SONATA OF MOONLIGHT AND GHOSTS

Somethingís _wrong_, I thought. Not the "oh, damn, I rolled over on a rock" kind of wrong, or the "a noise, thereís he who made the noise, take him!" kind of wrong either. I can deal with those. This was something else. Something serious, since there was a lump of ice where my gut used to be, although my conscious brain hadnít even started figuring yet.

The smell. Yep. It was coming off Logan, in waves. Anticipation, fear and rage. And beneath it was something twisted and almost, but not quite, sexual. Crazy. Crazy man. Senses screamed that heíd go berserk any second. Sane would be to get out of here, out of the X-Men mess, and...and what? Three Eyes? Not that much saner, by most peopleís reckonings. And then there was Logan.

He stood a few feet away, breathing in even, measured breaths. Too measured for my liking. I knew that if he turned my way, Iíd see the animal looking out through his eyes, taunting me. Just out of my reach.

Weíd gone hunting after lunch. No game, except for some rabbits. Squirrels. That sort of thing. So we found something else to do. Lit a fire after that, fell asleep. During the afternoon we had slowly circled back to the mansion. There was a meadow at the bottom of the hill, a few trees obscured the view beyond that, but we were practically sleeping in the backyard of the Mansion. Now the full moon rose over the trees, bright enough to dim out the stars.

I got up, kept my distance. He didnít turn, didnít acknowledge me in the slightest. He stared down at the meadow. Something large was moving around there, I too could see that. So what? I wasnít in the mood for hunting anyway. Then purple hair glimmered in the moonlight and another smell hit my nostrils. Blood. Exhaustion. Mixed with something I didnít recognise before olfactory receptors did and went numb, and at last my mind caught up with my body.

Betsy. Canít say Iíve ever spent much time in her company. Dunno why, except that sheís got money, breeding and looks. She might as well have "English Nobility" tattoed all over her forehead, and I have my own prejudices, thank you very much. Thatís what I tell myself most of the time, when I wonder why I avoid her. Easier that way.

Because sometimes when you catch her looking at someone or even yourself, you donít see the considerate and delicate telepath. Itís something else, so cold and so passionless that words canít describe it. Itís as if there was an alien living behind those purple eyes, taking notes on humans and their behaviour. The discipline of the Hand is like that. Cold. It suits her better than it would most of us. And although itís not hers by choice, itís hers nonetheless.

"Oh shit!" I exclaimed, leaping forward.

Loganís hand caught me mid-leap, pulled me back by sheer strength since the grip was _very_ badly applied. Arrogant little ass-hole, thinks he can tell me what to do...And then I realised that even if I could recognise the smell of neurotoxins, _he_ had had a first-hand experience. Lady Mariko Yashida. Daimyo and First of the Yashida Clan.

"Warren got her with his flechettes. I seen it a couple of times before. Sheís gonna be okay", he said, his voice gravelly, but there was no trace of the animal in his eyes. Anguish, yes, but he wasnít about to go crazy on me.

Her body language was all wrong. She moved drunkenly, sluggishly and her left foot was dragging. It seemed as if she was heading for the trees, but she couldnít keep going that far. We watched her sink to her knees, then fall onto her side as cramping stomach muscles were unable to support her weight. There was a strangled sound that must have been her trying to scream through spasming vocal cords.

"Logan, you sure about this?"

He didnít answer, and I realised that he was far away. He was in the sanctuary of an ancient Japanese fortress, holding Lady Mariko Yashida in his arms, as she begged him to end her suffering.

"I couldnít do it", he said to no-one in particular.

"Couldnít do what?"

"Kill her. Míiko. She was hurtiní so bad she almost couldnít speak, but she kept begginí me. Aní I kept sayiní no. ĎTil...and then I fucked it up. Clean and quick, right? Three holes in your heart, and youíre gone, right?"

A laugh that might have been a sob. Or the other way round.

