An Alternate Reality

Fuck, was the first thing she thought, this is gonna hurt.

Freefalling through the air with no parachute was definitely not her idea of a good time. She kept her eyes on the quickly receding mountain she had just been blown off of and was rewarded by the face of her Mate.

"Come scrape me up, Logan," she called out to him.

Then the blinding pain hit her again. She thought she heard Rene and Pablo and even Cat calling out to her, but it felt like someone was driving an ice pick into her head. Then, mercifully, there was darkness.

Elsewhere, Elsewhen
Three men stood on the bricked steps of what once had been a fine mansion. Most of it lay in ruins, although it was obviously still inhabited. A flash of light in the night sky caught the attention of the gray-haired man; the dark form that appeared to fall out of the light kept it. The youngest of the three men jerked around as he heard his name. Instinct taking over, he raced toward the falling form. The other two followed but did not have his speed.

He arrived as she tumbled through the branches of the towering pines then crashed into the ground with a sickening thud. A pool of blood was quickly spreading from her head and her limbs were bent at impossible angles. Despite this, he checked for a pulse. He found none. With a sad grimace, he reverently straightened her body and waited for his companions.

"Did she survive? Do you know her?" the bald man asked when they arrived.

He shook his head. "No, she's dead. Never seen her before, Chuck. We can't leave her here though."

"No, of course not," Chuck agreed. "Bring her inside, downstairs."

"Wait," the other said holding a hand out over the prone figure. "We can never be too cautious."

Several metal items lifted from her: carabiners, clawed gloves, large eye pins...

"Climbing gear," the younger man said as he gently lifted her broken body in his arms.

"Why did you run to her, Logan?" Chuck asked.

"She called my name."

"But you don't know her?"

"No, Lehnsherr, I don't," Logan near growled then quickened his pace.

He was on the last step heading into medical when he noticed with a start that her injuries were fading. No, not fading, healing. He laid her down on the exam table and called over his shoulder, "Chuck, you're gonna want to see this."

He watched as her cuts closed and bruises faded, her limbs straightened and her chest began to rise and fall with breath. He carefully brushed the hair back from her face and saw signs of consciousness.

"What is it, Logan?"

"She's coming round."

"You said she was dead," Chuck stated as he went around to the other side.

"She was."

Her eyes began to flutter, and Logan leaned over her. Her eyes slitted open, and she offered him a pained smile.

"Hey," she said languidly. "How long was I down?"

"Not long. Ten minutes tops. How do you feel?"

"Like I cracked my head open but good. It's a little bright..."

The room became dimmer as he told her, "You did."

"No kidding. Too bad that isn't why I've got a splitting headache," she replied closing her eyes and grimacing.

"What do you mean?"

"Pretty sure those were psychic blasts I got nailed by. Charles' shields held I think... damn, wish he were still around to check them..."

"How long ago did he put them in?"

She cracked her eyes open again and looked at him with a frown. "Just before he died. You were there, Logan. What the hell? Did you get Swiss cheesed again? Is that why you're looking at me like you don't know me?"

"I don't know you," he told her bluntly.

Despite the pounding in her head, she pushed herself up. "What the fuck do you mean you don't know me? Do I need to put down another clone? Or do you need to pop a claw and pierce my heart again?"

His brows lowered and his fist came up, semi-translucent bone claws partially extruded. "You know about these?"

"Of course I...." she began but her words faltered as she saw bone claws. "Bone? What happened to the adamantium? Logan?"

Chuck and Lehnsherr had slowly and silently drifted closer. Logan had not missed it, but the woman had. His claws retracted, and he raised a finger and pointed to someone outside her field of vision. Stiffly, she turned and looked in that direction. Her eyes widened.

"Why the hell would you do such a thing, Eric? We had an agreement that you would leave my family the hell alone."

Now it was Lehnsherr's turn to look surprised but before he could say a word she continued, "And how the hell is it you're still alive anyway?"

A throat cleared and a cultured voice asked, "Do you know me as well?"

She twisted quickly, regretting the ensuing pain, but needing to make sure that her eyes confirmed what her ears had heard. Her dear friend was there. Not just there, but standing, no chair required. "Charles?? Am I, are we dead? Did something finally kill us? But, if that were the case... Rene? Pablo? Are you here?"

No answer came from within or without. Perhaps they stayed behind with Andi, but then, wouldn't Cat at least be here? She took in Charles once again then Eric then Logan with the bone claws. "Ah, crap, this can't be good..."

"Excuse me, miss, but you have us at a disadvantage," Charles interjected. "Perhaps you could tell us your name."

She turned from Logan and looked back to the other two. "No, this is definitely not good. But thank you for not reading my mind, Charles. I'm Madeline Jacobs. And I think I'm in the wrong when or where or something... which definitely explains the rest of the headache..."

"What makes you say that?" Eric asked.

"Cause if I'm not, someone is trying to pull a major mind fuck on me and doing a piss poor job of it since the details are wrong. I already knew there were alternate dimensions or planes why not..." She paused and looked around at the room they were in. "Wait... Is this... are we under the school?"

The three men shared a look, and Charles appeared pained. It was Logan that answered. "There isn't a school anymore."

Those words, the way they were said, were like a shot to the solar plexus momentarily making her forget the stabbing pain in her head. Her Charles, her dear friend, had been long dead, but his legacy still survived. There were those that carried on in the running of the school, even she had taken a short turn at the helm so many years ago. All three of her children had been educated there, had even taught there. Her youngest son was even the current dean...

"What happened?" she asked softly.

"We decided not to rebuild after the last attack. It was simpler and safer to move everyone underground," Charles told her. "To pretend we had abandoned it."

There was much left unsaid, but Madeline could read between the lines. Her own parents and her in-laws had all survived in occupied territories during World War II. Her life experiences had taught her the use of subterfuge and the often times necessity of it. There were not many reasons you would leave your home in shambles while you lived beneath the ruins. In fact, for a person of Charles' talents she could think of only one.

"Mutants are actively hunted? Again or still? That bastard Stryker isn't around still is he? Do I need to put him down again?"

"Stryker's long gone," Logan growled.

"But his legacy is not," Eric added.

"Mutant registration?" she asked.

"Yes," Charles answered.

"Was it as bad as you feared it would be, Eric?"

"Worse."

She sighed sadly. "If it's any comfort, my world didn't turn out like this. Charles' vision won out, even won over people like me. I'm not saying it's been easy. We've had to be vigilant, but the school is thriving."

She pushed herself off of the table and dusted her hands on her pants. "Well, thanks for scraping me up, Logan. I'll be on my way now."

He stopped her with a hand on her arm. "You can't go out there!"

Her eyebrows went up and she glanced at the hand on her arm. "Can't? You going to stop me?"

His brow furrowed. "It isn't safe. Mutants are being hunted. You're unprotected."

She chuckled; it was a decidedly unfriendly sound. "First off, I don't need anybody's protection. Secondly, I'm no mutant."

"You are... not," Chuck said with no small bit of surprise. "But, then, how do you have a healing factor?"

She canted her head toward Logan. "Cause of him, sort of, well, my version of him anyway. Hank had some theory about adaptive DNA or something. Most of what he said went right over my head. Look, you want to keep chatting about it, we both know you can talk to me from a distance, so I'll be on my way."

"Where are you going?"

"To find a way home, get back to my family."

"You know how you got here?" That was Eric.

She shrugged. "I can guess. A portal opened, and I fell through it."

"Portal?"

"Look, I'd love to stay and chat, but it's a long way from New York to New Mexico especially without wheels, so I best get moving."

"Logan, you should go with her," Chuck suggested.

Logan frowned.

"Thanks, but no thanks," Madeline rejected the offer.

"You got a problem with me?" he challenged.

"Yeah, you aren't my Logan."

"You talk like you own him."

She looked him straight in the eye and told him, "As much as he does me, heart and soul. Once this damn headache goes away, I'm going to feel that absence in the worst way possible. And you don't want to be around for that. It's better if I'm on my own."

"You don't know our world," Chuck protested.

"I'm a quick study. I appreciate you're just trying to look out for me, but, really, it isn't necessary. I'll just see myself out."

With that, she walked out of the room figuring it couldn't be that different from the one she knew... could it?

The three men watched her go, none making a move to stop her.

"Logan," Chuck said.

The man just gave him a look. "You want me to follow her, don't you?"

"Yes," the bald man answered. "Keep her out of trouble."

Logan snorted. "The read I get on her, she and Trouble are old friends."

"Not so different from you then."

"Yeah, yeah. All right. I'm going. Tell Jeannie when she gets back."

He scuffed out of the med room and took his time to pack a rucksack and make the hike to where he parked his truck. He was in no hurry, figuring she couldn't get very far on foot.

After only one wrong turn, Madeline found her way above ground. She circled the ruins of the building to the path that had once been the front drive. As she crunched along the gravel and stone, she noticed a light dusting of snow.

"Fucking figures it'd be early winter," she grumbled. "At least it's a full moon."

She could have turned back and taken them up on their offer of assistance, but seeing her ghosts made alive again had troubled her more than she was willing to admit. So she just kept on going. The road was in bad shape, as though it was not well traveled. She grimaced and headed westerly anyway. Eventually, she would have to come to a frequented road. From there, well, she would just have to see what opportunities arose.

A chill started to settle around her, and she sighed. She needed to keep warm, and there was only one way to do it. Thank the Gods, Buddhas and Spirits she had decades of training. She zipped her light climbing jacket all the way to her chin then transferred from a walk into a long, loping stride of a run. Twenty minutes later she came out on a highway in considerably better shape, although it was still only two lanes. She crossed it and turned south, maintaining her pace.

Five minutes after that she slowed as she heard an approaching vehicle. When she determined it was headed back the way she had come, she picked her speed back up. Someone had to come this way eventually.

Madeline was already turning south by the time Logan pulled his old pickup up to the front of the former school. He did a cursory check for tracks just to verify that she had headed for the road as he figured she had. He got back in and drove to the road itself and verified the direction of tracks and drove west. He was going slow at first, watching alongside the road to see if she had stopped somewhere. When ten minutes had gone by, he stopped again and got out to look around. He saw the change in the pattern and looked down the road. Despite himself, he was impressed.

"Chuck?" he asked aloud knowing the telepath was likely watching. "You see her?"

She's southbound on 684 already.

"Damn. She's fast. She's probably gonna be pissed, you know."

I have faith in you, Logan.

"Yeah, yeah."

He sped up as much as he could, considering how much the crappy road bounced the truck around. Last thing he needed to do was blow an axle. At the speed she was moving, getting back to the other spare vehicle and getting back on the road would give her a hell of a head start. He finally got out to 684 and turned southward, traveling just below the posted speed limit. This time of night didn't see much in the way of traffic other than haulers.

That thought made him frown, especially when he saw one up ahead just pulling back onto the road.

"Chuck, I think she just got a ride."

She did, came the confirming answer.

"So where ya headed, little lady?" the trucker asked as she climbed in.

She ignored the patronizing title and replied, "New Mexico."

