Disclaimer: I don't own any characters except Irbis and several innocent short-lived bystanders; everything else is Marvel's only.

10. Camping

There were lakes everywhere. Some were huge, others just big; some others yet were neither big nor small. Then there were small lakes, ponds of all sizes and shapes, and swampy areas. And, naturally, there were brooks and springs flowing everywhere. The forest was thick with trees, which Creed had explained to be mostly firs and spruces mixed with a few white and red pines, and some maples, aspens and birches near water ways. But to Irbis's eyes, all the trees were alike: northern countries' pine trees, as opposed to the Mediterranean type of pine trees. As it was, she felt completely lost. If Creed had decided that she should try to find her way back to Isabella Lake and his Land Rover, she was sure she'd end up in Alaska instead.

The only thing she knew how to find was the camping site. Creed had taught her the scouts' way of marking tracks with stones and pieces of wood and she was getting very good at it. Nevertheless, learning not to get lost wasn't really Creed's main intention when they left the camping site each morning.

"OK, seein' this? What animal left these?"

Creed was squatting near some animal droppings, and Irbis had just squatted next to him. She had been learning how to identify and follow animal tracks ever since they had mounted a definitive camp, four days before. She still had many problems, but Creed had said she was improving. All she needed was time and practice. Much time and much practice.

"O.K…." Irbis sighed and spoke up her thoughts so Creed could correct her if she was following a wrong path of thought. "It's round dung, so it's an herbeevoroo. A small animal, because dey're very small."

Irbis looked around carefully and identified part of an animal track. But the tracks weren't well printed onto the earth. She sighed once more before continuing.

"Well, de front feet are here, and dis must be one off de rear feet… De track isn't very good…"

"It's good enough fer ya ta identify what animal it is." The growled warning was quickly followed by the girl's voice.

"De two front feet are small and landed first… and de rear foot print is in front off de print off de front feet and a bit to de side. So is a rodent." Creed nodded, displeased with how long the girl was taking. "I think is a squirrel, because de rear foot is very small."

The moment she finished speaking, a hand hit her on the head. Creed always did that when she was wrong. The bigger the mistake, the harder the hit.

"I told ya once, I told ya a thousand times: if front feet prints are diagonal, it's a land dweller; if they's side by side, it's a tree dweller. Now look at those two prints. Are they side by side or is one higher up than the other?"

"Rabbit." Irbis whispered defeated. "I'm sorry, I forgot…"

"Dammit, girl. Prints can be good or bad, and ya can have a chance ta identify the animal or not; but ya always gotta look ta every lil' sign ya got available. An' not just stick ta whether the prints are big or small."

Irbis hung her head in shame, as Creed continued, pointing to the plants the animal had nibbled in the rabbits' most typical fashion. But she followed him without hesitation or hint of any sigh when he moved on.

Some 200 feet west of their camping site, there was a very wide lake. On the day they had arrived, as soon as they had set up camp, Creed had brought Irbis to the muddy margins of the lake and imprinted some fake tracks on it. Then he had repeated those same marks on some sandy floor a couple of feet away. Ever since then, they had visited the marks regularly and done new ones, so that Irbis could learn to understand the way prints age. Today, as usual, Creed squatted for a few minutes near the prints on the mud and heard Irbis describe some characteristics of the ageing prints. After that, he complemented her words with some more detail and continued.

It was still early when they arrived to the "shooting hall", as Irbis called it. This was where she practiced shooting against moving targets. Creed had decided not to have her hunting animals with firearms before some practice with moving targets. So she got to shoot a leaf-filled bag hanging from a tree and swinging around. Her aiming abilities quickly proved that she wouldn't go out shooting real animals any time soon, which meant she had more time to learn how to identify their tracks and follow them to her would-be target.

"Give it up, already!" Creed called out from behind Irbis after only five minutes. "It ain't like ya'll ever manage ta hit the darned target."

In fact, Creed himself had stopped hoping her aim might miraculously improve. True, she showed good aim when the target wasn't moving, but give it a swing and it was a completely different story. So what, he tried to tell himself. So the girl couldn't shoot moving targets! Again, so what? If the target wasn't moving, she'd be able to shoot it dead with a single bullet. That wasn't so bad. "It ain't like I'm trainin' the kid ta be an actual professional," Creed kept repeating to himself, "she just has ta know some basics. That's all!"

Knife throwing was another story altogether. Her aim had improved a great deal, but she still needed a lot of time aiming, which meant no need to go into moving targets. If she couldn't hit a moving target with a gun, she could never do it with a knife. This day, though, Creed had decided to move her training up a step.

"Ya ain't gonna be aimin' at the bag, today. We goin' back ta hitting a tree; ya're gonna throw the knife and hit the area 'bove my head an' that's exactly what ya gonna do. And ya better not hit an inch lower!" Creed walked away and set himself in front of the tree trunk. "Let if fly!"

Her eyes rolled around, a clear sign she was thinking furiously over whatever, and Creed growled under his breath as he realised she hadn't fully understood what he wanted her to do.

"Just throw the knife already!" He yelled from his position, slapping the trunk above his head with a hand. "An' make sure ya hit this area right here!"

Creed waited patiently as Irbis took deep breaths and aimed over and over before finally throwing the blade. Which went flying up into the foliage. Creed looked up at the knife sticking firmly out of the tree eight feet above the ground and did his best to control his temper.

