Title: The Mouth (An Aside)

Rating: M for language, smut, and possible squick factor.

Summary: Deadpool double-shot. Siryn, a student at the X-mansion, spots a mysterious masked man outside on the grounds at night. A movie rendition of a comic theme.

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"Now that you've graduated with a bachelor's degree, Terry," Professor Monroe said quietly, "Logan and I have been talking about offering you the opportunity to train with the X-men. In spite," she added pointedly, "of some of your more unsavory connections in your past, and your continued display of insubordinance." I knew she was referring to Deadpool, to my not telling her—or anyone else—when he'd been here. I bowed my head, but inside I was seething. The last time I had seen him had been a year ago, almost two, and there was no reason to keep pushing it.

I had learned my lesson.

"Of course," Professor Monroe added, "Should you go onward in your studies and choose to pursue a Master's program at another institution, we would gladly support that decision. In the meantime—"

"I want to be an X-man," I said firmly. Even underneath my words, I knew what I was really saying was, I want to prove myself. It was foolish, maybe—a pointless fight for recognition where I would never be recognized—but I didn't care. "It's what I've wanted to be for years," I added at Professor Monroe's raised brow. "I even have my codename figured out."

"Oh?" she asked, her other brow joining the first.

You're a regular siren, Rourke.

I took a deep breath. "Siryn," I said quietly, emphasizing the second syllable. Professor Monroe looked faintly impressed.

She picked up a legal pad, made a note, and smiled at me. "We'll begin training in two weeks, then. Until that time, let me recommend some exercises—" and she handed me a manual from the bookshelf, ne that outlined certain meditations, stretches, and other potential pre-training exercises.

I got up early the next morning, intent on beginning the strict regimen. Professor Monroe was a stickler for control, for focus, for discipline—unlike Logan's more free-form way of handling conflict—and I knew these exercises would help get me where I needed to be to start out on the right foot. Studying them, I eased into a lotus position, facing the gray edge of sky where the sun would rise. I stared at it and concentrated on relaxing each muscle, feeling the tension leave my body. Sinking into the gravity of it.

And then, from my left:

"Hiiiii." It was a half-sheepish drawl.

It jerked me out of my hypnotic state and I nearly tumbled from the lotus, whipping around to stare at the familiar mask I knew so well.

"Wanna doughnut?"

I launched myself at him, wrapping my arms around his shoulders and my legs around his waist. It was a surprise, apparently—somehow I never imagined him truly taken by surprise—and he stumbled back a second before his hands came to rest on my waist, then slid a little lower.

Same old 'Pool. Tempting fate.

"Whoa—hey, princess."

I buried my face into the bend of his shoulder and throat, inhaling the scent: leather, latex, gunpowder.

"You smell like fireworks," I muttered, my hands sliding up to cup either side of his face. He was grinning, I could tell, and I yanked his head downward, ramming the crown of my skull sharply into his forehead.

"Ow! Hey! What the hell was that for?" he asked, dropping me, his hands raised in mock surrender.

"For two years of wasting my time," I said nastily. "And be nice, 'cause you've got another one coming."

"For what?" he asked, pouting.

I glowered. "Grabbing my ass just now."

A grin under the mask. "Can't blame a guy for trying."

I scowled. "You're sick."

"But it's the best kind of sick, dollface," he shot back with a leer.

"Ugh," I said, flapping my hands at him. "Just—ugh."

"You know you love it," he singsonged, and then, opening his arms to me, "C'mon, Captain Cass, gimme some sugar. I missed your pretty face."

I hesitated. "You punched Kitty in the face. Almost broke her jaw."

He grinned recklessly. "Her fault. She should have blocked it."

I scowled. "Do you always go around pummeling women?"

"If it gets me what I want," he said with a playful grin. I started, and my nausea must have shown in my face because he held up his hands in surrender. "I never lied 'bout what I was, princess. I'm an out-and-out dick." He snorted, then shrugged. "'Sides, she's supposed to be an X-man," he pointed out. "I figured she could hold her own. She's a fighter, not some fragile waif." A pause, and he leered a little. "Like you. You never would have let me get a sucker-punch in."

I closed my eyes, furious at how easily he could charm me. Finally, I moved in, wrapping my arms around his torso tentatively. He squeezed me against him and I sighed, melting into him.

"Why are you back?" I asked after a moment, though he hadn't released me yet. I wondered if he was going to try to cop another feel.

I felt his muscles tighten against me. "Oh, you know, this and that," he said vaguely. "I got bored, decided to come back and maybe stir up some trouble at the playschool." I knew he was referring to the Institute.

"Logan's not here," I informed him after a second. I could hear his heart, feel it thudding against my cheek on his chest.

He started to say something, then closed his . At last, I pulled away, looking up at him quizzically. "So—what do you want?"

He grinned. "Just to see my favorite pirate captain," he said blandly. "S'that so hard to believe?"

I planted my hands on my hips and gazed up at him disbelievingly. He chuckled.

"S'true, Rourke. I got curious. Tell me what's going on. You must be—what, thirteen by now?"

I glowered and tossed back my thick red hair. "Try twenty-two, 'Pool. Almost twenty-three."

He grinned. "Getting' up there a bit. Almost a quarter-century. You got a boyfriend yet, Rourke? Better hurry. You're gonna start getting wrinkly and saggy any day now."

I flushed. "Says the man who's about to hit a hundred," I snapped. "Are you taking anything for your erectile dysfunction yet?"

He snorted a laugh—"Healing factor"—and settled back on the ground, nearly sprawling on the lawn. I realized the doughnut line hadn't been a joke—he'd actually brought a couple cans of Mountain Dew and a box of doughnuts with him. All that sugar, I thought, even as I cast a nervous glance at the mansion.

"Seriously, princess," 'Pool said from his lazy position in the grass. "Tell me what you've been up to."

I chewed my lip. "I'm training to be an X-man," I said after a moment. "That's what I was doing out here, actually—"

"Really? 'Cause it looked like you were about to fall sleep."

I glowered. "It's called meditation," I informed him haughtily. "You might try it sometime."

"You gotta keep quiet while doing it?" he asked, and at my nod, he snorted and shook his head with an expression that clearly said, You should know better. "Keep going, screamer. Tell all."

"In about six months to a year, I should be able to go on my first mission."

"That long?" he blinked. His hand came out and briefly touched my cheek, like he was wiping away a smudge of something. The leather was soft and cool, and I felt my flesh shudder slightly at the touch. "I don't think they give you enough credit, Rourke."

I felt myself flush at his words and ducked my head. He always—he always seemed to know what I needed to hear. I saw him peel off his gloves and tried not to stare at the deft, scarred hands as he cracked open a Mountain Dew.

When I looked back up at him, his brow was furrowed thoughtfully. "You gotta be careful, Captain Cassidy. You hear me? There's some nasty fuckers out there that the X-men like to take on, and I don't wanna see—I don't wanna see you wrapped up in that," he finished sullenly. He looked, for a moment, like an angry teenager: sulky, angsty, dramatic.

I stared at him, my eyes taking in furrowed brow, the shape of his mouth, which I could see under his clenched jaw. He was preparing to pull up the mask so he could drink, but I wished I could see more: a tic in his temple, perhaps, or a twitch of his lip when he was upset.

"Take it off," I said quietly.

He stared at me blankly.

"Your mask," I whispered. "Take it off. Please. I want to see."

A dry grin twisted the bare part of his face. "It's a fuckin' circus," he said crudely. "You sure you want to do this, Captain Cass? There ain't no going back."

I nodded silently. His harshness always came out more when he was nervous. "You want it, you got it, princess." The word was a sneer as he peeled back the rest of the fabric. "You're really gonna be a screamer now."

To be honest, I had prepared myself for worse. In contrast to my imagination, the reality was—alien, but beautiful in its own way. The skin must have been peeled away, because where it wasn't knotted and snarled, it was smooth and shiny: new flesh. His entire head was hairless from scar tissue, and the skin around his eyes was shadowed and dark in a pattern remarkably similar to his mask. The delicate skin there looked singed: bubbly and darkened and veined, just as Logan had described. Laser vision. I bit my lip, unable to imagine the process that had led to such a painful ability.

Though it all must have been painful, it was clear that his mouth was the worst, at least visually: a haphazard patchwork of mangled flesh that had been stitched together, healed over, and re-opened. The manufactured regenerative powers had only provided him with a stunted, twisted mistake of lips, rather than the perfect healing that Logan and Sabertooth sported.

Still, there was a kind of beauty there, entwined in the pain. I'd wager the skin was sleek, and the shadowed panels under his cheekbones spoke of a beautiful bone structure that all their evil surgeries couldn't change. I remembered Sabertooth calling him a pretty boy, and Logan saying he'd once been a ladies' man.

He still could be, I thought.

"Can I touch?" I asked after a moment.

