
Charles looked away, and noticed that every other person in the room who was actually awake looked as uncomfortable as he felt. At least he wasn't alone. "I can," he said. "And she's right – she can't stay awake forever."
Erik looked incredibly dubious, but Kitty looked incredibly cranky, and her crankiness won out. "Don't even," she warned. "Come on, I'm fucking exhausted."
He rolled his eyes. "Fine. But don't you dare die." He pulled her onto his lap, head against his chest, and seemed rather determined to keep her there.
Awkward, Charles thought. Awkward and wrong.
In spite of the gravity of the entire situation, it was all Erik could do not to laugh.
He'd warned Kitty this wouldn't work if she couldn't keep a straight face, but so far she was doing a better job of that than he was. Even Logan was looking visibly uncomfortable, and oh, how hard it was not to smile at that.
While he genuinely was worried about letting Kitty sleep, he trusted Charles. Meanwhile, he got to watch everyone else try not to squirm. He wasn't quite sure just what it was that made the two of them so creepy to everyone else, but he would happily capitalize on it, because why not? God knew he had nothing better to do. He understood why Clarice would feel so lost – he had no idea what to do now, and he was studiously avoiding thinking about the future. For now, he'd settle for discomfiting everyone he knew, and the future could do what it wanted.
Kitty didn't have to do anything to find Clarice – she almost landed right on top of her.
"What the – oh, hi Kitty." Clarice stood, brushing dead fir needles off her shirt. "Erik actually let you fall asleep?"
Kitty hauled herself off the ground. At least in her sleep she wasn't actually injured – being free of pain was, by now, definitely a novelty. "He didn't have much choice," she said, looking around. While this was definitely the Other, it wasn't the ship – she was surrounded by forest, huge fir trees gone reddish-bronze. They were dying, as were the patches of grass between them, parching in the dry heat. "How come we're not on the – oh." She fell silent when she saw that Clarice was not alone. "Um. Hi."
"Sharley, this is Kitty. Kitty, Sharley."Clarice actually sounded at ease, and Kitty had no idea how she could. The damn woman was almost as tall as Logan, and the fact that there was nothing malevolent – or even particularly harsh – in her expression somehow made her even more terrifying.
At first. Though there was faint amusement far back in Sharley's mismatched eyes, there was a strange sort of sadness about her as well. She looked at Kitty and Clarice as though they both brought her pain. She was, in fact, looking at Kitty far more closely than Kitty was strictly comfortable with, as though trying to read something in her face – or maybe in her soul. Kitty had seen enough weird shit lately that she wouldn't be surprised.
Sharley smiled. "Good to actually meet you, Kitty. I've got Clarice with me so she doesn't die here in her sleep, so you'd best come, too. We're gonna go see my dad."
"Why?" Kitty asked, wondering just what kind of father this woman might have.
"She wants to make Rogue immortal," Clarice said, barley able to keep the glee out of her voice.
"Not immortal," Sharley said sharply. "Never immortal. You guys – you humans – you have no idea what the word 'immortal' really means. I'm just gonna try to match her lifespan to Logan's, so they don't have only sixty-odd years together. As for you two, I need both of 'em to anchor your souls back right. Can't do that on my own, unfortunately."
Sixty-odd years seemed like a long time to Kitty, but it probably didn't to Logan, or to…whatever Sharley was. "Your dad can do that?"
"Him and my foster-mom, but we're goin' to him first, because I actually know where he is. Much as he pisses me off, at least he stays put. Jary – foster-mom – she's got her airship, and I only ever know she'll be where I don't want her. Her ship's where you two were, when you were dead."
Well. That was probably food for thought, but Kitty couldn't focus on it right now. "What do they do, that makes them able to do…whatever…to Rogue's lifespan?" She knew she sounded like a curious child, but this was the first thing since long before they came to 1973 that actually seemed worth getting excited over.
Sharley looked down at her, and shook her head with a wry smile. "My father is Death," she said, "and my foster-mother is Life. I need both of 'em on board with me, before I can try to do much of anythin' else."
"Death," Kitty said flatly. "Your father is Death, and we're on our way to see him? Clarice and I, who are already trying not to die here? Isn't that kind of spitting on Fate?"
