Hola. I’m not a professional writer or associated with Marvel Comics in any way. The following is a work of fan fiction featuring Logan of the X-Men. Also mentioned are the Savage Land, Victor Creed, Valerie Cooper, and Elizabeth Braddock. I don’t make any money from this. Don’t sue me.
Kai, Three Eyes, Darius, and Sensei are mine. Don’t use any of them without permission. It would be most hazardous to your health, and I don’t wanna see that happen to you. I like you.
Though this was written well after "In the Woods," it actually would take place some time before that story, and some time after "Canada." So, here ya go…another Kai and Logan adventure. Note to those who have been asking about more information on Kai’s past: You get a good bit here.
There’s bad language, as usual. If that bugs you, don’t read this.
Kai and Logan: Desert
Heat. Blinding, blazing, relentless heat. Pounding down to scorch the back of my neck, my scalp, my bare arms. Burrowing into skin as muscle tried to squirm away…inescapable.
I lifted my head slowly, aware of how heavy and aching it was. Tried to work my mouth enough to spit out the sand that coated it. Couldn’t raise enough saliva to swallow properly. Breath stung my windpipe, but I sucked it down greedily, willing perspective back into a brain that wanted to forget all about it.
A scent on the dry air. Scuff of something over sand, through sand. A groan, then the sound of hacking and spitting as Logan tried to rid his own mouth of grittiness.
His voice was working before mine. "Do you have any idea," he rasped, "what the fuck happened?"
I shook my head and blinked eyes gummy with grit. "S-savage Land," I said hoarsely. "That tribe…nattering on about…a test. Then…" I broke off as I pushed myself back to my knees, rubbing a grainy hand over more grainy eyes. "The world turned inside out."
"Yeah. That’s pretty much how I remember it." I finally looked at him. Scuffed. Sandy. Flesh waging a war with his healing factor as it tried to burn. He’d managed to rise enough to sit cross-legged on the scorching sand beneath us. His uniform looked intact except for the hood he’d pushed back, though, which would give him some shielding from the sun…but not much.
I managed a grin, dry lips protesting. "You’ve looked better."
He answered with a wry half-smile. "Should see yourself, darlin’." The smile faded. "You okay?"
I hesitated before answering, taking stock of how I felt. The pounding in my head was easing. Hot skin over arms and neck stung, but not too badly. The rest of me seemed at least to be in one piece. "Fine. You?"
"Comin’ outta the mother of all hangovers, feels like…but fine." As if he’d tell me if he wasn’t. His eyes passed me, scanning out over our surroundings. Belatedly, mine followed.
Desert. Vast, stretching out around us in a flat plane in all directions. Featureless. Brown. Barely a distinguishing line between sand and beige sky. Not a cloud to shield us from the heat of the sun that rode directly overhead.
"Water," he said after a moment. I looked at him. He gestured off in a direction that could have been any, since the sun was straight above us. "Faint, but there. Can’t be too far…there ain’t a breeze to carry the scent."
Not for the first time, I wished my nose was as keen as his. "Anything else?"
His dark head shook absently from side to side. He pushed himself to his feet, grimacing. "No point in stayin’ here. If this is some sorta test, I’m guessin’ our goal is to stay alive." He offered me his hand. Normally, I’d spurn the offered assistance…but I was feeling too tired and confused to bother making an issue over it now. I took the hand and let him pull me to my feet, adding in my own grimace as a lingering ache in my skull made itself known. He gave me a faintly concerned look. "Sure you’re okay?"
I waved a hand in annoyed reassurance, starting to walk in the direction he’d indicated. I heard his feet shush through sand as he caught up with me. We stayed silent, each brooding in our own way over whatever crazy quirk of fate…or design…had dropped us into this situation. Time passed as slowly as distance. The sun crept its lazy path across the sky, dipping towards the horizon off to our left. North, then. We were heading north. The heat didn’t seem quite as oppressive once we were moving, perhaps just because we were actually doing something towards easing its torment. Even so, skin darkened steadily towards a vicious red. I wished that I’d been wearing my uniform with the full sleeves. Instead, I wore my black BDU pants and the olive green tank top that had seemed appropriate for the tropical heat in the Savage Land. Logan wasn’t much better off with his arms bared down to the blue gloves that extended up his forearms. He still hadn’t pulled his mask up.
After hours of saying nothing, I finally decided to mention it. "You’ll protect your face more if you wear the hood."
"You ain’t got one."
I scowled. "Doesn’t make any sense for you to get burned just ‘cause I am."
"You handle it your way, darlin’. I’ll handle it mine."
I probably should have saved breath for walking, but the tediousness of it all was getting to me. "You don’t have to be so irrepressibly macho. If I get burned, the symbiont can handle it."
"So can the healing factor." Brown eyes flicked over my face, then my bared arms. "Ya look like you spent about a week in a tanning bed."
I held out an arm to scrutinize. Flesh had taken on a sorta bronze color. Some women would probably kill for a tan like this. "You’re pretty much the same."
"You told me once that some people tested your symbiont…environmental extremes? How’d it take heat?"
"Remember how bad I am with cold?"
"How could I forget?" There was the tiniest hint of a smile at that. No wonder, I suppose. He’d helped me…ah…warm up, that time we’d been snowbound in a blizzard.
Remembering it, I had to smile a little myself. "Well, as bad as I am with cold, I’m as good with heat. Symbiont loves it. Starts working double time. There was this one time I got burned…major burns. The kind people don’t live long enough to shove a breathing tube down their throat for. I was good as new in fifteen minutes." I frowned and put a hand to my braided length of hair. "Only grew back a few inches of hair right away, though. Had the short do for months."