He blinked, nonplussed, and scowled. The look transformed his face into something terrifying, and he thrust his head back into the mask. "I don't—no," he said after a moment, his voice fierce. "I don't like taking my mask off, and I sure as hell don't like people touching my face."

I tilted my head. It wasn't that, I realized. It wasn't that he disliked people touching him—it was that he was used to them disliking it.

Used to be a pretty boy. Brought the fucker low.

I reached out suddenly, even as the mask snapped closed around his neck, and put my palm on the open hand he had resting on his can of Mountain Dew. The bare skin was silky under mine, withered-looking in some places. Whatever they'd done to insert that katana, they'd mangled him. I imagined it must hurt even now—unlike Logan's extra set of bones, which had been natural enough once upon a time, this was a long, inflexible shaft of metal. It must line nearly his entirely arm. I realized abruptly that if they had indee done all the surgeries before they'd given him the healing factor, his body must have been in agony from far more than just the surgery.

Receivers of organ donations were on antibiotics for life, just in attempt to make sure their bodies didn't reject the alien organs. This man had metal laced into his body, and things inserted into his brain, his eyes. Had his antibodies gone into overdrive, trying to force out the intrusions? Had he been sick, tired, aching all the time?

My hands tightened gently on his.

In spite of his alleged hatred of people touching him, he didn't pull back or flinch or look angry. Instead, he was staring at my hand on his, like he couldn't believe it was there. Pale skin, the copper freckles I'd always hated. Smooth flesh, with just a few tiny white scars from where I'd burned myself. Little things. And underneath: his own hand, huge and calloused, the skin snarled and knotted, rippled like stones wrapped in satin.

He picked up my hand with a delicacy I never would have expected, turning it over, examining the smoothness of my palm, my skinny fingers. I was suddenly very aware of the fact that he could break each one, as he had doubtless done to others in the past.

He would probably crack jokes while he did it.

But the way he held my hand—like it was something precious—and the way he looked at it, his eyes flicking up mine—

"It's just a hand," I muttered, drawing it away and blushing, glancing pointedly and disdainfully at his crotch. "I'm sure you're familiar enough with your own."

He blinked admiringly. "Oh, that was a good one, Rourke."

I flushed brighter. "I learn from the best."

He paused. For a moment, he seemed so much more serious. "We're a pair. You know?" A faint grin, mocking, making light of his own words. "We both got a mouth on us, screamer."

We talked for a while. It didn't surprise me, how much I now realized I missed him. He was smart, and bitter, and funny when he wanted to be. He kept eying me curiously, as though I mystified him. It was—nice, to feel so wanted, so needed. I realized, after a while, that he didn't just find me an amusing diversion, but he was genuinely admiring of me.

The thought made my heart swell. I didn't think anyone had ever admired me before.

He thought me adventuresome, clever. He thought me strong. In a school where I was often pressed aside as unimportant, a second thought, this man thought I was something exciting.

And I wanted—

"What should I tell them?" I asked him at last, when he was rising languidly to his feet. He knew I meant Professor Monroe and the others.

He shrugged. "Whatever you want, princess. Tell 'em I was here—Jimmy won't care. Not anymore." A pause. "I don't think."

I smothered a grin. "Okay."

"And for Chrissakes, be careful with that stupid X-men ninja-shit. I don't wanna have to bail you out of some huge mess you've gotten yourself into."

Something in my chest fluttered. If I had to be saved by anyone, I might not mind if it was Deadpool. "Okay," I agreed again, smiling now.

"I'll be back," he added, and then, with a sly grin—"Probably in about another two years."

I threw the remains of my doughnut at him, and in flicker like an old film-frame, he teleported out of range, disappearing from sight.

I sighed and leaned back in the grass, my hands cushioning my head.

Training went surprisingly well. I was often working with Maria and Jamie, fighting with them or against them, since we were all in the same stages of training. Mara's temper had steadily increased over the years, and it made me leery to work with her. I had no doubt that if she was mad enough, she'd forget that this was a training simulation and turn on someone. In a real fight, I thought I would never be able to trust her: it would take nothing for her to step back and let a partner fall in battle.

Still, it was good practice, and by the time we completed most of it I felt more fit and ready to take on the world than I ever had before.

"Hey—Terry?"

I looked back over my shoulder at Jamie and allowed a small grin. We were still friends, in a distant kind of way, and he was as sweet and kind as ever. "What is it?" I asked, smiling encouragingly, easing over on the bench in the cafeteria so he could sit with me.

"I'm worried," he confessed after a moment. I could tell he was struggling with the words. "Maria—I don't really know what she's up to, but I'm kind of afraid she's going the way of St. Allerdyce."

My thoughts flickered briefly over to John, once a member of the Dream Team. He'd been the stuff of high school legends: strong, handsome, sarcastic and clever. Powerful in a way few firestarters were—while he couldn't technically start the fire, he could control it, and that was more than most pyrophilic mutants. Now, however, he was a legend for his defection to the Brotherhood.

I tilted my head. Maria and I did not always get along—not by a long shot—but I couldn't really picture her becoming one of the Brotherhood.

As if reading my thoughts, Jamie tilted his head.

"I don't mean she's joining up with Magneto," he said slowly, quietly, his eyes darting around. "I just mean—she's so angry. I'm afraid she's going to do something stupid."

I lifted my shoulders a little helplessly. "I'm glad you're telling me this, Jamie, but there's really—what do you want me to do? You're closer to Maria than I ever was—especially now that we've grown up a little."

He sucked in a breath thorugh his clenched teeth. "I just think—she might listen to it more, coming from someone on the outside. Just—let her know we're worried about her, and we'll always support her."

I hesitated, then nodded. For the sake of old friendships—even tentative ones, which claimed no part of my heart—I could do this.

I chose my time carefully. Maria always felt better after a fight—a little high on adrenaline, perhaps. It was an endorphin-rush for her. Usually after a training session, whoever was watching us left while we could relax and cool down in the Danger Room. To be honest, the Danger Room was in some ways the safest place we had in the entire mansion: it afforded soundproofing and privacy, and I wanted more than anything to respect Maria's privacy. Truth be told, she had always been a little bit of a lone wolf—even moreso than me—and I didn't want to alienate her right away by embarrassing her in front of others.

We were scheduled to spar one Wednesday. I remember the day because it was actually right before my birthday. I was hoping against hope—silly, in fact, since of course he couldn't know—that I would happen to stumbled across Deadpool the next day. It was my dearest wish at the time, I suppose. Still, I focused on Maria, and we went through a rigorous training session.

Jamie was right. Her anger seeped into her fighting style, made her edgy and wild. Unpredictable. To be honest, it was probably one of the best practices I'd ever had. She was quick, and rather merciless in her strikes. By the time Professor Monroe called down to us to wrap it up, we were both sweating and shaking with exhausted. Still, while I was spent, Maria still seemed high on adrenaline. She paced back and forth, almost prowling, long after cool-down. I watched her, taking a deep draw from my water bottle, and offered almost timidly, "Maria?"

Her eyes flashed over to me, and for a minute, there was something so hard and animal in them that I almost didn't recognize her. For a split second, it was as though seeing Logan's eyes when he was in the grip of his battle-fury. Or locking gazes with Sabertooth, even.

Then her eyes narrowed and she was Maria again. "What?" she snapped, and I sighed.

"Look, Mare, you know I don't like to butt in to other people's business," I said slowly, "but Jamie and I have been concerned about you for a while now, and I just wanted to see how you were doing."

Her eyes narrowed even further and she stilled. "I don't know what you're talking about." Every muscle in her was tense, and it made me cringe a little. The last thing I wanted was for her to feel attacked.

"It just seems like you're so—angry," I said quietly. "We don't want to see that affect you negatively." I hesitated. "Maybe Professor Monroe can help. If you want to talk to her, I mean."

She was facing me now, taking a few steps forward, her claws lengthening. My eyes widened at the silent threat, but I still didn't make too much of it—though we'd always butted heads, I couldn't imagine truly fighting Maria. She was still my friend, after a fashion.

"I am not some half-crazed feral mutant," she hissed. "Is that what you think, Terry? Siryn?" The last word was a sneer.

I hesitated. Maria was a feral, something vulpine with both dog- and cat-like tendencies, but infinitely more vicious and quick to attack. She had been fighting that aspect of her personality for years now—ever since I'd known her, surely—and I knew how hard it could be for Logan and for some of the other ferals. There were even stories, about Sabertooth and October, that led me to believe the feral nature could never be entirely repressed, not even when the mutant truly tried.

My hesitation was my mistake, however. I had underestimated the inner turmoil that fighting her nature must have unleashed in her. She had always been sensitive about the topic; now, faced with even the thought of failure, she let loose, her fingers curling into talons that could peel through skin like butter. Perhaps I had likewise overestimated the contentment she felt after a brawl—or perhaps her contentment had simply decreased over the years, and I hadn't been paying close enough attention.

