The pacing in this chapter just feels off to me. Too slow at parts, and then jumping too quickly at others. I think it's because the "then" part is a lot more "tell" than I usually go for, but there you have it. I've put in my time trying to smooth it out (and it has gotten much better, believe it or not), but darn it if I can't find the energy to go through and rewrite it all like the Perfectionist in me wants to. So the Lazy part of me met with my Cautious Editor side, who wanted me to keep this chapter in my pocket for another couple of days, but since I'm going out of town *again* (This time for SDCC (!)) next week then I figured I needed to get this out here before I took off, lest the break between chapters turns into months . . . again.

I realize my posting schedule isn't the best, so good on you if you're sticking with me. I realized the other day that this chapter was begun more than five years ago. Five *years*. Yeah, if you've been here since the beginning or anywhere close to it, you've got my respect. If you've just stumbled upon this recently, consider how lucky you are. As for myself, I was just scanning over some of the earlier chapters and was blown away by what this has turned into. Can you believe that the first plan for this story was to be a short piece—that is, a couple chapters, a few thousand words at most? It cracks me right up.

But anyway, the 5 year working period might be part of the problem with this chap. I've had a good part of the next few chapters written for a good 3+ years, and so I'm chomping at the bit a bit to it, and this is a bit of a transition chapter rather than an action-packed one. :) So here you go.

And as usual, if you logged on then check your inbox to see if I replied to your review. I didn't have time to respond to everyone's, but if you asked a question then I tried to take the time to answer it

Enjoy the chapter! I hope you're all having a great summer!


Chapter 57: Into the Dark


Then:

He stole a motorcycle.

It was surprisingly easy. He snagged a helmet and bike from the corner of the hangar and slid out the side door without anyone saying a word to him—or anyone appearing to see him at all. Apparently these men were more wary of people coming in than those that were already inside. Wolverine sliced his way through the exterior's fence and then climbed on. He didn't even have to think twice before he'd hot-wired the bike and hit the road.

The ride was a long one, but for some reason it didn't bother him. It felt . . . comfortable—the wind sweeping in his hair, the road grinding beneath the wheels of the bike as he roared forward.

He'd done this before. Sometime, somewhere, even if he couldn't remember it.

He was getting good at recognizing that feeling.

He stopped for gas that night—paying with a twenty that Heather had given him at their first trip to the store after an explanation of how money worked—and grabbed a cheap burger that made his stomach churn with the thick grease and too much salt. He choked it down anyway, then drove another hour from the po-dunk town and pulled the bike into the trees far enough to be out of sight of the road to sleep. He curled up beneath a tree, the stars winking in the sky overhead, and was asleep within minutes.

Wolverine woke up to the sound swallows whistled spiraling tunes in the morning air. He opened his eyes to see the sun turning the leaves over him to a transparent green.

He stiffened, momentarily disoriented at the clashing of his senses and memories. Wilderness and civilization. He could smell the trees, the air, the dirt. He could smell the grease of motor and tar of road—and the fading scent of laundry detergent and soap and man. He blinked, sitting up and rubbing the imprints of pine needles from his cheek as he squinted at the light of the sun.

He was close to a road, and the stolen motorcycle sat propped up in the dirt not far from him. The smell of man was his—or on him, at least. The jacket he wore was an old one of Mac's, and his scent had soaked in through the leather, and the laundry soap on his shirt was the kind Heather used on all their laundry. It felt strange not to have his bare feet pressing into the cool earth beneath him, to feel the bark on his bare back as he leaned back against the tree behind him.

He didn't move at first as he listened to the sound of the birds and sorted out the scents of the forest. The musky scent of a fox that had peeked in at him in the middle of the night—he'd opened his eyes from sleep as it'd drawn close, but it had ducked away and he'd settled back to sleep and almost forgotten the incident. The dirt, damp from the morning's dew, and somehow cleaner than anything he'd smelled in weeks. And despite the fact that the tree roots were definitely not as comfortable as a bed, he felt more rested than he had in months.

