Twice Shy

This is the sequel to Once Bitten.

It was never dark here, in the woods behind the mansion, but then to Logan, it was never truly dark, his mutant eyes, like those of his namesake the Wolverine, needed only the scantiest amount of light to function. Never truly dark, but that wasn’t quite true, was it now? It had been dark in that castle in Romania, real dark, so dark even he had trouble seeing. And he’d let the other kids; that was the team, they were all kids really, Xavier’s kids, all off upon the Children’s Crusade; he’d let the kids have their torches, said that he and the Elf could see fine. Elf, Christ, Elf… if only he’d thought a moment more, hung onto one for backup, in case this kid they had gone to find needed it, or as back up, or to shine in some rube’s eyes…

Not that it would have come to much use, not if the thing that had bitten Elf was anything like Dracula. He still remembered sorely their fight in Central Park, when he was only defeated because ‘Ro had rejected his thrall and won his admiration, and the second had come out even worse, the creep had stolen his mind and turned him against his friends, and they’d only won at the price of a smart lady’s life, or more accurately, the shadow of it.

He’d held her, sweet doomed Rachel, in his arms at the top of the cliff, the wind blowing in their hair, she looking up into his eyes with an expression of incalculable gratitude. And he’d done the one thing that had to be done, the one thing none of the rest of the team could do.

But could he do that for Elf, take him into his arms, hold him, tell him that everything’s alright, and plunge a stake into his unbeating heart. Could he watch Elf crumble into dust, to be swept into the wind, to be motes in the rise of the sun?

How much of a shadow would dust cast? Elf would just become another in a litany of disaster begun with Thunderbird and continued with Jeannie, a small note that nobody would notice in the grand song, because he wasn’t about grand sacrifice, he was just mister wrong-place-wrong-time, he was just a midnight snack for some monster. Dust, no grave, no memorial, no memory. While Logan cared little for such things, lived too much in his world of moments, he knew Elf cared for posterity, no, not posterity, while another might glibly comment on a hunger for fame, that was not what drove him onward, no it was not posterity, but the grand design of his beautiful, beatific God.

And what use would that great and shining God have for Elf now? Elf, who had spoken so tenderly of his universal love? Logan’s mind tricked back to that tower room, tomb almost for everything Kurt was, thick with dust, and that cross lying there, in the dust, almost invisible, its shine dulled with the blood of its owner. A desperate defence, perhaps, thwarted by the monster’s strength? Or cast away as it began to burn into blue-furred flesh? And where was the thing that had done this, because if he weren’t in hell, he sure was going to put him there. And he’d bring Elf with him, because he might not believe in crosses and resurrections and gods unseen and unheard, but he did believe in Kurt. Sure, he might call Petey pure hearted, but it was that swashbuckling peon of virtue, who really deserved it.

Shadows, spirits, souls. He saw Elf’s silhouette against that huge moon of midsummer. He moved differently now. Sure, he was still Elf, but something had gone, been stolen in mildewed darkness. And there was the rub, he was still Kurt, sweet natured Kurt Wagner, with blood upon his fingers; no, forget the blood, the blood doesn’t matter. He was still Kurt, reaching out desperately from the darkness, like a drowning man with barely his hand above the water, but still reaching out, questing out, for that hand, that rope, that hook, which would bring him home to land.

He’s back to last night again. Back to that moment before… before, Kurt had come back, done a Houdini on fate, and returned here, home. Screwed the evidence, and been sitting there on his window sill, damp and a bit musty, but there. They’d all been saying he was dead, that there was no way out, that if he weren’t they’d have had contact, kept offering him cookies and psychic therapy, okay the cookies were choc-orange and Kitty’s, but no way was he letting Chuck into his head. He could read the signals well enough anyway, they said, we think you’ve gone completely buggy, we think you’ve gone nuts, but you’re our nuts, and we’ll get over this together. Bull, he’d heard that all before, too many times before, with Mack and Heather, and no, he was still crazy and all the cookies and psycho-therapy in the world wasn’t going to help him.