Enraged, she lunged, and I tipped backward over the bench in shock, trying to leap away from her clawed hands. Without thinking, I gripped her wrists as they descended on me, and used my feet to propel her over my head. She crashed into the wall even as I scrambled to my feet.

"Maria, stop," I said swiftly, holding my hands up in surrender. "I didn't mean—"

But she was rolling to her feet, her pretty mouth twisted in a snarl, and I backed up a step unconsciously. It was silly, in retrospect, how many times I opened myself up for attack, or engaged in the behaviors that I knew were sure to call out the predator in her. My fear must have burned through her, because her eyes sparkled suddenly—with an intense satisfaction, a kind of gloating over her own raw power—and she leapt toward me again.

I was loath to hit her in a real fight, and it showed. My reaction time slowed by half—maybe more. She backhanded me brutally and I realized vaguely that I was airborne before I crashed back down to earth, my hips bruising as they met the floor. When she came at me this time, I was ready—despite my daze—and I planted my feet firmly into her stomach once more, lurching and throwing her into the wall while at the same time rolling to my feet. When she came again, I met her fist for fist. Sweat poured into my eyes, but it didn't slow me. I got a few quick hits in, hoping she would back off—but even then, even though I am strong, I was never a match for a feral in hand-to-hand combat. It was then that I realized, quite suddenly and brutally, with infinite clarity, that she certainly meant to kill me.

This wasn't just a fight, or a brawl.

This was death, coming for one of us.

The realization jarred me, threw off my movements, and as I glanced back to the surveillance room, hoping against hope that Professor Monroe had returned, I was met with a swift fist to the throat. I fell back, guttering and choking for air, and as she leaned into me, her claws extended, her eyes glittering with rage and something like savage pride, I drew in a breath, opened my throat up, and screamed.

The sound rocked her back. Hands to her ears, she stumbled and fell to her knees. I scrambled upright, then screamed again for good measure. I meant to incapacitate her, to still her. I could get out of the Danger Room, I thought—lock her in until I could get Logan and Professor Monroe to come help her.

I have since learned that when someone looks at you with death in their eye—you must kill them.

I fled to the door, expecting the scream to hold her in stasis for just a moment more. I must have, I think, underestimated her strength and her healing abilities. Stupid, really. I reached the door, flung it open, even as I felt her hand around the back of my neck.

Her claws sank into my throat, and tore.

Blood splashed out in a wave, spattering the hopen door frame, the corridor outside. I flung myself from her, more flesh tearing as I went—I could hear the sick sound of it in my ears, feel the cold air, the gaping wound. I slammed the heavy door back behind me, crushing her forearm with a sickening crunch, and she howled before yanking the appendage back.

The world was red and blurry, with amorphous black shadows leaping across it. I thought first of 'Pool's mask, but then realized vaguely that I had blood in my eyes. Weakly, I flung my body at the vault-closure of the door, letting gravity and my own weight do the work of closing it. As I sank down, my ear pressed to the cold tile, I thought I heard footsteps—running, running.

But all I could see was red and black, red and black, a never-ending pattern of leather on leather.

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I was all right—if you can use such a word, I suppose. By that I mean that they kept me carefully tucked away in a hospital wing, stitching me closed. Dr McCoy watched over me fanatically, especially once Maria somehow managed to escape. It took me days to maintain any real sense of consciousness: moreover, I would wake dazed and try to speak, baffled and confused. The faces swam over me: Dr McCoy, dear Jamie, Logan, Kitty, even Piotr. My mouth was dry, and my throat felt swollen and bruised. Everything ached. The muscles in my neck were on fire, and I couldn't swallow. The air rattled in me as I tried to scream: burning, tearing. Dr McCoy would have to give me a sedative, terrified that I would undo all his careful work, even while they barricaded my head on either side so I couldn't twist and thrash.

The confusion and pain of waking was still better than the sleeping. Drug-induced dreams were a torment for me. I could feel the splinters in my knees as I was dragged out from under my bed, and then I was looking into the eyes of my once-friend Maria as she bore down on me with her talons. Some of my dreams were fragments of my past; others were entirely new phantasms that I had never known to well in the recesses of my mind before. While I slept, I was hunted and stalked, and even my basic victim's power had been torn from me. In my dreams, I screamed and screamed, but no-one could hear me.

But mercy came too, in rare shadows and fragments. Sometimes—I know now it was a dream, or at least, I think it was a dream—I would see 'Pool, the slick red leather of his mask, the stitched black shapes around his bruised eyes. His mask tucked over his nose—the tattered remnants of a misshapen grin, a mouth that had never healed properly. Once, Logan told me later, I woke up with a jolt, my mouth opened in a silent scream, my lips forming around the name:

Deadpool.

In the moments that I thought I saw him, I was soothed. Peace came, for however short a time. I felt safe with him watching over me.

When I finally woke for real, I was groggy. Everything in me was sore, and my throat burned and ached. I felt as though I had spent the week in the grip of a ferocious flu: every muscle in my torso was stretched taut and cramping. Limp, I rolled my head to one side—they had removed the barriers that kept me relatively still in my sleep. Dr McCoy was sitting by my bedside, and even through the haze I could tell he was exhausted. I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

For a moment—an eternity—I didn't understand. The first thought that rose, unbidden, to my mind was the terror that I had been mutilated like 'Pool, my mouth sewn shut, my victim's power silenced and locked away deep inside. Frantically, I felt my lips, but they were intact—undamaged. Slowly, memories returned to me in fragments, and I let my hands drift down to the thick gauze collar at my throat. Underneath, I knew there would be rows of bristling black stitches, like boar's hair.

Silently, helplessly, I began to cry. My tears were a strange mixture: fear, rage, helplessness, but also a sort of relief that I had not been killed, and a dread kind of loneliness and isolation.

There was nothing I could say, no way to communicate. I was cut off from the world in every way that I knew. I couldn't even wake my doctor, who snored softly in his chair beside me.

Dr McCoy woke soon enough, of course. And there was a veritable parade of visitors: Logan and Jamie were a near-constant; and when Marie D'Ancanto and Roman returned, both sat and talked with me for hours, in spite of my sullen silence. Kitty was there, her eyes glistening with worry.

I healed. Slowly. Dr McCoy was very careful about how much I exerted myself, when and how I was allowed to use my throat. Liquids for interminable weeks, and then only soft foods. Careful cleaning of the stitches.

I slunk around the mansion like a spoiled brat, sulking in my misery. I sat silently on the grass, watching others engage in sports and training and games, allowing my misery to overtake me. Logan called me a whiny child at one point, but I only turned away moodily from his prodding. The threads in my throat began to dissolve as the skin sealed shut and my pipes began knitting together. Dr McCoy was trying all he could, but there was only a "thirty-percent chance" that I would ever speak again, despite the mild healing factor that came with my mutation—in fact, he added wistfully, it was a miracle I had survived at all, and surely a normal human would have died.

It was no real triumph for me, though. I had fought for so long to be worth something in this place, and now, even the slim advantage of my voice had been taken away.

I went out to watch the dawn one morning. I had missed meditating and still did it on ocassion, though it all seemed worthless to me now. In spite of Logan and Professor Monroe's constant pushing, I couldn't see myself ever truly becoming a part of the X-Men. Not now. I was tired of fighting—not of fighting the bad guys, but of fighting myself. I had given up on any other form of training though, allowing my muscles to soften, even as I sunk deeper into darkness.

This was how he found me—red hair blazing in the dawn even as he pushed his way through the hedges.

"Damn things. I am a firm believer in trimming the shrubbery, for Chrissakes."

His mocking, smug chuckle. His double-entendres.

I could have recognized his voice in my sleep.

And his scent: leather, fireworks, gunpowder, steel.

"Well, if it isn't Rourke Cassidy, Captain of the X-men Pussy Ship Brigade. Long time, no see, princess. No hug for me?"

I turned slowly. I wasn't surprised that he was here. Par tof me had known he would come. It was inevitable that he would see be brought low. I stared at him, my lips pressed firmly to keep them from trembling. Still, I could see his gaze zero in on my mouth.

One eye twitched slightly. "Is dollface bitter?" the words were light, teasing, but I could see by the clench of his jaw that he was irritated by my silence. He made a loose gesture with his hand, brushing imaginary lint off his leather-clad shoulders. "Sorry I can't be at your beck'n'call, screamer, but I gotta life. People to kill, ladies to—well, you know." A leer. "Is that what's got your panties in a bunch?"

My face, I'm sure, flamed as red as my hair, but I kept my mouth stubbornly pursed. I realized sharply that 'Pool was no longer talking to a naïve girl of seventeen, but to a young woman who had long since crested twenty—and I was suddenly certain that Deadpool was remarkably aware of this fact.

