Well, it is longer than the couple of weeks I told you it would be, but it's here nonetheless. I'm so soooo sorry I'm so slow!
This chap is dedicated to a real-life friend of mine who happened to post on facebook that she liked fanfiction and then I just poked her until she cracked. We gushed about our favorite fandoms in chat for hours, and I was inspired to get back to work and post this. We'll see if she actually reads this like she said she might. :)
Thanks for all your reviews and encouragement! Seriously, you guys are the best. I'm also trying to reply to reviews this time around, so check your inboxes!
Chapter 63: Under the Surface
Logan woke shivering and sweating from a dream of getting buried alive: suffocating under the force of a thousand mountains. He swore, sitting up and wiping sweat from his face with a shaking arm.
He burned. Healing, like a thousand tiny ants crawling inside his gut, beneath his skin—still working.
A nauseating feeling, no matter how many times he felt it. Not something you could ever get used to.
A sudden spike of pain shot up from his right thigh and he clutched his leg with a gasp of a breath. The spike faded to a dull hum—like electricity, just this side of painful, buzzing down through his bones.
He frowned, straightening his leg—but the muscle was fine, as was the skin: barely even sore, despite the contorting he'd endured the day before. Despite the metal that had torn through his pores like growing snakes, pulled from his very bones.
Like he didn't already have enough to have nightmares about.
He breathed out, accepting the pain, ignoring it. It settled in the back of his mind and he rose slowly, stretching stiff muscles.
A shot of agony pierced his ribs, like someone had stabbed a hot rod into his chest. He flinched, grabbing his side—but there was no blood—no scars, no bruising.
But the pain intensified—like an ember, gaining heat. He fell back onto the bed, holding his side as new sweat broke out on his forehead.
He counted down from ten. Then he counted up to twenty. He was halfway back down to zero when the pain finally began to fade—until, again, it was barely a murmur in the back of his mind.
He straightened, uncurling from around his ribs. Sweat made his hair stick to his face, and he groaned softly as he looked down at his chest—physically whole.
"—the hell?" he murmured.
Pain he was used to—and healing pain as much as the other kind. But generally the levels of it seemed to go downhill . . . at least, as long as he didn't have to reconnect any nerves. That hurt like hell. But that didn't take this long to happen. Nerves were among the first of things to regrow—a fact he knew too well.
Had that life-sucking mutant with the whip done something? Was this some side effect or delayed reaction from his powers?
A thought shot across his mind—a thought both surprising and strange to him:
Was he dying?
He laughed—a snorted chuckle. Not because the thought was ridiculous, but because that's all he could do: laugh.
It was a chance that any of the X-Men faced, going into a fight: the chance that they might die. Wolverine was always ready for that, but it wasn't a reality to him. Not really. Not ever.
He tried not to think about that too much.
Swearing again, he rose and headed to his dresser, where he pulled out a drawer and dug out a stashed beer. Alcohol always seemed to work better when his healing factor was distracted.
He curled his fingers around the lukewarm bottle, then felt a sharp sting from the center of his palm, like a knife-point getting driven through his bone into the marrow.
He kept hold of the beer, intent on ignoring the pain even as it began to build—even as he was fully aware of the burning in his thigh, in his chest. He popped the top off the beer, his eyes watered at the pain even as he gritted his teeth, refusing to acknowledge it.
He hunched down on the floor, back against the bed.
Logan drank the whole bottle before the pain pulled back to a controllable roar—leaving him with a the metal taste of pain and the aftertaste of beer in his mouth. He set the bottle at his side—the garbage can was overflowing—and dry-washed his face. His eyes landed on the end of his fingers, and he couldn't help but stare.
He'd seen metal, liquid-like, spiking out from beneath his fingernails. The memory of it was almost a dream, swallowed up in a pain so intense it'd turned everything white. The thought of it made his hair go on end, made his teeth ache. Made his chest seize up like he was ready to fall into a full panic attack.
He slid his claws out on one hand and held them up, running a finger along each side. They felt the same—just the same. Magneto had done good—he couldn't see a difference. Not a bend in the metal or a ripple of light out of place.
What if he'd just kept pulling? What if he'd just taken the whole damn thing—every ounce of metal, pulled clean out of him?