"With her, I ran through the lung. It collapsed, with that awful sound, and she started chokiní on the blood. I tried to end it quick, tried to get to something vital, but she wouldnít die. My claws cuttiní through her flesh...She looked at me, ya know. All the time. Like she couldnít believe what I was doiní, what was happeniní to her. And I stabbed her again and again, gettiní more and more desperate...and then I noticed that she wasnít breathiní anymore. Dead, and sheíd been that way awhile, and I had butchered her corpse. I really fucked it up, huh?"

He drew a shaking breath, then looked at me, straight at me. Like he was back here and now.

"Probably died oí the toxin anyway", he said. "There was plenty of time."

In the meadow, Betsy had stopped twitching. She lay on her side, breathing deeply, the way one does to wash the pain away. The smell of neurotoxin was almost gone, and instead there was a salt tang from her tears in the air. I had never seen her cry. I wondered if the alien could cry.

"A hard way to go", I said, not taking my eyes from Betsy.

She got to her feet, swayed for a moment, steadied herself with a visible effort and started to pick her way through the meadow. It was uneven ground and she went down a couple of times, but when she stepped out on the lawn in front of the house, some of her usual grace had returned. She didnít look back.

"The hardest", he said.

==

II

Weíre not friends, Betsy and I. We have the wrong things in common to ever be friends. But sheís never been anything but courteous to me; staying out of my business, letting matters slide, never demanding answers I couldnít or wouldnít give. What I had seen...it was wrong that I had seen it. It was wrong that it had happened at all.

I found her in the small rec room, where the morning light filtered in through Venetian blinds. She was playing the grand piano, the keys so effectively muted that it was impossible to recognise the piece. The cover said Beethoven.

"Bets?"

She inclined her head to indicate she had heard. The inaudible music continued to flow under her hands.

"Bets, I got this friend. Nameís JoJo. She lives downstairs from Logan and me, turns tricks. They get rough, she yells and we help her out. No problem there. The problem is the guy she calls her boyfriend."

I stared at her back, willing her to turn around, but she didnít.

"He hurts her", I said gently. "Hurts her real bad. Iíve seen it, and Iím scared for her."

She turned then, and when she looked at me, I saw there were shutters and blinds in her eyes. Something had lived inside those eyes once, but it was a long time ago.

"I got a friend, too, Kai", she said. "She always speaks in riddles. I never understand."

==

III

"I...coulda told...you", Logan panted.

My legs were firmly scissored around his waist. I put some more pressure on the armbar, waiting for him to either tap out or explode into action.

"She thinks... he canít help it", he said, wrenching out of the lock with a loud pop.

I let go of his waist, rolled out of reach, got to my feet, and before he got the shoulder joint under control again, I dove for his legs. Some minutes of unclean holds and throws followed, until we broke away from each other and stood face to face again.

"Yeah, right."

Yeah, _fucking_ right. One of these nights, Betsy wouldnít be going back to the Mansion, because she would be dead, all thanks to Warren, who couldnít help it.

"She thinks sheís fast enough to avoid serious damage," he went on.

Iíd seen Warren extend himself. Only once, and on tape, but it was enough. Iíd heard his avian screech and seen his twisted face, as he fired a cloud of flechettes at a hundred miles an hour, sharp and heavy enough to go right through a phone book. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. If you stood next to him, when that happened, you would be shish kabob, fast or not.

"I didnít know she was that stupid", I said, and I was very angry.

He lunged for me. I darted in under his guard, and out again, since follow-up was impossible, and we continued to circle each other.

"Thatís what they say about Míiko", he said. "Stupid. Cut herself with the poisoned blade. How dumb can you get? Pretty lady like that trying to play with the big boys, Ďcourse she gonna get hurt."

He came in low, following up with a round-kick, which sent us both to the floor. His upper body strength was slightly greater than mine, but my flexibility compensated for that, and we wrestled until I made a mistake, and his arm locked around my neck.