"Musta hurt somethin’ fierce." I already knew he was speaking from experience. "What happened? How’d ya get caught in the fire?"
I didn’t say anything for a moment, eyes staring towards the horizon. Logan and I had been "together" now for a bit over a month, but there was still a lot we kept from each other. I knew, for example, that he’d been put through the Weapon X program in Canada. From the little I’d heard about it through other sources, I knew it had been rough, to say the least. But he never brought it up, and I never asked, because neither one of us is the sort to wanna dwell on those vulnerable places in our lives. Too much exposure of self. Too much memory of pain and helplessness. And I think that maybe he feared pity as much as I did.
But he had a right, I supposed, to know something of my past. I didn’t want to keep it all locked away and mysterious. I didn’t want to hold secrets that only came out in the nightmares he’d sometimes woken me from.
"The people who tested me did it after a program called conditioning," I said slowly. This wasn’t something I talked about often, and never to a person who didn’t know something about it already. In those days that felt so long ago with Victor Creed, some of it had come out; but only when I’d seen a trace of the despair I’d known in his eyes. If I could tell him, even a little bit, then I could tell Logan. "I told you that it had something to do with an organization that wanted me with them. Well, the conditioning program was their way of making sure I didn’t object."
I felt his eyes on me, but didn’t turn to look. "How’d it do that?"
"A lot of ways. I’m…not going into all of ‘em. But when the conditioning program was through, I was…" I searched for a word, and hated the one I settled on. "Obedient." I rushed on before he could ask something else. "Anyway, after the conditioning, and after they’d finished assessing my capabilities, I was an operative. I went on a lotta jobs for the agency." I wasn’t about to tell him what kind of jobs. "One of ‘em went sour. A bomb went off early. I was caught in the blast." I shrugged shoulders that felt tight and dry. "Worst burn I ever had."
As I’d feared, he focused on exactly what I wanted to gloss over. "’Obedient’? Ya mean they brainwashed you?" There was a note in his voice that surprised me a little…something more akin to fury than pity. I wondered at that as I answered.
"You could say that." I glanced at him. There was a hard light in the dark eyes…an anger I’d felt often, but wasn’t used to seeing on another face for me. "It’s over and done, Logan. I broke conditioning years ago."
"What does that mean?"
"I means…" I stopped with an inward directed scowl. What the hell did it mean? "It means I stopped them from controlling me," I finished lamely.
"And ya went back to your life after that?"
"No." He waited. I sighed. "I don’t remember who I was before that. I don’t remember anything before conditioning. I went out and made a new life."
"So Kai ain’t your real name."
It stung, though he probably didn’t mean it to. I stopped in place and glared at him. "It’s my name," I said, more sharply than necessary. "It’s the name I made for myself…the name I claimed for myself. It’s…it’s who I am. What I made me."
He’d stopped when I did. "All right," he said softly. "I gotcha."
I kept up the glare for a moment, feeling for more words to hammer my point home. Then scowled again and just started walking without saying anything. He fell in beside me once more. For another long period, we were quiet. Pounding heat didn’t do much to improve my mood, and his senses are more than keen enough for him to be picking up on it. I held onto the anger for longer than I needed to, because it was a welcome distraction from the strangeness of our situation.
But even so, as the sun sank lower and I finally picked up the welcome scent of water, it faded away. "I didn’t mean to get so bitchy about that, Logan," I told him eventually. "It’s just…my name is all I have."
I half-expected words of understanding. Shoulda known better. "That’s bullshit."
I frowned. "What?"
"I said that’s bullshit. Your name’s just a part o’ who ya are. You’ve still got you, no matter what."
The braid shifted across my shoulders as I shook my head. "For a long time, I didn’t. For a long time I was just ‘KI-5, Three Eyes agent.’"
His turn to stop in his tracks. I turned to face him. "’Three Eyes’?" he echoed, brows bunched. "Three Eyes is a myth, Kai. It’s a buzz-word for an op no one takes credit for."
I looked at him steadily. "Who the hell you think started that rumor?"
"Ya mean it’s real?"
I couldn’t help smiling at his tone. "Yep. But don’t tell. It’s pretty hush-hush." I cocked my head at him with a considering frown. "Surprised you hadn’t heard anything about them. Vic had."
He gave me one of the darkest scowls he ever had. "Sabretooth," he spat. Nothing more. He’d made his feelings on the subject clear many times in the past. It would probably always be a bone of contention between us.
I kept my gaze and voice mild. "You don’t have to worry about him anymore." A short while ago, Victor escaped from the mansion, nearly slaughtering Elisabeth Braddock in the process. The original X-Men had gone after him, and when the night was done…he was dead. Tagged and bagged by agents under the direction of Valerie Cooper, government liaison to X-Factor.
"I don’t worry about Sabretooth," he growled. "I worry ‘bout the people he kills."
My eyes narrowed just a bit. He’d said "kills," present tense. "But he’s dead now," I said quietly. "Isn’t he?"
The look he gave me was almost scornful. "I’ve seen Creed survive more shit than just about anyone could. I wouldn’t believe he was dead ‘less I got to watch the body burn…then scattered the ashes over every ocean in the world."
I turned sharply and started walking again. Bone of contention, indeed. Sure, I knew Victor was a scum-bag…but I still felt like I’d connected with him on some level during his incarceration at Xavier’s. Logan hated him. Hated him more than anyone else I’d ever heard him talk about. Even so, I didn’t feel like listening to what he’d like to do to him. People had probably said the same thing about me, once, and it hit too close to home.