The professor had said he had at least a hundred pound of foreign weight in him. How would it feel, to suddenly be a hundred pounds lighter? How much faster could he move? How much farther could he run? It was difficult to imagine.
He wouldn't have his claws anymore.
The thought struck him like a lightning bolt, and he jerked a finger back—bloodied from the sharpness of his claws, but healed before he could even stick it in his mouth. He stared at the three flawless blades, stunned at the thought.
The claws had been a part of him as long as he could remember. As a thoughtless animal in the woods, the claws had been as a part of him as breath.
What would he be without his claws? Who would he be?
He stared, stunned at the very idea, and pushed his mind back farther—farther than he could remember.
Rogue had known that person. Carol Danvers had, that is. Known him before the claws.
Even without claws and metal bones, he could still fight. Still heal. He'd have to be more careful of breaking bones . . .
He shook his head. No. There was no point in even thinking about it. No point in wondering. This is who he was. What he was.
His middle claw caught as he tried to retract it, and blood splurted from the gash in a squirt before his skin zipped up. He had to push the claw back out part of the way again to get it to fall back properly.
He grimaced and wiped blood from his hands next to the spray that had dripped out onto his sweats.
So he'd been right. Magneto hadn't put him back together all clean—and the pain in his ribs and hand and leg echoed the same sentiment: bone, trying to heal, but cracking around ridges of metal digging into their confines.
He ran his hand through his sweat-damp hair, glancing at the clock. Pain shivered down his leg again and he shuddered. Sweat gleamed in the darkness of his room.
He stood, holding his chest against the pain, even if the action was pointless in itself. He threw open his door with one hand and limped down the hall.
Summers—no, Alex—and Lorna had taken the last open room in the teacher's wing. The last open one besides Chuck's, and Jean and Scott's, at least. It'd been just a few months short of a year now, but nobody had bothered cleaning their rooms out—or no one had had the heart to try. Storm's room was in the attic, left just as she had left it. And it could all stay exactly the same until the apocalypse came, if anyone dared ask him.
He stopped outside their door, looking at the grain in the wood, frowning, pain buzzing through his bones, his teeth beginning to ache from clenching them together.
Soft murmurs beyond the door; he could have made out the words without even making an effort, but he tried to give them some privacy. Soft feet padded to the door, and he knew by scent that Lorna had come to the door before she opened it.
She peeked out, holding her robe closed in front of her, her green hair tousled by sleep. He wondered again if it was natural—he hadn't found the time to ask her.
"Logan?" she asked, squinting to see him. Oh yeah—it was dark out in the hall. Too dark for her to see his face, even if he could see hers clear as day.
"'s me," he said, then stopped—suddenly uncomfortable. He wasn't used to bothering people—wasn't used to asking for help. Still, it shouldn't be so hard just to spit it out.
She reached over, turning on the hall light. He flinched at the sudden onslaught of light, and she squinted at him, taking in his haggard appearance.
"Oh my God—are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he replied—the words leaving his mouth like an automation—all reflex and no thought. He grimaced: to hell with this. "No—I'm not fine. Bones tryin' t'heal up, but there's some'a the metal out of place. Was wondering if you could—ya know—"
He stumbled over his words, feeling like a fool, like an idiot. The lady was pretty much a stranger—in other circumstances he'd as soon amputate than go to her for help, but that wasn't a choice here. There was no one else to go to.
Maybe he should have at least thrown on a shirt.
She stared at him, but then nodded mutely, stepping out into the hallway. She sat down on the windowsill, rubbing her eyes of sleep.
"Come here," she said, holding out a hand. He moved to stand in front of her, hating that look. She wasn't a doctor, but her eyes looked the same. He didn't like it when people looked at him that close.
She touched his arm—he was glad when he managed not to flinch away, though she still looked at him that way all damn women did: like they could see right through him. She didn't say anything else, but lifted up her hands, closing her eyes.
"Where does it hurt?"
There was something about the question he didn't like. He wouldn't have worded it like that.
"Somethin's getting in the way on the third rib on the right—here." He pointed with his free arm. "Left femur's got some displacement, and the third metacarpal's twisted outta place—gettin' in the way of retraction."
Polaris didn't speak. She raised her hands so they hovered over his chest. "I . . . I think I found it," she said after a moment. She opened her eyes to look at him, licking her lips. "This might hurt."