"She kept her promise, Kai," he told me quietly. "Maybe I didnít figure exactly what it was she had promised me, but _she_ knew. And if I had stepped between her and what she saw as her honourable duty, sheíd have shucked me and stuck to the promise anyway."

I sucked in a big breath, elbowed him in the chin, and rolled. I ended up on my stomach, instead of my back, and he was still on top.

"She looks kinda timid in the pics, I know. Sittiní in the garden, hugginí Akiko, all that warmth and light stuff. But if ya ever seen her come your way, the Honour Sword in hand, yaíd know why _she_ was daimyo and First, and why Silver Samurai wasnít."

I tapped out. He let me up. I walked over to the bench, picked up my towel and my water bottle.

"I donít like stupidity", I said.

==

IV

Sometimes, I dream of phones ringing. Iím in an operatorís room, and Iím lifting receivers right and left, telling people to hold, because thereís one call I have to take, someone I have to talk to, but I canít find the line heís on, and all of a sudden all the lines are vacant. Thereís no need to answer anymore.

Sensei is just one phone call from being alive. But he chose not to make that phone call. They said he lifted the receiver and put it back, before he left the restaurant. Then he stepped into the car and the rest of it is history. Sometimes, when the roads are slippery and the sight is bad, I think of that. Of him.

I stood by the window and saw heavy rain clouds gather in the sky, and I thought of worn wheels and wipers. Logan had backed off, completely backed off after what happened in the gym, and we had made up, the only way we knew how. Words hurt too much and explanations only make it worse, but the scent and the body cannot lie. People like us need to make up quick before one or the other goes out and gets killed.

Logan understood. Of that I had no doubt. When people like us take a trip down Memory Lane, it takes some time getting back. You could lose yourself on the way. I feared that was exactly what I was doing. I wanted to get on with my life. To put Senseiís picture on the nightstand for everyone to see. I wanted to be able to tell them that he was my teacher, the closest thing I had to a father and that he was dead. But then theyíd ask how he died, and Iíd scream at them that the stupid fucking asshole, the bastard son of a bitch got into the car dead drunk and deserved to die. And that meant that Iíd betray him forever. You say it and it becomes true.

The truth is that he taught me everything. He is in every move I make. Sometimes, when I make a noise, shuffling my feet or walking into something, I can still feel him rapping me lightly on the offending joint, telling me in his quiet voice to lift, to lower, to turn out. He never had to raise that voice. He knew how to speak to me through a whole room of cries and thumps as bodies landed heavily on the tatami. How could he be dead? How could someone like that be dead?

He was not a handsome man, too worn, too thin, with a worried face. Except when he moved and you saw movements flowing like water, effortlessly, unhurriedly. When he moved, he had all the time in the world to do it. And one rainy evening, time caught up with him at last.

No. No, that wasnít how it was. Time had nothing to do with it, unless you mean the milliseconds right before he swerved off the road and hit the tree at seventy miles an hour. Way above the speed limit and dead drunk. The stupid fucker would have walked out of the restaurant with his usual precision and grace, probably gotten the key into the lock at the first try and congratulated himself on how he wasnít a wino at all, before he got out on the road and the rain began. Thatís truth, too.

A tile creaked under Loganís bare feet as he approached from behind. It was a courtesy he paid me, so I would know that he wasnít planning on sneaking up on me.

"Iím so pissed at him, Logan", I told him. "I wanna cherish his memory, but how can I, when I get hoppiní mad every time I think of him? Every time it _rains_, fígodssakes!

His arm came around me, hugging me tightly to his chest.

"Hell, Kai," he said thickly, "Iím mad at her, too. She didnít have to do that. She...I....It was always the Clan, you know? The Name. Even those precious moments when we were together, Iíd catch her lookiní right through me Ďcause she was thinkiní about Clan business. Then sheíd send me away, Ďcause of some honourable reason or another, aní Iíd board the plane knowiní that what she presented to me as her gift of love was really just what was left after the Clan had taken its due. Aní Iíd still cherish that gift, Ďcause it was all I had to keep me warm at night."