Elf was keeping low, like he had taught him, in those sunny days, when the woods had become their danger room, where trees, wits and adamantium claws had replaced robots, flame throwers, and trick floors. Not just because it was better, but because they liked it, deadly silence alternating with near hysterical laughter. Sure, the beer was part of it, as was their ostensible excuse of “training”, which was always followed by some aspersion on their sanity, but it was friendship. It was friendship, it was play, it was… Logan didn’t know, but it made his heart beat faster, harder than it should and always left a smile lingering on his lips, as he lit up his cigar and laughed at the still-panting Kurt. Panting, Kurt wasn’t going to do any more of that, or breathing for that matter. Could be useful in case of a gas attack, said the super-spy, the good soldier, the strategist, and he told them all to take a hike, to the Lawrentians maybe, backwards, in full kit minus boots, in midwinter.

Then, the Elf had moved, well, impishly, prepared to jump out on him only because it was fun. He might have a little in common with Yukio there, doing dangerous things for fun, sure the ronin was a friend and all, but she liked to sneak up on him and poke him on the shoulder, or shout, or cry out a perfectly formed haiku on samurai swords.

They had the same foolhardy thrill-seeking streak, the same air of casual touristry before the hand of fate, so why did comparing the two rest so uneasy in his mind?

The difference is, that Kurt moved like that then, with reckless abandon, with showmanship and style; because it was his right to, he said, that doing what he did with style and finesse (and quite possibly a beautiful damsel upon his arm) made it all worthwhile; for a moment he was not Kurt Wagner, gypsy, mutant and social and loner, but he could be the Nightcrawler, bold adventurer and reckless charmer. He’d seen the change happen, and he thinks it won’t happen again.

That Kurt moved with stylish flourishes, begging to be seen, demanding an audience, living upon applause and sighs like manna. He never really learned from their adventures in the woods, or at least Logan never thought so, while he admired his friend-foe’s ninja prowess, and listened intently to his explanations, he never adopted it for himself. For a moment, Logan begrudges that; that Kurt wouldn’t listen, or at least learn, and he had to train up Kitty in his stead.

But things have changed, Kurt’s learned his lesson, as he moves stealthily through the undergrowth, slipping between the trees like a summer breeze, barely visible even to the man who taught him, and he prays that Yukio will never have to learn a lesson like that; a short, brutal and essentially fatal lesson.

Teeth tearing through throat, breaking skin, tearing muscle; blood trickling down his neck, onto his chest and his dark costume; clumsy fingers desperately clutching at the chain upon his neck, not quite making it before it starts to burn like quicklime, staining his white gloves with liquid life, as his heart slows and grows still; his mind burning like his skin, desperate for air, desperate for life, desperate…

He can see it all too easily. He knows too much about death, about ways of dying, hell, he’s done some of them, bought the tour t-shirt, as black and beautiful as oblivion, no writing, an oblique signal to those who had visited the undiscovered country yet returned. And Kurt hadn’t returned, not really, he’d stayed there, he’d died for real.

No more playing games, no more child-soldiery, no more laughter and japes. And he was glad, so glad, it made him perversely happy, no, not happy, satisfied. What frightened Logan now, wasn’t what his friend had become, it was his reaction. That he found some satisfaction in his Elf’s death, in his terror and damnation, that he found himself at once drawn to it and glad of it, glad of what it signified, glad that it might stop those kids he worked with sleepwalking their way to their doom. And there was something else, something beyond his own experience, pulling at him, calling to him, just as the Kurt-phantom that had so stalked him before this, the return.

Saying that Elf’s changed, that’s Elf’s different, that Elf has become something new and strange, was easy, easy until he’d seen him there. He was sitting, in that strange impossible crouching fashion of his, on his toes, ankles together, legs bent together as if he was about to make a dive. Just sitting there on a tree-stump the way he did. Just being Kurt Wagner, it was as if nothing had changed at all.