Wolverine couldn't help but give a low chuckle at that. There was pretty much a guarantee of that either way.
He waited tensely—waited for that feeling he had felt, when Magneto had affected his metal. Like a rippling beneath his muscles, before the splitting agony had cut clean through his flesh. Here there was no sensation of movement—only a sharp, muffled crunch: like the sound of someone popping their knuckles—and shot of pain that made him suck in his breath sharply, followed by the burning of new healing.
"Damn," Polaris breathed, looking pale. "Is it—did that work?"
He didn't look at her. "I'll tell ya in a minute."
She moved to his leg, muttering about how the inside was the problem—part of the metal had pushed too far inward, rippling inwards where bone was trying to heal. She ended with his hand, holding his fingers as she stared down—as if trying to see through his flesh to the metal beneath. He actually felt that one—felt his muscles shift slowly as the bone twisted and shifted back into place.
"You know, I never wanted to be a doctor," she said, looking a bit green—and not just her hair—as Wolverine pulled back, wiping new sweat from his face as she took his hand and looked down at it. "I don't have the stomach for it." She let his hand go, and he moved his fingers experimentally, then popped his claws and retracted them, feeling them fall into place easily. He stretched his fingers, testing the feel of it.
"You're welcome," she said, forcefully drawing her eyes away from his hands. "Did—did it work?"
"Think so." He didn't elaborate.
"Okay. Well—if not, let me know, all right?"
She stood, and he stepped back, letting her pass. "Sorry for wakin' ya."
"It's not a problem, Wolverine. Sorry—Logan."
He looked at her sideways. "That natural? Yer hair, I mean."
"Oh. Yeah. Yes. I used to dye it, to, you know, blend in. But I figured what the hell, right?"
He gave her a crooked smile, and they said goodnight and headed their separate ways to bed.
It's not half bad t'have Alex and Lorna around. They're proper adults, and they get along good with the kids. Turns out a bunch of them know Alex—he's been around once or twice, if only just to visit, and it's a boost t'morale to have him around. Either way, it's good not t'be stuck in a classroom, even if the kids ain't happy about danger room sessions startin' up full force once again.
Got our first full snow last night since winter hit. Alex encouraged Bobby and a bunch'a the kids t'build snowmen and then blow 'em apart. Bobby managed a pretty damn accurate mini-sentinel by the end. Havok blasted that one sky-high. Guy ain't half bad.
It's funny how much this team has changed since I first came here. What with all the changes, it almost feels like bein' on a different team entirely. Like startin' over from scratch, pullin' in a bunch'a loners and tryin' to weld 'em together into a team all over again.
It's not the first time I've seen it happen. Just new faces, new names, new powers. But this ain't government, and somehow that makes all the difference.
It was a strange mix of adrenaline, lingering pain, and exhilaration that kept him awake on the flight back. Narya dozed lightly with her feet pulled up beside her. Another chopper and a load of soldiers had arrived to pick up the wendigo-turned-man—for debriefing, Mac said-which had left this bird to them.
The shaman and Mac spoke softly between themselves, and Logan sat to the side, arms folded and listening with half an ear.
He wasn't done healing—and it'd slowed to a crawl after all the beating. His stomach growled, and he wished suddenly for some of Heather's crackers and beef jerky. She always made sure there was some close by when they left home.
He looked forward to a home-cooked meal: the very thought made his mouth water and his stomach churn more urgently. Stew, perhaps? Or slow-roasted beef stacked with potatoes? Or pasta, with lightly toasted garlic bread to dip into the sauces and catch every drop from the plate—a better alternative to licking the plate clean. The pasta had been messy the first time he'd had it, but the flavor was worth the trouble.
But more than that, he looked forward to seeing Heather.
As they flew over the base he leaned forward, putting a hand on the window beside him as he looked down, hoping to catch a glimpse of her hair. The helicopter lowered, then touched down. Logan was the first one out—not hurrying, but not waiting for anyone else either.
Heather wasn't there. A doctor stood there in a labcoat, his light hair tossed about by the gusts of the rotors. Wolverine glowered at him, but the man just lifted his eyebrows at the sight of him and didn't approach. He adjusted his glasses, and only moved forward when Mac climbed out, followed by shaman and Narya—looking alert, despite her nap.