I hadnít known that. I thought uneasily about Three Eyes and Darius. The operations I had set up last month were running smoothly, but Iíd need to look in on them in a few weeks. Zach would forward anything that seemed urgent and Darius, well, Darius had his own ways of letting me know when he wanted me. Some of the things I did in my life could not include Logan. But nothing I had given to him had been leftovers. At least we had that

"Iím sorry", I told him.

He looked away, not ready for compassion yet. He had come a long way since refusing to leave her grave, shedding layer after layer of armour, but his candor was armour in itself. He could talk about her now. No one else could.

"She did what she had to do aní she did it the only way she knew how, darliní. When I ainít mad at her, Iím kinda proud of her. Whatever she did, it was her, yíknow?"

He was allowed to say he was mad at her. I wasnít allowed to agree with him. Better to stay on my own ground, if I wanted to give something back.

"Maybe it was that way for him, too", I said softly. "Maybe that last stupid stunt was what he was really like."

"Does it matter?"

Fair question. I thought about that.

"It drives me bugfuck crazy that I donít know", I answered at last. "I worshipped him for years, but I canít say I knew him. He did good things for me. Got me back on my feet. Then, thereís this whole other side of the man that I never saw while he was alive. The drinking, I knew about, sort of. There was probably more. Maybe thatís why I ran like hell after he was dead, so I wouldnít have to know."

"Do ya want to go back to the dojo? Meet some of the others? Maybe they remember who he was."

Or they had always known who and what he was, while I was too busy putting one foot in front of the other to look up and see where I was going and what I was following. The thought hurt too much to hold onto and he saw that in my face.

"I...canít."

Someone else might have persisted, but he did not. He knew that I had given as much as I could. It had to be enough, because it was all there was.

"Someday, then," he said, and it wasnít a question.

==

V

Iíve lived in many places, communally in a lot of those places, but not in one where there was a pleasant alternative when the plumbing failed. Forget semi-private quarters and a bathroom for each couple, we had to get in line in the basement, where there were exactly two showers, and stand there in our towels. Not to mention what everyoneís goddamn cheap _scents_ did to my nose. Rogue was the worst, of course, waltzing out the door in a cloud of what she called magnolia bud perfume, singing "I will always love you" or some other crap. You figure what _that_ did to enhanced senses. I told Logan Iíd let him go first, if heíd rinse that flowery shit down the drain. He went in, closed the door and turned off the shower. Turned off the shower?

"Wanna keep what little ya got, Worthington?"

Uh-oh. I should have known that Logan would go after Warren first chance he got. I sincerely hoped there would be no gutting.

"What are you doing? Bring soap if you want it!"

"I saw Bets out back last night. Takiní a stroll, she was. Ya wouldnít know anything about that, Worthington, now, would ya?"

A mutter that sounded vaguely like "go to hell".

"Ya didnít answer my question, flyboy. Iíll tell ya, I got lots oí respect for her. I see her takiní a stroll like that again, Iím gonna have some issues with the guy who sent her out."

Something metallic crept into Loganís voice as he continued.

"Aní if she goes that way, Iím gonna break every hollow bone in your body and strip every flechette off your wings, Ďfore we have a double funeral. No open casket for _you_, Worthington. Now, take your goddamn soap and get outta my face."

The door was flung open and Warren tried to squeeze past me, soap bar in hand. No way Iíd let him do that. I grabbed the towel around his hips and pulled him real close. He smelled of fear. Good. For a moment I was tempted to see for myself exactly how little he had got, but decided to be subtle instead.

"What he said", I told him. "But worse."

Then I let him go.