Wolverine rose, rubbing the last of the quickly fading soreness from his neck. He pushed his bike back to the road and gunned the engine on.

Small towns gave way to woods and mountains as he drove, sparsely broken by a lone dirt road leading to a cabin nestled between the trees. The air smelled like melting snow and pines—the wind leading down from the mountains and the clouds passing over his brow as he rode. He breathed in deep as he rode, the air like cold water after a day in the sun. He ignored the growling in his stomach. His body'd become used to eating regularly—three times a day, whether he was hungry or not. But here he had no food and no money, and it wasn't time to hunt yet.

He drove on, stopping occasionally to check the map he'd taken from Clarke's office—bold X's marking the places where they'd found the bodies.

The mountains jutted up into the sky, green with snow tucked into its folds and sides. Snow melt formed dozens of rivers down the jagged cliffs as he drove by, the wind catching at his hair.

The bike sputtered to a stop shortly after noon. Wolverine climbed off, frowned at that empty mark on the gas meter, and then dragged it off the road again. He hid it in brush beneath the boughs of a drooping, giant pine, and covered it with extra brush to hide the gleam of the metal. He stood back, glancing briefly at his work before he continued on foot.

It was different, walking in the woods in boots, and the collared shirt caught at the soft wind. He frowned, pulling his jacket and shirt off and wrapping them around his waist as the sun bore down on him, warming his skin. He kept the boots on, though—it was nice to be able to walk through a patch of thorns without having to stop on the other side to pick them out of his feet on the other side.

He went up first—up and in, farther away from the smell of the road and the sound of the cars passing by intermittently on the road winding through the narrowing canyons below. The air grew cleaner and colder, the air clearer.

He trotted along, eyes alert, nose flaring, though for what exactly he didn't know. After he paused for a drink at a stream he pulled out Clarke's map and frowned at it.

It was a topical map, and Wolverine turned it without thinking to match with the mountains around him, a finger tracing the killings and the dates penciled next to each location.

The kills followed a rough pattern—aimless wandering, but heading east across the mountains. The most recent was two months past, and dozens of kilometers northwest. It'd take him days to get there on foot. To track the killer, it could take much longer.

Wolverine folded the paper up and stuck it in his jacket.

It'd take as long as it needed to.

That night Wolverine went to sleep on an empty stomach and slept fitfully—waking up cold in the night to pull his shirt and jacket back on and shiver against the ground as he cursed to himself. Winter had passed in the city, but here in the mountains the air still had a nip of frost in the night.

There was no ice, though—no jagged pain from his fingers and toes as his healing factor fought frostbite, bleeding and healing in a stand-off battle. This wasn't cold. This was nothing.

Only a handful of weeks, and he'd already grown soft.

He woke up before the sun, stomach growling, and headed forward—always forward, deeper into the mountains.

His stomach gnawed in his gut as the day went on, but besides mountain songbirds and a pair of bald eagles overhead he didn't see anything living before midday. He found some small green berries and thought to try them—Heather had said wild berries were delicious—but they were bitter enough to make his tongue curl, and he spat them out. He slowed his pace, stepping quietly in hopes of having some prey cross his path without having to get off track to hunt.

A rabbit scampered between the thick-growing pines, too fast for him to give chase to, and he had a sudden wish for one of Mac's guns.

The thought brought him up short. He looked down at his hands—at his fists he'd made without thinking at the sight of the rabbit. They didn't look like his hands anymore. Still clean, even with the day's build up of grime—he'd washed them in the river when he stopped for a drink without thinking twice about it. Half-covered in the just-too-long sleeves of his jacket, they could have been anyone's hands. Any man's hands.

Giving in to his stomach's growling at last, Wolverine stripped off his shirts, pulled off his boots, and started after the rabbit.

He followed its scent, hounding it until he sneaked up on it as it quivered in a bramble patch. Its fear filled his senses, the sound of its tiny pattering heart drawing him.