The doctor waved them away from the noise, and dove right into business without further ado.
"I've got him in containment, Mac, but there isn't any sign of immediate relapse. His cell contamination, however—" He glanced at Wolverine and held out a hand. "Sorry. Doctor Walter Langkowski. You must be Wolverine."
Logan just looked at the outstretched hand, then at Mac, who further explained. "Walter's been working with me from off-site for a while to get the team together, but Clarke brought him in. Few know as much about physical transformations as Walt—it's his religion."
Dr. Langkowski pulled back his hand, unruffled at the rejection. "Yes. Exactly. And as I was saying, while there isn't any reaction at the moment, I am picking up some anomalies that may just be waiting for a catalyst to create a controlled reaction—"
"Turn him back?" Logan said, picking up on enough of the conversation. "Why?"
"It's just theory at this point. And we can keep you close, Michael, so if something does happen—"
"What happened to him?" Logan cut in again. They all looked surprised at his interruption, but Langkowski reined in his enthusiasm and backed up.
"The man's name is Adam Drew. He went on a trapping trip with a friend of his in December. They hit a rough spot—got chased off by a monster bear or something he said was pulling up their traps or something. It's hard to tell—his story is hardly coherent, and I have him sedated to let him rest. Anyway, they got freaked out and made a fool move to leave their cabin. A storm came in and they holed up, but his pal ended up freezing to death. He didn't want to admit it at first, but he's admitted he . . . well, you know the tale of the wendigo." He grimaced slightly.
Wolverine didn't answer, so Langkowski continued on. "But yes, it seems that even with the mystical properties of this transformation, enough of it was physical that it might be possible to trigger another transformation—"
Wolverine swallowed, his gut suddenly heavy as lead. He opened his mouth, but wasn't sure what to say—wasn't sure how to say it, or what it was that he even wanted to say. Such moments were becoming more rare, but it'd never felt so important as this.
Keeping this man locked up, studying him and picking him apart? It didn't sound like he had a choice in the matter, either, and they wanted to turn him back into a monster on purpose?
He swallowed again, catching Mac's sleeve, hoping to pull him back and away.
"Mac—" he murmured softly, but didn't know how to continue as all their eyes turned back to him. The words tied up like knots in his throat.
Mac stopped and turned to him. "You okay, Wolverine? You're looking a little grey." Wolverine didn't answer straight out. "Do you need me to call Heather?"
"No, no," Logan shook his head, his voice his low murmur. "Mac—they gonna let the guy go?"
"Go? He's being held on multiple counts of manslaughter in an ongoing investigation, even with the circumstances. And think about the risks. We have no record of a modern wendigo transformation—who knows the side effects, the risk to himself or others. This is as much for his safety as others." He ducked his head to get a good look at his face. "Let me call Heather."
"No—I'll find her," Logan murmured softly, and set out to do just that. He felt Mac's eyes on his back until he passed out of sight.
He shook his head, trying to sort out his thoughts. What Mac had said was true—he couldn't argue any specific point. So he put it in the back of his mind.
Later. He'd been gutted and roasted and skinned and bruised through-and-through since breakfast. He'd seen myths and monsters and magic, men and beasts fighting in the wilderness like things of legend, and all he could think about is how he wanted to see Heather. How he wanted to see her, and tell her . . .
He didn't know.
He walked on.
His appearance had become accepted here before, but now with his disappearance and return he found eyes drawn to him all over again. He pulled his torn shirts and jacket closer around himself despite the stink and still-damp blood. His hands were crusted in the stuff, and his hair felt half-plastered to his head.
He recognized scents. General Clarke. Individual soldiers that he could recognize by sight and scent at this point, if not by name. Mac. Heather.
He stopped outside her lab, straightening his shirts again. He felt a bit strange—lightheaded, and the floor seemed to tilt slightly beneath his feet and he shifted to adjust his weight to it. He cleared his throat, pushed his blood-stiff hair back as best as he could, and tried the doorknob.
He pushed down the first instinct to pop a claw and make short work of things, instead lifting a heavy hand and knocking softly.
A scientist walked by—staring openly and skirting to the far side of the hall as he passed. Logan didn't even glance at him.