==

VI

We werenít to have water anywhere above the ground floor for the next two days, and the supply of hot water was limited. There was plenty of water outside, though, blowing in your face no matter which way you were heading. The air pressure kept dropping and Ororo, who was as much affected by the weather as it by her, retired to her room. Betsy wasnít down for breakfast, but neither were any of the other telepaths, and people in general seemed to have headaches or blocked sinuses. I felt chilly and cranky myself, with a tiny back ache, which was the symbiont complaining of the cold.

No good being around people when I feel like that. Viper-tongue gets going and before I know it, Iíve hurt someone. The more I care about them, the more savage I get. So I laced up my boots, got into the Gore-Tex outfit and told them I was going for a walk. There were a few raised eye-brows and a few mutters about lay-abouts and skipping out of the assignment list, but I pretended not to hear and made a special effort not to slam the door.

I hadnít taken ten steps before I saw Betsy sitting by the empty pool, legs dangling over the edge. She stared down at the pool as if she was expecting it to fill up any time soon. She had these big black sunglasses on, which made her face oddly buglike. The dress clung to her body and her hair was dripping wet. She wore no coat. I fled around a corner before she could see me.

Shit. I had worked with people like that. People who got up on the roof and simply stepped off the edge, no fuss, no drama. There was this one guy who pulled the pin on a hand-grenade and stood waiting for three long seconds, with no expression at all on his face, until it went off. There were plenty of others, who just stopped ducking.

It _wasnít_ my business. She had told me off yesterday. She didnít _want_ my help, right? I would be a fool to meddle. I didnít know her. Hell, I didnít even _like_ her! She personified creepiness in designer clothes. That little scene by the pool was right out of Stephen King. Stay clear of her, Kai.

No. It might be sensible to look away, like the rest of the X-Men did. It would probably be better to let Logan handle it. They had a lot of history together, in fact, she was his spare memory bank, after Madripoor. But I couldnít let it go. I just had to....turn that corner again and sit down beside her.

"How you doing, Bets?"

"Fine."

Clearly, she wasnít fine. She sounded husky, as if she was getting a cold, or had been crying. I detected the smell of metabolized migraine medication wafting off her skin, and to my growing rage, I also felt a faint whiff of neurotoxin. Heíd been at her again.

"Those glasses better not be covering a bruise, Bets," I said.

"Headache", she said patiently as if talking to a kid. "Light hurts."

"Let me see."

She sighed, but did not resist when I lifted off her glasses, as gently as I could. There were no bruises, but near the corner of her left eye was a tiny cut. A fresh one. Made this morning by the look of it. I hurled the glasses into the pool. They hit the concrete with a satisfying crack.

"How long?" I shouted into her face. "How long are you going to protect him? What does it take to wake you up? Do you even know what the toxin shit does to your nervous system?"

"I..."

"Heís nothing but a dickhead, a vindictive, bullying, _violent_ dickhead, goddamnit! A miserable shit-filled excuse for a human being! And when this unmitigated pig-fuck of a man goes for someone else, Bets? Loses his fucking abusive temper at breakfast over his cool toast and his crappy loser life? How do you feel about that?"

"How are the knees, Kai?"

Her voice was cold enough to cut me off and for a moment I just stared at her, more shocked than hurt, until I found my anger again. Damn her. Damn her for throwing that in my face. Victor and I fought. I lost. Thatís all.

"Victor is a murderer. A predator on a killing spree. I know it, you know it. And still you wonít give up on him."

Victor. It was the first time I had heard her refer to him as Victor.

"I know what he is", I said quietly, trying not to shake. "I know what he might have been, too."

He might have been like Logan if he had broken through certain parts of his conditioning. He might have been like me, if he had met and tried to knife Sensei, the way I did.

"Conditioning does different things to different people", she said. "You understand the rage, because youíve been there. You understand how the caged beast feels, because youíve been one. But there isnít enough left of Warren to make a beast."

Iíd seen a fox limp away on three legs from a trap. Iíd seen an eagle waste away in a cage. Of the two, I had more sympathy for the fox, but I could see her point. People could get twisted either way.