The sun was kissing the horizon when we reached the oasis. I felt like my skin was probably charred in places, but the sight of the little spring with the leafy palm-like trees overhanging it and the fibrous green grass lifted my spirits considerably. I dropped to my knees by the water and cupped my hands, bringing the wonderful liquid up to wet a parched throat. Then I splashed it over my face, delighting in the coolness. It felt every bit as good as I’d been imagining it would over the past several hours.
Suddenly, Logan scooped me up into his arms. Before I had time to do more than start to clutch for his shoulders, he’d tossed me neatly into the center of the pool. I splashed down…felt the bottom…came up glaring murderously. He was standing on the bank, grinning with flashing eyes that just dared me to do something.
But the water felt so good… I let myself sink down into it, dipping my head beneath the surface and staring at him from just under. In the fading light, with the water hazing my vision, he looked like some sort of dark statue erected by a pagan people in honor of some wild deity or other. Lingering irritation from earlier faded as I looked at him. No matter our differences, there’s something about him that just calls to me.
I rose and walked to him. He stood braced, waiting for my efforts to push him into the water. Instead I slipped dripping arms around his neck and pulled his mouth to mine. He stayed stiff for just a moment, perhaps suspecting a trick. It didn’t last long, though, and his arms wrapped around me and hitched me closer against him. I smiled against his lips. Leaned a bit to the side. He shifted weight to accommodate the motion…and I kicked his feet out from under him and flipped us both back into the pool.
He came up sputtering. I grinned wickedly from a couple of feet away. Without a word, he dived for me. I half-dodged, but water is great for hampering mobility, and so he caught my arms easily. We both went under, and then I was shifting my hands and trying for a submission hold. He was doing more or less the same, so we spent a minute or so wrestling around, laughing and splashing and dunking like kids at a pool party. Lethal kids at a pool party. Nobly, we both refrained from actually striking at each other, though it was tempting when he nearly got me in an arm bar. I slithered outta the hold and turned in too close for him to get another one. His teeth glinted in the failing light.
"Almost had ya, there."
"Almost doesn't count," I said tartly. Then took any sting from it with a smile. "This feels so damned good."
"Oh?" He gave me an utterly male grin. "I can think of a way to make it feel even better." Arms slipped firmly around my waist. I let mine slide up around his neck again.
"Oh, really? And what would you have in mind, hmm?"
He told me, quite eloquently, without saying a word.
A while later, we lay on the tough grass that neatly cupped the little oasis and stared up at the sky. At least, I stared up at the sky. He might’ve been staring at anything.
"What if someone’s watching us?" I asked idly. "I mean, if this is supposed to be a test of some sort, seems someone would be."
"Then we just gave ‘em an eyeful."
I waved that aside. "But how’re we supposed to know what to do?"
"How the hell should I know? I don’t even have a clue where we are."
"I do." Stars spangled a dark sky brightly. I traced them with my eyes.
"Ya do? Then where?"
Even now, a little smile crossed my lips. In a way, it was deliciously exciting. "Nowhere on Earth."
"Huh?" He rolled onto an elbow and looked down on me. "Are you sure?"
One hand gestured towards the sky. "Look." He did, frowning. My smile broadened. "No familiar constellations. I don’t know ‘em all…and I’m no expert in astronomy, or anything…but I know enough to know that this is no sky you’d see from Earth. And there’s no moon, either. Might be moon dark…but that’d be awfully convenient."
He looked back down at me, a perplexed line between his dark brows. "You look happy ‘bout that."
"Going to other worlds isn’t exactly routine for me, Logan."
His mouth quirked at the corner a little. He brushed a hand along my face, smoothing back hair that I really needed to re-braid. "Don’t ever say I never took you nowhere."
I pushed him back down so I could pillow my head in the crook of his arm and continue staring at the alien sky. So strange to know we were seeing a sight no other human might have seen. To look at stars that might even be other planets, with whole other forms of life thriving on them.
"I just wish we knew why we’re here."
His voice rumbled against my ear. "I’d settle on knowin’ how we get back." I didn’t answer. After a minute, he said, "You do wanna get back, don’t ya?"
"Of course I do. But I intend to enjoy this while it lasts."
He was silent for a bit, staring up as I did at a foreign sky. I wondered distantly if he was appreciating the newness of it all as much as I was. "Kai?"
"How old are you?"
I blinked. "What?"
"I asked how old you are."
I shifted around and pushed up to look at him. "Why?"
I chewed a cheek in thought. "How old do you think I am?"
"I dunno…" He snagged the tail end of my loosening braid and ran it between callused fingers. "Twenty-five to thirty?"
I thought about it for a moment, then gave him a shrug and a smile. "Sounds good to me."
"That ain’t fair."
"Logan, I told you that I don’t remember anything before Three Eyes. I was conditioned just over twenty years ago. I don’t know how old I was when that happened."
"You’d’ve been just a kid."
I shook my head. "I looked the same then as I do now. Symbiont, I guess."
A considering gleam sprang into his eyes. "So…you’re prob’ly as old as fifty."
My mouth screwed up in a grimace. It sounded so old the way he put it! "Probably," I agreed reluctantly. Then smiled a little. "I only remember twenty or so years, though. And only ten of that have I been ‘me.’ So you’re robbing the cradle, buster." He gave me a half-hearted glare. I decided to turn the tables. "How old are you?"
