"Happy birthday, dear Kitty・"
Logan tilted his head around the doorjamb of the TV room, sniffing the odors of chocolate cake, fruit punch and burning wax. Kids and adults alike were crowded around the beaming Kitty Pryde, as she drew a deep breath and tried to blow out all seventeen of the candles lovingly arranged on her cake.
Rogue was sitting on one end of the couch beside Bobby. She clapped her gloved hands, along with all the others, as Kitty successfully extinguished every candle at one go・but Logan saw the flash of long white forelocks as Rogue・s head turned his way.
She had an annoying habit of knowing when he was nearby.
With a scowl, Logan ducked past the doorway and continued on to the garage, searching his pockets for a cigar. He was in the mood for a drink, and that meant going elsewhere. Preferably on Summers・ borrowed motorcycle.
The fact that he・d been giving a lot of thought to birthdays had nothing to do with it. Really.
Recently there had been a whole rash of them at Xavier・s School for Gifted Youngsters, and each one was dutifully observed by the staff and students. They might as well have just thrown a big noisy party every week, at this rate. Logan vaguely understood that there was some odd paradox involved. An effort to make every child feel special, yet normal・because nothing was more a part of normal childhood than a birthday party, a child・s own day to be special each year.
Not that Logan knew the first thing about childhood.
After a few moments of searching the vast garage, he found Cyke・s bike, rather ineffectively hidden under a blue tarp. A quick manipulation with one half-extended claw, and the engine rumbled to life, ready to carry him off to someplace where he wouldn・t have to think about anything for a while. Because life at a school, in his opinion, required entirely too much thinking.
Thoughts about things like・ birthdays.
(If he couldn・t know the year of his own birth, it would have been nice to at least know the month. Was it summer when he drew his first breath? Or perhaps winter?)
Thoughts about things like・ aging. Or a lack thereof.
(Sixteen years had found no change in him. Just how slowly did he really age? Could he bear this closeness to others that he was only just beginning to feel, if・ oh, god・ he might outlive them all?)
There was something about birthdays that seemed like confirmation of one・s self. To be acknowledged and embraced by family, parents・by those from whom one・s own life had sprung. Those to whom one really was special... not a freak, not a monster, but a person. A human being.
Pick a reason why that was something he could never experience.
He had no family, and certainly no parents. He had no past to secure his sense of who he truly was. He was a freak・a freak of science and human cruelty, even among his fellow freaks of nature. And a monster?
Yeah, that too・ when he felt like it.
And he was feeling like it now.
There was a birthday tradition at Xavier・s. Defying their bedtime curfew, older students would sneak into the room of whomever had just turned a year older, hanging out until late into the night and monopolizing their friend・s new presents. The telepaths among the adults, at least, must have known about these covert after-parties・but if they did, they seemed to look the other way.
Since it was her birthday, it was Kitty・s turn to have teens on a sugar high converging on the room she shared with Jubilee. But then, Jubilee was a sugar high incarnate, so a little more hyperactivity didn・t phase Kitty.
No pun intended.
By one o・clock, Kitty and Jubilee・s last remaining companions were Rogue and Bobby・who had a rare gift for hanging out with girls without feeling the least bit uncomfortable. Or maybe he was just that infatuated with Rogue.
"Logan・s home," Bobby announced unnecessarily from his perch by the window, as a motorcycle rumbled distantly up the driveway. Jubilee didn・t react at all, but then she had her head between a set of earphones, bopping away to one of Kitty・s new CDs. Kitty herself just looked up from her magazine with a shrug, and Rogue frowned thoughtfully.
"So how come he never shows up at any of our birthday parties?" Kitty mused, an idle question directed at Rogue. "You・d think he・d come to yours at least."
Rogue・s frown deepened, and she tugged at one of the white locks hanging down the side of her face, absently looking for split ends. She didn・t realize that was a habit of hers when something made her think about Logan・really think about him, about what was in his mind and heart.
Before Rogue could dredge up any answers from the part of Logan・s essence that was still inside her head, Bobby posed a theory of his own. "Maybe he doesn・t like to think about・you know, getting older. I heard he isn・t. Not like us, anyway."
Seated on the floor, Rogue drew her knees up and hugged them to her chest, pulling the simplest answer from her tangle of lingering Logan-impressions. "I think it・s more about・ family. Somethin・ he thinks he・ll never have."
"Who?" This came from Jubilee, who had tuned in on the conversation while switching CDs.
"Logan," Kitty and Bobby answered in unison, and Kitty giggled.
"Oh. Him." Jubilee went back to rummaging through the pile of music on the bed beside her.
Rogue scowled, her Mississippi drawl thickening in her agitation. "Whadaya mean, ・oh, him・? He saved my life, an・ he helped save yours too at that awful place up in Canada, didn・t he?"
"Ugh. Can we please not talk about that?"
"Logan・s part of this family now," Rogue grumbled defiantly, folding her arms. "He oughta be treated like it. In fact・ he oughta have a birthday of his own."