"Iíve been where he is", she went on,"free-falling in outer space. Nothing makes sense there. You donít know whatís up and whatís down, or even if youíre dreaming or awake, and thereís no way you can find out."

"I donít know what the hell youíre talking about", I said.

It wasnít entirely true, but I wanted to get off the subject. Her description of Warren in deep space nine made me queasy. It reminded me of something I knew Iíd made very great efforts to forget.

"Oh, Kai,", she said with a short, bitter sound that might have been a laugh. "It would have been so much easier to walk away, wouldnít it? Easier to sit observer and watch someone go to pieces in front of you. To pull the trigger the moment he makes a move. But when you try to bring someone back, all the way back, you have to get involved. You have to care and once you care, youíre screwed."

I didnít want to go there, dammit. He got me good, fucked with everything I am. Messed me up, body and mind, and the mean little bitch knew it. She was reading me like a book and I was all but gift-wrapping myself to her. Well, no more of that.

"Victor had to break my knees first. My elbows. The bones were coming through the skin.

But Warren gets it for free. Tell me. Why?"

She didnít even flinch. But there was a trace of sadness in her voice, when she spoke again.

"Iím no romantic. I wonít say that heís my soulmate or the love of my life. I will say that I am happy in his arms. In this life, where every day can be your last, that means something, too. So when I got a chance at that happiness, I didnít pass."

Mortality and time. It sure made us do strange things.

"Maybe I should have", she said. "Maybe I should have known that it was too much for me to handle, because it is. Iím losing him, Kai."

The bleakness in her eyes was worse than tears.

"Iím going to fail my next physical. Neurotransmitter level test. Iíve only made it so far thanks to some receptors the toxin canít touch. Gift from Otherworld genes. Trouble is, whatever Matsuo did isnít jacked into that part of my nervous system. When I make the switch, I slow down and get hit."

She touched the small cut tentatively. The smell of neurotoxin was fading now.

"This whole year has been touch and go. Reason with him or knock him out or run like hell. Switch and switch back. And itís all been for nothing. Once I fail the physical, Iíve failed him. Theyíll lock him down in detention."

"Like they did Victor?"

I let my disbelief show, but there was the finality of truth in her answer.

"Thatís how it works around here, Kai. Didnít you know?"

I guess I had known. Agents lost control sometimes. Therapy was the first option. The second was a telepath rummaging through their heads and deleting whatever seemed abnormal. A wipe job, mostly. Third option was detention, but you had to kill someone to get there. No one that Iíve ever worked with had gone beyond option one or two. Victor had. And so, this would always be about Victor to me. There would never be any answer to the questions about right or wrong. Nothing that made sense or seemed fair.

"Iíll never even know if I helped or fucked him up worse", she continued tonelessly. "I hope Iíve helped. The psych charts say so and no one else has gotten hurt, right?"

"No one but you, Bets", I told her gently, putting my hand on hers. Her skin was cold.

"So I did a good job?" she whispered, mere ghost of a voice and for a moment I thought she might cry, but she held it in.

"Helluva good job", I said with absolute conviction.

And then she _was_ crying and I was reaching out to her, me, awkward Kai, who doesnít know how to do what, and she leaned her head against my shoulder. The smell of used Imitrex and neurotoxin assaulted my nose and her elbow was at an uncomfortable angle against my ribs, but I pulled her closer and somehow the awkwardness faded and we held on to each other with equal fierceness.

"You too, Kai", she whispered into my ear. "You did a good job, too."

==

VII

The first thing Sensei did, after he had disarmed me and put me neatly on the ground, was to offer me the knife back. If my nerveless fingers had been able to hold it, I would have taken it and made another try. But I didnít, so he took me home and fed me soup. The moment he turned his back, I went for him. Thatís how stupid I was. He kicked my ass across the room, then handed me another bowl. I sat there, panting and holding bruised ribs, amazed at the absolutely fucking insanity of this man. He held out a packet of crackers and told me he wouldnít hurt me. He also said that whoever I was, he wasnít my enemy. Naturally, I didnít believe him.