"That's a perty distance. What's there?"

"Answers maybe."

"Can take ya as far as White Plains."

"That's cool, man. Appreciate the lift."

Logan followed the hauler all the way to the outskirts of White Plains. It pulled into a truck stop there, as did he. He watched her jump down from the cab as he pulled in. She offered a wave and a presumed thanks as the driver head into the coffee shop. He rolled up beside her and put his window down.

"Come on. Get in."

Her eyes took him in, his beat-up leather jacket, sideburns down to his chin, breath steaming in the cold so that it look like smoke. She half expected him to be chomping on a cigar. This is a really, really bad idea.

He thought she might refuse. She almost did, but she gave a nod and went around to the passenger side of the truck and got in.

"Hungry?"

"Starved."

"Can you hold another ten minutes?"

"Gone longer, so yeah."

He nodded and drove away from the coffee shop. She put her feet up on the seat and brought her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The headache had been lessening which was both good and bad. Good in that she figured it meant there was no permanent damage to herself; whether or not those blocks from Charles held only time would tell. But as it got less that other pain got worse. The pain of being separated from her Mate and her Family.

The hunger pains allowed her to focus elsewhere for a bit, but she had to eat. There was no getting around that. She supposed she might be able to starve to death, but her own survival instinct would never allow that. She needed to get home. She knew they would be looking for her, but how would they know where to look. She whispered a plea for help to She Who Was First.

"What was that?" Logan asked.

She turned her head, putting her cheek on her knees and looked at him. If not for the absence of the bond, it would be so easy to believe he was her Mate.

"A prayer I guess," she told him with a small shrug.

"Does it help?"

"Never done it before."

"Huh... here we are."

She looked up through the windshield at the establishment he had chosen. "A pub?"

"Thought you could use a drink too."

"And then some."

He reached behind the seat and pulled out a jacket much like the one he wore now and offered it to her. "Cold out there."

"Thanks," she said as she took it and slipped it on. She put her nose to the sheepskin lining and sniffed then asked, "Yours?"

"One of my spares."

Bad, bad idea. "Thanks again."

He held the door for her when they went into the pub. It was such an automatic thing neither of them even paid it any mind. He was obviously known here. The bartender raised a hand in greeting.

"What'll you have?" Logan asked her.

"Whiskey, neat with the bottle."

He raised an eyebrow a little at that. "Brand?"

"Your dime."

Glass, bottle — wouldn't make a difference. She'd need a barrel or three to even get a small buzz.

"Right. Grab a table. Menus are on them."

She spotted an unoccupied booth in the corner and slid into it, tucking herself into the shadows as much as possible. She picked up the menu and read through it. It was typical pub fare — fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd's pie, corned beef and cabbage, liver and onions, kidney pie, a couple of good size steaks, roasted lamb. She looked up as he brought a bottle of whiskey and two glasses to the table.

"Know what you might want?" he asked as he poured the whiskey.

"One of everything? Well, almost everything. First choice is steak though, rare."

He nodded and looked back to the bartender. "Pair of twenty-fours, all the fixings."

The bartender nodded and put the order into the kitchen through the window behind him. Logan sat down and slid one of the full glasses over to her. She picked it up and took a curious sniff at it. If the aroma was any indicator, it was a high-end brand. Next she sipped at it and savored the flavor and the burn.

"Good stuff," she said just before downing only half the glass. She was taking it easy.

A waitress brought over a plate of Irish soda bread and tabs of butter. She set it all down without a word and left them to themselves.

"Glad you like it. What was that you were talking earlier? The prayer."

"Diné Bizaad, or to the white man, Navajo."

"You don't look Navajo."

"Adopted."

"How'd that happen?"

"Long story."

"We've got a long drive."

"Ain't driving right now."

He gave a humorous snort and refilled her glass. "I'll wait."

The first bottle was empty by the time their food arrived. Madeline asked for water with the meal and polished the food off quicker than she had the whiskey. Logan simply watched her over the top of his own fork. It seemed she wasn't one for chit-chat or small talk, which suited him fine. They finished off another bottle of whiskey with the meal, and he kept an eye on her. She knew it too and let him know she knew it without ever saying a word, at least until they climbed back into the truck.

"Quit looking at me like I might pass out or throw up on your boots," she told him in no uncertain terms. "It'd take a hell of a lot more than two shared bottles of whiskey to do the deed just like it would to you."

He had the decency to look chagrined and grunted what sounded like it might be an apology.

She remained quiet until they hit the highway. "Eye Forty still go all the way out?"

"Yeah."

"Wake me when you want me to drive."

He shot her a look that was neither agreement nor disagreement then kept on trucking. She propped herself in the corner formed by the door, tucked her hands into the opposing sleeves of the coat and promptly knocked off. He took the opportunity to observe her without her giving him that look. She had said her version of him still had the adamantium. He flexed a hand in and out of a fist. He never could decide whether it had been worse getting it put in or having it ripped out of him.

She had said she was not a mutant, which Chuck had confirmed. She claimed her healing factor came from him but what had she meant by that? She seemed amazingly calm and composed for someone who had woken up in a world that was not her own. Trusting even, considering how quickly she had fallen asleep. He mulled these things over as he drove, not stopping until he had to pull over to fill up the gas tank.

She opened her eyes as soon as the truck began decelerating and watched what went by outside the windows. She nodded as he pulled into the gas station and up to one of the pumps.

"Need anything?" he asked.

"Pouch of tobacco, couple of cigars and case of beer," she answered instantly.

Once again his eyebrows rose and he just looked at her.

She shrugged. "You asked."

With a shake of his head, he got out of the truck. He went inside to pay cash for the fill-up. She climbed out and went to the fuel port and watched the door. There was a bit of surprise on his face when he reappeared there and saw her waiting to pump the gas. He waved, she nodded, and he disappeared back into the store. He was coming out with a case of beer under one arm and a bag in the other. She gave him a lopsided grin as she locked the gas cap back into place and got back in. He just shook his head.

As they got back on the road, she lit one of the cigars and popped open a beer. He was about to ask her to open one for him when she handed it to him then reached for another.

"Ask you something?" he wanted to know.

"Just did," she told him without snark. "Go ahead. Doesn't mean I'll answer or tell you the truth if I do."

"I'd know if you were lying."

"No, you wouldn't."

He decided to let that slide and ask his question anyway. "How did you get the healing factor from... me... or him...?"

She took a long drag on the cigar then blew out a steady stream of smoke. It was just as he was taking a swig of beer that she answered.

"Sex."

A mouthful of liquid hops suddenly coated the windshield. By the look on her face, she had purposefully timed it.

"Damn it," he cursed, grabbing up an old towel from the floorboard to wipe everything down as he drove.

Once done, he said, "Come again."

"Yes, repeatedly and frequently," she told him. "Anytime, anywhere... damn, I sure could use some of that action now..."

"Got a girlfriend."

She barked a laugh. "Did I ask?"

"Sounded like you were... or offering."

"Nope. Just remarking. By the time I get to that, hopefully for you, you'll have cut me loose. I get a little wound up when I haven't been laid in a while."

"And what happens when you get wound up?"

"I pick fights, well, more fights than usual anyway."

"Do you win them too?"

"Unless I plan on losing."

"Plan to lose?"

"I take it you've never lost on purpose?"

"No."

"Yeah, neither has Logan. You probably don't understand the art of the Hustle either."

"As in a billiards hustle? No. It's cheating and a waste of time."

"Sure it is if all you're after is money. When the stakes are lives, though, you do what you have to... and I'm very good at what I do."

"So what is it that you do?"

"I guess you could call it… troubleshooting."

"Troubleshooting?"

"Not Cleaners though."

"You talk like a spook."

"No, was never one of those. Known a few over the years, though."

"You're something else," he said with a shake of his head.

Her mouth stretched into a worrisome smile. "Thought you'd never notice."

The cigar had been puffed down to a nub, and the first beer emptied. She pushed the remains of one into the other and swapped the empty for a full one. "You ready for me to take over driving yet?"

"You in a hurry?"

"Yes."

"We can swap out in a few hours. Why don't you tell me about the Navajo since we're driving now?"

"Damn, remembered that did you? Yeah, all right," she capitulated, popping open the second beer and drinking from it. "I was in Colorado, packing up a cabin I owned and moving some ordnance out. That was the plan anyway. I got the LEOs to introduce me to one of the local supers. Though her super name is Ninja, she's Diné. We helped each other out, one of the Diné Spirits took a liking to me and she adopted me into her clan. Then we went and kicked Stryker's ass, shut down his operation, eliminated my clones and got my Logan back. Spent time with the clan off and on over the years and picked up the language. Not to say I'm fluent, but my Diné is still better than her French."

His eyes slid over to her for a moment then back to the road.

"That was a fairly short story," he remarked in French.

"I summarized," she automatically answered in kind.

"What else do you speak?"

She switched back to English. "A little of this, a lot of that and a smattering of the other."

"Now you're going to be coy?"

"Can't tell you all my secrets. My turn anyway."

"Your turn?"

"Yup. You an X-Man?"

"More or less. Aren't you?"

"Don't qualify. Not a mutant, remember? No X-gene here."

"But you know about them."

"Obviously."

"Does your world have a lot of them?"

"Still my turn, but I'll let that slide. All depends on what you mean by a lot. How many you got?"

"Three."

"I hope that doesn't include Charles and Eric."

"Only Chuck."

"The other one your girlfriend?"

"Yeah. You got a problem with that?"

"Did I say I did?"

"Are you always this much of a pain in the ass?"

"Oh no, darlin', I'm just getting warmed up. I'm much worse once you get to know me... or if you piss me off."

He just gave her that look again. She smiled around the swallow of beer.

"Have I pissed you off?"

"Believe me, you'd know if you'd had. Retribution is a loud and messy thing."

"Retribution? As opposed to revenge?"

"Yes."

"So how many X-Men are there?" he asked, returning to the initial question.

"I'd have to check with Vin to be sure, but I think it's about twenty now all told."

"Vin?"

"Vincent Xavier, the current Dean."

"Xavier had a kid?"

"No. Vin took on the Xavier name just before Charles died. It was his way of honoring the man and making sure there would always be a Xavier at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. So, the three of you plus Eric pretty much hide out under the school looking after strays that come your way?"

"Pretty much. Chuck and Jeannie try to teach them too."

"Not you?"

"Do I look like a teacher to you?"

"No, but then neither do I, and people like us, we have our skills. Seems to me this world could use more people with our kind of skills."

"What do you know about my skills?"

"Superhuman speed and strength. A constitution that won't quit. A healing factor that damn near makes you unkillable. Underscore that by service in too many damn wars. Bloody battle is your forte. Seems to me you're wasted as the errand boy."

"Ain't no one's errand boy," he bit off.

"Really? Then how'd you get stuck babysitting me? It's not like Charles couldn't find me if he wanted to. I've been told my mental signature is very distinct."

"Yeah, I bet it is. Chuck asked me to keep you out of trouble."

She snorted. "Yeah, good luck with that. You're gonna need it. You ready for me to drive yet? You can get some shut eye."