"Maybe I wasn't clear enough. I was talkin' 'bout this part right above my head. Not the top o' the tree." He looked at the embarrassed Irbis and casually moved to the side, leaning on another tree and taking out a cigar. "Ya can go fetch the knife yerself."

He watched her come closer and look up at the knife with a discouraged expression. With a mute growl, he decided to help her.

"Ya got five minutes. Don't keep me waitin'."

Four minutes and twenty-three seconds later, both Irbis and the knife were ready to start over.

"Dammit, kid!" Creed finally exploded after Irbis's third try. "Ya been hitting yer targets' bull's-eye fer almost a week, now! How the hell have ya missed it completely these last three times? Ya needin' glasses all of a sudden?"

Irbis didn't let herself get thrown off by Creed's anger and quickly ran after the knife. When she was returning, seeing Creed's angry scowl right ahead of her, she confessed her fear of hurting him.

"Fer cryin' out loud! Don't ya think I can duck out o' harm's way if I sees it comin' towards my head 'stead o' the tree? Whadd'ya think I am, a rookie?"


"Shut yer yap with all yer 'mas' and 'buts'! And what if ya hit me? Com'ere!" Irbis approached quietly and Creed waited till her gaze was fully on his face. "Ever heard of a healin' factor? Ever stumbled on that when ya was readin' 'bout mutants at the Library?"

Frowning slightly, she repeated the words, healing factor, as if they meant nothing.

"Uno factor de cura," he explained in Spanish. "Healin' means ta cure. Curar... sanar. Ya understand now? Mutants who got a healin' factor heal faster than normal humans. Some of us can heal any type o'wound no matter how serious or lethal. Like me."

In a swift movement he slashed his own arm open, going to the point of spreading apart the two sides of the wound for the girl's benefit. Irbis just blinked and didn't move a muscle. Looking at her, Creed waited a few seconds before shaking some blood off the arm and revealing the closing wound. Irbis gazed at it attentively, breathing slow but heavy, as the reddish line marking the place of the wound slowly resumed the colour of normal skin and the only sign left of a wound was the blood on the arm and earth.

"So, like I said: ya gonna throw that darned knife at me and ya will NOT be worryin' 'bout whether ya hit me or not. Are we clear?"

Creed saw her jaw contract lightly, her gaze still on his now healed arm. Her immobility was destroying whatever patience he had left.

"Get movin' already!" And he pushed her amazingly softly, for all the irritation bubbling inside him. "Ya're gonna throw that knife an' this time ya have better hit yer target bullseye. Ya understand?"

When she looked up, eyes cold with stubbornness, Creed nearly snapped.

"Look here, kid, I been playin' the nice guy so far, but ya don't wanna get me mad. When I tells ya ta do somethin' ya just do it. An' right now, I wants ya ta go there an' throw me the darned knife." He gazed into her stubborn brown eyes before continuing. "And ya gonna be aimin' right at my midriff."

Creed's face remained deadly serious as Irbis's stubbornness bordered anger itself.

"I don't know what is middirff," she nearly spit, "and I don't want to know. What I should do was aim to your tomates, but I am not going to hurt you!"

Creed snarled. She should aim at his balls?! In a fluid movement, he grabbed her by her neck, lifted her feet off the ground and let go of her. When she looked up from the ground, hissing slightly after having fallen on her side, elbow first, Creed had taken some steps back.

"Pick up yer knife." The moment he said it, his own claws popped out, and he was pleased that the girl caught her breath. "Ya gonna stop me wi'that knife, or d'ya prefer ta get cut?"

Irbis hesitated only a moment before recovering her mask of stubbornness and sitting squarely on the ground, arms crossed over her chest. Creed growled softly and gave one step towards her. He walked neither fast nor slowly, giving her a chance to get to the knife and defend herself. She didn't move, although her breathing got faster, but it definitely wasn't because of any fear. One more step and he had one hand around her neck, pushing her hard against the earth.

Her brown eyes met Creed's with stubbornness. "Fight me. Fight fer yer life."

But Irbis just clenched her teeth, her eyes never leaving his. Snarling, his claws found some vein free spots on her neck and broke her skin in five different places. Creed was shivering with the effort not to break the girl's neck right there and then. He saw her face contort somewhat with the slight pain of his claws slowly cutting her, and she parted her red lips. But there was no fear; just plain stubbornness.

"Don't you wanna live, girl?" Irbis blinked faster as her eyes grew moisty. "'Cause if ya really don't wanna live, I will break yer neck."

There was still no fear in her, yet her eyes danced about slightly, considering his words. Creed wanted her to fight. He hadn't lost his precious time so far just to kill her now. He felt her body relax and wasn't mad, just frustrated.

"Fight, damn you," he hissed, and growled when his voice sounded too much like a plea to his ears.

A tear trickled down her face when the stubbornness in her eyes melted into helplessness. "I… I don't know…" And Creed eased his grip when the strangled sob shook her body. "I'm not strong and… and…"

Relieved that he wasn't going to have to kill her, Creed reached for the knife, which was still lying there, and put it in her right hand. "Now yer lack o' strength ain't no excuse. Stab me, an' save yer life."

She gripped the knife securely and frowned hard, getting ready to stab him, Creed deduced. "That's it, girl," and Creed's voice was eagerly soft, "do it!"

Under his weight, she clenched her teeth and shut her eyes. "No."