Wolverine leaped forward. The rabbit squealed, bounding into the air. Wolverine's feet skidded in the brambles as he turned sharply with it, and the rabbit's squeal was cut off sharply as he speared it on his claws, blood spilling over his hand. He grinned, pulling it off his claws before retracting them. He held the rabbit between his teeth as he cut his way out of the brambles, and dropped down to sit in the dirt, ripping a mouthful of skin and fur in his teeth and spitting it away to get to the meat.

A second bite got him there. There were still bits of fur, but the meat was hot and fresh—blood hot, almost still living. He growled with pleasure, ripping in with his teeth.

He tore out another bite and froze mid-swallow, choking off his growls as he blinked down at the rabbit in his hands.

He saw himself in his mind's eye then—sitting in the dirt, blood flecked across his bare chest, dripping down his chin, soaking his hands. The rabbit's fur was soft and warm against his palms, its wide eyes still shining. He remembered Heather's expression of horror when she'd seen the rabbits he and Mac had shot, before he'd skinned them and gutted them. Remembered Mac's pale face when he'd stepped on the bones he'd left beside the couch, that first night at their house. Remembered the smell of Mac's blood on his claws, dripping between his fingers as he came to himself.

Wolverine scrambled to his feet, breathing hard. The rabbit dropped to the dirt.

He was losing it. The shrink had said the animal was a part of him, and his progress and ability to learn and adapt to living with people again had been surprisingly quick. But he'd come back to the mountains and had almost all about them.

He took a deep breath. The scent of the blood and wilderness reached out to him, and a part of him reached back, but he forced himself back, panting.

Logan. His name. A man's name.

He wouldn't lose it again. He wouldn't.

What if he did? Just woke up and forgot everything he'd learned?

He'd almost forgotten everything. Forgotten himself.

Logan.

He bent down slowly and took the rabbit in hand, then stood and made his way back to a stream he'd seen a way back. He washed his hands, face, and chest of blood, then popped his claws and rinsed them too—Heather had said it wasn't clean to use his claws on food, but he was sure cleaning them first was the next best thing, even if he didn't have any soap. He skinned the rabbit and left the guts there—never mind that he would have eaten as much in colder days past. Mac said it made people sick, and he knew from experience that the intestines and stomach tasted vile. He washed it carefully, cleaning it of traces of blood and dirt and fur before nodding to himself and taking a careful bite.

He was breaking one of the first rules Mac had told him. Don't need to eat it raw. No—the kid had taught him that first. He could wash it, and cook it. But he didn't need to eat it cooked—he'd been just fine before. It was like Heather had said to him, now and again. He was a mutant. His healing—"healing factor," she called it—made it so he didn't get sick where other people would. Normal people.

Mutant.

He swallowed a bite of meat—it was still warm inside, where the river hadn't been able to chill it—and looked down at his hands again. Blood from the fresh meat had leaked onto his hands again, despite his attempt to wash it away.

He growled softly, but cut himself off again, ripping off a strip from the rabbit's thighbone before tossing it away and going to rinse his hands again. He focused on breathing deeply, like he was taught to. Had to keep the animal away—had to keep it in control. His hands ached in the cold of the river as he scrubbed them, and then looked back at where he'd set his meal in the dirt next to the stream. Blood seeped between the small pebbles. He could smell it—still warm. Blood and meat, mixed with dirt. Made his stomach growl again.

He picked it up with uncertain hands. Maybe he should have cooked it after all.

He rinsed it again and held it as he went back to his clothes. He pulled back on the boots and his shirt, and finally gave in to the scent and finished eating the rabbit. His stomach settled comfortably, but he frowned as he threw away the last bone and wiped his hands on his pants, even as he craved to bite into the bones to get at the marrow inside.

People didn't do that either. Heather had told him that, one night after a turkey dinner. The flavor she'd seasoned the meat with had soaked into the bone, and he'd cracked into it without waiting to finish chewing his last bite of meat. Heather had jumped half a foot at the sound.