For the next three months we played out different variations on this theme. Iíd go for him and heíd whack me. As I came to, heíd be there with hot cloths or ice in a towel, and soup, and heíd feed me and tend me, while I thrashed and cursed him to hell and back. One morning, I tried his bedroom door and found it unlocked. He was snoring, inside. I stood there, torn between rage that he thought me so little threat, and admiration for his cool nerve. As sunrays began to creep over the wooden floor towards my feet, I put the knife down. Because, finally, I believed.

My codes to Victorís cell were still current. The chair he had been shackled to was still in place. He had been curled up in the south-west corner, when sleeping. The observation booth hung empty from the ceiling. I was the one who had logged most hours in it, seconded by Tabitha Smith. The wall had been reinforced, but everything else looked the same as when he escaped it. Well, minus the blood. I hadnít been there at the time, but I had seen the vids. Lots of blood, spattering the walls and ceiling, and pooling on the floor.

This room was the end of the road. Once you got yourself down here, the only way out was through the wall and someone elseís blood. There was no sunlight down here. Nothing to believe in. Nothing, except myself and my word.

"Victor, you bastard", I whispered fiercely. "Iím not giving up, díyou hear me? Iím sure as hell not turning my back when youíre around, but Iím not giving up on you. You can break every fucking bone in my body, but you canít break me. Whoever Victor Creed is, Iím not his enemy."

==

VIII

I was on my way to the kitchen when I saw Betsy come out from Warrenís room. She carried a tooth-brush in a plastic bag and a faded pink terry robe over her arm. Instinctively, I backed up a few steps, to get out of her line of sight, and ended up hiding in a little alcove. Shit. Intensely private moment for her, and here I was _again_, like a goddamn stalker. She leaned back against the heavy oak door, her face tired and lined.

"Bets."

Logan had been on guard duty, outer perimeter. He must have run all the way back, but then, maybe he had known what was up. His coveralls were muddy to midthigh and he smelled strongly of sweat and pond slime.

"Logan", she said with a wan smile, taking in his appearance.

"You look like hell, darliní."

"Look whoís talking."

He took her arm and led her towards the stairs. Her room was on the third floor, same as ours, but she hadnít used it much lately. I flattened myself as much as possible when they passed my hiding place. From the slight widening of Loganís nostrils, I could tell that he wasnít fooled and Betsy threw her coldest and most unnerving glance over her shoulder in passing. Damn. They stopped at the staircase. Damn again. I had no chance of sneaking past them unnoticed.

"You okay, Bets?"

"Iíll live."

"Ah. What Ďbout Warren?"

"Heíll live, too. That he was the one to break off the relationship spoke in his favour."

Her voice sounded oddly mechanical.

"So did you, darliní."

She shook her head.

"Subject continues to exhibit signs of moderate to severe depression associated with situational adjustment disorder," she recited slowly,"as expressed by inability to experience pleasure, sexual and otherwise, sense of hopelessness, inability to achieve or maintain sleep, reduced appetite, lack of control over mutant power, and a predominantly flattened affect marked by periods of uncontrollable crying."

Polished nails tapped against the wooden railing. I knew she was aware of me. More, she wanted me to hear what she was saying

"Pharmacological intervention is recommended as subject does not respond favorably to enhanced psychodynamic, insight oriented, therapeutic approach", she continued. "Trust issues remain a constant over-riding factor, but given the environment in which subject must survive, these issues are viewed primarily as adaptive in nature, and only mildly problematic. Further recommendations include augmented bi-weekly sessions to work on development of legitimate social support system, and reaffirmation of mentor/role model. Inducing the subject to shift to a more internal loci of control, will most likely resolve depressive symptoms."

