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Part One

Metal, smooth and unyielding. Consuming. Too heavy to move, too thick to break ... and she’d tried. Goddess, she’d tried. Sharp pain lanced through her fingers, and she knew her blood stained the tiny grooves her nails had managed to make - nothing but a feeble gesture! - but not that, not the aching of her cramped muscles, not the raw feeling in her throat after her voice had given out, nothing compared to the pressure against her chest, crushing her. The dark, the cold ... stealing her air, bit by bit, as sneaky as any thief, and as relentless as any enemy. It was running out ... her time, her breath, her sanity. But it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. It was too dark to see and too easy to let go ... she knew she couldn’t fight it. Not then, and not now. And just like before, another had died ... in her mind she could feel his cold flesh beside her, and see his life's blood, branding her. As before. As always. She was panting now, sucking in the tiny bits of air as she could, but soon even that would be gone. All of it would be gone ...

* * * * *

“Catch.”

With barely a glance at the younger man Wolverine swiped the bottle out of the air one-handed, twisting off the cap and downing half of the piss-poor excuse for a beer in one swig. He’d long since given up trying to enlighten these people on their alcohol choices. It just meant more of the good stuff for him. And besides, what did it really matter? The best he could hope for either way was a few minutes of numbness.

“Thanks.” He held the bottle up in a mock salute, and didn’t protest beyond an arched eyebrow when Scott took a seat beside him on the stone bench.

“No problem. Figured you could use one.” Logan watched out of the corner of his eye as Scott, leaning forward to rest his arms on his knees, rolled the bottle between his palms and sighed heavily. “We both could.”

A grunt was his only answer, and Logan returned to staring blankly across the expertly groomed mansion grounds, watching as the afternoon sun edged closer to the horizon. He never would have thought it possible, but somehow he had grown to tolerate One-Eye’s presence ... even expect it. After the boy’d learned to shut his mouth and stop trying to talk about things that shouldn’t be talked about, anyway. Everyone around here might think him thick as a brick, but Logan could read between the lines well enough. Despite whatever mask Scott might wear in front of the kids or even some of the other teachers, Logan knew better. After all these months Junior was still as lost as a stray puppy, and hell ... if it helped to hang out and have a beer once in a while, so be it.

Logan took another swig, scowling again at the taste, then turned a critical eye to Scott. It was usually next to impossible to figure out how he was feeling from a simple glance - like it or not, being unable to look into someone's eyes did leave most people at a severe disadvantage. But, of course, Logan wasn't most people. “How’re you doin’?”

Not so long ago that would have been a loaded question, but enough time had passed that not every little thing had to do with that damned lake. Scott didn’t even flinch before answering. “A little sore still, but nothing I can’t handle.” He rolled his shoulders as if that proved his point. “Hank ran some tests to make sure nothing got screwed up,” he added, tapping his visor. “At least, not more than it already is.” A wry smile. Not so long ago, that would not have been possible, either.

“And the kid?”

“Fine. Lucky,” Scott amended after a moment. “Turns out he actually has family who gives a shit about him. He just panicked and ran away, got caught up with the wrong crowd. The professor arranged for him to go home this morning.” He snorted laughter, straightening up and taking another, deep pull on his beer. “Who’d have thought there were still parents like that out there, huh? Wonders never cease.”

This time it was Logan who curled his lip, shaking his head at One-Eye’s attempt at humor. The kid could pretend, but Logan knew he bought into Xavier’s little fantasy hook, line and sinker. Hell “ they all did, to one degree or another, for one reason or another, or they wouldn’t still be here.

“What about ‘Ro?”

Scott’s eyes might be covered, but that did nothing to hide his startled reaction to Logan's question. “She's fine. Why wouldn’t she be fine?” He spoke slowly, and Logan knew he was thinking back over the last few days, trying to remember if anything had been out of the ordinary. And if it had been anything obvious, Logan had no doubt the kid would have remembered “ though he’d never admit as much out loud, Summers had earned Logan’s respect on the attention-to-detail front.