A scowl under the taut red leather. "Come all this way to ay hi to an old friend—would it kill you to smile?" Nothing, and then: "Chin up, would you, princess—"

I jolted sharply, and my eyes narrowed. Though I knew it was only a bitter attempt to get me to speak, to smile, I took the phrase at face value and jerked my head, chin pointing defiantly to the sky.

I think I had never heard Deadpool fall so abruptly silent.

"Jesus, Rourke—"

And then his leather-cool hands were gently brushing the skin, skating over the still-pink scar tissue with a deftness that shouldn't have been surprising, given his remarkable delicacy with the katana. I shivered and stepped back, dropping my eyes and narrowing them at him swiftly.

"What the hell happened to you, you feeb? Didn't I fucking tell you not to get yourself in some big fuckin' mess?"

I wanted to glower at him, but the expression quivered apart almost before I had managed it. His voice wasn't its usual dry, sardonic mockery, but short and fierce. He was furious.

And I was miserable.

"Well?" he snapped. "You feel all grown-up now, Wendy? Prove yourself? Join the X-men, get a free target painted on your chest! You could have died, you—twat." Ferocity. "Answer me,goddammit—"

I lifted my chin just an inch and tapped my ruined throat with my fingertips, closing my eyes so he couldn't see the tears clustering there. I felt so helpless, and I didn't want him to see me that way, too.

I think it took him a moment to realize what I was trying to say, but then his fingers slid over my shoulders suddenly: cool and strong, thick as they anchored against my flesh.

"Princess—I'm sorry. I'm a crude bastard. I'm a dick. I know it."

I found myself pulled into his arms, and suddenly it felt like the last time he had visited: when I had hugged him, and known that I belonged somewhere. His arms were thick around me, holding me in tightly, pressed against him while one gloved hand stroked firmly through my thick red hair. I nestled in against him, feeling safe for the first time in months. I had no idea what it was about him that made my world seem so much smaller, so snug and secure and protected.

"I know what it's like to have a hundred things you want to say," he said after a moment, his voice strangely hoarse in a way I'd never heard fro him before, "and to not be able to say it. You got all these thoughts rattling around in your pretty little head and no way to get 'em out—am I right?"

I thought of how it must have been for him, controlled by a madman who gave no thought for his free will. Silenced, shut away in a corner of his mind where he could still think, exist, want—and never able to voice those thoughts or act in the ways he desired. No wonder he was a little bit crazy—who could survive that intact?

Suddenly, I was ashamed of my own misery. Still, his arms didn't loosen, and I suddenly knew more clearly than I had ever known anything that he was thinking of how he had never wanted this for me. For 'Pool, silence was an inhuman torture, and he might have given—well, anything—to spare me it.

We moved to the bench under the trees, and I curled into his side, clutching at the slick leather over his arm and laying my head against his shoulder.

"M'gonna get you a little dry-erase board to wear around your neck, Cap'n Cass," he said after a minute. I cracked a smile, more for his benefit than anything else. "You're gonna heal up, you know? Then you're gonna fuckin' butcher the eardrums of whoever did this to you…is the bastard still alive, screa—uh, princess?"

I flinched at his avoidance of the old nickname, then nodded in the affirmative with a gesture meant to communication bafflement. She's free and alive, but no-one knows where.

"You training to take her out when she comes back, Rourke?"

I jumped and stared at him, then shook my head. No. What could I possibly do in this state? Even when I was whole, I had only my voice, my mild healing factor—certainly not enough to protect me from her—and the strength and speed of a relatively normal woman of my age, maybe just a tad stronger. There was nothing I could do against Maria, if she decided to return.

'Pool rolled his eyes. "Why the hell not? What happens if she comes back to you? You gonna wrap yourself up like a Christmas present and just hand yourself over?"

I flushed and started to shake my head, then stopped and tilted it. I had no idea what I would do—except maybe hide.

As if reading my mind, he said, "Captain Rourke Cassidy ain't the running kind."

I hesitated, and then so did he, tilting his head to look down at me with a cynical twist of his brow. "F'I stay and train you myself, will you try?"

I couldn't remember ever having such a long strain of serious conversation with him. Numbed by his offer, I nodded mutely. His eyes were on my mouth again, and then he eached out and brushed a thumb over my lower lip.

Promising to train with him, to try, was a small price to pay in order to get him to stay—just a little bit longer.

"Let's start now," he urged, his voice giddy. He rocked forward on his toes, moving from the bench—excited, barely-restrained.

I blinked, my eyes widening, and stepped back, making slicing motions with my hands. No, no. I wasn't ready. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I'd grown lazy in my sullenness. My muscles had slowly turned soft.

"Gotta begin somewhere, Rourke," he said exuberantly, lifting both fists as his knees bent carefully. I cringed back, expecting to be knocked off my feet like Kitty. Instead, there was a sickening sound of tearing flesh, and then the katana slid forth.

"M'not gonna go easy on you, princess," he purred, dropping into stance. "Gonna make you beg."

Perv, I mouthed.

He laughed, and then lunged. He hadn't lied either; he did not let up on me because my training had grown lax, nor did he acknowledge my weaponlessness. The morning passed in a blur of bruises and gasps, my lungs jarring in my chest again and again as I was knocked to the ground, the world spiraling around me. My jeans and t-shirt tore under the delicate attention of his katana; on more than one occasion my skin was knicked and scratched, just enough to sting.

"You gotta beat me, Rourke," he muttered once, when I was growing tired. "We can stop for now, but I'm not letting up till you win. If you can beat me, you can beat just about anything that comes your way." A childish grin from under the mask. "And take your time, cupcake. The longer you take, the more times I get to cut off your clothes." As if to prove it, he flicked one blade and one shoulder of my t-shirt was torn clean through, allowing it to sag and pool over my left breast.

I stamped my foot, furious at him, and furious with my inability to snark back at him the way I wanted. He was snickering gaily under his mask, his eyes fastened on the patch of revealed flesh, and I shrank back, blushing silently, tugging my clothing to cover as much as possible while heat pooled in my cheeks and between my thighs.

True to his word, he showed up every morning to train me, and we sparred again at night. I was amazed by his agility, his speed, his strength. It seemed as though every bit of him was made of muscle, yet he moved lightly, sparingly, quicker than my eyes could catch. In the afternoons, I began training again with the X-men, and sometimes Logan would watch me with narrowed eyes, his nostrils flaring. I would avoid his gaze, but I knew he smelled Deadpool on me. The question was only why he didn't mention it aloud.

It became a ritual. Mornings and evenings, I was with him, fighting drowsiness on both ends of the clock. Still, when I wasn't trying to best him in combat, he was making me laugh with his sarcastic commentary and running one-sided conversation. He certainly didn't need a partner in order to monologue. I missed being able to sass back at him, but my compulsory silence was probably a blessing in disguise. It took me a while to realize that the heat flushing my body wasn't just from the adrenaline and sweat of fighting. Even when we were relaxing on the lawn, I felt like my muscles were tense, my abdomen clenched, and every nerve in me was hyperaware of his presence. Warmth came off me in waves and I felt like I was perpetually blushing. When I realized that his presence alone was triggering this reaction—that it was a symptom of my growing adult attraction to him—I became flustered, which only served to make me blush harder. Had I been able to speak, my words would have been garbled and tongue-tied, and surely he would have noticed then. As it was, I think he chalked up my burning skin to the exertion of our sparring.

I knew better, though. I knew what was under the surface of my own skin: desire. Arousal.

Longing.

No matter what 'Pool said—or Logan, or Sabertooth, or Storm—this was the man who kept watch while I slept, who was teaching me to guard against attackers like Maria. I knew with in the deepest parts of me that he was a good man, and I knew I needed him in my life.

We worked together for weeks, for months, and one afternoon after training, Professor Monroe and Logan took me aside. I stood rigid and still, certain that Logan was finally calling me to task on keeping silence for Deadpool again. Perhaps, a few years or even months earlier, it would have struck me as bitterly unfair that they would chastise me when I could not speak to defend myself. I would have fumed at the perceived injustice. Now, however—with Maria's attack, my own descent into depression, and the remarkably comforting presence of 'Pool in the back of my mind, egging me on and goading me out of my misery, I found myself feeling only the faintest twinge of anxiety. Otherwise, I was calm and composed, ready to take whatever came, willing to admit my own faults and contributions to the problem.

Experiences can transform you, I think, if you let them. Certainly, the last nine months had involved a shifting of the continents, a change deep in the foundations of my world.

Pangea, again. A version of it.

I had expected disappointment from Professor Monroe. The bone-deep animal anger from Logan. I had prepared myself for it.

Instead, Professor Monroe leaned forward. "We're impressed by the dramatic turn-around in your training," she said quietly. "I'm not sure what triggered this change in heart, Miss Cassidy, or the sudden increase in skill-level, but you are doing magnificently. You're fast advancing above and beyond not only what we expected for you, but to skill-levels above and beyond those of your peers."