He capitulated and pulled over so they could switch spots. She briefly considered taking off on him. He seemed to have guessed that, as he gave her another one of those looks as he pulled himself in the passenger door. She winked at him and did not wait for him to get settled before putting the pedal down to get back on the road.

They had been on the road for the past few days, stopping only for the essentials. Still, with the state of the roads they still were not making much progress. Her residual headache had finally faded leaving only the ache of absence and loss. Her healing factor healed only her body not her spirit or mind. As bad as the headache had been, she would have rather it lingered. She felt their absence too keenly. Being near this one who was not hers, only looked like him, was twisting the knife in deeper.

Madeline saw a sign for a rest stop. "Pull over there will you? Need to stretch."

Truth be told, she needed distance between them. When he concentrated only on the road, when he didn't speak, she could almost imagine he was the one she missed. She knew he wasn't, and had her arms firmly tucked about her so she would not reach for him. There was the time in the beginning when they did not have that bond, but there had always been that spark. She needed the distance. She needed to stretch and practice for a bit, work off the excess energy that being confined to too small a space for too long and having unmet needs generated.

He grunted assent and took the off ramp. It was a rest stop for the haulers as well as cars with parking areas for both. There was a block building containing restrooms for both genders, vending machines that had not worked for some time and a few old, poured cement picnic tables covered in graffiti. The campground that butted up next to it was in considerably worse shape showing long neglect. She opened the door as he rolled to a stop and put it in park. She said nothing, merely headed straight for the dilapidated camping area. She did not look to see if he would follow only hoped he wouldn't. He didn't.

He stared at her, watched her go with a look of irritation and exasperation. Chuck?

Logan?

Are you sure about this?

Yes, Logan, I am. Is there a problem?

He didn't answer for a long time. He owed the man. Nah. No problem. Jeannie back yet?

No. I don't expect her for at least another couple of days at the earliest.

All right.

I have faith in you, Logan.

Sure, Chuck, whatever.

Signing off from Xavier, he headed into the building to avail himself of the facilities. He took his time, glad to be away from the woman. Her temperament had become more and more caustic as the days had passed. It was not that she hadn't warned him he supposed, but she could at least make a fucking effort. Returning to the truck, he opened the back of the cab to check the supplies. They had pretty much been living off of beer and jerky with the occasional high protein power bar thrown in for good measure. She hadn't complained about that, and that had surprised him.

He had thought about asking her why but decided against it. He was grateful for the silence. He had never been much into chit-chat himself. He stopped and thought about what she had told him and wondered how much of it was true. Just because she spoke a few words of Navajo didn't really mean anything. Still, if she were one of them even by adoption, she probably couldn't be trusted anyway. The Trickster had taught him that. It had been a lesson hard learned.

He looked toward the trees into which she had disappeared. What the hell was she doing in there that was taking so long? She had said that she was in a hurry. And, quite frankly, the sooner they parted ways, the better. Maybe he could just drop her off at the border then head home. Maybe Jeannie would be back by the time he got there.

With an irritated growl, he left the truck and made for the trees. He stalked straight through the camp sites she had bothered to go around. Crazy woman. The sites weren't even occupied. By the time anyone used them again, the signs of his passage would have been erased by nature. His eyes moved from the direction of his travel to the ground for the marks of her shoes. He shook his head again. She was ridiculously easy to track.

At least she was until he passed the tree line. Then her trail vanished. He stopped and squatted to take a closer look. Here, under the canopy where it was easier to leave marks, she had left none. Thinking perhaps she had entered in a slightly different spot, he checked to the left and right for about ten feet each and still saw nothing. That puzzled him.

He raised his head and sniffed the air. She had come this way as her scent still lingered. He cocked his head to listen and detected chuffs of breath. He moved toward the sound, stopping a few times to verify he was going toward the sound. He stopped when he caught sight of her and watched. He recognized her movements as not a single art, but a combination of several of them.

His eyes narrowed. He wanted to test a theory...

As for Madeline, she wended her way through the camp sites. A few, those closest to the rest stop showed recent signs of occasional use. She figured if the weather were decent, it wouldn't be such a bad site to get some air. But she wanted something further in, away from where any people might conveniently stop or camp. The tree line came close in, and it was evident that no forest or park service tended to this area any longer.

That was fine for her purposes. She preferred the more wild areas. The more untouched, the better; and she had always been that way. Certainly she had spent much of her life in and around cities, but she always felt most at home surrounded by nature, and that was long before she had met Logan or Andi.

Through the trees, she slipped until she found a natural clearing. The ground was carpeted with dead fall and loam that gave it a slight spring. Yes, this place was suitable. Her passage in had disturbed the few animals that lived here. She had noted only a couple of birds taking flight. The lack of wildlife seemed odd, but it could easily be attributed to the lateness of the season.

Shedding the jacket, she knelt in the exact center of the clearing, settling into a quiet, meditative pose. She closed her eyes and began a rhythmic breathing pattern to clear her mind and quiet her ache. She had to completely focus inward, on the movement of breath before she could let go enough to become the still waters. It was then, in the center of the calm, that she was most able to see the qi that her Sister noted with ease. She watched the flow and ebb of it here as it swirled around her. She saw the lines of the small creatures that lived here and moved about despite winter as they resumed their normal activities. She noted the lines of the old trees, their signatures reaching deep into the ground as did their roots. She reveled in the beauty of the qi, and allowed herself to become lost in it for a time, or, as Andi put it, the place of no time.

Peace and calm enveloped her. Her focus was clear, and she was stirred to her practice. She bent forward, touching palms and forehead to the earth, then gracefully rose to stand. She shifted her feet into position and began her exercise, her mind automatically recalling the voice of her Sifu and the clacks of his wood sticks. She sprang forward and back and side to side in a random manner, the only pattern being the actual movement of her feet. Soon her hands and arms began moving as well and her steps became more intricate to include kicking and spinning. Despite the coolness of the air, sweat beaded on her brow and dampened her shirt.

She was almost completely lost in her art. Almost. Her ears noticed the sudden stillness of the creatures as another came near. A shift of air brought his scent to her nose. She did not stop but did listen, her peripheral vision catching sight of him off to her left, then her right as she pivoted to face the other direction. She did not acknowledge him. She saw no need. She was not yet finished.

He sounded like a bull in a china shop as he crashed toward her. She evaded his charge and spun to face him, a questioning look on her face. It did not seem to be a true attack since his claws were sheathed. Did he want to dance then? Apparently he did as he came at her again. She did not evade this time but sidestepped with a striking block. Whatever he did, she countered, using whichever style was best suited, moving through them fluidly.

He backed off after initiating several attacks and challenged, "Why won't you come after me?"

Her lips quirked with the hint of a smile and a glimmer of madness sparked in her eyes. "Be careful what you ask for."

That was the only warning before she went on the offensive. Unlike her Mate, he did not have a metal skeleton. His bones bruised and broke, and he was not quite the same immovable object being considerably lighter. Still, accustomed to sparring with her Mate, she struck for the soft spots with just enough force to make it felt. Every grunt of pain brought forth a bit more of the smile until she was out and out grinning. Her mirth caused him more pain than any of her hits.

This time when he attacked it was with a single purpose only, and as fast as she was she could never be as quick as any Feral. Letting the beast loose was both to his advantage and a misstep he could not have guessed. In the blink of an eye, he had her pinned to the ground. He expected her to go limp and yield. She did not and though her muscles were tense she did not struggle. That close, looking into those green eyes, he realized she had a beast of her own. Using the weight of his body he held her in place, waiting, knowing if he gave her an inch she would get free.

He growled, questioning, would she yield. He would have been better off asking the question in the normal human language. He saw the spark of animal growing in her eyes. Her head came up off the ground, and he braced for an attack. His eyes widened in surprise when she sucked on his lower lip instead, a soft growl rumbling up from her chest. She called to his beast, knowingly, willingly, and the beast answered before he could stop it, pulling her up and kissing her aggressively. His human half reasserted itself, and he tore himself from her, springing back.

Eyes dark with need and lust, she watched him recoil in disgust. Whether it was directed at her or him made no difference. He had stirred a need in her, one she had been determinedly trying to ignore. He had brought it forth and now refused to slake it. Her change in demeanor did not occur with conscious thought. The warmth of desire vanished to be replaced by a sheen of ice.

"I need a drink," she bit out before turning on her heel and stalking away.

"There's got to be a bar around here somewhere," he heard in her rapidly receding voice.

The burn of alcohol, that's what she needed. That false warmth that seared her throat as it went down. She liked to pretend it continued to spread throughout her system as it once had. Finding a bar would be good, preferably a dive bar populated by ruffians. There was always something interesting to be found in one of those. She threw a scathing thought back toward her sitter. That one probably thinks he's too good for places like that. Need to find a new ride.

Breaking through the trees, she once again skirted the camp sites despite a strong desire to be on the move. She visually scouted the rest stop and spied a new hauler. She headed straight for it and looked for the driver.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as if he had tasted something vile then watched her expression go from want to anger.

The hell with her.

He spat on the ground as she stalked away. The drink idea – that sounded good though. He wondered if he had enough on him to get good and loaded. Maybe then he'd forget his stinking promise then just go back home and wait for Jeannie. Easy enough to tell Chuck he screwed up again. Sure as hell wouldn't be the first time, probably not the last either. He pulled his cash from his pocket and did a quick count. Nope, not enough to get loaded. Damn.

Grumbling, he stuffed the wad of bills back in his pocket and began the trek back to his truck. He wasn't in any hurry. She could wait for all he cared. What the hell was she playing at anyway? He didn't look up when he hit the camping area, just trudged across it mumbling to himself about crazy women and other things that annoyed him. It wasn't until he had reached the truck itself that he realized she was nowhere to be seen.

"God damn it," he cursed and looked around.

Not seeing her, he listened but did not hear her. He went to the passenger side and opened the door, sniffing the inside then turned and searched the surrounding area. He caught a slight whiff headed across the parking lot. The stop's restrooms were that way so he assumed that's where she'd gone. He closed the door and went round to the driver's side. He was just opening the door as he heard her voice from farther away than expected.

"What's the name of the place?"

The response was muffled, but her voice sounded again.

"Billy Bob's? Are you shitting me?" Then a rich, warm chuckle. "Nah, don't mind as long as there's intoxicants to be had. Sure..."

Then her words were cut off by the clang of a door closing followed closely by the cough of a diesel starting up. He saw the smoke stack of the hauler belching black fumes and watched as it pulled out. He had half a mind not to follow. The other half told him no use passing up a watering hole.

He got in and started up his truck then took to following the hauler at a good distance back.

The hauler pulled up alongside a place that looked like it belonged in a cheesy 1970s horror flick... or Deliverance. The trucker, a tall ebony skinned woman, looked over. "Honey, are you sure you want to go in there? There's some decent places in the next city up."

Madeline smiled. "Can't wait that long, darlin'. I'm pretty sure they've got what I'm looking for."