Now he shrugged. "Dunno." Flash of teeth. "Healing factor keeps me young."
I grinned and wrinkled my nose at him. "Oh, I wouldn’t say young, precisely…" But I let the grin fade. "Seriously…how far back can you remember?"
The braid rolled over and over in his fingers. He just stared at me for a bit, but I saw the distance in his eyes. Finally he said, "My memories’ve been kinda fucked with." I waited. "Weapon X," he added succinctly. I nodded, still waiting. He continued when he saw I wouldn’t let it drop. "All right…I remember things that happened over fifty years ago…an’ I looked the same back then."
I frowned. "That’d make you…"
His scowl cut me off. "Old," he finished for me. "Yeah, I know."
I traced a finger over his lips. "I was gonna say it’d make you the next thing to immortal. You’re only as old as you feel."
A wry twist to the lips under my finger. "Some days, then, I’m older’n dirt."
More fingers joined the first to follow the lines of his face. "And others?"
He caught the hand. Brought it back to his lips to kiss each finger in turn, still looking up into my eyes. "Others I feel like I barely even started livin’ yet, an’ there’s a whole long life waitin’ ahead o’ me."
My fingers curled in his hand. "Sensei once told me that every time you survive something you shouldn’t’ve, you’ve just been born again."
"Sounds like he was a smart guy."
"You woulda liked him. And he’d’ve liked you."
"Ya think about him a lot, don’t ya?"
"Every day. He saved me."
"Saved your life?"
I shook my head slightly. "My soul. I didn’t know who I was, after I broke conditioning. I’d taken to calling myself ‘Kai’, but all I knew was how to fight. How to kill. How to hate." He nodded silently, encouraging me to go on. I sat back on my heels and stared at my hands to avoid looking into his eyes for something as deeply personal as this. "I stumbled across his dojo one night while he was teaching a class. Didn’t go in. Every fighter I knew was dangerous. The concept of…honor…was strange to me. But I watched from outside, and I saw the way the people related to each other…the respect they showed to Sensei and everyone else. It was…a family. I’d never had a family."
He sat up, too, and braced arms behind him. His nod this time was thoughtful. "I know whatcher sayin’. Some of the X-Men’re like family to me…first I ever really had."
I swallowed hard and met his eyes. "Then you know. You know how hard it was to…to trust."
Something flickered across his eyes. A memory, maybe. "I know," he agreed quietly. "How’d it happen?"
My gaze dropped again. It was easier to say this while keeping that slight distance. "He saw me out there. Came out to talk to me…I don’t know why. I…" I snorted laughter, remembering. "I attacked him. He startled me, and I wasn’t feeling too balanced, just then. I attacked him, and he kicked my ass. Then, instead of calling the cops to come pick up this crazy woman, he took me inside and offered me a place to sleep for the night. Food. Shelter. All the things I’d been running too fast to even think about." I gave a little shrug. "He guessed at some of my story. Invited me to stay on at the dojo and try to get my life in order. I didn’t really have any other options, so I did. And then he trained me." My eyes flicked to his, and I smiled. "Took a good while…but I learned a lot more than how to refine my fighting skills from him."
"Always wondered why ya talk about him the way you do."
"He was the closest thing I’ll ever have to a father." I waited for him to ask how Sensei died. Everyone does, seems like. That’s the first question that comes when referring to a person who’s dead and gone.
But he didn’t ask, perhaps guessing that if I wanted to talk about it, I’d tell him. Instead, he focused on what I had been willing to talk about. "Three Eyes is really real?"
I couldn’t help grinning at the change of subject. I knew that had to be chewing at his mind. Spooks the world over speak of Three Eyes every day, without ever believing it’s anything more than a phrase. A label. An excuse. "Yeah, it’s real."
He frowned, brows bunched. "What’s it hooked up with?"
"You mean nation-wise?"
The frown turned into a scowl. "That don’t make sense."
"Sure it does." I scooted over to him and pushed him back down, leaning my head comfortably against his shoulder again. He was a bit tense, but made no effort to draw away. "It’s like a government without a country," I explained. "International. No allegiances other than with the world itself."
"Then what’s it for?"
"Used to be for the same thing agencies like Hydra, AIM, Black Air and the like are for; power. That was back in the day when conditioning was a common practice. Nowadays, though, Darius basically uses it to keep the world safe."
"First Commander. Head honcho. The big cheese."
"And you know him?" Sounded like he was just starting to see some of the possibilities, here. I let eyes close and listened to his heartbeat absently. It’s a steadying, comforting sound.
"Yeah, I know him. I was with him when he took over the organization."
Some of his tension had faded away, but now a bit returned. "Does he know you’re with us?"
A bit more tension. "Does he ask for information?" Logan knows how the game is played. A little insider info goes a long way in the world of Intelligence.
"Sure he does."
His voice was tight, the arm around me still. "And do you give it to him?"
I couldn’t hold it anymore. I laughed and rolled over to look into his eyes. "Logan, he asks about your personalities and what it’s like living with you all. He happens to be a big fan of the X-Men. He wouldn’t ask me to betray you, and I wouldn’t if he did." I gave him a hopefully reassuring grin. "Whatever info Three Eyes has on the team doesn’t come from me."
He relaxed visibly, evidently trusting me enough by now to believe what I said. "You’re just full o’ surprises, darlin’," he muttered. "Three Eyes. Real."