I shuddered, and I was certain Logan did, too. That was the _defense_? A short silence followed while two former mercs racked their washed brains to come up with something constructive to say about psis and augmented psychology.

"Um," Logan managed, at last. "Convince Ďem, did it?"

While not exactly witty, the remark was a fairly inoffensive one. I exhaled. Betsy echoed my statement with a sigh of her own.

"You know the drill as well as I do, " she said wearily."There will be a six-month evaluation period, before any final decision is made."

"Who gets to vote on this?"

"The original X-Men, the Professor, the resident psychiatrist in charge of Warrenís case and myself. I donít know if thereíll be others. I could do without the political aspects, this time."

Her hand went to her collarbone, where the scar began. Victor hadnít stayed around for his evaluation. Logan swallowed.

"I shoulda been there," he said.

"Doing what?" Anger flashed in her eyes. "Ripping my guts out took him less than ten seconds. What do you think you could have done?"

His hands flexed as the claws came close to surfacing, then sank back to rest against the radial bones.

"Killed him."

She snorted.

"Well, anybody could have done that. But you know what? His psychiatric evaluation wasnít finished, so we didnít."

"And look at how well that turned out."

My breath caught, suddenly. My vision tunnelled as Victorís claws sliced through my stomach, all the way to the spine. Blood welled up in my throat, viscous and sticky. I was gonna die, I was gonna...and then Betsyís shields slammed up, full-force, and cut me out of her mind.

I reeled back, hit the wall and almost bounced off it. Abdominal muscles cramped in phantom pain and I bent over, trying to breathe again. Fuck. My knees felt like water. If I tried to walk, Iíd fall on my face.

Olfactory senses recovered first. The sweet, stifling blood smell receded. Sight came next, hearing after that. I heard Logan gulp for air, just as I did. Betsy was already trying to regulate her breathing. When the rest of my nervous system had realised I wasnít being gutted, I risked a glance at them. Logan looked glassy-eyed, but okay. He leaned heavily against the railing, as if he had been flung there. Betsy stood beside him, swaying slightly, hands to temples. Her face was completely blank.

While I watched her, bloodless lips drew back to expose more teeth than any human had ever been gifted with. For a moment, human nature fought alien in her eyes and won, but only just. Then it passed and she looked the same as always, a shade paler, maybe.

"Creed had a chance with us", she said tightly. "He was the one who blew it, not me. Donít you dare blame me for it, I paid for my mistakes."

I wouldnít argue with that. Betsy had paid for more mistakes than her own. So had I. In a way, I had paid for her mistakes, too. The next person stepping between Victor and his prey would pay for mine.

"What we did may have been stupid," she said, "but it wasnít wrong."

She picked up the robe she had dropped in the melee and stuffed the tooth-brush into one pocket.

"Bets..." Logan moved closer to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Díya really believe that?"

It seemed an honest question. A question he had not asked me, not in all the time since I fought Victor and lost. Maybe he was ready to ask now. Maybe he was even ready for the answer. Betsy, perceptive in every sense, straightened, adding a half-inch or so to her already impressive height. Purple eyes nailed him to the spot and held him there.

"I do," she said. "And as long as Warren gets the same chance as Creed, I should be satisfied."

==

IX

When I got back to our room, the first thing I noticed was the frame lying on my desk. It was enamelled blue, bright shining blue and it was just the right size for a certain photograph. I pulled out the drawer to make sure and there he was, a grainy version of Sensei squinting at the camera, at me.

"Itíd protect thí picture better", Loganís voice said behind me.

He was leaning against the doorway, trying to act casual.

"I guess", I said, while my heart raced and my hands trembled.

The frame was to protect the picture. I could mount it and put it back in the drawer. I almost did. Almost. The frame gleamed in the sunlight, the blue enamel so bright it seemed luminous. It really looked good. He did, too, grainy as he was. Hell with it. I put it in the window. Right next to the picture of Mariko Yashida.

FIN