She shook her head. "Well, if you're looking for blood with your beer or just basic pig-headedness, I'm sure there are worse dives somewhere, but I can't think of any."

Her passenger laughed as she opened the door. "Whiskey not beer, and I probably can."

Another shake of the head, this time with a grin. "You watch your ass, honey."

"Eh, I'm sure the patrons will watch it for me."

White teeth shone brightly as she laughed in response. "You're crazy, you know that?"

"Complete psychopath. Thanks for the lift. Safe travels."

"You as well. Good luck."

Madeline hopped out and swung the door closed, standing by the road and waving as the big rig pulled away. She turned to take in the sight that was the front of Billy Bob's. It had burnt at one time, at least partially, and they had never bothered to remove the old timbers. The sign was hand painted and not in the artsy way. The smattering of vehicles out front consisted of a couple of bikes, a sedan without doors and a couple of trucks that had started out as several other vehicles.

"Let's see what kind of fun I can find." She grinned a smile that would make her Sister groan and her Mate raise an eyebrow. Her Husband would have simply chuckled. There she goes again.

She rolled her neck and shoulders before strolling through the door. It was dim and smoky inside as she had expected. The tables and chairs that did exist appeared to be scavenged, and the bar itself was a hodgepodge of former dashboards and two by tens. Creative. The patrons eyed her a bit suspiciously and kept watching the door behind her. She guessed it was unusual for someone, especially a woman, to come in here alone. With any luck, she would remain alone, but her luck didn't seem to be too great lately. There was a lone patron at the bar itself, a big man with a long coat. Prospect.

She did have a couple of bucks on her, now. She pulled them from the strap of her sports bra as she approached the bar and the man seated there. Standing next to him she looked across to the bartender and set the money down. "How much whiskey will that get me?"

The grizzled, bearded man looked at her, down at the money then back up at her, judging. He answered around his chaw. "Labeled stuff, 'bout half a shot. Get you a quart o' 'shine though."

"I'll take the shine," she told him without hesitation and planted herself on the open barstool.

As the bartender went to draw the shine, the big man turned just enough the look at her with one eye. Then his brow furrowed, and he turned a bit more. His nose twitched.

"Stuff could kill you," he warned.

Her mouth quirked as she shrugged and turned to him. He was vaguely familiar, but she couldn't say why. "That'd be a neat trick. Be nice to be put out of my misery."

"Got a lot of misery?"

"Couple hundred pounds worth. Just cannot take a fucking hint."

His nose twitched again. "Sounds like my brother."

"My condolences. Madeline, by the way," she introduced and held out her hand.

He accepted the shake. "Victor."

That's when it clicked. Admittedly she had never met the man in her world, but there had been extensive files on him as well. "Nice to meet you, Victor."

A canning jar of clear liquid was set in front of her, and the man collected the bills. She smirked at the container then lifted it to sniff at it... just in case there was only water in it. The fumes stung her eyes which caused her to grin. She took a tasting but large sip. It lit up the nerves of her mouth and throat as it went down, and her eyes watered. Homemade brew was always the best.

"Damn, that hits the spot. Too bad I'll have to make it last."

Victor laughed, longish eye teeth showing. "You get through that, and I'll buy you another."

She batted her eyelashes at him. "Why, Victor, are trying to get me drunk? But we've only just met."

She looked to the bartender then. "You heard that, right?"

"Yes'm, I did," he confirmed.

"Challenge accepted," Madeline said with a grin.

She picked up the jar, put it to her mouth and tilted it and her head back. A few long swallows later it was empty. With a steady hand, she set the jar down and let a soft whoop then turned and cocked an eyebrow at Victor.

"Give it a minute," he told her.

"For what?"

"For it to hit you."

She snorted. "As good as it is, it'd still take more than that."

He laughed and signaled for her refill. "Trying to forget your misery?"

"Wish I could, but with the way my luck's been the last week, it's going to come rolling through that door anytime now. So I aim to imbibe as much as possible before it gets here..."

"Your misery have anything to do with that smell on you?"

She frowned, put her nose to a sleeve and sniffed. She didn't smell anything however her senses weren't as sharp as some. She had been wearing his spare jacket for the last week, and he had been on top of her less than an hour ago, not that he'd done anything about it.

"Probably, if you're scenting what I think it is. And if it is, I could soak in bleach for a week and still feel scummy."

"You're in the wrong place if you don't like scum."

She took a deep drink of the refilled liquid. "I didn't say I don't like scum. I just prefer honest scum. The kind that don't try to pretend they're something they're not."

"So we should get along just fine."

"So far so good."

A bit more conversation passed, she finished her drink and Victor paid for another when the door swung open. She turned her head to look. Misery had arrived.

"Ah, hell," she groused and went back to her drink.

Her drinking partner leaned in close. "Misery?"

"What was your first clue?"

Victor didn't answer, merely smiled over her head at the new arrival. It wasn't a very nice smile.

"Wanna dance, Madeline?"

She sat back. "There's a jukebox here? Optimum. I think a dance is just what I need."

As Victor went to start up the music, she drained the drink. The number started up, a slow tune meant to be danced by couples. Madeline chuckled as she approached Victor. "You, sir, are up to no good. I like it."

"I aim to please," he told her with a bow.

"Yourself, maybe," she replied as she took his hand. "That's all right, darlin'. I think it's gonna be fun."

Ignoring the extra patron, they swayed around what passed for a dance floor, really just a spot moderately clear of sawdust and things you could trip over.

"So, Victor, what do you to save yourself from boredom?"

"I'm doing it."

"Hmm."

He raised an eyebrow at her. "Hmm?"

She indicated he should lean down, and when he did she breathed in his ear, "Just wondering if you mean dancing with a beautiful woman or fucking with your brother?"

Victor's hold on her tightened threateningly. She just laughed.

"Oh, darlin', you have nothing to worry about. I'm just waiting for his head to explode."

"You aren't afraid of me?"

She snorted then. "Of you? Not any more than I am of him."

His grip became just shy of bone breaking and sure to leave a nasty bruise... if she were completely normal. "But I'll kill you."

She let her madness show in her eyes as she smiled at him. "You can try."

She allowed that to sink in for a moment before adding, "Now why don't you stop trying to intimidate me, and we can continue to fuck with your brother. What name do you call him, by the way?"

"Jimmy."

"Jimmy it is then."

"You're different than his normal kind of broad."

"You have no idea," she agreed with a large smile.

###

He pulled into one of the empty spots in front of the ramshackle bar and just stared at it for long minutes. He considered whether he should wait outside until she showed her face or go in. Of course, going in meant he'd have to deal with her, but it also meant he could get a drink. He strummed his fingers on the steering wheel for a few seconds before deciding to go in and opening the door.

He moved slow, fairly sure he was going to have more to regret about this trip than he already did. Damn Chuck and his need to know. Why couldn't he just ask her himself? She'd said as much before she walked out. The driver door clanged shut with that thought, and he ploddingly approached the door. His nose wrinkled at the smells coming out of the place when he pushed open said door. Figures she'd find a dive like this.

He waited long enough for his eyes to adjust to the interior gloom then did a cursory look around. He spotted her easily enough. She was the only woman in the place. She didn't act like she had seen him; rather she had started dancing with some big guy... He took another look at the guy. His hands clenched into fists, and he growled.

"Ooh, think we got his attention," Victor mocked.

"Just keep dancing, darlin'," she said with a low, wicked chuckle. "He'll be over soon enough."

Victor looked down at her face then, appraising. "Out of curiosity, what's he done to you?"

"You mean besides being a royal pain in the ass?"

"I guess he hasn't changed much."

She shrugged. "Like a dog with a bone."

"Certainly is."

It wasn't long before the object of their derision did approach.

"What are you doing?" he growled.

As he had not addressed either one specifically, they ignored him, both smirking.

He growled again, this time adding a name. "Madeline, I asked you a question."

She did not stop dancing but merely turned her head just long enough to reply, "It should be obvious that I'm dancing with this gentleman here."

His face darkened. "You don't know who that is."

She smiled at her dance partner. "He did introduce himself. He said his name is Victor."

Victor nodded and gave Jimmy a look over her head. "The lady and I have been having a nice conversation so why don't you take a hike, bub?"

"Don't remember you being the conversational type, Victor."

"You wound me, Jimmy, considering all the lengths I've gone through to keep in touch with you. You don't write. You don't call. I have to get creative to get your attention."

"You've got my attention now."

"Actually, no, I don't think I do. Madeline, on the other hand..."

The bartender had not been oblivious to the goings on and stopped nearest to them while still being on the other side of the bar.

"Mr. Creed?" he asked then shifted his eyes toward the door.

It was a polite and subtle way of asking the man to take any altercations outside. Madeline filed that bit of information away in case she needed it in the future. Victor had some measure of respect here. Whether it was true respect or fear-based made no difference to her; she could work with either. There were no guarantees that her trip to New Mexico would be successful. If she could not get home, she would need contacts and a way to gather resources. From just her few minutes spent with Victor, she knew that she would rather deal with him than with Jimmy and the remains of the X-Men. She still found it incredibly odd that Eric was holed up with them as well. The one from her world might have been just shy of full-blown psychotic toward the end, but it wasn't like she hadn't been there herself. She could not deny that she understood his paranoia, and he had respected her wishes and sort of taken no for an answer, sort of in that he kept asking.

The song ended and with it, their dance. "Can I buy you another drink, Madeline?"

"I would enjoy that, Victor."

He held his hand out toward the bar, indicating that she should precede him. She made a pseudo curtsy before stepping that way. They left Jimmy standing by himself in the middle of the dance floor.

"Would you like more of the same or a branded variety?"

"More of the same. Having a fancy label doesn't make it a quality product, just a pricey one."

"Barkeep, if you please? One for me as well."

The bartender looked a bit worried and maybe a touch nervous but poured up another pint of moonshine for Madeline and added one for Victor as well. Madeline raised her pint to offer a toast to Victor. He clinked his mason jar against hers and snickered. His brother still glowered at them.

"What brings you to these parts, Madeline?"

"I needed a drink," she told him with a wink, "and, really, just passing through heading west."

"How far west?"

"Depends on where I am when I find what I'm looking for. But that's long term. Right now, I need some action."

"Action?"

"The paying kind preferably."

"What are you selling?" he asked giving her a once over.

"Not that," she answered with a snort, "But I do like to mix it up."

A raised eyebrow. "Really? Any good."

She hitched a thumb toward Jimmy. "Ask him. He interrupted my practice."

He turned on the stool and faced his brother. "That wasn't very nice, Jimmy. Aren't you supposed to be the good brother?"

There was a growl for an answer. Victor just laughed.

"You really did get under his skin, didn't you? I think I might know a place that has what you're looking for. Drink up."

She titled the mason jar up and drained the contents. "Where to?"

"Can you ride?"

"Most anything."

"This way."

He headed for the back of the bar instead of the front where a well maintained hog waited.

"Sweet," she commented, "But there's only one."

"I wasn't expecting company," he replied as he straddled the bike and started up the engine.

Jimmy appeared as she began to settle herself behind Victor.