"He won't do anythin' to you," Sharley said, and gestured for them to follow when she started off through the trees. "C'mon, keep up. He's not the one that wants you back here. That's the Other itself. It's a greedy little shit, but it won't cross me."
Kitty could well believe that. She barely knew Sharley, and she'd never want to cross her. Oh, she seemed friendly enough, but she was sort of dead, could manipulate Time, and had had (at one point, at least) the Stranger in her head. Two out of those three were not exactly conducive to sanity – and that was without the voices, or whatever they were, that had followed her the day she died. That hadn't exactly been clear in the memory the Stranger had showed them, but Kitty was pretty certain that Sharley was at least a little crazy. Trustworthy, at least so far, but kind of crazy.
Did Clarice realize that? Rogue almost certainly did, since she had an echo of Sharley in her mind. The woman might be their ally, but she was probably more dangerous than any of them yet realized. Hopefully that wouldn't bite them all in the ass later.
"How can you extend Rogue's lifespan, without actually making her immortal?" Clarice asked, struggling to keep up. Sharley's long stride wasn't quite possible for the shorter women to match – which she must have realized, because she slowed down.
"Logan's is down to his healin' factor," she said. "Now, we're used to dealin' with magic rather than mutation, but I've never yet found anythin' Jary couldn't work with. What I'm thinkin' is that she'll mutate Marie's mutation even further – it oughtta be fairly easy, since she's already borrowed Logan's. Jary just has to make it stick, but my dad has to build in the…off switch, I guess you'd call it. Logan can die, and eventually old age will get him – just a very, very long time from now. While I have once known a man who aged as slow as him, that guy did it artificially, and he didn't have Logan's healin'. Which was a damn good thing, because he was hard enough to kill as it was."
Kitty didn't want to ask. She really, really didn't. She had a hard time dealing with the troubles of her own world – getting embroiled in someone else's was just not a thing she was capable of. "Why not just make them both immortal?" she asked. "I mean, it sounds like you – they – could do that."
Sharley stopped in her tracks, and bent the full force of her strange eyes on Kitty. It was almost enough to make Kitty quail. "Like I told Clarice," she said, "I wouldn't wish immortality on anyone. You people, you humans – you have no real concept of just what immortality really means. It's not something to be envied – or at least, it isn't if you weren't made like that at the start. Which is somethin' my dad didn't realize, after I'd died as a human."
"What's so wrong with it?" Kitty asked, before she could help herself.
Sharley sighed. "I don't breathe," she said. "Not really – not unless I talk. When you're immortal like I am – and that's the only way either my dad or Jary knows how to do it – you can't sleep, you can't cry, and you'd be surprised at how much you miss havin' a heartbeat. There are so many things that mortal humans take for granted until they lose them. No, you can't die, but you don't feel really alive, either."
Well, when you put it like that…Kitty had no idea what to say to that, so for a long while she said nothing. When she finally did speak, she said, "Ouch. Sorry."
Sharley gave her a faint, fleeting smile. "It's okay," she said. "There's no way you could have known. But that's why they're not gonna live forever – I don't know where humans go when they die, but they deserve to have the chance to find out."
Kitty would never have thought of it that way, but it made sense. When put in that way, she didn't think she'd want to live forever, either. "I can't believe I'm saying this," she said, "but let's meet your dad. If he won't actually kill Clarice and I…well, how many people get to meet Death before he turns up at the, um, end?"
Sharley laughed. "More than you'd think, but still, not many. C'mon, while you're still asleep."
Marie watched Kitty and Clarice, and wondered how they were doing in the Other.
Other-me has probably found 'em, Sharley said. She – I – will look after 'em. You need to crash soon, too, so I can show you where we'll go, when I take you there. I can't give you anythin' new, but I can show you my memories.
She was probably right, but Marie didn't think she'd be able to sleep any time soon. She was too wired on adrenaline and worry, even though Logan had his arm around her – mostly because she still felt horribly guilty about not checking with Clarice when they got home. Sure, Sharley had said they'd be fine if they took it easy, but they'd hardly put Clarice on bed rest when they probably should have.
No, she wasn't Hank, wasn't a doctor, but Clarice was her friend, and had been her friend for years – Marie should have at least looked in on her. She'd been focused so intently on herself and Logan – and the things they'd finally be able to do with one another – that she'd neglected everything else. And while they were not her responsibility, she felt guilty nonetheless.