She'd tried explaining. It was some weeks back, so he didn't remember it exactly; sometimes her enthusiasm for science cluttered her explanations. Something about how the marrow was full of energy, but people didn't eat it. He'd asked why, but he didn't remember getting a satisfactory answer. People just didn't do it that way.

It seemed like there were a lot of things that people didn't do just because they didn't.

He hiked on, still frowning. He'd awoken at ease, but now he looked at the trees with a new wariness of their danger. A danger far beyond physical security, though the wilderness had never been a place to let his guard down. It was the danger of the animal inside of him, who wanted to run and keep running—to hunt and kill and feed and sleep and forget and stop thinking.

He shook his head and pulled out the map, the scents of people and ink and paper on it jarring against the forest. He moved forward, his steps more halting, but he knew who he was.

Wolverine only slept an hour or two that night before waking up from a nightmare. He came to himself and shivered on the forest floor, seeing shadows of knives and smelling blood from where he'd popped his claws in his terror. No one came running at his screams, though the forest seemed to hold its breath as it watched him, waiting in darkness. He thought longingly of distracting books as he rolled onto his back, but sleep was beyond him, and he frowned up at a cloudy night sky.

As the sky began to lighten he gave up on rest and climbed to his feet, moving forward. Could feel his metal bones as he walked, dragging him down. The sun grew hot, but he kept even his jacket on, sweating beneath it as the day progressed.

He tried hunting that evening when the growling in his stomach grew painful, but ended up going to sleep hungry again. He was jerked out of a sweating nightmare he couldn't remember by big wet drops of rain falling between the trees. He pulled up against the shelter of the pines, his hair plastering against his face, and freezing rain seeping down his neck and chilling him through.

He wondered how Heather was doing, and pictured her sleeping in her warm bed. The air in the house would still smell faintly of the night's supper, be it stew or steaks or casserole or chicken soaked in gravy, hot and steaming. He could almost see himself there at the table, with Mac's cheerful voice in his ears. It'd be hard to eat slowly, but he'd do it for Heather. She always seemed to sense when he was trying for her, and he loved when she smiled.

He wondered if they were looking for him.

Wolverine gave up on sleep as he began to shiver, standing and deciding to cover some distance as long as he was awake.

He walked through the rest of the night. The rain let up as the day progressed, but it was a grey day, sprinkling intermittently. The clouds settled down around the mountains and pressed against him. His boots slipped on mud and he growled as he popped his claws to cut through the dense undergrowth.

It was going to be another hungry day.

Wolverine didn't bother stopping to rest. Animals had gone into hiding from the rain, and he didn't see so much as a rat. Moving kept him warm, and pushed him forward.

The clouds broke around midnight that night, as he was slogging around a lake. He stopped for a drink, trying to stop the pain in his stomach—but he knew it didn't work that way. He'd eaten just a single rabbit in three days. Enough to start wearing even on him.

The stars glinted between the breaking clouds overhead and scintillated on the lake's surface, and a whispering breeze shifted the grasses underfoot and rippled against the water. He shivered, drawing his soaked jacket closer, but then went still as a scent made his hair rise on end.

He turned his head, eyes sharp in the darkness, and he moved forward.

He caught it again—faint in the mud and rain-scrubbed air. It was a tongue-curling scent that sent a growl rumbling in his chest that he didn't have a mind to bother stopping as his lips drew back from his teeth in a snarl. Red seeped into his vision, his fists clenching as he looked forward.

A scent of death walking—of something vile and unnatural, setting his claws itching and drawing his lips back from his teeth.

Hunger and weariness momentarily forgotten, he began to follow.

The hunt was on.

Exhaustion pulled him to sleep around dawn, but he woke up alert, pulling off his boots and tying them onto his belt to let them dry as he walked. As the day warmed he drew off his shirt and jacket, letting it dry over his arm as he followed the hair-raising smell.