"You don't know what he's capable of," he hissed in warning.

She gave him a look of death. "It isn't that I don't know. It's that I don't give a fuck. See you round, sunshine."

Victor laughed and gunned the engine, peeling away with a shower of rocks. Jimmy cursed as a stone tore through his cheek.

They rode for a while with Madeline watching the scenery going by and making note of landmarks. With their height difference, she did not even have to duck down to stay out of the wind. He slowed down as lights appeared in the distance.

"Preferences?"

"Anything money can be made at... if you're willing to front me. Or I can pilfer it."

"You think you're good enough?"

"I know I am."

"If I front you, I get fifty percent of the take if you win. Eighty if you lose."

"Willing to run a hustle? I can lose on purpose."

"Take a dive?"

"When it suits my purpose."

"So sucker them in, have them bet against you and lay the fucker out?"

"Sounds about right. Although it's simpler if I just straight up win."

"You think you can take all comers?"

"Unless they're gifted like you and your brother are, I'll be the last one standing. That healing factor you guys have is a damn nuisance in that kind of contest."

"Weapons or bare hand?"

"Doesn't matter."

He slowed a bit more then turned to inspect her. "Where are you from?"

"South America."

"Pretty quiet down there these days."

"Hasn't always been."

"No," he agreed, "that it hasn't."

He took the bike to an even slower roll as they approached something that resembled a guarded gate. She sat back as they came to a complete stop, better to see the surroundings. Two large men with sub-machine guns watched while a third approached.

"Not like you to bring a date to the show, Creed."

"You said I should bring better-looking company the next time I came down."

"Yup, I guess I did. She got a name?"

This time Madeline answered, "She does."

The guard actually looked at her this time, inspecting her not like a threat but rather a selection at the meat counter. It was partly his natural scumbag self and partly intimidation tactic. It probably worked on the standard issue civilians, and she had never been one of those. She made a point of catching his eyes before rolling hers.

"I show up with him, and you really think that is going to work on me?

Victor chuckled but said nothing. The guard looked stunned for a moment but recovered quickly.

"Where'd you find her, Creed?"

He stretched the truth a little. "She was with my brother."

The man frowned now. "He isn't going to come looking for her is he?"

Victor shrugged then looked back over his shoulder at her. She sighed heavily.

"Like I said earlier, way my luck's been running... Can't shake him loose, like a fucking leech or a tick or something. So can we get on with this before so I can have some fun before he shows up?"

Both men laughed now.

"I like you," the guard said. "What name you use?"

"Mad Messijer."

"Mad short for something?"

"Sometimes. Usually, it just means crazy though."

"Any weapons?"

"What do you think?"

"You can tell me or I can frisk you."

She swung her leg over and got off the bike. Shedding the jacket, she held out her arms and turned around completely. She was wearing the snug tank top, leggings and climbing boots she had crash-landed in. They had been washed out a couple of days ago and had finally dried. She preferred them to the sweats picked up at the thrift store and had put them back on as soon as she was able. They were a second skin on her, and any weapons would have been obvious. She picked up her jacket and draped it over her shoulder. "Satisfied?"

He grinned. "Good enough. Enjoy."

She returned the grin and resettled on the bike. "I aim to."

Victor chuckled again, revved the bike and rode through the now open gate.

"You looking for anything, in particular?"

"Nothing in particular, as long as it's combat."

"Why don't I show you what's available, and you can pick."

"Works for me."

The area they rode through was a like cross of something out of a post-apocalyptic movie and an old west town. It appeared anything could be bought and sold here, anything. It was a good thing Victor did not slow down until they came to an area of cheering crowds interspersed with spaces segregated by walls of chicken wire and other fencing materials. She even spotted a couple of boxing rings. She patted him on the arm and pointed to an out of the way spot. He nodded on pulled over. Without a word, she slipped off of the bike and headed into the crowds. She knew he could track her movements easily.

She circled the various arenas watching both the contestants and the spectators. She also took advantage of those too distracted or inebriated to notice or to mind being groped. She netted some loose change and a couple of bills, nothing for proper stakes. Unsurprisingly, most of the competitors were male. Machismo and ego always played into it. The couple of females she saw she watched a bit more closely. One was obviously not there of her own accord, but she was good, very good. She would need to try not to go up against her if possible.

She stopped her rounds near one and waited. She felt his presence soon enough.

"What stakes you willing to put up?" she asked without turning.

"You like this one, I can cover it."

"Be sure to have some for betting," she said and passed back the couple of bucks she had found. "Not much there, but bet that on me too."

"You sure about this?"

She looked back over her shoulder at him and winked. His responding smile showed those extra-long canines once again. He took her arm and went toward one of the barkers. He easily had the man's attention who was judging him to set the betting ratios. Victor shook his head, stepped to the side and hitched his thumb toward Madeline.

"Not me, her."

"Her? In there? You sure you want to waste that?"

"Her choice."

The man raised an eyebrow and looked more closely at Madeline then offered, "I can buy you from him if you want. You don't need to go in there to get away from him."

She shed her jacket and draped it over her arm. "I'm not for sale. Just open the gate and let me have some fun."

His eyes ran over her once again, this time noting the absence of scars or other evidence of prior experience. It was only there in her stance and her eyes. She let him see the glimmer, and he could not meet her eyes for long.

"Entry fee's a C-note," he said.

Victor took out a billfold and handed over the money.

The barker turned and tapped the other beside him. "Open up. We've got a newcomer."

Madeline got up to the second step before turning toward Victor. She crooked a finger, beckoning him closer. When he stepped up, she put her jacket in his hands. "Keep this warm for me, eh, big boy?"

"A high R O I," she replied then continued up the steps but paused at the top. "And some entertainment."

Being a paying customer, as well as a large, intimidating sort, he got himself a ringside spot to watch. Her opponent was only slightly taller than she was, but he was at least twice as wide and heavily muscled. She rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck. The barker introduced her opponent who happened to be the crowd favorite. He leaned toward Victor.

"Mad Messijer," Victor said before the question could be asked.

The crowd began to thin, thinking this was not going to be much of a match, except for those just wanting to see blood fly. She appeared to be at an extreme disadvantage. The bookies called out odds heavily weighted in his favor. She was a long shot. Victor took the couple bills she had given to him, doubled it and bet on her. He noticed that as soon as the betting closed, her feet shifted to lower her center of gravity.

The barker called out, "Last man standing."

A triangle was struck, and then it started. She did not charge him, but let him come to her. Some thought it was caution on her part. Victor saw it for the strategy it was. She was taking the measure of her opponent. He read his moves and saw that she did as well. He had been around a long time and had been in many wars and battles and simple fights. He could see that she was biding her time and playing with the crowd favorite as well as making money for them. Some of the bets were on how long she would last against the Rooster. There were no rounds. They would fight until one of them was laid out on the stacked plywood beneath them or yielded.

She allowed some blows to land but never at full force though there was a lucky scratch. Victor's sharp eyes and nose caught sight and scent of it as well as the fact that it disappeared nearly as quickly as it had been received. He sniffed curiously, trying to figure out how it was she healed like that not being like them. He could see that she had skills. Her moves were efficient and precise, doing only as much damage as she intended.

After several minutes, he heard her say, "Bored now."

Seconds later Rooster was on the floor, held in place by an arm bar and a knee in his kidney. She leaned down. Victor listened closely.

"You can yield now and be back fighting tomorrow, or I can break things so you'll be out of commission for a couple of months. Your choice?"

Rooster tapped out.

"Smart," she whispered.

She let him go and backed away. She did not insult him by turning her back on him. It wasn't his fault he was outclassed. There was no way he could have known.

Victor noticed there wasn't a mark on her. Rooster, on the other hand, was bruised and bloody and needed assistance. As he was helped to his feet, she offered him a respectful bow that had ancient roots. Her defeated opponent nodded in recognition. He may not have her skill but had fought enough to know she could have killed him if she had wanted. Once he was out of the arena, she wandered to the gate where Victor collected the money.

"How's your investment doing?"

His smile was full of appreciation and avarice. "Good. Want to go again?"

"Still room on my dance card, but we might need to change halls."

"Come on down, and we'll head over."

The next hour and a half was similarly productive. Victor's eyes were shining as they sat down to a complimentary meal and drink. She dug into her meal with gusto, inhaling the proteins and ignoring the carbs. He ate at a slower pace not having burned up quite as much energy as she had.

"How the hell did you get saddled with Jimmy?"

"Wrong time, wrong place," she said between bites. "Sucks to be me."

She drained the tankard and waved for another. "How long before he shows up you think?"

"What's he driving?"

"Beat up old pickup. Looks and sounds like a Chevy."

"Not much longer then."

"Figured as..."

Her words trailed off as she watched someone approach them. This someone was overdressed for the area both in her garments, her perfume, and her security. She immediately put Madeline's teeth on edge.

"You are the one called Mad Messer?" she asked.

"Not precisely. It's meh-saay-er," Madeline corrected.

"May I?" she asked, indicating the open bench at the table.

"No. Speak your piece and be on your way. You're interrupting my meal."

Victor chuckled into the sudden hush around them.

The woman was visibly insulted. "Do you know who I am?"

Madeline picked up the remainder of the meat with her fingers and ate it barbarian style before answering. "Don't know. Don't care. Hungry." Now she did grab up the bread to sop up the bloody juice that had spread from the steak. "If you ain't going to say what you want, be on your way. You stink like a French whorehouse, and I'm trying to enjoy my food."

She heard someone gasp, but Victor guffawed. The rich toady huffed, puffed herself up, turned and stalked away.

"Going to have to watch your back now," he warned in an amused tone.

She shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time. Won't be the last. Where the hell is my beer?"

With some sloshing, it appeared at the table held by a nervous fellow.

"Just leave the damn pitcher," she growled.

He set both tankard and pitcher down and nearly ran away. She smiled at Victor. "Now that the money fighting is over, the fun kind starts. At least it will once they figure I've had enough to drink. You up for a tussle?"

"Always."

"Then let's get to drinking."

Quite a few pitchers later, she began to show signs of intoxication. She began to wear as much beer as she drank, and her words became slurred. Her eyes were bright and clear, however. Victor played along just to see what would happen. She reached over to put a hand on his arm.

"Letsh find ush a placsh ta ourshelves, aye. Da a bit o wreshlin," she suggested with a leer. "Ya knowsh a placsh, aye?"

"I do," he said slowly and ponderously pushed himself up from the table.

She moved to follow suit, but her palm slipped off the edge of the table, and she crashed back down, tumbling the bench and herself onto the ground in the process.

"Ooopsh," she laughed then struggled to get up.

She accepted the hand Victor offered, and he pulled her up with such force that she flew into his arms. He used the occasion to quietly tell her they were being watched. She whispered back that she knew. He set her back down on her feet, and they staggered off together. They wandered about, slowly working their way toward less crowded areas.

As they stumbled toward a dimly lit narrow street, a voice behind them said, "You said you couldn't get drunk."