Don't , Sharley said gently. This isn't your fault. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine, for not rememberin' just how fragile you people actually are. If I'd actually thought about how squishy your insides are, I'd have told you to take her to the hospital before you even left France. Aside from Logan – and you, right now – you guys are scarily breakable. It's easy to forget that, if I'm not around you a lot. Clarice'll pull through, though. She's got a tough mind, even if, from my perspective, she might as well physically be made of glass. Humans kinda got shafted there – your minds can handle so much more than your bodies.
What is it you want to do with my body? Marie asked. Oh, wow, that sounded so wrong. If it's not immortality, then what is it?
Sharley laughed. I just wanna make you like Logan. It'll be easier to show you than tell you, which I can't do while you're still on Earth. I know I just said how mentally tough you are, but I think losin' you would break him. As it stands, you've got about sixty more years before your time is up, and while that might seem like a lot of time to you, it won't to Logan. So we're gonna fix that, and then you can go do your…human things.
Something in her tone suggested she was referring to certain specialized things – though it also suggested total bafflement. Apparently there were a few things about humans she simply didn't understand.
Trust me, I will, Marie said, trying not to laugh. Could any of you maybe fix it so I can actually touch people? 'Cause that'd make my life a lot easier.
Dunno, Sharley replied. I couldn't, but we'll ask Jary. Not much she can't do.
Marie hoped. Oh, she hoped. It wasn't just that she wanted to be able to grope Logan without needing a barrier – it had been so very long since she could even hug someone without worry. She didn't dare count on it, however.
She looked at Logan, who was dozing. She didn't dare bring up Sharley's ideas, either – if it didn't work, she didn't want to disappoint him, but if it did work it would be the best kind of surprise. While she had her reservations about having her DNA – or whatever – messed with, if it worked, it would be worth it.
Everything would work. She had to tell herself that, or she'd lose her mind. Whatever needed to get done to her would get done, Kitty and Clarice would get anchored back, or whatever it was, and they'd all go rebuild the school. It would be fine, goddammit.
Of course it will, Sharley said. Now take a goddamn nap. Clarice and Kitty are gonna need help when they wake up. I know the guys mean well, but…they're guys. That Professor's got his head on straight, but the rest of 'em? No offense, Marie, but Logan isn't exactly Mister Warm and Fuzzy. Hank's a genius, but his bedside manner sucks, and Erik is…Erik. He can help Kitty some ways, but you've known her a lot longer, and know her a lot better. Think of it as practice, for if you ever have kids.
Could she have children? It wasn't exactly something Marie had given much thought to. Since she couldn't touch anything living, she'd always assumed that would extend to a fetus.
Don't rule out adoption, Sharley said, her tone almost scolding. My mother's not my biological mom. You're gonna be livin' in a school full of runaway kids in a few years.
That was true. Maybe by then she'd be interested in actually being a parent. She could actually safely do it now.
Her mind was quiet, and she thought that Sharley had subsided into the ether again. She watched Clarice, so very still, her heart monitor beeping steadily.
Don't get too attached.
Marie twitched, and almost fell off her chair. It wasn't Sharley's words, it was her tone – the warning in it was very real. What do you mean?
Here's the thing that Logan probably hasn't told you about – and that he might not tell you about, for fear of scarin' you off. You're gonna outlive everyone you know by a long, long time. If they have kids, you'll outlive their kids, and probably their grandkids. Losin' people you love doesn't ever get any easier, no matter how long you have to do it.
And not gettin' attached will help? Marie asked, floored. Of course she'd known how old Logan was, which meant he'd left behind many people, but she'd never really thought about it before. He'd have her, now, but they'd still lose everyone else.
Sharley sighed. No. It doesn't help. I wish I could say it did. Is knowin' that gonna put you off?
Marie paused. It was a horrible thought, but then, Logan had already done it, God knew how many times. If he had, she could – and she'd have him. No, she said. No, it won't.
She thought she could feel Sharley smile. Good. Once other-me is done with Clarice and Kitty, we'll see about gettin' you there for real.
I don't think Sharley has any idea just how bad an idea it is, having both Kitty and Clarice trailing her. The Other isn't quite ready for the two of them, but it's even less prepared to get all of them. Sharley will enjoy the hell out of it, even if the rest of that world won't.