I shrugged. It didn’t seem so impressive after I’d experienced the ugly side of it, back in the old days. And I guess that now I take it a bit for granted. "Real," I agreed, then dropped back down to lay beside him. "I’m not the only one full of surprises, though. Hell, compared to you, my life’s been boring. I hadn’t even been off-planet before now."
I guess that served to remind him of our situation. "We’re gonna hafta find some food, soon."
"Yeah. You pick up those scents across the oasis?"
"Sorta like a dog?"
"Sure did." He gave a deep sigh, breathing any remaining tension out. "Why don’t ya get some sleep? I’ll stay up a bit an’ keep watch, in case there’re any critters we don’t wanna deal with."
"Wake me in a few hours to take over."
And as simple as that, it was settled. Trust. Partnership. Counting on each other as equals. Musing over that, I let myself relax down into eventual sleep.
My good mood from the night was completely gone when I woke in the morning. Mostly because I woke in the morning…instead of during the night to take over watch. He’d evidently decided that I needed sleep more than him, and the assumption rankled my pride in a big way.
"You arrogant overblown ego-maniac!" I told him sensibly. "Now you’re gonna be exhausted all day, and all because you had to be the ‘big strong man’ and take watch all night."
He didn’t seem in the best of moods either. That mighta had just a little to do with the fact that he didn’t sleep. Just a tad. "Quit your bitchin’, Kai. I ain’t in the mood."
No. He certainly didn’t look it. He looked tired. Which only made me angrier.
"Men!" I spat, turning on a heel and walking towards the pool. "Here I was, thinking how great it was that you had the sense to treat me like a partner instead of ‘the little woman’, and look what you go and do. Damn, you can be an ass!"
"Lotta women would appreciate it. Hell, a lotta men would like bein’ able to sleep the night through."
I was muttering ill-tempered comments under my breath as I moodily stripped out of my pants. "Yeah, well I’m not a ‘lotta women.’ Or men, for that matter." I yanked a leg free of clothing, then the other. "I’m me. And I don’t like to be coddled."
He leaned against the base of one of the palm-like trees, glowering. "All right. Fine. I’ll make a note to never try to be considerate. 'S that better?"
Another curse slipped out as I grabbed for my knife and sat on the grass to start cutting. "And what if we run across trouble today, hmm? What if we hit a bad situation, and you’re not at your best?"
"Then I guess you’ll just have to fuckin’ protect me!" he snapped. That’s when I realized that he really was mad, and not just moody and sniping. Logan curses to me quite frequently. About me occasionally. But very rarely at me. That’s more my sin. Never figured out if it’s part of some strange little honor code of his, or just his version of manners. (He does have them. Sorta.)
But I was mad, too, so I ignored the tone and shut my mouth firmly before I said something I’d really regret later. He stalked off with a muttered oath, presumably to tend a call of nature. I finished cutting the legs off my pants, then tied the bottoms in knots and filled them with water. The fabric was dense enough to hold it decently, but a lot would still be lost during the day. For survival’s sake, though, we couldn’t just stay here.
‘Cause if we did, one of us would probably kill the other, at this rate.
Maybe I was making too big a deal outta this. Maybe I was, shall we say, overreacting a bit. But damn it, I was starting to think Logan and I had a real nice thing going on. More than sex, but not quite to that scary level of dangerous emotional openness. Trust and partnership, like I was mulling last night. And partnership doesn’t mean taking all the burdens on yourself to ease the weight on the other person. It means sharing the weight together, so that both do as well as possible in the situation.
Damn the man, he managed to ruin my excitement over being on a new world.
He came back a few minutes later. I pointedly tossed him one of the water sacks without saying a word, emphasizing my point about sharing responsibility. He glared as he tied it over his shoulder with the strip of cut fabric I’d run through the lip for that purpose. I stood up and donned my pants…shorts, rather…before slinging the other water sack across my own back.
"Which way?" I asked tersely, nobly refraining from adding, "since you wanna run this show."
He seemed to hear it anyway, and his eyes narrowed in irritation. "We’ll follow the freshest trail from whatever animals have been comin’ here." And with that, he started walking without another look at me. I fumed silently and made no effort to catch up, but only followed at a little distance and did my best to scald his back with my eyes.
We walked for hours without really speaking more than a muttered observation here or ill-tempered curse there. I spent a while reflecting on how if he would just admit that I was right, this irritating distance could be over and done with. But of course, being a man…and a singularly stubborn individual…he wasn’t gonna admit to anything of the sort. Well that was just fine. I could be stubborn, too. And of course, I was right.
So we walked, and we fumed silently, and he was probably thinking nasty things about the parentage that I don’t know anything about, and I was thinking nasty things about his unbelievable pig-headedness. Sometime into a mental spiel about how much he reminded me of a particularly stupid turkey I knew on a farm once that wouldn’t come in out of the rain, I had a startling and unsettling thought: What if he didn’t know I was right? I mean, of course it shoulda been obvious to any sentient being…and Logan is an intelligent guy…but maybe he was just too tired to think rationally.
Tired ‘cause he stayed up all night. Tired ‘cause he coddled me.
Okay, stop bitching to yourself, Kai. If you’re gonna bitch, at least do it out loud where it can do some good. Maybe you can even help him to realize that he was wrong so he can admit it and this annoying silence can be done with.
Of course, that would mean that I’d have to speak first, which would cause me to lose points. On the other hand, I didn’t know if he was playing by the same rules I was.
Okay…talk? Don’t talk? Check with pride…it says don’t talk. Check with sensibility…it’s all choked up with pride. Damn it.
I chewed my cheek, glaring again at his back. Why’d he have to make this so difficult? Wasn’t the scalding heat, endless desert, too-warm water, and blistering skin bad enough?