She cursed but only loud enough for Victor and his brother to hear. She swung around unsteadily and wagged a finger at him. "What I shaid waz it'd take a damn shite more than a bottle and have o' whiskey... and I'd had a damn shite more. Now go way. I bizzy."

Stumbling back around she took Victor's arm back up. "Now wherez waz wez?"

"Don' t do this, Victor," he called out to his brother.

Victor shrugged with his free arm. "What can I do, Jimmy? She's twisting my arm."

"He'z such a wet blanketsh," she grumbled.

Jimmy continued to trail them down the glorified alley. They ignored him and paid attention to what they did not hear. A set of figures appeared at the far end beyond the last building.

"And so it begins," she said.

Madeline's words were quiet but full of eagerness and were met by Victor's low chuckle. For just a moment, he was someone else, and she was somewhere else.

They were in another seedy back alley and had needed to draw out those they were after. If anyone could instigate a fight, it was Madeline. She had a way about her that encouraged others to want to take her down a peg or teach her a lesson. She could always find the button that needed to be pushed. Vincent had tried to stop her, but Rene had put his hand on the other man's shoulder and shook his head.

"Just watch. She'll ask if she wants our help."

Vincent had been fairly new to the team at that point, and though he had his doubts, followed the older man's lead. He did look to the other member of the team's triumvirate. He had seen Frank get protective of her, even more than Rene even though she was with Rene. Even so, Frank was reclined in his chair, enjoying his drink and enjoying the show.

She had needled the Colonel until he was nearly purple. They had watched from the shadows as the locals cowered in his wake. It had pissed her off. It was that much better that he was also their primary target. In the bar, she had openly mocked him. He had tried to strike back by calling into question her femininity and womanhood. She had simply laughed and continued drinking until she had "remembered" an engagement. She had loudly announced she was going to be late and would see the boys later. It was hard not to miss the Colonel's men leaving within minutes.

Frank sat forward, finished off his drink then commented, "Hope those boys are wearing cups."

Rene chuckled. "Like it'll make a difference."

Frank stood up and stretched. "Going to call it a night. Got an early morning."

He offered a sketchy salute that Rene returned with an admonition, "Get out of here, you reprobate."

Rene took his time paying off their tab then had Vincent walk along with him. They strolled casually, and Rene pointed out points of interest interspersed with quiet instructions. They had only traveled about a block when they heard her voice in strident tones telling someone to pull his head out of his ass long enough to go fuck himself. Rene laughed and tapped Vincent's arm, "Come on. The show's about to start for real."

Poor Vincent had no idea at the time that Rene and Madeline had been in constant communication since before she started in on the Colonel. He followed Rene as the man unerringly found his way to the alley where Madeline faced off against the Colonel and his troops. They hung back in the shadows and watched as her drunkenness fell away, and she laid waste to the first set to come against her. Frank watched from another shadow and only moved to intercede when guns were drawn...

There was no Frank or Rene or Vincent here. There were only Victor and his brother, a shabby imitation of her Mate. Of course, even if these nuisances drew guns, they would cause her even less concern now than they did then. Back then, she could still die in a permanent way. That hadn't been the case in a hundred and sixty years. So even if she didn't get back up from these two, she knew she would survive the encounter. It was unlikely those who stood against her could say the same.

The popinjay from earlier stepped into a circle of light. "Have you learned who I am yet?"

Madeline's answer was belligerent. "What part of don't know, don't care don't you get?"

"You didn't enlighten her, Creed?"

He shrugged. "She didn't ask, Shashina. Don't think she cares."

"Nope," Madeline confirmed. "Don't care."

"Then she shall be taught a lesson. Step away, Creed."

"Sorry, sweetheart," he apologized as he left Madeline's side.

"No worries, darlin'. I'll be just a moment. Keep what's his face from interfering, will ya?"

"My pleasure."

As Shashina's lackeys approached Madeline, Victor dropped back toward his brother. His only purpose was to keep Jimmy from sticking his nose where it didn't belong.

"What are you doing, Victor?" Jimmy growled.

"Staying out of the lady's way, Jimmy," he answered smugly. "She's quite gifted."

"She's unarmed."

"If you really believe that, you're a bigger fool than I thought you were, little brother."

Madeline ignored the men behind her. As long as they didn't get in her way, there wouldn't be any problems. Her chin lowered, and her eyes unfocused to see them all. Five to one? That was hardly fair... for them. They were a coordinated group. She couldn't quite bring herself to call them a team. The one on the far left was the one giving directions. The signals were subtle, but she knew what to look for. It was one of the advantages of having been at this game for longer than all of them put together had been alive.

It seemed a couple might have seen her fight in the cages and warned the others. They were cautious and attempted to come at her as a unit. The madness gleamed in her eyes, and she smiled.

"Give it your best shot, boys and girls," she invited.

And they came. Even with five of them, it was nothing like going up against Logan. They got some hits in, but unlike her Mate, their bones broke. The snap of an arm echoed back toward the observers as the scent of fresh blood rose in the air. A knife nicked her side, and she growled. This was her only good shirt. It didn't repair itself as her body did. She took the blade from the one who had managed to get inside her guard and gave it back to him, the business end first. More bones snapped and two more dropped, leaving only the team leader. This one had seen her skill up close and gave it the respect it warranted. He did not stand down.

She beckoned him closer with three fingers. "Come on, big man. Let's see what you've got."

He came in slowly which made her smile all the more. It meant he got to watch as she healed before his eyes. It was only a small cut where a fist had connected with her cheek bone when she stepped into it. Still, seeing flesh knit before one's eyes could be a bit unnerving. The one she faced was very wary. They circled for a bit, long enough for another to arrive. The woman fighter she had noted earlier.

"You're one of them," he said in a voice pitched only for her ears.

It was not said with accusation or hatred. It was a simple statement.

"No," she denied, willing to talk to him. "But I have acquired some of their traits."

She knew it was giving him time to catch his breath, but it didn't matter. She was not winded or tired despite having fought earlier. The protein intake had already accommodated that energy expenditure.

"Traits and skills can be picked up, not the healing."

"True, but that was a special case. From what I've been told, no one has ever seen anything like it. As for me, I simply take advantage of it."

"Stop chatting!" Shashina demanded. "Finish her!"

He grimaced.

"You can always walk away," Madeline offered.

"No, I can't."

"I'll try not to do any permanent damage then."

He nodded his understanding just before attacking. He knew he did not stand a chance, not one on one. He knew skill when he saw it. She dragged it out a little until, with a well-placed kick, she knocked him out. She advanced on Shashina then, her steps too quick for the woman to do more than gasp in surprise. A heartbeat later those fancy threads of hers were being snagged by the rough siding of the closest building. Madeline had her pinned easily and sniffed at her neck.

"A very exclusive and expensive French whorehouse. Chanel twenty-two I would say." She pulled back to let Shashina see her eyes. "That's very old-fashioned of you."

Shashina's eyes were wide with surprise and a touch of fear.

"You aren't used to being on the receiving end, are you?" Madeline asked with a chuckle.

She shook her head. "You aren't going to hurt me are you?"

"That depends..."

"Depends on what?"

"You."

"What... what do you want?

"The Feral there. She fights for you?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"She's mine," she said as if it were that simple.

An eyebrow shot up, and her voice became very low and very dangerous. "Yours? As in... property??"

"What else would I mean?" she asked, sincerely confused.

"Do you want to live?"

"Of course."

"Then free her."

"No," she shook her head. "I can't. She's mine."

"So is your life. I can either take that or her. Your choice in ten... nine... eight..."

Shashina's eyes darted between the Feral woman and the mad one that held her captive and counted down. Finally she exploded, "Take her! She's yours! Just let me go!"

"I suppose that will have to do. Know this, she is free. If I find that you have attempted to re-enslave her," she warned, one hand delving within the folds of Shashina's clothing to find a particular pressure point. She leaned in close so that her breath was warm on the other woman's skin. "I will find you, and I will hurt you. And I will do so until you beg me to kill you. Do you understand me?"

Shashina nodded vigorously. She was self-important and liked to order people around, but her survival instinct was strong. "Yes, I understand. Please, let me go."

"Not without something to remember me by," she told her.

Madeline pushed aside the fabric from her shoulder and bit into the fleshy part hard enough to draw blood. Shashina's scream was stopped by the Feral woman's hand.

"You've been marked by the Black Wolf, now go!"

The Feral let go as Madeline stepped back, and Shashina ran.

"She'll be back once the fear wears off," the woman said.

"I plan to be the fuck out of here by then."

"Why did you do it? Risk yourself for me?"

"First off, don't act like I'm all noble. There's no risk to me, no real risk. Secondly, that kind of thing pisses me off."

"And would you do what you said about hurting her?"

"Yes. I don't make empty promises."

"You are not one of us but you act much like us."

"I've been Mated to one of you for many years. Truthfully, I think I'm closer to the animal than he is."

She glanced down toward the two men who had watched but not gotten involved. "Not one of them."

"No."

"Where is your Mate?"

"A very far distance. Come, we can talk more once we are away from here... if you wish. I am Madeline."

"Yes, I wish it. I am called Nimaya."

Madeline started toward the men. "Well met, Nimaya. The tall one is Victor. The other is Jimmy."

"Do they travel with you?"

"Somewhat."

Jimmy stalked forward and demanded, "What the hell was that?"

"Fuck off, Jimmy," she replied and walked right past him, leaving him standing there glowering. "Well, Victor, I think I've ruined this 'berg for you, but you made a decent haul."

"I did. Place is losing its shine anyway. Here's your cut." He handed over a thick wad of bills. "We should do business again sometime. You're good for my bank account."

"Maybe we will someday," she said as she tucked the bills into her bra. "Good luck to you."

"You leaving on foot?"

"That's the plan for now. We're going to have some conversation." Her head dipped to indicate the other woman.

"Good luck to you. Hope you find what you're looking for."

As they got further away from the brothers, Nimaya a said, "We should probably not exit by the main gate."

"What do you suggest?"

"There is another way, though..."

"Though?"

"It is treacherous to non-kin. How well do you see at night?"

"Not as well as you, likely, but better than most. Lead on."

They made their way to the other exit that looked like it might once have been a stream bed. There was some coiled barbed wire, but the gaps were large enough for them to slip through. It appeared to be a large animal deterrent more than anything else. They traveled in silence until they were some distance away. Nimaya stopped and turned to Madeline.

"Which way do you travel?"

"I head west to the land of the Navajo. Do you have a place to go?"

"Yes, there are those I need to check on," she answered.

Madeline dug the cash out of her pocket and offered Nimaya half. "Use it for you and your people."

She shook her head. "You have done enough already. And it is too much."

Madeline shrugged. "I can always get more. Whatever is extra pass to others in need. Which way to the east-west road from here?"

Nimaya accepted the money then pointed to a landmark. "The split tree there. There is an intersecting trail just on the other side of it. It will take you to the road." Her head tilted inquiringly. "You return to your Mate?"

"Trying to."

"He is among the Navajo?"

"No, but the way to him might be found there. It is a small chance, but one I must follow."

"I wish you success in your search."