I flicked my eyes toward Logan, who was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, eyeing me knowingly. It shocked me, that he hadn't told Professor Monroe yet. We both knew why my performance had improved: because I was sparring with a crazy man, one who didn't abide by moral—or even logical—rules of battle. I had learned to be prepared for anything, to be imaginative, to be resourceful beyond reason.

"Your hand-to-hand combat is top-knotch, and your stealth movements are—unparalleled." She paused. "By far, you are the best we currently have in your bracket. In many brackets. Therefore, we want to ask you to take part in a one-person mission—"

I lost what she said after that. I was stunned. For years, I had struggled to reconcile why my peers and mentors thought me so weak, and had blamed in part my mutation, my victim's cry. When I finally was accepted into the ranks as an X-man, I had assumed that it was again my voice that gotten me there. It was the only strength I had, and it ws a weak one.

But now, I was finally receiving the responsibility I had sought so desperately, the task I had craved—a mission on my own—and it was after losing the only strength I'd thought I'd had.

Perhaps they saw more in me than I thought. Perhaps they saw more than even I did.

I signed rapidly—not in standard sign-language but in a mixture of formal hand signals and more organic gestures—trying to get Professor Monroe to pause. She did, and I sat still for a moment, trying to process through. She waited, and when I finally looked up again, she said slowly, "It's an infiltration in Vermont. There's been some activity at a known Brotherhood base-camp which we thought to be abandoned. It looks like there's been some radio activity from that area. We think a new recruit, code-named Feral, has been sent there to hold that base as a provisionary camp for mutant terrorists who need shelter, but we're not entirely sure. We need someone to infiltrate, figure out what is going on, and report back to us. We don't want you to do anything unless you have to in self-defense—just stay out of sight until you can get a hold of us, and from there we'll send back-up as necessary."

I sat still, my hands knotted in my lap. Unbidden, the thought rose in my head: I wonder if Deadpool will come with me.

"There's a catch of course, darlin'," rumbled Logan. I looked up at him sharply, and a faint smile curled the corner of his mouth. "We think the new recruit might be Maria."

My blood ran cold. Maria. For a second, I sat frozen. I could feel my eyes widening, my mouth trembling. I must have looked like a deer in headlights. Logan was a friend—an increasingly dear one at that, and a mentor—but nothing could completely squash the predator within. His nostrils flared at the sight –and scent, I've no doubt—of my fear.

Still, he went on. "We know you can handle her, Terry," he said quietly. His voice was low and soothing. "We wouldn't send you if we thought you couldn't. You're strong—not just quick and lethal," he clarified with a dry chuckle, "but smart and powerful up here." He tapped one finger to his temple. "And here," he added, pressing a closed fist to his sternum.

I pressed my quivering lips together, narrowed my eyes, and nodded once, firmly.

"Are you sure?" Professor Monroe asked after a moment. "We can give you a day or two to think about it, but the sooner you leave, the better."

I gestured with my hands. Tomorrow. Another decisive nod. I'll leave tomorrow.

I stood immediately, not willing to let Professor Monroe try to change my mind. I knew she wanted me to go, but I could also tell from the frown marring her smooth brow that she was disturbed by my quick response.

"We'll fly you out and drop you over the site, then," she murmured, looking conflicted—a rare expression on her usually austere features. "Be ready at oh-seven hundred hours."

I turned to leave, only to feel Logan's massive hand at my elbow. He followed me out the door, close at my heels, and as soon as we were out of Professor Monroe's hearing range, he said quietly, "You need to get some sleep tonight, darlin'. Don't waste all your time sayin' good-bye to that nutty bastard."

I shot him a sideways glance and signed, I have no idea what you're talking about. My expression was deadpan, though, and Logan understood that my denial was more of a formality than a true lie. His hand tightened on my elbow, and before I knew what he was about, he'd drawn me into a sharp hug. "Be careful, Terry."

An awkward release, and he turned quickly and walked away. I realized suddenly how he must miss Marie—Rogue—now that she was grown-up and practically married to Roman. Once upon a time, she had been a little sister to him. I think there were parts of Logan that needed something or someone to hold on to.

It made me a little sad, to think of leaving him. In some ways, it seemed like he hated people; in others, I think he was desperate for company.

In many ways, he was like Deadpool.

As soon as it was dark, I left the shelter of the mansion, my eyes on the woods hemming in the south side of the lawn. It was cold out, a light snow falling, and I shivered. He was there, waiting for me, both katana extended, crouching into a battle stance.

I made a slicing motion with my hands, and he rose fluidly, the katana re-sheathing themselves in his arms with a soft schink.

It took forever, for me to tell him what I needed to. That I was leaving, that I was on a mission—one that might put me face-to-face with Maria. It turned into a parody of sign language, an awful game of charades, and I couldn't tell when 'Pool was honestly trying to guess what I was saying and when he was just being an ass. Finally, though, he caught on—or had mercy—and I slumped into the grass, a little exhausted.

"You want me to go with you."

I shot him a dirty look. Nearly an hour's worth of me trying to tell him the basic outline of the thing, and yet he could somehow discern the nuances of it in mere seconds? I was more convinced than ever that he'd simply been messing with my head, seeing how long he could keep me trying to sign to him.

He looked vaguely uncomfortable now, though, his eyes flicking away from mine. "I think this is one of those things you gotta do on your own, Rourke."

I let my eyes slide away. I hated when he tried to be wise—usually because he succeeded. It was unfair that someone who was so often immature, and so childish, could also be so perceptive and so instinctively right.

"You gotta face her. That's what we've been working towards, right?"

I closed my eyes, and he leaned toward me.

"When you find her," he whispered, his eyes drilling into mine, the faint ghost of his mouth moving behind the leather, slightly muffled, "when you find her—take it back. Your voice. Take back what she took from you. It's the only way you'll ever feel in control of yourself again."

I shivered, but I didn't know if it was at the truth and intensity of his words—so fierce, I knew, because he'd experienced it himself—or if it was from his nearness, the heat of his body caressing mine.

I reached out with a shaking hand and laid it against his cheek, then let it skim down to the side of his throat. My palm rested there, soaking up his warmth, the feel of his pulse thudding against my skin. His eyes flickered for a moment, and then he drew back, smirking. "Can't keep your hands off me, huh, princess?"

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I realized later that 'Pool was full of shit. I felt his presence in Vermont, a silent entity at my back, lurking in the shadows.

In the morning, it was not Professor Monroe or Logan who flew me over Vermont, but Sabertooth—Victor Creed. He was scowling and angry as he gestured me roughly into the helicopter, and when I tentatively queried after his role in this event, I found that he had actually been the on eto give the information of the site to Logan and Professor Monroe.

"The frail made me do it," he growled, looking pissed. I knew he meant October. As though realizing his own apparent weakness, though, he cast a sideways sneer at me. "She just begged so prettily, on her knees like that—"

I turned away. I liked October—loved her even, perhaps, and felt closer to her than most of the girls at the mansion, in spite of her age—but I didn't care to hear about whatever power-and-control games she was playing with Sabertooth. To my relief, he ignored me after that, as though his point had been made, and the only other time he spoke to me was when he gruffly ordered me to suit up and "get off his goddamn chopper." The jump was easy, smooth, and I landed without an issue on the roof of the secluded, warehouse-like structure before spraying myself with some of the hazy blue fluid Professor Monroe had given me. It was supposed to help diffuse my scent, in case the mutant recruit at the base camp was a feral, as per its codename.

In case it was Maria.

I crept in through the chutes, rappelling in near silence into the attic crawlspaces, moving through the narrow places between the walls.

The next three days were the longest and most boring of my life, to be honest. I won't waste time recounting them all. Suffice it to say that the recruit was, of course, Maria—who else could it be, with my luck?—and that she was indeed running the base as a shelter for militant mutant terrorists, all under Magneto's orders. She was also ferrying information back and forth between these groups and the Brotherhood. It surprised me, to be honest: with her bloodlust, I could hardly understand how she could remain in such mundane quarters for so long. Still, I discovered that her longing to prove herself to them curtailed any latent fury she was struggling with; rather, she funneled that feral energy into her attempts to succeed in her mission.

All the time, while I waited and watched, I felt 'Pool at my back. He wasn't in the walls with me, I knew. But he was near. The prickle on my neck and the tension in my abdomen told me so. He was watching the warehouse—perhaps even in the warehouse—and he was keping an eye on me.

I felt safe. I knew, now, that he wouldn't interfere—not unless I was in mortal danger, maybe not even then—but it still gave me a measure of security, to know that I had a friend watching my back.

If I were going to die this mission, I wouldn't die alone.

When I thought I had all the information I needed, I went to the roof. There was a light dusting of snow and a heavy cloud-cover; I hoped I would get the reception I needed. I turned on the cell phone that had been tucked in the inner lining of my uniform, along with the tiny mallet I had brought with me. The phone rang, and when Professor Monroe's voice came over the other end, I began to tap out my information on the reciever in Morse code.