Admit it, I chanted mentally to his back. Admit it. Admit it. Admit it.
Another hour passed. I got tired of chanting. Got tired of staring at his back, too, so I moved off more to the side and walked more or less alongside him, though at a good distance to emphasize that I was still pissed. He didn’t even look at me, and when I glanced at him sidelong, his face was set and angry. And red, but that was probably just from the sun.
Stubborn arrogant annoying senseless pig-headed rude uncouth chauvinistic arrogant…wait, I said that already. He had me mad enough I was running out of insults! That never happens!
The sun crawled by. This day seemed longer than the days I was used to, but that mighta had something to do with my current state of mind. I would pause now and then to drink some water and try to stay hydrated. When I did, he’d stop and wait without saying a word. Likewise the other way around. I don’t speak a whole lot even at normal times, but this silence was getting unnerving. I wanted to talk. I wanted to try to recapture that feeling of wonder that we weren’t on Earth anymore. I wanted to share with him some of the excitement I’d felt the night before.
But I trudged on wordlessly, as he did. Sand crept into my boots despite the tight lacing. My feet burned in the black leather. Legs were as charred as arms and face. The symbiont kept me from really scorching as badly as an ordinary person would, but it would need a little time out of the sun to fully repair the constant damage. Would have to wait for nightfall for that.
Nightfall. How far would we be from the oasis at nightfall? We were rationing water carefully, but probably wouldn’t be able to go more than another day without refilling the sacks. Was there another oasis out there somewhere, ahead of us? If he caught a scent, he didn’t say. I decided that if I caught a whiff of it, that would mean that he’d known all along and kept it quiet, and I’d have one more reason to be pissed at him. I did my best to find that elusive trace, but nothing came to my nose. Nothing but the water on my back, that is, which might have interfered a bit.
Sometime towards evening, the ghost of a wind touched us. At first, I was delighted to feel it. Even that faint stirring of air felt wonderful to hot skin. Then it got stronger, and I started remembering some of my former experiences in deserts, and just what a wind could mean. Sand started to blow around our ankles. There was still no sign of another oasis or any sorta shelter. We did the only thing we could; kept walking. The sky darkened steadily, and the wind started whistling. Sand was raised enough to brush at knees. The current of air strengthened. I ducked my head and narrowed my eyes to keep from being blinded.
I realized suddenly that Logan had stopped. Blinking to clear the bit of sand that had sneaked past my lashes, I turned back to him. He didn’t look angry, just then. More like worried, really. Very worried. He was looking past me, and when I turned into the wind to see why, my heart gave a nice hard clench.
I’d heard the growing shriek of the wind, but now I saw what it was doing. It was gloomy and dark, but I could still see the wall of sand clearly…the moving wall of sand. The faint distinguishing line that had been there between land and sky was gone. Now there was only a brown, howling mass that stretched as wide as we could see and high enough to be lost in the darkness of the sky. It was screeching towards us, looking alive and elemental and powerful. The little scouring we’d been getting so far was nothing to what we were about to face when the fury of the sandstorm hit us. I stared at it mutely for a minute, too stunned and awed by the strength and fury to think of what to do.
And then hard hands were grabbing me by the shoulders, and Logan was flinging me to the ground and stretching out over me just before the wall came upon us.
"Hey!" I shouted, struggling. He was doing it again! What was with him?! I hate being coddled!
He ignored my struggles and kept me pinned by the simple means of laying flat on me. Logan’s not light, either. His hands held mine down, and I didn’t know if he realized or cared that he was sparking memories that outright terrified me. The gale force wind and sand combined started tearing at my bare legs like sandpaper, though most of the rest of me was covered by his body. The pain was bad. The fear from memory was worse. I couldn’t even hear my own shouts over the howling above us, so I finally gave up on words entirely, as an opened mouth only allowed me to be choked by sand. I stopped struggling and pressed my face down, sucking in breaths between my teeth to try to keep my windpipe clear. His head was bowed over my shoulder, but if he said anything, I couldn’t hear it. I felt the trembling in his body, though, as the storm tore at his flesh like a furious, clawed demon. His grip on my wrists didn’t ease in the slightest. My heart was pounding with fear and pain and adrenaline. I was furious and scared and felt like a rabbit in the jaws of a predator, though I didn’t know if the predator in my mind was the sandstorm or Logan. Coherent thought was washed away by instinctive primal reaction, which in turn wasn’t allowed any outlet. The storm raged, seeming to focus its considerable might and fury on only the two of us.
It was timeless; eternal and instant all at once. He didn’t budge at all, hands and body still holding me down even though I’d ceased moving some unknowable time before. My legs felt like raw meat would feel like if it still had life to feel with. My lungs ached with the shallow breaths I was forced to take to keep them semi-clear. Eyes, nose, mouth, ears…everything was clogged with sand. I was blind, deaf, mute; my only tenuous connection with the here and now the solid weight pinning me and the raw pain in any exposed part of my body.
There was no telling when it actually ended. I think I may have drifted into some sorta semi-consciousness, because I didn’t feel any lessening in the force before it was suddenly gone. Logan’s bulk still weighted down on me, but the iron grip on my wrists had eased. I didn’t try to open my eyes right away, but only raised my head as much as I was able and drew in a breath, managing to inhale half the desert when I did.