He sniffed, measuring her scent. It wasn't old—a couple hours, perhaps. She could be inside, or wandering. He knocked again, louder this time (sometimes he couldn't figure what they could hear or not), but to no answer. He shifted on his feet again, tired of waiting. He parsed the scents, trying to find the freshest beneath layer upon layer of comings and goings.
Still sniffing, he turned, keeping his head low to follow her.
Down the hall. A right turn. Another. Left. He passed the coffee machine, noted where she'd eaten lunch (a heated burrito from the vending machine, by the scent). Passed an office of another scientist, where it seemed like she'd chatted with the man in the hall for a few minutes before moving on. His stomach and back ached from his hunched position and he slipped an arm around his gut, grimacing as he raised his head upwards, testing the air. A pair of soldiers gave him a look that he ignored, sniffing his way onward.
Logan stopped in his tracks, the cessation of movement making him have to straighten to keep from falling on his face. He looked around at General Clarke.
The man looked at him, taking in his appearance. "I take it your mission was a success?"
Wolverine grunted. It hadn't been a mission, but he didn't want to argue semantics.
"I spoke to Mrs. Adele—the woman you saved," he explained at Wolverine's blank look. "By all accounts, you acted as a hero, against a monster that was truly formidable. I assume that with the assistance of the others you were able to finish the job?"
"Yeah." He straightened, just looking at the man. Clarke just looked back-measuring, waiting. And Wolverine opened his mouth. "I'm in," he said.
"What was that?"
"I'm in," he said, louder. He didn't remember when he'd made the decision-in fact, he hadn't realized he'd made it until the words left his mouth, but they weren't a surprise. He hadn't killed those men in the mountains, hadn't eaten them. He was staying here. With Mac. With Heather.
Clarke's eyebrows raised. "I'm glad to hear that. If you would follow me to my office, we can make this official."
Wolverine reluctantly followed the general from Heather's scent trail, but his office wasn't far. The man palmed his way in on a security panel and held the door open for Wolverine to step through. He strode to his desk, pulling out a thick file of papers and holding a pen out to Wolverine, who took it doubtfully and frowned down at the sheath of papers that was slid towards him.
"This contract states your conditions: your security, your duties, your pay and benefits. You've benefited from many of them already—the psychologist, for one, will be available to you indefinitely without concern for payment."
The man went on in the same vein, and Wolverine just adjusted the pen in his hand and signed where he was told to. Pay. Income. He remembered Heather and Mac talking about money, and now he would be able to help them instead of just receive. The amount meant nothing to him, nor did most of the ramblings of the man across from him. He signed the last line; he'd hesitated on the first one, but had settled on a simple Logan.
Clarke took back the file with a small smile which lasted only a moment as he straightened the papers. He reached for another folder, filing through it.
"Just as a sort of preview, how about a short briefing on the sort of missions you are going to accept? Here." He slid a fuzzy picture across the desk. It was a shot from the air, and not a very good one at that. Wolverine frowned as he realized it was a blurred, greenish monster—massive and staggering out of a crater-hole.
"This was a mess in the USA, but latest intel says it's probably fled over the border—some crazy science project gone wrong. Once we get on his trail, you'd be the one we send in. And that's just one thing. Canada's got its crazies, just like the rest of the world. Some missions'll be stealth, some will be on the front page whether we want them to or not. You sure you want this?"
Aurora, trembling as she held on to him—trusting. Belonging. Mac, nodding at him over the now-human wendigo. His own face breaking into a smile despite himself.
And Heather's smile. He hadn't seen it yet, but he could imagine it. A team of super-heroes, like her dream.
Heather wanted this.
Clarke smiled—a tight-lipped grin around his cigar. "Well, then, Logan. I'm looking forward to working with you." He reached out his hand, and after a moment Logan took it, shaking it firmly.
"Wolverine, then. Here. You smoke?" Logan shrugged and Clarke held out his cigar case. "Peruvian. Try one." Logan took a cigar, and Clarke turned to his drawer for the clipper.
The general turned at the sound, blinking as a claw slid out just enough to trim off the end. Logan tossed it in the trash, looking at Clarke, who put a smile back on his face and held out his lighter for him.
"Welcome to Alpha Flight, Wolverine."
Logan stuck the cigar in his mouth and breathed deep.
TBC . . .