"Slow down," Professor Monroe urged, her voice tinny and metallic over the lines. "The connection is bad; I'm not sure what I'm hearing—"

I tried again, struggling with my own impatience as I began tapping out the information once more. And then, suddenly, the tingle at the back of my neck grew stronger, and I paused.

Wait—I tapped.

I turned a second before Maria descended, teeth bared, coarse hair flying back like Logan's, her claws extended and ready to rip.

I tore backward, flinging the phone aside, and drove my feet squarely into Maria's chest, flipping her over my head. She slid over the edge of the roof, scrabbling with her claws for purchase, and I launched to my feet. I heard 'Pool's voice in my head, egging me on as we sparred, his katana moving in a way that seemed almost precognitive, blocking every move I could make:

Don't wait. You know what she'll do. You know it even before she does. You know it.

I catapulted forward, my boot catching her under the collarbone, flinging her off the edge of the roof. The snow was drifted below, and though she landed on her feet, cat-like, the force of the impact and the deeper drifts caught her unawares. She stumbled, landing hard on her back, and I lept down silently, straddling her stomach and driving one fist against her throat.

I felt the inner pipings of her neck give way under my fist, yielding to the strike. Her vocal cords collapsed under the blow, but I didn't smile. My eyes, I knew, were cold.

She'd heal. Quicker than I would, too. I'd had nearly a year to recuperate, and I still had no doubt she'd have her voice back before I'd have mine.

It didn't stop her, though. Perhaps the pent-up rage of her weeks of boredom were gleeful for an outlet. With a rush of air through her ruined throat, she grabbed my fist as it came down again, and I knew she was going to use my own momentum against me to throw me down. Instead of fighting it, I rolled into the motion, pulling her with me. We rolled across the snow, both of us silent except for the harsh and voiceless gasps and guttural panting. I ended up on top again, and this time I slammed both fists into her face: first one, then the other. The cartilage of her nose crunched wetly beneath my knuckles. She buckled and bent-double, her ankles hooking around my throat as she flipped my backward. Again, I rolled into it, even as she followed, her torso snaking between my legs as she drove both elbows into my stomach. The air was forced from my lungs and for a second, my mouth was filled with the acidic taste that heralds vomit. Still, 'Pool had taught me how to ignore it, how to survive when breathless. I caught her wrists even as she scrambled up my body and slammed the crown of my head between her eyes as hard as I could.

She blinked, seeing stars, and I drove a knee up into her chin, snapping her jaw shut. A rush of air squealed out of her and she jerked to one side, spitting blood and teeth into the snow. When she reared back, furious, I saw that at one of them had been a fang—the other was loose and bloody, hanging precariously in her reddened gums. Her hands closed around my throat, tightening, even as I bucked wildly in attempt to throw her off. I slammed one forearm cross-wise into the insides of her elbows and her claws sank deeply into my skin. For a moment, my mind flashed back to the moment when my throat had been torn out. I saw the recognition in her eyes, too—the malicious, gloating smile. Her hands tightened further and I knew she was going to make me relive that nightmare—for a short while, anyway. Until she killed me.

You know what she'll do, I thought of Deadpool saying, even as she bared her teeth and opened her mouth. I knew she wanted to taste my blood this time, tear out my vocal cords with her teeth.

Without thinking, I reached up and pinched her loose fang viciously, twisting and yanking. She jerked back, her hands loosening in shock and pain as I ripped the incisor free, tearing a chunk of the wet pink tissue of her gum with it. She fell back, stunned, her hands at her mouth, even as I opened my palm and slammed the loose fang point-first into the hollow of her throat.

How does it feel? I wanted to ask.

Instead, I rolled on top of her and slammed the heel of my palm into her throat again, driving the embedded fang deeper, crushing her already-healing trachea once more. She was scrambling away—or trying to—her body moving beneath mine so violently that I was practically riding her as she moved through the snow. I used the sides of both hands like a blade, an axe, and chopped viciously at either side of her neck. Her eyes nearly crossed and I knew her vision was blurring, darkening. Her pupils pulsed, trying to grasp reality.

I drove a fist under her chin, and awkward sort of uppercut from this angle, before backing off and dragging her to her feet. A left jab, right cross, left hook, right uppercut, and again she was down on her back, her knees raised as though she were preparing to give birth. Her breath rattled loosely in her throat.

Get up, I mouthed, and to my surprise, some parts of the words came out like a whisper—nowhere near true speech yet, but certainly an improvement.Get up, I tried again. I'm not going to kill you—not like this, Maria. Get up.

Her eyes focused—slowly. Her gaze fastened on me and she dragged herself slowly to her feet. Suddenly, I remembered her a hundred different ways: the sulking girl who had greeted me with Jamie Madrox on my arrival at the mansion, the uncomfortable dryness of her humor, her bitter cynicism as a teenager. Her moodiness, the way she clutched at Jamie, wanting him. The rare moments of genuine kindness.

Now her eyes were wide on mine, full of fear. I tensed, ready for her, waiting for her to make the first move. I hated her—hated herviolently—but I was the one in power now. My strength manifested as I chose. Unlike Maria, it didn't rule me. And if I had to temper it with compassion, or with mercy, then I would.

And if I had to slaughter her in the snow, then I would.

I waited, and to my utter shock, she suddenly whirled on one foot and fled, stumbling, away from the warehouse and toward the woods. My fists loosened in surprise and I dropped them, stunned—and pleased. I had won. I had never run from Maria, but she was running from me—

A hulking shadow stepped from the woods: huge, broad shoulders, dark hair and short, bristly 'chops, a vicious little smirk dented by two fangpoints and dark animal-eyes. Sabertooth.

He caught Maria with one hand at her throat and then, without so much as looking at her, flicked his wrist. I heard her neck snap from where I stood, a sickening crack that echoed in the wintery silence. When he dropped her carelessly—almost tossing her away from him, like a dead rat or a piece of garbage—she sprawled with a soft, muffled thump in the snow.

I stared at him, and he must have read the question in my eyes. He shrugged. "I was still hanging 'round in the area. For the pick-up, if needed. The runt asked me to check up on you—said some transmission or something had been cut short." A snort. "You ready to go home, frail?"

I cast my eyes to Maria. She stared up blindly at the sky. Snowflakes were starting to cluster in her eyelashes.

Sabertooth snorted. "Don't worry 'bout her. Mags'll find her soon enough." He turned his back, stalking into the woods. "Come or don't," he said bitingly over his shoulder. "Fuck knows I don't care if you freeze yerself to death out here."

I hesitated and lifted my head, scanning the trees for some sight of Deadpool. None, but I knew he was there, knew it as surely as I knew Maria was dead, in spite of the fact that Sabertooth seemed either oblivious or uncaring.

With a barely-audible sigh, I followed the feral assassin and climbed wearily back into the chopper.

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There was a new student at the Institute when I got back: a beautiful young girl, just a little older than I had been when I'd arrived. She had ink-colored hair, so black that in certain light it shone blue, and beautiful almond-shaped eyes. Her skin was flawless, gold and cream, and she had a sassy grin that I liked. She was curious, too, leaning over my bed while I lay with cool compresses around my throat. Dr McCoy was anxious to take down the swelling caused by Maria's vicelike grip at my throat.

"You're the one that can't speak, right?" the girl asked. "Are you sick? When I was sick my mom used to tell me stories. Do you want to hear a story?"

I gestured at her. Tell me your story.

She grinned, dark eyes sparkling, and tossed her glossy hair. She had a pleasant, mild sort of arrogance to her, and I liked her even more.

"I used to be training in gymnastics with my mother. She and my father were both immigrants from China, and we were pretty wealthy. I loved them a lot, and they loved each other. My group of friends?--it was rare to find anyone who grew up with a loving family. I was lucky." She shrugged. "They died when I was still pretty little—murdered by hitmen, actually—and I was sent to an orphanage." She wrinkled her nose. "I hated it there. Wol—Logan said your parents died too, and you lived with your uncle for a while, and then moved here. Believe me, you're lucky you bypassed the orphanage stage." Another nose-wrinkle. "They smell funny."

I smiled in spite of myself. I thought her use of the term grew up was interesting, seeing how young she still was. She spoke like someone older—but then, hadn't I done the same? Hadn't every mutant child who had stepped through these doors?

"Anyway, I ran away. Lived in the Hollywood Mall for a while. That was when I found out I could do this." She lifted her hands and I watched in awe as blue electricity flooded her fingertips, setting her face aglow. Small sparks snapped and exploded in her hands, as though she held a firework captive in her palms.

She smiled, obviously delighted at my reaction.

"That was when Wo—Logan found me," she whispered conspiratorially. "The security guards had been after me for days and had actually hired a group of freelance mutants to hunt me out, and Logan saved me, and brought me here."