But this wasn’t anything obvious. Even the great Wolverine, for all his vaunted senses, hadn’t noticed anything at first. At least nothing specific. Fuck ... he didn’t think he’d ever forget the scene that greeted him and the Elf when they'd finally gotten through the rubble “ and he wouldn’t have thought there was anything left in the world that could shock him “ but everything had returned to what passed for normal around here so quickly that she’d managed to fool him for a while. And everyone else, apparently.

“I know you were catchin’ forty winks when we found ya, Slim, but ain’t ya put two and two together by now?” Logan gestured toward the sky, where thin, sometimes angry-looking gray clouds had been skating along what should have been flawless blue for days now. He watched, eyes narrowed, as Scott seemed to notice the change for the first time. “We found you two under fuck-knows how much steel and concrete. And it took us half a day to get there. I know I ain’t been here long enough to earn a gold watch for time served, but even I’ve managed to figure out that’s not exactly the ideal situation for ‘Ro to get caught in.”

Scott’s brow furrowed, and Logan felt a sharp surge of irritation. One-Eye was the flamin’ leader, and he claimed to be her friend. Maybe he had a lot of crap rolling around in his head these days, but couldn’t he get it out of his ass long enough to see what was going on? Logan shouldn’t have to be the one to point these things out. He barely even knew the woman.

“She would have said something to me,” Scott said, though his stoic face was still turned toward the sky, the telltale muscle in his jaw twitching. His voice sounded self-assured, but to Logan’s ears it rang false. “We’ve trained for that type of situation, for years now.” Ororo’s claustrophobia wasn’t a secret to anyone on the team “ it couldn’t be, if she was to work in the field, and Logan knew she’d be the first one to say as much. “She has better control than you give her credit for, Wolverine.”

Logan just grunted, then finished off what remained of his beer. “You didn’t see her, Cyke.” He was tempted to describe it in vivid detail, to show Summers just how wrong he was. To explain how he and Kurt had found them, flashlights piercing the darkness and dust to reveal a woman who barely seemed like Ororo shivering and close to hyperventilating, one hand curled in Scott's uniform in a death-grip, clutching his unconscious body close. Maybe he should tell Scott about how her nails had been shredded and bloody, how she had barely responded when Kurt stroked her hair, trying to calm her. How her eyes had been a stark, unsettling white as they carried them out, her skin cold as ice, and she hadn't seemed to recognize any of them ...

But regardless of how much Logan usually enjoyed getting a rise out of Summers, this wasn’t the time, and he had a feeling ‘Ro wouldn’t appreciate him discussing her business - especially business she probably didn't even realize he knew. “All of us got control issues. I’m not sayin’ she’s got a problem far as that’s concerned. That don't mean she can't lose it once in a while.”

Silence stretched between them, broken only by the sharp sound of Logan cracking his neck. He could almost hear the wheels in Scott’s head turning, picking apart this revelation like it was one of his damned puzzles. There wasn’t really any answer to be found, though, and to be honest Logan wasn’t even sure why he brought it up. Confirmation that he wasn’t losing his mind, maybe. Sometimes his enhanced senses were more of a curse than anything else, and it was rarely a simple thing to figure out just what the hell he was picking up. And to make it worse everything had felt out of sorts since they’d gotten back from rescuing the would-be rescuers ... even the air felt heavy and restless, like the pregnant pause before a thunderstorm that never came. It was making him feel uneasy, off-balance - surlier than usual - but it was some small consolation to find out that it was more than just a product of his own messed-up head.

“She would tell me if there was a problem.” Logan rolled his eyes. All that thinking, and that was the best Summers could come up with? Scott turned toward him, the ever-present worry lines seeming more pronounced, and Logan felt the faintest pang of guilt. When something seemed so patently obvious, it pissed him off that everyone else couldn't see it. “She needs her privacy, that’s all. She likes to work things out on her own.”

“I’m sure yer right.” Logan wasn’t sure of any such thing, but he couldn’t have explained why. “You know her a hell of a lot better than I do.”