Wolverine was finally able to kill a deer that afternoon. He gorged himself until he felt sick, then dragged himself into the shade beneath a tree and flopped down to sleep in food-indulged exhaustion. He hadn't bothered washing the meat, though he had cut it into more manageable pieces, and eaten with his hands rather than just his teeth. The jacket he pulled around himself smelled as filthy as he did—matted with dirt and splattered with mud and traces of blood, and almost dry.

Logan, he thought to himself as he drifted into a comfortable sleep, the taste of blood still strong in his mouth, still clinging beneath his fingernails.


Now:

"You're mad at me," Kylee pouted.

"No I'm not," Kitty replied unconvincingly, peering over the rocks to glare at the rising metal spires above them. The sun was all but set, now, and the sky darkening. The towers loomed like monstrous shadows, the reflections of the stars like the sight of light on smooth ice.

Kitty shivered at the cooler breeze coming down the cliffs; she hoped it didn't get too cold. She hoped they'd hurry.

Kylee tried to pull away, but Kitty's grip tightened on her wrist. "Hold still."

"Let me go."

"Logan said for me to look out for you. Now I can't phase you unless I'm touching you, so hold still."

Kylee's bottom lip stuck out, and she glowered at the waves.

Long corridor here, she heard Logan think through Emma. It felt distant, somehow—Kitty had to focus to catch it all. Was it distance, or just that Emma Frost wasn't as strong a telepath as the professor? All metal.

No doors, Rogue said. Probably melts his way right through.

Alex's thoughts. How do we get—? He cut off.

. . .

That'll work.

No doors, make doors, Logan replied. Kitty could imagine him resheathing his claws after having sliced right through the metal wall, pushing into the next room.

You gettin' anything, short-stuff?

Nothin'.

Ve teleported into a room—just storage. Are we sure anyvone is even here?

Hold on, Emma Frost spoke up. Something—if brain waves could crackle static, Kitty could have sworn she was breaking up—not right.

Logan, you're bleedin'!

not heali—

Dammi—

. . . .

Logan? Kitty thought towards them. Emma? Guys?

. . . .

Silence.

Anyone?

"Wha's wrong?" Kylee said.

"Shh!"

HELLO!

Kitty wasn't an expert with telepathy. She wouldn't have felt comfortable enough to really ever ask the professor about it, and though Jean had been like an older sister to her, it wasn't really something you just talked about.

Still, she figured that she was doing the mental equivalent of shouting through a megaphone.

No reply. Nothing.

Kitty straightened, her grip still firm on Kylee's wrist as the little girl resisted her pull.

"Wolvie said to stay here," Kylee spoke up, planting her feet.

"I know," Kitty said. She looked down at the girl. Her eyes were wide, her fur-like hair more shadowed red than orange in the shadows of twilight. She looked younger than ever. Kitty knelt down in front of her, letting go of her arm and putting her hands on her shoulder. "Listen, Kylee. Logan might be in trouble. We're going to go in and help him, okay?"

Big green eyes glowed up at her, pupils wide. "Wolvie says it's not safe," she whispered.

Now's the time she chooses to listen to him, Kitty thought dryly.

"We can't get back home without him. Now, can you be brave?"

Kylee lifted an arm, wiping her nose. She nodded, frowning.

Kitty took hold of her hand. "Now listen—just keep holding my hand, okay? As long as you're holding my hand, nothing can hurt you. Even if it gets really scary, just don't let go, okay?"

Her small hand curled more tightly around Kitty's, her small claws sharp, but not too painful.

"Okay," she said. "We're going to go through a wall. Don't worry—it's not going to hurt. I just need you to hold your breath."

Kylee quivered. "I'm scared."

Kitty reached down, picking her right up and holding her close. "Just close your eyes if you need to." She readied herself, taking a breath and holding it before she stepped forward through the metal wall she had phased the X-Men through just a half an hour before and headed into the cold metal expanse.


Inside Magneto's metal fortress, Wolverine tilted his head and knocked his palm against his ear as if trying to clear it of water.

"You all right?" Havok asked.

"Think hittin' the water blasted out parta my hearin'," Logan muttered, scowling deeply as he glared down the hallway. He rubbed his nose. "Stick close."