There was something like hero-worship in her eyes, and I thought again of Logan, and how he needed someone to take care of, someone to hold on to.

"Hey, Terry, darlin'," a dark voice rumbled as the door eased open.

Speak of the devil, I mouthed, and again found that some bits of the words were audible. Logan raised his eyebrows in surprise at my returning voice, then cut a glance toward the girl sitting at my elbow. She was grinning from ear to ear, practically bouncing in her seat, and I knew suddenly that she wanted more than anything to launch herself at Logan in a little-girl hug. I wondered at how much she had loved her parents, and how eager she was to attach herself to an adult like Logan.

"Wolvie," she said earnestly, her voice urgent in its greeting.

Wolvie.

I looked at Logan. His eyes softened a little at the sight of her.

"Jubes," he returned, a dry recognition even as his eyes stayed quiet. He looked calmer, more at ease than I had ever seen him.

I wondered how long it would be before these two fell in love. I imagined Logan waiting forever—and longer, if he thought he needed to. Till she grew that little-girl admiration turned into something deeper, more abiding, with rock-hard foundations that stretched further than anything he'd ever had with Professor Grey.

I'm fine, I mouthed, and gestured to myself. Healing right up.

"Is Jubilation here being a pain in the butt?" he asked mildly. "Do I need to get 'er out of your hair?"

The girl scowled, crossing her arms, but her eyes sparkled playfully. She was the kind of girl that glowed.

I shook my head and mimed for him to sit, and then I let them fill me in on the rest of the story.

Weeks passed. I continued healing, and my voice was rapidly returning. Dr McCoy urged me not to overwork it, and I was careful, but it was so exciting to be able to talk again that sometimes I overtaxed myself and set myself back. I continued sparring, though it wasn't the same without 'Pool to help me. I watched as Jubilation and Logan—Jubes and Wolvie,I thought amusedly—grew closer every day. Their friendship far surpassed whatever weird mentor/sibling relationship had existed between Logan and myself, and I was certain it would soon progress to a kind of deep-rooted mutual adoration that would put even his love for Rogue to shame.

Jamie avoided me. I think he realized, more than ever, that I had changed. I was no longer the freckle-faced red-haired girl with a sullen attitude who had somehow captivated him years ago. I was—quieter, happier, more eager to watch the world around me and enjoy the things I saw, rather than wishing they were mine. I believed in myself, not with the defensiveness I had felt in my younger years, but with a deep-seated confidence that allowed me to accept challenges and grow from them. I thought I had become a better person in the last few years, but whatever changes had been wrought in me, I was no longer the girl Jamie Madrox loved.

I thought that was for the best, and I let his friendship slip through my fingers with nothing more than a wistful and affectionate smile.

The only bad part was the dreams. They still came to me in the darkness, but they were different now—more painful, in some ways. I remembered in flashes Maria coming at me, ready to deal out death, and then Maria running away. I remembered her slaughter at the hands of Sabertooth—careless, reckless, enjoyed by her killer. I remembered the cloying, slow suffocation of silence, the splinters in my knees as I was dragged out from under the bed.

The dreams themselves only came occasionally—mainly because I could tell when Deadpool came back.

He was careful not to be seen—not even by me—but I could feel him. The tingle on my neck, the delicious tightening between my hips. I didn't understand why he didn't want me to be aware of his presence, but I played along. Still, on the nights he came—a silent guardian in the darkness—I slept better. Dreamless nights of deep rest and languorous wakings, a happy welcome to the morning.

He showed up, on and off, sometimes only staying a day, sometimes for a week or longer. I waited, but he never showed himself to me, not even when I waited at the window. No salutes, no mocking waves or teasing blown kisses, like I was used to.

I regained my voice. I went on missions. I grew older. And finally, I was tired of waiting. Tired of waiting for him to show himself, to talk to me. Tired of waiting to touch his face, trace his scars, show him how much I wanted him.

Loved him.

To be entirely truthful, I had been waiting almost a decade, when you got right down to it. It was ridiculous, what I had been hiding from myself since I'd met him, what he'd half-hidden from me and was still trying to ignore.

We'd already been wrapped up in some strange version of a love affair for nearly ten years. We'd been tangled together since I was a child, really. With that in mind, I went out into the darkness one night, my hands on my hips.

"'Pool!" I hissed into the shadows of the woods at the edge of the property. "I know you're here. Stop being a coward and come out!"

When he melted from the shadows, I shuddered. It was all I could do to keep standing. He was broader than I remembered, or perhaps I was more attuned to it now. His eyes were slitted behind the mask. "Cap'n Cass," he greeted cordially.

I rolled my eyes. "Don't be a dick," I ordered. "Act normal."

"Normal for me is acting like a dick," he said conversationally. "Glad to hear you got your voice back, screamer. I missed your bitching at me."

I snorted and glowered. My palms were sweating. "I've been speaking for a while now," I snapped. "As if you didn't know."

His eyes widened, then narrowed. "What does that mean?"

I snorted. "I know I have you backed into a corner if you can't come up with a better retort than that." I tried to say it sharply, sarcastically, but the words came out quivering. I took a step forward, breathing shallowly. Carefully, slowly, my fingers crept to the collar of my shirt. The first two buttons were already undone: I slowly shelled open the third. My fingers were shaking.

'Pool's mouth dropped open behind the mask, and his eyes fastened on the bare "V" of flesh. I hesitated, then unbuttoned the fourth and fifth.

"I know," I whispered, my voice gentling. "I know you come back to watch me while I sleep, even when you know Logan isn't here, even when there's nothing you can win against or fight. You've done it ever since I fought Maria—over a year now, dammit—and you didn't want me to know, for some reason." The sixth button. He could see my bra now—cream lace and sheer pleats—and a patch of belly beneath. Those damn freckles everywhere.

"It makes me feel safe," I whispered, opening the last button and letting the shirt slide off my shoulders. Even through his mask, I could see him gulp. His eyes swept over my stomach, my hips, then back up to my breasts. His mouth worked under his mask as though he were licking his lips, then he turned his gaze up toward mine.

"I'm not a little girl anymore, 'Pool," I whispered. "I haven't been for a while." I eased my hands down to the waistband of my jeans and opened them, unzipped them, let them hang limply on my hips. I hoped it looked inviting.

To my surprise, he took a step back, gloved hands raised. "Look, princess—"

"I know you love me, 'Pool. Maybe even as much as I love you."

It was a limb I had gone out on, and there was no turning back. He could laugh in my face, or say something vicious and clever, as he so often did.

He didn't though. He stood stock-still, at a loss for the first time since I'd known him, a deer in headlights. "I'm a killer, Rourke."

I stared at him evenly. "You're also a good man. Underneath it all."

"No."

"I've met men who are truly evil, 'Pool. I know what they're like. They take what they want. They destroy whatever they can." I paused. My voice gentled and I looked at him tenderly. "They don't send little girls back to bed with a promise to watch out for them. They don't hold true to that promise years later."

"You were never a 'little girl,' Captain Cass."

I let a smile linger at the corner of my mouth. "And I'm certainly not now," I repeated softly, and took another step forward, then two. He staggered back a bit. Who would have thought such a big man, with katana implanted in his forearms and a dozen guns on his hips—and a truly acerbic wit—would be afraid of a skinny little woman like myself?

I'm the most lost man you'll ever find.

I closed the distance, and this time he waited for me, his head tilted and brow furrowed as though he were trying to figure me out. Carefully, I lifted the tight fabric of his mask, stretching it and folding it back over his nose. My fingers skated his chin and jaw: light, soothing. His skin felt like knotted silk under my touch. I pulled him down toward me, leaning in so that my breasts were pushed against his chest. My lips skimmed his jawline, then peppered kisses toward his mouth.

His ravaged lips opened beneath mine and the tables turned. His arms wrapped around my waist and behind my shoulders, dragging me nearly off my toes as he hoisted me against the hard, hot panels of his body. I gasped against him, then melted into the demanding pressure of his mouth on mine, his tongue sweeping between my lips. He turned suddenly, pressing me against the tree, his face ducking down to my neck as he dragged in a ragged breath and sealed his mouth to the tender flesh adjoining my throat and shoulder.

I shuddered and sagged against him, my arms wrapping languidly around his shoulders.

He suddenly pulled back and began dropping kisses in random, haphazard patterns.

"All these damn little polka dots," he muttered feverishly.

"Freckles," I grimaced, realizing he was kissing each one on my shoulder. I thought I was pretty enough in spite of them, but they were still a flaw, and one I hated. They covered me from head to toe, even in places that had never seen sun. Embarrassment struck me suddenly, viciously, and I tensed in discomfort.

But 'Pool never ceased to surprise me. He dropped to his knees in the matted grass, putting himself on eye-level with my breasts. His gloved hands folded over them: steal wrapped in cool leather. I tipped my head back and moaned as his palms moved down to my hips and his scarred, torn mouth ghosted over the tops of my breasts, just above my bra.