Scott nodded at that, thoughtfully, and with a deep sigh Logan stood and stretched. He’d been sitting on that damn bench way longer than he should have, and his muscles ached in protest. That feeling of unease made him even more restless than usual, and he couldn’t sit still for any length of time. “Thanks for the beer, Slim.”

“Yeah. Anytime.” Scott's voice was distant, distracted, and though his intention had been to give Scott something to think about, Logan hoped the kid didn't decide to turn right around and interrogate 'Ro on her mental state.

Shaking his head at the unsettling thought of an unseasonable blizzard, Logan just waved vaguely in response as he strode back into the mansion and away from that eerie sky.

* * * * *

Ororo resisted the temptation to throw the pen across the room in frustration, at the last second managing to set it down carefully next to the stack of papers on her desk instead. She had been at this for hours, and yet it didn’t seem she’d made a dent in her work. No matter what she tried, she couldn't seem to focus for more than a few minutes at a time.

Pushing back in her chair, Ororo folded her arms on her desk and lowered her head, giving her eyes the rest her body seemed unable to accept. She tried to keep the same, familiar routine after she came home - was brought home, she reminded herself - retiring to her room shortly after dinner and rising with the sun. But the instant she closed her eyes she was back in that place ... less than a week ago or more than 20 years in the past, it didn't matter ... the images blurred and overlapped, building one over the other until it felt as if she were suffocating ...

Abruptly Ororo sat up, jerking out of the light doze she'd fallen into, her chest feeling tight and her breathing labored. The pen fell to the arboretum floor with a clatter, the high ceilings magnifying the sound in the dark silence. She flinched, even though she knew it was far too late - or early - to be disturbing anyone.

"Can't sleep?"

Ororo gasped, one hand flying up to her throat as a seemingly disembodied voice floated to her from the darkened doorway. It was even more disorienting that the door wasn't where she expected it to be - since her return her office had felt too confining, and Ororo had taken to working in the arboretum instead, large and open and surrounded by windows and sky and fresh air whenever she desired. However, it also meant that people could walk in on her whenever they wished. "Who's there?" she demanded as she rose to her feet, eyes narrowing, though there was only one real possibility at this time of night.

"Just me." Logan detached himself from the shadows, dark eyes glittering at her in the filtered moonlight. His gaze left hers long enough to take in the desk, her papers, and her disheveled appearance. Absently Ororo brushed her long hair out of her eyes. At one point it had been pulled back in a ponytail, but had since fallen loose. "Don't mean to intrude, but seein' as we're the only two prowling around this time of night, I figured we might as well do it together."

"I am not 'prowling,' " Ororo pointed out, folding her arms over chest. But she did nothing to stop his slow, steady approach. His grace seemed to be unconscious ... something she'd certainly noticed before - how could she not? - but here in the quiet darkness with nothing to distract her, it was even more enthralling. She shook her head slightly to clear it.

Logan shrugged, the corner of his mouth drawing up into a smile that looked more like a snarl. "Still up in the middle of the night for no good reason. Sounds like prowling to me."

"I am grading papers, lest you could not tell." Ororo gestured toward her desk, but didn't turn from his penetrating gaze.

"Looked more like sleeping on 'em."

Instead of stopping at her desk he continued past, deeper into the arboretum and among the riot of ferns and flowers and palm trees. She watched him for a moment, puzzled and more than a little irritated, then followed out of curiosity, their bare feet silent on the cold floor.

"You were spying on me?"

"Darlin', you're not exactly hidin' in here." He glanced back at her and grinned again, flashing sharp white teeth. "Y'know, if you're so tired, you could always give your bed a whirl."

He stopped a couple of feet short of her orchids, then dropped down to settle on the tiled floor, leaning back on his arms with his legs splayed before him. "Make yourself at home," Ororo muttered, knowing he could still hear her. Nevertheless she found herself lowering to the floor beside him, legs crossed. The full, bright moon hung directly in front of them, its light obscured by the restless shifting of clouds. "And besides, you are a fine one to speak of sleeping in one's own bed."

If she expected him to be offended at the double entendre, it didn't quite work. He snorted laughter. "You got me there."