I worked to make a sound come out of my throat. "Get…off…," I rasped after a minute of effort. He gave no response. Awkwardly, I freed a hand from his loosened grip and brought it to my face to clear my eyes. They burned when I opened them, feeling scratched and as raw as the rest of me. Then I realized that the hand I’d just freed myself from had flopped back to the ground, motionless. I stared at it half-blindly for a bit, mind slowly churning around to sense just as the pounding in my chest took on a new note.
"Logan?" I coughed out sand and braced my hand beneath me, pushing my aching body up against his weight and shifting him off of me. He rolled to the side limply with a spill of sand. I dragged myself to my knees and cleared eyes some more, along with shaking sand from my ears and brushing it from my face. I looked at him more closely, though it was hard to see with bleary eyes and the darkness that cloaked us. "Logan…"
He was motionless. Eyes cleared slowly, my good night vision reasserting itself. His uniform was almost scoured entirely off of him, leaving barely enough for modesty’s sake, and what I could see of his flesh was chewed to bloody redness. I ran an unsteady hand over his sand-crusted face. He didn’t move, and he was breathing far too shallowly for comfort. Feeling at my back, I found the collapsed water sack and brought it around. Most of the water had escaped when it had been smashed between us, but the fabric was still damp. Carefully, I used it to moisten the skin of his face. "Logan, answer me."
For what seemed a very long time, there was nothing. I talked to him. I touched what parts of him weren’t scoured from the storm. I called him foul names in a soft voice and told him I was sorry I’d been such an ass, and that he was an ass, too, and that it had been stupid to do that, and that I was touched that he did. I explained a little of how much he’d scared me when he pinned me down that way, and I said that he was scaring me worse, now. My words went on and on, going into things I probably couldn’t or wouldn’t have told him when he was awake to listen. I didn’t know if he heard any of it, but I rambled on anyway, telling him everything I could think of, which turned out to be quite a lot.
Some unknown time later, when my words were running dry, he gave a low, strangled sorta groan. I leaned close and said his name again, though my voice was raspy and hoarse with need of water. His eyes didn’t try to open, but his throat worked.
"If you…bitch at me…I swear I’ll never…speak to you again."
I couldn’t say anything at first, being too busy being real glad I didn’t have enough moisture in me for tears of relief. I hate crying. His lids cracked, and his unfocused eyes turned generally in my direction.
"You…you arrogant, unimaginable bastard," I said, smiling broadly enough for dry lips to protest painfully. "Egotistical stupid macho chauvinist pig."
He groaned and closed his eyes again. "Stubborn…mouthy…prideful…bitchy…woman."
"Yep." I took in a shaky breath to steady nerves that wanted to sing. "You’re in bad shape."
Eyes cracked again and looked at me, somewhat better focused this time. "I’ll…get better."
"You’re abusing that healing factor something awful."
He gave the ghost of a grin. "It oughtta be…used to it…by now."
I wanted to ramble senselessly…to find a way to express how utterly relieved I was to hear his voice again. That’s not really me, though. I’m no good at things like that.
So instead I cleared my sore throat and said, "We’re outta water. And still no food."
He raised an arm and flopped it generally towards the direction we’d been heading, wincing a little as abused flesh protested. "Smelled water. That way. Just before the storm hit."
I stared at him silently, remembering something from my fuming earlier. Something about how if he’d caught a scent, and hadn’t told me, I’d be even more pissed. My mouth screwed up at the side as I debated trying to be angry now.
It wasn’t much of a debate. "Rest," I suggested with a sigh. "When you’re ready, we’ll go find it."
He gave a long sigh of his own and closed his eyes again. "Guess I don’t get much choice, here."
"Nope." I scrutinized his face, some of my lingering worry fading now that his voice was strengthening a little. I couldn’t resist adding, "I’ll keep watch and protect you."
Eyes opened and fixed on me once more. His mouth had a wry twist. "You won’t be happy ‘til ya save my life somehow, will ya? To prove to yourself I don’t think you’re less’n me."
I half-smiled, not willing to take offense just now. "Do you?"
"Whadda you think, ya little idiot?"
"I think you’re far too sensible to make such a ridiculous mistake." I sat back on legs that didn’t even have the sting of injury any more. "But we’re gonna have to work on this tendency you have to wanna carry everything on your own shoulders."
He sighed again and closed his eyes resolutely. His lips, I noticed, were crinkled at the corners with a suppressed smile. "Yes, ma’am," he said, sounding completely not cowed. "And we’re gonna hafta work on gettin’ you to accept help without gettin’ all uppity."
I considered for a moment. "When it’s needed," I agreed eventually. "Not when it’s being used to stroke macho pride."
"Stubborn frail," he murmured, letting the smile creep through.
I leaned over and gently pressed dry lips to his. "Arrogant asshole," I told him affectionately. Then I sat back and took his hand between mine, holding it loosely while we waited throughout the night for his body to re-knit itself. His pain was bad. Instinctive fear of weakness was probably worse. Every now and then his hand would tighten on mine when he moved a bit and made the pain soar. I was oddly touched that he was willing to show so much, even as I winced in sympathy.
It was nearly dawn when he decided, despite my opinion otherwise, that he was well enough to move. I stepped back and watched him stand…and almost fall. He muttered something and waited for me to snipe, but I wasn’t in the mood for that anymore. Without comment, I moved to slip an arm around him so he could lean on me. We did need to move, and it would be better for both of us if we could get to water before the sun came fully up. He didn’t comment on my not-commenting, which was probably just as well. The tenuous agreement we had might not hold up to too much inspection if we didn’t let it strengthen a bit, first.