"Freckles," he agreed reverently. "They're like a hundred copper pennies. I could make a wish on each one."

I should have expected it. Only Deadpool could take a part of me I thought of as ugly—and love me for it. Only he could make me into a pirate, an adventuress, a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. Only him. His words sent something flaring through me and I gasped, arching into his leather-clad hands. He chuckled against my skin and skated his hands up my back, tackling the clasp of my bra.

"Wait," I said suddenly, backing up against the tree, flattening his hands there. My bra loosened and sagged open, nearly revealing my bare breasts.

His face jerked up to mine, an accusation in his eyes, and I realized belatedly that he thought I'd been teasing him, mocking him.

"No—I—" I broke off, trying to gather my scattered thoughts. The look in his eyes, the hard set of his mouth, was an expression of utter and unforgiving betrayal. "I just want—" I tugged one of his hands free. They were tense, and I swallowed down my fear, gently pulling at the leather, tugging his glove off his hand. The flesh shone in the moonlight: rippled and whorled over the palm, the back of the hand; raggedly torn where they had implanted the katana, where the skin had been peeled back to make way for the wicked blade. His hand looked as though it had been chewed on by some sort of monster, and it hurt me to see it.

I took the calloused, scarred palm and placed it inside my open bra, closing my eyes at the feel of his hot, dry skin against my skin. My nipple tightened against his palm and I tipped my head back against the tree.

"I just want to feel you," I managed to whisper at last, my eyes still closed.

He was still for a moment, letting me hold his battered hand against my chest, and with a muffled curse—"Fuck, Rourke, you're a goddess"—he swung me down into the leaves, cradling my head to keep it from hitting the ground. I gasped at the sudden movement, then bit my lip, staring up at him. His clear eyes burned into mine as he stripped off his other glove, and then both hands were on me. I arched into him as he ran his fingers experimentally over my nipples, plucking and rolling them.

"Shirt—thing—uniform," I specified breathlessly. "Off, please."

He obliged, unzipping the tight black-and-red leather and jerking it away from him. His skin underneath was snarled, a landscape of painful-looking lumps and bitter incisions. I traced my fingers over his shoulders, wishing he was near enough for me to kiss every scar. Instead, his mouth found one of my breasts and his hand moved downward, sliding my jeans down. I wriggled, trying to help him, and he paused when he came back to my underwear.

"Dammit, Rourke, are you trying to kill me?"

I laughed a little, breathless. The bikinis I was wearing had bows on the hips, begging to be untied.

"I've been planning this for a while," I teased softly.

He cursed and snagged one ribbon, loosening the bows first on one side, then on the other. The satin fell away softly and I shuddered at the feel of it before he cupped my damp sex, grinding his palm gently against me. I gasped, then arched into him, moaning, and he grinned.

"That answers that question," he murmured. You a screamer or a moaner? "Hang on for the ride, princess, and try not to get too loud."

With that, he rolled back, pulling me on top of him, loosening his artillery belt and unbuttoning himself, then positioning me over him. My thighs pressed into his hips, and I could feel the hot edge of his skin just above the cool leather waist of his pants, and the cold steel of the guns holstered there, biting into my soft skin. I shuddered and stroked my hands over the bare, knotted scars of his chest, the painful-looking lumps, the lines carved into him like a roadmap for surgery. Slowly, I eased myself onto him, drawing a seething breath in between my teeth at the slow, painful intrusion.

"Cassidy?" Concern laced his voice. "Jesus, you're not—"

"No," I said quickly. "No. It's just been—a long time."

He was looking at me in something like awe and trepidation. "How long?"

I pulled a face. "I don't think this is the kind of question you're supposed to be asking the girl who's on top of you."

"How long, Cass?" His voice was persistent, and a little desperate.

"Nine years," I said grudgingly.

His eyes widened as I watched him put two and two together. I saw realization dawn: that was when we met.

"You—"

"I always wanted you," I interrupted, my voice quiet and embarrassed. Poor . He never stood a chance. "I think even before I knew it."

His eyes widened again behind the mask, and he opened his mouth to say something, closed it, and opened it again.

"Don't say anything," I whispered, leaning forward, breathing the words against his battered lips. When he tried to speak again, I tightened my muscles around him where he was nestled deep between my thighs.

The only thing that came from his mouth was a strangled cry of, "Jesus, Rourke—"

"Shhh," I soothed, surging against in the darkness. "For once, Deadpool, just don't even say a word."

He obliged, shutting his mouth and reaching up with worshipful hands to cup my breasts as I rocked against him, my own palms sliding heatedly over his hot, scarred skin. I found, suddenly, that there was a kind of silence I could bear: the kind in deep shadows, moving together, feeling his skin against mine without walls and without barriers, with every breath echoing softly in the resonating quiet of the night.

The tectonic plates shifted. The foundations of the earth moved. The continents came together, the earth reformed, and for the first time in my life, I was home.

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A/N: This fanfiction was a fun, exciting experiment in blending comic canon with movieverse.

In the movie, we catch a brief glimpse of Theresa Rourke Cassidy in X2 and The Last Stand. The first scene described in this fanfic (the break-in at the X-mansion, and Theresa's warning scream) is from X2, though I believe she is older in the movies—probably around 14 or so, where she's only about 10 here.

Her budding teen romance with Jamie Madrox is implied in the novelization of the films. In the comic, she ends up impregnated with his child—kind of.

So much of this fanfic was taken from the comics, and other bits were twisted around to fit my needs.

Deadpool's personality was more of the giddy comic-style than movieverse, and to be honest I pictured him more as his bulky comic counterpart as well, but I tried to incorporate the movieverse background and powers. His vague commentary on Fox was an allusion to his "comic awareness" (understanding that Deadpool's views are not necessarily my own), which I also tried to incorporate in Siryn's comment about him being the most aware person she knows. The scene with Kitty, of course, in reference to one of the most famous scenes in Deadpool comic history.

"Uncle Tommy" is a familiarization of the comic character Black Tom, and for those of you who've read the comic, you know that he actually stole Theresa (Siryn) away from her father when she was a child and raised her as his own. Most of this adaption of Theresa's childhood fits canon-concept (including being raised in Ireland), though obviously it has been altered. Eventually, in the comic, Theresa joins the X-men, and meets and falls in love with Deadpool. I think it's a very moving story arc and was cut brutally short when it could have been a long, bittersweet movement.

"I've stood up for you…haven't I?"

This line was taken from Deadpool #5 (1997, writer: Joe Kelly), though the circumstances are slightly different (more of this dialogue was adapted as well, in reference to Killebrew/Stryker). I believe, in the comic anyway, that this is also where Theresa reveals that she knows Deadpool has been watching her while she sleeps, and that she feels safe because of it. Siryn's largest impact, too, is that she is always telling Deadpool how deeply she believes he has the capacity for goodness.

I love the idea of the merc with a mouth matched up with a fiery redhead with snark of her own, whose real power in fact lies in her voice. In the Origins movie, of course, Deadpool's voice is taken from him—however momentarily—when his mouth is sewn shut and allowed to heal over. Likewise, in the comics, Maria Callasantos tears out Siryn's throat, effectively silencing her until the wound can be fully healed. There is such symmetry there, a real beauty.

True empathy, I think.

On top of blending the comic-canon and movieverse, I was also trying to keep this in fitting with the rest of my…um, Octoberverse? (See The Victor, Goes the Spoils: An Interlude, and We Don't Believe in Chance). I believe it can be read on its own as a standalone, but other readers may notice familiar names and situations (I fucking love the car bit, as well as its complement in We Don't Believe in Chance). I believe the timeline is kept appropriate (which the exception of Theresa's age) as following movieverse canon and Octoberverse. Which sometimes is more math than my right-brained lifestyle can handle.

As for inconsistencies:

In the comic, Maria/Feral is killed by Sabertooth, though not in anyway remotely near the context described here. Likewise, I know that Jubilation Lee does appear in all three X-men movies, but I liked the idea of her coming in at the end of this, after Logan has had years to heal from the death of Jean Grey, and after Rogue (and presumably, to a lesser extent, Terry) has been removed from his life. He needs someone to look after, I think, and I hated to leave him alone. :)

As an aside, I have altered names for my own preferences (I believe Theresa is referred to as Terry in the comics, but I just love her middle/last names so much that I had to play with them for Deadpool, and "Tessa" seemed a little more "Irish" to me—I don't have any idea why).

I recognize in retrospect that this story had less ACTUAL smut and more abbreviated, ending-smut, which I hope doesn't disappoint anyone. Still, the purpose was a character examination (or two), and not the sex itself, soooo…sorry? :(

I also recognize that I can't write funny dialogue to save my life, and maybe I have shortchanged Deadpool in this way. However, I think I am happy with the final outcome, and I hope you've enjoyed the ride.