Then moved his hand to his mouth, the fangs whiter and sharper in the moonlight, or maybe it wasn’t the moonlight at all. Kurt Wagner, licking rabbit blood off his fingers. Reddish darkness against midnight blue skin, blood rubies on velvet, life on death, and a freakishly pink tongue, somehow he’s always expected it to be blue with the rest of him, licking it into his mouth, like a cat cleaning his paws. He was totally absorbed in what he was doing, not noticing Logan come close behind the trees, clearly not as many lessons had been learnt as he’d assumed.

Must’ve got hungry again, those rabbits they’d caught together must not have been enough, that or he was real hungry. Images of running bundles of brown flecked fur flashed past his eyes, kills as swift and painless as his own, the same instincts, the same skill. Two hunters hunting against a midsummer moon, large and bloated, both joined body and soul in the spirit of the hunt. Christ, how much would he have ate lately? How long would it have taken Kurt to overcome the credos of a lifetime and join the hunt?

And then he was gone, gone in an explosion of brimstone smoke. For the life of him, Logan swore he hadn’t made a noise, and mama Logan didn’t have stupid children, ‘cept he didn’t know who his mother was, which made it a goddamn stupid turn of phrase, and substituting his sensei, the man-demon Ogun, just made it worse. He hadn’t broken a twig, he was upwind of the unsuspecting Elf, and now he couldn’t smell a single trace of that sulphurous scent. Like a dream, he’d vanished.

“Looking for me?” a voice whispered into his ear, and he whirled, claws already working loose of his hands, instinctively battle-ready, only to meet that grinning face. But Kurt wasn’t behind him, he wasn’t by his ear; instead he was leaning against a tree about fifteen yards away, “Logan, I could always move faster than you, why should that be different now?”

Something wasn’t quite right here, and then his mind latched onto what his supranaturally strong senses were telling him. No scent. Even the faint traces of brimstone had gone. His nose wrinkled, disbelieving his mind, “Ah, yes, I don’t smell much these days, do I, geliebter Freund. Jein, when I’m up close, but it’s faint, and I can tell you’re having trouble, but then so did those Alsatians, Gott sei dank. Though, I have to say, I’d be surprised if God has anything to do with me anymore.”

The Elf’s voice had a tremble to it now, most folks would not have even believed it was his, but not Logan, it was the same voice he’d used when they’d gone to the Salem Movie Fest, it was the same voice he’s used when he’d pushed him into leaving off the image inducer, it was the same disbelieving voice he’d used when Amanda Sefton had continued to date him, even after she’d seen him au naturel, as it were.

Fear, doubt and loathing, why hadn’t Logan thought? Why hadn’t he figured this out, he knew Elf, how he thought, how he behaved; and yet, he hadn’t even considered Kurt’s reaction to his unwilling transformation. While he’d thought of pain, it was brief and transitory; when he’d thought of changes, it had been as a fellow warrior watching a young stippling grow into its prime, a prime Kurt would never have now, it was not his destiny to grow old, to change, to flourish, indeed, this change would be his last; when he’d watched Kurt move, sleek muscles under that blue skin, moving like water over stones, he’d admired the grace and deadly beauty, not the sacrifice.

What kind of friend was he? Ignorant to his friend’s needs, insensitive to any pain save his own, was that an honourable way for a man to behave, let alone a companion, a friend, a buddy? And he was doing it again, thinking inside of himself, instead of outwards, towards his friend, slumped now against an old oak, the cockiness of a moment ago gone into a whirlpool of pain and torment. He needed to reach out, and this time, those blue hands would not dissolve into smoke, this was no dream. This was life, or death perhaps to Kurt, and this was real. He’d always said that he’d believed in the tangible, now was the time to put it to the test.

He held him there, in his arms, a strangely not-strange sensation, and just held him. Kurt’s head was upon his shoulder, as his body shook with fear-tinged grief, and he held him there, stood firm, the stubble on his chin catching in that thick and curled hair, and kept telling him everything was going to be alright. And Kurt eventually raised his head and looked down into his eyes with a look of incalculable gratitude.

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