So we traveled, staggering here and there and generally not looking much like two people who were normally balanced and controlled martial artists. The sun started to inch up over the horizon. Healed skin on my neck, back, shoulders, and legs began to complain about the renewed assault of heat, particularly as my body was drying out way too much. Logan was quiet as he went on, despite pain and weariness.
And then it happened. Like the first time, only it somehow felt worse, now. Something…tugged…at us; like a mean child trying to pull wings off a fly, and we were the wings. I went to my knees, which of course brought him with me. His hands went out to brace on sand.
"Here we go again," he muttered, just before the world turned inside out…again. There was a time of sickening lurching. A moment when I thought my stomach had somehow traded places with my lungs. A gut-churning pull…and then it stopped.
When I thought all my internal organs had once again realigned themselves more or less where they were supposed to be, I opened my eyes. I was on my knees on a cracked stone floor, palms spread unevenly to keep me from going down to my face. There were voices all around, sounding jubilant and prattling in a language I didn’t understand…but recognized.
"We’re back," Logan said unnecessarily. I rolled my head to look at him. He was already on his feet, looking winded, but fairly steady. Turning my groan into a curse, I pushed myself up, too.
The tribe was dancing around us. Really dancing. They looked ecstatic, with their exotically tanned faces painted up and spread with huge smiles. I did my best to glare, though I felt too tired to really make it a good one.
"Where the hell are the ones that spoke English?" I muttered.
"Damned if I know. Maybe they--"
He was interrupted by a delighted shriek. "Travelers!"
I turned, wincing at the renewed ache in my head. "Well…that was English." A man who looked just like all the rest of the members of the tribe was coming towards us with his arms widespread as if he was gonna grab us in a hug. When he got close enough to actually try it, Logan growled. It wasn’t loud, and it wasn’t quite of the quality his usual growls are, but it was effective anyway. The man froze in place, smile faltering.
"Aren’t the travelers happy to be home?"
Logan snatched a hand into the necklet of teeth around the guy’s throat and pulled him close. "Water," he growled, very near the suddenly frightened face. "And food. Now."
"Yes, yes, of course!" the man assured hastily. "It’s being brought. We weren’t sure the magic would work a second time, or else it would have been ready for you."
"Weren’t. Sure. It would work?" For just a moment, I was afraid that Logan would forget that we were supposed to be the good guys, and that meant not killing crazy Savage Land tribesmen who spoke English and talked about magic that might not have succeeded.
The man saw the look in his face, and it was more than enough to scare the words outta him. "Y-yes…these are old magics, and we only recover them now… We thought we had everything right, but couldn’t be sure without trying…and sending you off to the gods’ world was the best way we could think of to do so, since we all know how very much the gods would respect a warrior of your skills, and any woman who traveled with you would be under your protection, so we didn’t worry about her safety, either, and…"
I scowled at the comment about being under his "protection," and might well have done my own bit of forgetting that we were the good guys…and that’s when the other part of what he was saying registered. I thought about it for a minute, and then, while the guy still rattled desperately on, I started to laugh.
Logan was still busy menacing the tribesman with his eyes, so he didn’t look at me when he said, "Wanna tell me what’s so goddamned funny, Kai?"
"The test," I chortled, feeling light-headed and still achy, and somehow having those feelings combine into a bout of uncontrollable hilarity. "Some grand, high test to judge us against some galactic scale…" I sat down hard on the stone floor and shook with laughter. "Oh my…Logan, they weren’t testing us." He looked at me, frowning and scowling at once. I waved an arm at the babbling tribesman, shaking with mirth. "They were testing to see if they could do it. To see if they could send us to their ‘gods’ land.’" I gasped in a breath, trying to tell myself firmly that it really wasn’t that funny, and not succeeding. "Logan, they think that’s the afterlife!"
The tribesman nodded emphatically. "Yes! Yes, of course it’s the afterlife! Why else would the gods leave us the magic to find it?"
Logan gave me a completely disbelieving look. "That’s supposed to be where they go when they die?"
"Yes!" the man said again, drawing Logan’s eyes back to him. The dark face took on an earnest, wistful expression. "And you got to see it. Tell me…what was it like?"
Logan released him suddenly and took a step back. "Get us food and water. After we eat, we’ll tell ya everything."
The tribesman left in a breathless rush, terribly excited that he and his people would get to hear about the hereafter before ever going. I looked at Logan from my seat on the floor, finally choking down my laughter with a supreme effort of will. "Logan, why does that man speak such clear English?"
He shook his head, still scowling. "Don’t ever try to figure out the Savage Land, darlin’. Place is too weird for words."
"Oh." I took a deep breath of tropical scented air. The very moisture on the breeze was invigorating after the dryness of the desert. "So…what’re we gonna tell ‘em about the ‘afterlife’?"
He dropped down across from me cross-legged. "I was thinkin’ o’ somethin' along the lines of demons and monsters and burnin’ fires."
I nodded, feeling another little surge of laughter try to escape. "Maybe we should throw in an angry god or two. Just to make the message clear."
He grinned. "And acid rain."
"How ‘bout some big toothed carnivores?"
By the time the food came, we’d doctored up the "afterlife" enough to discourage them from ever wanting to go there. And we had a blast doing it, too.
And it wasn’t until hours later, when a much-subdued tribe had bedded Logan and I down in what I assumed was a place of honor, and Logan slept peacefully beside me with a comfortably full belly and a totally healed body…it wasn’t until then that I, a person who believes in nothing but the skills forged through a short and hard lifetime, began to wonder:
What if that really was the afterlife?