A Bottle Can't Hold You

AN: At the moment this is a one-shot, but I have plans to expand it if it's received well. Further chapters would include much more character interaction and dialogue.

Warnings: Angst and alcoholism. There's no light at the end of this particular tunnel/chapter.

Disclaimer: I own nothing and borrow much. I suppose I own Nicholas, but feel free to use him as long as you let me know.

The town of Bayville was home to two grocery stores, each serving a distinct clientele that rarely overlapped. Morton's Family Grocer catered to the grassroots community, the sort of people who went out of their ways to support local businesses, buy organic, get to know their grocers— old-fashioned feel-good shopping. Witt's, on the other hand, was a massive chain store, three times the size of Morton's, better stocked, with better prices.

Business at Witt's was conducted with the cold, efficient friendliness mandated by a corporate headquarters that knew people wanted to see a smile, however fake, on their cashiers' faces. Every customer was to be asked in a cheery voice, "How are you today?" These were the rules, set down in the Witt's Grocery Inc. Guidelines and Procedures Handbook. There was also another rule, albeit unspoken, regarding the expectations of the customer: he or she was always to respond with some sort of vaguely positive remark, thus freeing the cashier of any further pretense of caring until the requisite, "Have a nice day." It was how business moved.

Outside of his job at Witt's, Nicholas had a fairly interesting personal life, complete with last name, not that it mattered. Once he donned his uniform and stepped onto the rubber pad (mandated by Corporate to avoid lawsuits over foot fatigue) in front of the cash register, he was just Nicholas, Witt's employee. He went about his job, took his required breaks, and only after he went out the automatic glass doors did he become himself again. In a way he was glad of that; outside of work, he might have been deeply troubled by his newest regular customer.

Every night at about eight, the customer in question walked into the store. He was a man both imminently noticeable and almost entirely unremarkable; his appearance was nothing out of the ordinary for any of the vagrants who wandered through Bayville on their way to nowhere, but there was something about his bearing that set him apart from the other drifters.

Salt-and-pepper stubble hung on his face, a permanent fixture: day after day, he always appeared to have gone two days without a razor. His greasy black hair was streaked with gray hairs and all manner of disreputable-looking stains, his bright red jacket torn and patched with duct tape or occasionally a sloppy stitch. Baggy pants swirled around his legs, filthy as the rest of him. His fingernails were long and yellowed, some split down the middle and all with a buildup of grime underneath. A face that could once have been quite handsome was smudged with dirt and cracked by wrinkles, yet anyone who gave him a look would likely place him at just thirty-odd years. Sunken blue eyes were made even more haunting by crow's feet and heavy bags beneath the lower eyelids. His posture was conflicted, as though he was struggling to rid himself of his hopes for a better life while still retaining scraps of his pride.

The man wandered into the store with an awkward gait, body hunched over but picking his feet up as he walked. It gave him an odd, lurching step. Nicholas had never seen anyone walk quite the same way. Nicholas watched as the vagrant made a beeline for the same aisle as always, stopped for a moment and grabbed two bottles off of the shelf, and came to the quick checkout register— Nicholas' register. The bottles landed on the conveyor belt and began making their way towards the scanner.

It was always vodka, and always the cheapest on the shelf, the stuff that would have served better as paint thinner than as a beverage. The liquor came in clear plastic bottles, less expensive to produce than glass. No one who bought that brand of vodka was particularly worried about the taste difference between plastic and glass bottles. This customer obviously wanted to punish his throat as well as his liver.

Nicholas dreaded the next moment throughout his entire workday; he was obligated to ask the question that had already been answered by the man's purchase.

"H-how are you today?" he finally stammered out as the two bottles reached him. Please don't, please God no, just this once…

The stranger raised his head briefly, and in his eyes Nicholas found all the answers he had been dreading. The ice-blue irises offered no specifics, no details, no reasons. They were so hollow and lifeless that it seemed their bearer could not understand why that question would be asked even as a cordiality. Whatever had happened to this man, it had wounded him beyond what he could bear, and he had carefully cultivated this hollow drunkenness in order to hold at least a shell of himself together. Nicholas quickly sought refuge from those eyes by grabbing the bottles and dragging them through the scanner.

"Eleven sixty-three, please." Nicholas fell back on the cold comfort of something as reliable as prices. The vodka cost money, like grapes or milk or sausages or any of the thousand other items in the store that would not reduce a man to this state. That much was good. That much was right.