"To you as well. May the Spirits of the Ancestors guide and keep you."

With that, Madeline headed off toward the split tree and the trail to the road.

The trail was easy enough to find and follow. She kept her pace slow but steady, knowing she would reach a road eventually. As she walked, a stiff wind came up. She paused to sniff at it and sighed. Rain was coming, and the day had been going so well despite his showing up. She would have preferred snow. It did encourage her to pick up her pace though. If she could at least reach the road before it started, she should eventually be able to find some place to get in out of the wet. She also had enough cash on her to get a change of clothes and a room for the night.

The thought of a hot bath was a pleasant one. The company of her Mate and a bottle of good wine would make it even better. The best she would be able to do would be a bottle of wine, quality questionable. She might be better off with a bottle of whiskey or bourbon. Vodka or rum would work as well, but she had a feeling those would be more difficult to acquire. Those thoughts and a quicker pace kept her warm as the first of the rain began. Fortunately, she was close enough to the road that she did not have to slog through the mud for long.

With the time and the inclement weather, the road was quiet lending her mind another chance to wander down paths it had not wandered in many years. Through the lens of memory, the rain became snow, and the foliage and empty trees became the remains of shelled out buildings. It was the last winter weather job she and Rene had worked together.

Having been born and raised in the tropics, she and cold weather were not friends. It was not just cold here; it was miserable. To make matters worse, Rene's commission had been temporarily assigned to the regular army, and he was attached to the peacekeeping force deployed by the UN. It was a very strange arrangement for a man of his skills. Peacekeeping was not a part of his resume, at least not in the manner expected of the UN forces. Unlike with the Legion command, Madeline could not simply attach herself to the unit and move among them. His unit with the Legion both knew and trusted her. None of them would question her presence.

Here she had had to attach herself to a civilian organization, at least to get into the area. She arrived with press credentials arranged through her sources and a high-end camera. To most here she was simply a Dutch photojournalist looking for a Pulitzer. Those who knew the truth were not the kind to share those details. The details would endanger them as much as it could her. She made friends with the French delegation and spent much time with them. The commandant enjoyed flirting with the young photographer. As he was both a man of honor and propriety, all he did was flirt which meant he did not learn of any of her unpublished skills.

The Commandant helped her on with her coat. She bid him good night and settled her scarf in place. It was as much for warmth as it was for concealment. Ever the proper gentleman, he opened the door and bade his Sergeant escort Mademoiselle Van Buren to her destination. The Commandant never noted that the same Sergeant was on duty every time she joined him for dinner. As they left, the Sergeant nodded to his replacement and signaled all quiet. That usually was the case within the confines of their base of operations. It was once they left the building that caution had to be exercised, even here within the bounds of the UN's demarcation zone.

As they moved into the street, they switched from speaking in French to Dutch. She kept her hands firmly inside her deep pockets and one on the butt of the pistol contained there. Being a soldier, he wore his weapons openly, a pistol at his waistband and a rifle held just shy of ready.

"Have you made any progress?" Rene asked.

"Only a little. They are wary. I am hoping for a break soon. I don't know how much longer I'll be able to maintain the facade."

He did not ask why. He knew. He had seen what she had seen. Nearly all of them had, and nearly all chafed at the restrictions placed upon them. He simply said, "If it had been anyone else, I would have told them to go elsewhere."

She nodded in agreement. "I as well. But we here we are... Has your schedule changed?"

He smiled his charming smile. "I am yours until morning to do with as you please."

"Good," she said softly. "I need time with you."

It began to snow as they walked. Fat, fluffy flakes wafted down about them. With night fallen and not much in the way of lighting, it made for a dreamy landscape.

"It seems almost peaceful like this," he commented.

"It does. But it's still too cold."

"I'll help you warm up when we get inside."

"That's the best offer I've heard in quite a while."

They continued to the hotel where the civilians were billeted. Those that stood guard at the front greeted them, checked their papers and passed them through. She was on the uppermost undamaged floor, the seventh, and had it all to herself. The elevator did not work, and most chose not to climb quite that many stairs. It gave her privacy as well as a bird's eye view of their surroundings. There was enough electricity to turn on the lights. However, many light bulbs were either broken or missing entirely.

Madeline lit a candle and shaded it before placing it on the low coffee table at the side of the room. Opposite the table lay the mattress and bedding. A dresser drawer was on each side where a nightstand might sit. She had dragged it here into the main room from the bedroom. She was not fool enough to sleep near an exterior window, and she kept the door between the two rooms closed unless she needed to look down at the remains of the once beautiful city.

Rene secured the door with both the latches and the room's sole chair. He took his weapons off and laid those alongside the mattress. His jacket had gone in the drawer before he turned to help her with hers. He grinned when he saw she had done the same. She returned the smile and held out her arms to him. They embraced tightly, simply content to hold one another for many minutes.

She raised her head to look into his eyes. "You've lost weight. You're thinner. You've been giving your rations away haven't you?"

He shrugged without letting go of her. "No more than you have."

She did not deny it either. "It isn't enough."

"It never is, Maddie. It never is."

They kissed softly, and she heard him say her name in her mind...

"Madeline. Madeline. Madeline!"

Someone came up beside her and grabbed her arm. She reacted instinctively, pivoted toward them, hand of the opposite arm poised to strike.

"Madeline," he said again.

His voice finally sank in.

"Victor? What..."

"I've been calling your name for the last two miles. It's not healthy to be that distracted in this world, well, considering your reaction... where the hell were you?"

"With my husband, in Sarajevo."

He gave her an odd look. "Come on. Get on. It's freezing out here."

"There a motel or something nearby?"

"Yeah. Just hang on."

It wasn't more than ten minutes before they pulled into the parking lot of what she once might have called a fleabag motel. But it seemed to her that every motel and hotel she had seen looked like this.

As he pulled in next to the office, he asked, "Sarajevo? What year?"

"Nineteen ninety-five."

"There was a civil war there then."

"I know," she said as she got off the bike then went into the office.

She came back several minutes later with a set of keys. "If you're staying, I hope you don't mind sharing..."

He tilted his head and tried to read her, but she gave off no signals in either direction. He then looked up at the sky. "Looks like this is going on for a while. Yeah, I'll stay."

She handed him one of the keys. "Room one twelve, at the end there. Can you round up some food and drink for us while I make inroads at getting warm and dry?"

"Sure. Be back in a few."

As he pulled away to drive over to the diner, she headed across to the room. She didn't hurry, despite the fact that the rain became a downpour. She was already soaked to the skin. She let herself in, closed the door and quickly crossed to the tiny bathroom. She started up the shower, turning it to the highest temperature it could go. Her teeth were already chattering as she pushed her shoes off her feet and stripped off the climbing jacket and pants. She tossed those into the tub and let the water wash the mud off as she shed her tank top and underwear. She grimaced at the rent in her shirt. She had forgotten about that. Grabbing the provided soap and shampoo-conditioner combo off of the sink she stepped into the hot water. She washed herself as well as her clothing.

She had shut the water off and was wringing out her clothes to hang when she heard the door open. She paused and listened. The scent of hot food came to her as well as the sound of a paper bag followed by Victor's voice.

"Coffee or whiskey?" he asked.

"Both," she answered returning to her efforts.

He chuckled as he pulled the Styrofoam containers from the bags. He was using the third empty paper cup to combine the liquids when she came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel. She sniffed and identified eggs, bacon, ham, and sausage.

"Smells like breakfast," she commented.

"Figured you'd want the protein."

"Figured right. Going to crank up the heater to try to dry my clothes faster."

He handed her the cup of Irish coffee as she passed him. He turned to let his eyes follow her movements as she went to the old heater and adjusted it. He shook his head and thought once again how much of a fool his brother was. She was a fine looking woman. His brother had a knack for finding attractive women, but he didn't recall ever meeting one who almost seemed to be going out of her way to piss him off. Not that he spent a lot of time with his brother. If Jimmy found out they had shared a room, even if nothing happened between the two of them, Jimmy would assume it had. Victor knew that was part of why he decided to stay. He figured she knew that as well.

As she came back to the table, he asked, "What were you doing in Sarajevo?"

"Working," she answered as she sat down.

He pushed one of the containers toward her along with the flatware package. "Must have been some interesting work."

She tore the plastic from the spork, knife and napkin. "Interesting... that's one word for it. The pay was good, we traveled a lot. Unfortunately, most places were in pretty bad shape when we got to see them. Probably why we went high-end the few times we actually took vacations."

"Where is he now, your husband?"

"He died in twenty aught two."

"Sorry."

She shrugged. "It is what it is."

"Still miss him?"

She didn't answer for a long time, just pushed her food around. When she looked up, she had chosen to let her pain show. "Every. Single. Second."

Rene was certainly not the only person she missed. She had lived with the pain of his absence for ten long years. It had been only a week so far, but the agony of the separation from the Pentad was four times worse.

"Is that why you fight? Trying to find someone to end the pain?"

"Nah," she shook her head and sipped from the coffee and whiskey mixture. "Fighting is one of my coping mechanisms. If there was a way to end the pain, as you put it, don't you think I would found it before a century and a half passed?"

"Maybe you just haven't gone up against the right kind of opponent."

She raised a brow at him now. "You mean like you or your brother or the gladiator from River City? It's not that I haven't been killed. I've been shot, stabbed, blown up, drowned, had my head split open, even died in childbirth once. I don't stay dead."

"But you aren't..."

"As Nimaya said 'one of you'. No, I'm not."

"And you aren't a mutant of any kind."

"Nope."

"So how is it you are still alive, being essentially a normal?"

"The theory goes that my twins, one of whom is like you, had such a strong survival instinct even in utero, that they shared their gift with me. And due to the symbiotic nature of mother and child, I retained the healing factor after they were born. That's the theory anyway."

"Did your husband know this? Was he like us?"

"No, they were born after he died. He was a mutant but not like you. He wasn't their father anyway. My Mate is."

"Your Mate? Not husband?"

"Well, after as long as we've been together, he could certainly be considered my common law husband, but Mate is the more accurate word."

"And he's like us?"

"Yes, and... unfortunately, your brother bears an uncanny resemblance to him. It would be easy to think they were identical twins. In fact, when I first woke up and saw Jimmy, I initially thought he was my Mate."

"That must have sucked."

"You have NO idea. If I had had any inkling that day was going to turn out how it did, I'd have stayed in bed. I'm sure I could have found some other way to occupy my time."

She had finished her meal while they talked and now pushed the empty container away and leaned back in her chair to finish off the coffee. She shifted and hooked a heel on the cross brace of the chair. As she sipped at the warming liquid, her mind once again wandered to that night in Sarajevo and spending it in Rene's arms. They had been together many years already and seen many awful things, but there was something there that struck at the core of both them. That night had been a night of a desperate need, a need to touch their humanity and chase away the horrors. They had both taken a long time after that before their next job, the one that had become their last job together. On the return flight, she had collapsed with a bizarre dizzy spell and nausea. The physician that had checked her out had informed them of her pregnancy.