Long corridor here, he thought through Emma. It felt kinda stupid—like talking to the air like that. All metal. Was anyone even hearing him?

"No doors," Rogue said, and it echoed strangely through telepathy at the same time. "Probably melts his way right through."

"How do we get—?" Havok began.

SNIKT. Unbreakable claws sliced through the thick metal like it was butter. The wall was a good four inches thick, but Wolverine cut rough rectangle and kicked it through. It hit the metal floor with a deafening clang.

"No doors, make doors," Logan said, retracting his claws and ducking through.

"You gettin' anything, short-stuff?"Rogue asked, stepping through behind him.

"Nothin'."

Wolverine stepped through the tear in the wall, sheathing his claws as he looked around.

Ve teleported up into a room—third floor from what I can tell—just storage. Are we sure anyvone is even here? He heard Nightcrawler through the bond, clearer somehow. 'Cause he'd split off with Frost?

They're here, Logan though with a confidence he didn't completely feel. The scents he had picked up were faint, and growing fainter. The room he stood in now might as well have never been walked in at all.

"What do you hear?" Summers whispered, coming up beside him where he'd stopped.

"Squat. That's the problem." He reached up his hand to rub his nose, but then stopped, staring at the blood flowing freely from the back of his hand. "Shit."

Hold on, Emma Frost spoke up suddenly. Somethinot right.

"Logan, you're bleedin'!"

"Not healin'." Logan turned sharply. "Everyone, get out!"

Frost? Dammit. Frost!

No answer. Wolverine swore again.

"Mags must've figured a way to turn off our powers—or at least disable them for a while," he said, moving forward again.

"How?"

"Guy found a way t'make mutants. This must be more'a the same. Be more helpful in a country of mutants t'be able to say who gets to carry a stick and who doesn't."

Wolverine pressed his fingers on the back of a hand to try and slow the flow of blood. But it was slowing slightly—he could feel the slow, crawling agony of healing. Just slower. A hundred times slower.

Not enough.

Logan grimaced and tore a length of his plaid overshirt, tying it tightly around his knuckles without missing a step.

"Head back," he said, his voice gone cold. "Get Kitty and the kid and get out of here."

"What about you?"

Logan's stare was hard. "I still got a fightin' chance here, kid. Was doin' this kinda stuff long before anybody knew about mutants."

Logan finished tying off his second hand and bent his fingers stiffly. It felt like his arm had been split from elbow to knuckle—the flesh sliced clean through with only a thin layer of skin keeping the thick gashes from spilling out blood like a gusher. He gritted his teeth against the pain, blood already dripping through the fabric of the makeshift bandages onto the flawless metal floor.

Powerless. If someone ripped out his throat or shot him in the gut, he'd die. It was a thrilling thought—a strange rush to the head—and somehow, not frightening at all. His mind was suddenly sharp and alert: he was walking on the edge of a blade.

Yet somehow it changed nothing at all. He had his claws, his skills, his knowledge. The thought of a mission without powers seemed almost familiar.

Before, he thought. World War II, Vietnam. Before the claws. He must've had to keep it quiet—keep it low. He knew this. It was familiar.

"Power check. Havok?" Alex held up his hands. There was a sputtering glow, a blast of heat in the air, then nothing. "Rogue?"

She shook her head after trying to step into the air, wobbling a bit, and then dropping back to the floor. "Whatever Ms. Marvel's powers are, whatever Magneto's got is enough to put a damper on it." She saw his expression and shook her head. "Ya better think again if you're thinking of sendin' us back. I still have enough Carol in mah head to know my way around without powers, and it's jus' as dangerous goin' back as forward."

Havok just looked at him, his face a flat refusal.

Wolverine grimaced. "Just keep yer eyes peeled."


TBC...

The next chapter, "Pain Has an Element of Blank," should be up either next weekend or the weekend after, depending on if I find time during comic-con to post. :) Your homework assignment is to read the Emily Dickinson poem by the same name. :D