A few crumpled bills and coins found their way onto the counter next to Nicholas' hand. The man had had exact change ready. For some reason it was even more disturbing that he was familiar enough with his poison to know its exact price.

Nicholas shoved the bottles into a plastic bag, glad to be nearly rid of the thought of them. "Thank you, have a nice day," he mumbled as the bag was lifted in one fist and whisked away, off to be dealt with elsewhere. That was what mattered; it would be taken care of elsewhere.

As the sliding glass doors released the stranger to his fate, Nicholas did not think it unusual that he had not checked the man's ID; no one ever carded vagrants. There was no need.

Outside the store, the unfortunate soul wandered down a few streets and into an alleyway. He strayed between two dumpsters, cast a furtive glance around, and crouched down.

A wisp of purple smoke rose above the dumpsters, quickly dissipating in the slight breeze that wound through the alley. The man was gone.

Back at the Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters, the figure reappeared, bag in hand, dropping softly from midair onto a bedroom floor strewn with clothes and personal effects. He set down the bag and reached for his wrist, and his face and body began to flicker. One moment later, the middle-aged vagrant was gone, and in his place crouched what looked for all the world like a blue-furred demon, complete with spaded tail.

Kurt Wagner reached into the bag, retrieved one of the plastic bottles, unscrewed the cap, and gave the bottle a deep kiss. Several seconds and inches of liquid later, he could take no more and brought the bottle upright again, coughing involuntarily at the harsh alcohol.

Making his way over to his nightstand, he opened the bottom drawer and placed the bag with the remaining bottle deep inside, covering it with stray papers, then closed the drawer, removing all evidence from plain sight. Yellow eyes ran to the top of the nightstand, where indigo fingers lightly stroked a picture frame that was lying face down. It was a struggle not to look again at the photo it held; at the moment, his resolve was strong, but he knew that some sort of nostalgic masochism would eventually convince him to flip it over. Then the memories would return.

Over the past few weeks, Kurt had created a precarious state of unfeeling with the help of mass quantities of bad vodka, but certain things were enough to break through his defenses and send the pain flooding in again. An empty vessel is all the more susceptible to being filled. He had to stay hollow, had to keep his shell together; it was the only way he could keep going. His teammates needed him to be himself, even when he was not himself.

The blue teen took another few swigs to fortify his defenses, then screwed the cap on tightly. He would stay in control tonight; tonight nothing would break through. He promised himself that. Kurt had always been good at keeping his promises, far better at it than she had ever—

NO!

Kurt shook his head fiercely, trying to rid himself of that line of thinking. Those thoughts were bad. They could hurt him, make everything fall apart again. That wasn't going to happen tonight.

His bed creaked lightly as he threw himself upon it. A testament to the professor's generosity, the queen-sized bed was soft and inviting. Still, Kurt thought, there was one oversight: it was too big for one person. It felt wrong not to have a second weight next to him, to not be able to reach over and touch strands of dark brown—

STOP IT!

He slammed his face into the comforter again and again, wondering why it had such a name in English when it was doing absolutely nothing to comfort him. Then again, not even the vodka seemed to be doing that tonight. Kurt let out a deep sigh and stretched out his limbs. He froze when his tail touched soft fabric that was not the comforter.

His head lifted off of the bed momentarily to examine the object now held in his tail. It was his favorite hooded sweatshirt. The tail transferred it to a tridactyl hand, and Kurt, fighting a losing battle with himself, brought the fabric to his face and inhaled deeply.

It smelled of cloves and jasmine, that unique and mildly exotic blend of scents that only one person he knew wore. He had lent this sweatshirt to her, back when… back before…

Kurt's elfin features twisted into a terrible grimace, fangs biting into his lower lip until blood flowed, eyes held tightly, painfully shut. With strangled growl, he threw the sweatshirt as far from him as he could. An involuntary shudder ran through his entire body, all the way down to his tail, and his shoulders began to shake. His now-bleeding mouth opened in a silent scream, an expression of purest agony. Thoughts and memories were wracking his body with sobs that he was barely managing to keep quiet.

Kurt Wagner lay weeping in silence, clutching the bottle of vodka in his arms. He prayed that he would sleep soon, and that for once, he would not dream.

And he sincerely hoped that Amanda Sefton would be happy with her new boyfriend.