She smiled at the memory and the four glorious years that had followed... until she lost him. When she had lost him that second time, her mind had broken like it had when she had been young. She felt that madness pressing in again. She had had practice at keeping it at bay, but it had been a long time. Andi thought she had reintegrated the parts of herself during the flight to Paris. It was only partially the case. Madeline Jacobs and Mad Messijer were two sides of a coin. It was their younger self that had rejoined them and become the protected one. The other two worked in conjunction with each other.

The madness that called to her could be sated temporarily. The cage matches earlier and the following fight had focused her elsewhere, helped her forget for a time. That part of her that was Mad was not eager to come out but was preparing for the worst. The worst being unable to find a way home, a way back to those she left behind. These little river cities and shanty towns offered places to make money and to sow the seeds of chaos. Who knows, maybe she would even start a revolution...

She had finished the coffee and set it down absently. Her towel had slipped, but she had not noticed. Her expression altered as she moved from thinking of the past to thinking of the future. That was all the Mad one's doing. It was necessary for her survival, the one thing that had always been her guiding star, the instinct to survive.

Victor watched her as her attention drifted elsewhere. He saw the poignant memories as they played across her face. He saw the change to calculation. He knew it had nothing to do with him and that she was completely unconcerned with his presence. As she continued her musing, he rose and put the empty containers in the trash can. He had slung his coat over the back of the chair when he had come in. As he headed for the bathroom, he unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt sleeves. When he returned, his shirt was open, he had a towel in his hand, and his face and chest were damp.

She had not moved.

"You gonna sit there all night?" he asked.

She looked toward him, her eyes grazing his exposed chest. "Was going to turn in soon."

"There's only one bed," he observed.

She tilted her head. "You don't seem the shy type to me."

The corner of his mouth lifted. It sounded like an invitation to him. He was pretty sure she would stop him if it weren't. He was across the room in a flash and pulling her out of the chair. She did not try to catch her towel as it fell away. He saw the raw animal lust in her eyes. He grinned.

"My brother is a fool."

###

Jimmy cursed as his cheek was ripped open and glowered after them. The woman was enough trouble on her own. Now she had gotten involved with his brother.

"They deserve each other," he grumbled as he turned back toward the building.

He took in the bar then shrugged. Might as well get a drink while he was there. He had a pretty good idea where Victor was taking her. A little place that had once been a sleepy and quiet little town a century or more ago had morphed into a guarded town that offered entertainment of every kind. It wasn't the only one. These areas had sprung up all over the country, and Victor patronized many of them. One was nearby, and knowing Victor, he would be there for several hours. Jimmy guessed she would not mind. Hell, she'd probably enjoy it. So in he went, ordered up a few rounds and set to drinking them. That's when Chuck contacted him. He normally answered aloud but was aware of those around him.

Logan, what are you doing?

Having a drink.

Where is Madeline?

Off with Victor.

Your brother?

Yeah, that Victor.

You didn't follow them?

Why? I can guess where they're going.

Logan...

I'll be on my way when I'm done here.

You must see that she gets to her destination.

I said I would, and I will after I finish my drink.

He could have sworn he heard Chuck grumble as he faded away. There wasn't much Chuck could do at this distance other than nag at him, and he knew how well that worked. Too soon, it seemed the alcohol was gone. He paid his tab and headed on his way. He did make a small side stop to pick up a cigar. He had been craving them since she had smoked that first one. He'd given up cigars years ago, not because they were bad for him but because Jeanie didn't like them. He chomped the end off then lit it and inhaled deeply before getting back on the road.

He drove the highway, as bad as it was, as far as he could then turned off onto a dirt road. He was pretty sure it was the right one. That was born out when the condition of the road improved considerably. The first part was merely a test. Only those who went this way purposefully would keep on going. Anyone who stumbled across it accidentally would turn around and go back to the main road. Twenty minutes later he rolled up to the entrance, and an armed guard approached him.

"We don't want no trouble from you, Logan."

"I'm just looking for Victor. He's here, ain't he?"

"What makes you think that?"

"Saw him a couple of hours ago. He was going where there was action. Where else would he go?"

"Right..." The guard looked back over his shoulder. "Either of you see if Creed came through earlier?"

"Yeah," one called down. "Had some broad with him. Rumor has it she's making a name for herself in the cages."

"All right. You can go through. Just don't cause any trouble."

"Just trying to find Victor."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he said as he waved Jimmy through and pointed to a side area. "Park it over there."

Jimmy pulled through and parked, making sure to lock up his vehicle before leaving it. He wandered through the crowds, hearing the talk about this female fighter no one had seen before but was winning match after match. He asked someone where she was expected to fight currently and was informed that she was taking a break for food and drink... compliments of the house, of course. He approached the food establishment in time to see her crash to the ground, and Victor give her a hand up. He frowned. She looked drunk to him, but he couldn't imagine anyone giving away that much free booze, and he had seen her put away quite a bit before.

As they left, he trailed them through the streets and byways. He wanted to approach them in a less crowded spot he told himself. Or perhaps he was just procrastinating, and seeing that they were getting along so well... that just chafed his hide.

"You said you couldn't get drunk," he called out.

She cursed but only loud enough for Victor and his brother to hear. She swung around unsteadily and wagged a finger at him. "What I shaid waz it'd take a damn shite more than a bottle and have o' whiskey... and I'd had a damn shite more. Now go way. I bizzy."

Stumbling back around she took Victor's arm back up. "Now wherez waz wez?"

"Don't do this, Victor," he called out to his brother.

Victor shrugged with his free arm. "What can I do, Jimmy? She's twisting my arm."

"He'z such a wet blanketsh," she grumbled.

He watched as his brother came toward him, leaving her to stand alone against the thugs facing her.

"What are you doing, Victor?" Jimmy growled.

"Staying out of the lady's way, Jimmy," he answered smugly. "She's quite gifted."

"She's unarmed."

"If you really believe that, you're a bigger fool than I thought you were, little brother."

He watched in surprise as she laid waste to those coming at her and more so when she struck a bargain to free the Feral gladiator. She was taking chances with their lives, putting them at risk. Word of her skill and disrespect toward Shashina would get out, and they would come looking for her. And lucky him, he was supposed to be traveling with her. The shit storm she was bringing down on her own head would undoubtedly affect him too. Why the hell couldn't she mind her own damn business??

He stalked forward and demanded, "What the hell was that?"

"Fuck off, Jimmy," she replied before chatting up his brother once again.

They took their leave of each other like they were old pals, and she walked away with the freed gladiator.

"What the fuck, Victor?"

Victor looked down at him. "What, Jimmy?"

"God damn it, I need to know where she goes."

"Well, you can follow her I suppose, or you could just wait up on old sixty-four. She's bound to end up on that road eventually. But I don't think she likes you very much. You might just want to let her go the rest of the way on her own."

"I said I'd get her there, and I'll do it."

"Whether she wants you to or not?" Victor asked with a shake of his head. "Ah, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, you still haven't figured out that some women prefer to be left to their own devices, eh? See you round, little brother. I'm going to see if there's more fun to find."

"Leave her alone, Victor."

"Why, Jimmy, whatever do you mean?" Victor laughed as he walked away. "Besides she's not your girl. She's obviously too smart for that."

He grumbled and growled and clenched his fists though his claws stayed sheathed. He considered following the women and even started in that direction, but, much as he hated to admit it, Victor was right. Sooner or later she would end up back on Eye Forty or US Sixty-Four. He wondered if it would be simpler and considerably less of a pain in the ass if he just followed her. He stared down the way she had left and snarled. No use to follow her that way, and he certainly didn't want to stick around here. He made his way back to his truck and left the enclave, taking the good part of the road at speed until he had to slow down or risk damage to the truck.

Getting back out to the highway, he pulled over and considered his options. He could head east for a ways and wait for her to show... assuming whatever path the gladiator showed her came out on the eastern side of the access road. No, he was better off heading west. He would drive out a few miles and if he didn't see her he'd find a place to spend the night then go from there. That was his plan, and that's what he did. He found no sign of her, but he did find a small motel, a liquor store, and an all-night diner. He got a room, got some dinner then got some after dinner libations and headed to his room. She'd be easier to spot in the daytime anyway. He did take one circuit about the place checking for her scent, but the rain started up, and he didn't feel like being out in the wet.

Where once he might have been concerned that she was out there freezing her ass off, now he figured she deserved whatever she got. What's the worst it could be? With her ability to heal, it wasn't like she could get pneumonia or anything. He would worry about it in the morning. He smoked his cigar, drank his liquor and crashed out for the night snoring like a freight train. When he crawled out of bed the next day, it was already mid-morning though you couldn't tell by the sky. The clouds were still dark and brooding, and it suited him just fine. He stuffed his feet into his boots and shrugged into his jacket before stepping outside. He did a cursory glance around and noticed a bike that looked a lot like Victor's outside one of the rooms. He ambled toward it, sniffing as he went. The closer he came, the more and more sure he was that this was indeed Victor's ride.

He followed the scent of his brother to the door of the last room and knocked.

###

The next morning found them in a tangle of limbs and bed covers. Madeline woke without opening her eyes. She stilled her desire to stretch and listened. She heard the deep breathing of another and felt the heat of the other's skin where they touched. It was not someone who had previously shared her bed, but his presence was not unwelcome. His efforts had eased her pain for a time. She did stretch now and begin to rise from the bed to use the facilities. His arm snaked around her waist and pulled her back down.

"You're a beast," he said in her ear.

She laughed. "Coming from you, I'll take that as a compliment. Now, if you don't mind, I need to pee."

"You coming back to bed?" he asked as he let go of her.

"If my clothes are still wet. I'd like them to be dry for at least a little while."

"Then I hope they're still wet."

She rolled her eyes and shook her head as she walked away. When she came back, she was carrying her shoes but still unclothed.

"You're in luck," she said as she set the shoes down by the in-room heater. "These aren't quite there yet."

He pushed up and leaned off the bed to snatch her back down when there was a knock on the door. She looked at the door then back to Victor with a raised eyebrow. He lifted his chin and scented the air. Before he could say anything, the knock became a pounding.

"Victor! Victor, put down your plaything and get out here!"

Both her brows went up at that. Plaything?? She reached down and tugged the bedspread from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around herself.

"Let me handle this," she mouthed.

Victor waved toward the door and propped himself up to watch without bothering to cover up. She stepped to the door, undid the safety chain and opened it.

"Is there something you want?" she asked acidly.

Jimmy's eyes widened in surprise and his mouth opened and closed several times before he eventually managed to ask, "Where's my brother?"

"In bed, resting. I think I wore him out."

"Not quite yet," Victor stated from his prone position.

She looked back over her shoulder at him. "Is that a challenge??"

"If you want it to be. Or need it to be."

"Either one works," she said with a grin before turning back to Jimmy. "If you really want to talk to him and you're going to wait, you might want to go across to the diner and get something to eat. We're going to be awhile."

With that, she moved the Do Not Disturb placard to the outside and shut the door in Jimmy's face then went back to the bed.

"Now, where were we?" she asked as she straddled him.

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