They were quiet then, but it was comfortable between them ... it usually was, and even though Ororo had always found it odd that she could be so at ease around a man she barely knew, it didn't change the fact that it had almost always been that way. More than once she'd found him loping along beside her when she took a walk in the woods, or perched on the roof above her attic loft, staring off into the distance ... even more so after what had happened at Alkali Lake. Rarely did they speak more than a few passing words to each other, but Ororo could not deny that she found a solace in his presence that she couldn't quite seem to find with anyone else.

This time, however, Ororo wasn't completely content with their usual silence. She watched his profile, jaw tense and eyes foreboding even now, when he seemed otherwise at ease. It didn't seem he ever let down his guard ...

"What keeps you up tonight?" Her voice was quiet, barely above a whisper, though there was no one around to overhear.

Logan shot her a glance. "Same thing that always keeps me up."

Ororo nodded slowly, offering him a small smile even though she knew it wasn't any comfort. They all knew of his nightmares, but with the hours she kept Ororo suspected she was the only one who knew of their frequency. Some were of Jean, she had little doubt - that was one they all shared - but there was more to it than that.

"And you."

This time it was Ororo who was startled, her brow furrowed. "Me?" she echoed, searching his shadowed face for an explanation that wasn't there.

"Ya really think you can keep your little late-night adventures from me?" he countered.

Ororo tensed. She hadn't thought to keep her restlessness from him, or anyone else, but it wasn't something she could control - and regardless, it was a personal matter. She'd stay in her room if she could, but lately she could barely even tolerate a roof over her head. And her lack of focus and sleep truly was affecting her work - her only hope of catching up was these late-night grading sessions.

"I - "

"And don't think I haven't noticed the weather jumpin' all over the place, either. More subtle than a hurricane, maybe, but you can't fool me on that one, darlin'." Reflexively Ororo glanced outside, her eyes narrowing. Goddess, she hadn't even noticed ... "While I can't say's I blame ya, you haven't been at the meals with the others lately, and Kitty missed ya at movie night last night."

"What I do or do not do is not your concern, Wolverine." The mention of Kitten pained her, and the guilt brought an edge of anger to her voice. The last thing she wanted was to hurt the children, even if it was just a movie night. She prided herself on being someone they could depend on, especially now after they'd lost so much, and now she was starting to let them down.

"No, it ain't, except without you as a buffer I got the rugrats climbin' all over me." She had expected an argument, and the abrupt shift made her laugh despite her mood - and earned her another wolfish half-smile in return.

"I do apologize for that," she conceded, and after a moment sighed softly. She had been told that Logan and Kurt were the ones who found her and an unconscious Scott, hours after the building had collapsed around them while they were searching for the missing child (whom Logan and Kurt later managed to track down and retrieve safely), but she remembered nothing until they'd returned to the medbay. Until now no one but the professor had even remotely broached the subject with her, and even he had backed off when she refused his counsel. Just the thought of how she must have appeared, what Logan must think of her now … she was thankful that the darkness could hide her face now. "I will work through this. I have to. I am just having a ... difficult time."

Logan shook his head. "Hey, I hear ya, darlin'. I don't like people crawlin' around uninvited in my personal business, either. Just pointin' out a few things, is all."

Ororo nodded again, then bit her lower lip and turned back to the night sky. Closing her eyes she reached out, sensing for the first time the sky's turmoil that she knew reflected her own. It was subtle and superficial, but she still should have noticed it ... her focus had been turned too much inward as she fought to regain her control. Even now that she was concentrating it was more difficult than it should have been, balancing the pressure and soothing the winds, but this much, at least, was within her power to fix ...

After a few moments Ororo opened her eyes again, not surprised to find Logan's dark gaze trained on her. It was intense, as always, and equally as unreadable. There was concern there, she could detect that much, which touched her more deeply than she cared to admit - and an awareness that was as disturbing as it was surprisingly reassuring. She smiled, and for the first time in more than a week it was almost genuine. "Enjoy the rest of your evening, Logan," she whispered, gripping his shoulder lightly as she rose gracefully to her feet, then left him behind in the now unimpeded brilliance of the moon.




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