Kitty・s eyes widened, Bobby・s mouth popped open, and Jubilee did both.
"Aw, geez," Bobby murmured. "Logan? He・d tear our arms off and beat us with ・em if we tried to throw him a party."
"He would not!" Rogue reached up to give him a half-playful slap on the knee, then sobered slightly and tapped the side of her head. "I know better."
A moment of uncomfortable silence followed. Kitty finally broke it by asking, "Well, what day would you even pick? I mean, even he doesn・t know when he was born, right?"
"Maybe the day he first came here with you," Bobby suggested, nodding to Rogue.
But Rogue had a distant look in her eyes again, and shook her head. "No・ not then. I know a better day." She looked around at them gravely. "The day all that stuff happened at Alkali Lake."
Jubilee made a fairly impressive imitation of one of Logan・s own growls, reaching for her headset. Rogue deftly yanked it away from under her fingers.
"Listen. Somethin・ happened to Logan that day. He・I don・t know, made up his mind about us. About his life. I think that・s when he really decided to stay here・ with us."
"And that・s a good thing?" Jubilee retorted.
Bobby cut in before Rogue could fire a comeback. "So you・re saying, like, the day he made a fresh start? To have a birthday for that?"
Kitty smiled. "Count me in. I think it・s kinda sweet. Besides, any reason for a party is good with me."
Rogue beamed at her friend, then turned a melting gaze on the one eminently meltable object in the room: the Iceman.
"Okay, okay. I・m in too," Bobby sighed, a fatalistic grin spreading over his face.
"I knew I could count on you. Jubes?"
"Nuh-uh." Jubilee reached for the headset Rogue had taken away, only to be stymied when Rogue pulled off one long glove and waggled her fingers with an evil grin. In a huff Jubilee argued, "I can・t believe you think he・d even like it. I mean, Logan hates us・well, maybe not you, Rogue, but the rest of us. Did you see how mad he got when I switched his cigars with those chocolate ones?"
"Well, gosh, Jubes, I wonder why," Rogue retorted sarcastically. Jubilee clearly needed some extra tutoring in physics from Professor Xavier・she had no concept of cause and effect.
Jubilee rolled her eyes. "I・m telling you, it・s a waste of time. He・s not a party animal・he・s just an animal."
Rogue bounced to her feet, dropping the glove she had removed. However, before Jubilee could let out the squeak that was gathering in her throat, Bobby lunged forward and put his hand on Rogue・s arm・taking care to make contact only with her shirtsleeve. "Hey, come on."
Rogue gave Jubilee a venomous glare, but nodded sullenly to Bobby and bent down to pick up her glove.
"I swear, Jubes, if you dare tell Logan what we・re planning・" she said, jerking the glove onto her hand.
"Yeah, whatever." Managing to retrieve her hostage headset at last, Jubilee returned to the oblivion of Kitty・s new Goo Goo Dolls CD, leaving her companions to a scheme of the sort she was usually the first one to take part in. Even Rogue, through her irritation, had to wonder what upset her friend so much about the idea.
"So," Kitty began gingerly, "how long have we got to plan this?"
With less than a month before the date Rogue had set, she, Bobby and Kitty were soon busy preparing for their plot. The word quietly passed among the student body, or at least the older students who could keep a secret. Most of the girls thought the idea of a birthday party for Logan was odd, but sweet; most of the boys were just morbidly curious as to how the Wolverine would react.
Somehow・and it must have been the Professor・s or Doctor Grey・s telepathy again・the teachers got wind of the plot as well. Nothing was said, but the adults were suddenly just there to help when needed. Well, Doctor Grey, Miss Munroe and Mister Wagner were, anyway. Mister Summers needed a little prompting, but his grumbling was really quite good-humored.
The only person who failed to get into the spirit of things was Jubilee.
A year before, soldiers had come to the school. They had invaded the one home where she had always felt safe and secure, and carried her off to a cold, frightening place where she thought she was going to die. Her teachers had come for her, and now she was safe again・but the security didn・t come back so easily. And part of that was because of the Wolverine.
She・d heard the rumors. Vague talk about how Logan had come from that nasty place to begin with, how he had known the man who kidnapped them. In Jubilee・s mind, Logan was a part of what had happened・and it was part of him. Even the fact that he・d demolished a number of Stryker・s soldiers was scary instead of comforting. As quickly as the teachers had cleaned up the blood, it wasn・t quick enough to keep Jubilee from seeing it.
Now Rogue wanted to celebrate the anniversary of that nightmare in Logan・s honor?
The week before the target date, Kitty volunteered their room for one last illicit late-night planning session. Disgusted, Jubilee abandoned her warm bed to go down to the kitchen and find herself some candy. The next day was a Saturday, and her big plans for a shopping spree were going to be spoiled if they all didn・t go away soon and let her get some beauty sleep.
She was crossing the upstairs gallery, headed for the staircase, when one of the shadows cast upon the floor moved slightly.
With a start Jubilee turned, finding a distinctive silhouette against the window. Logan was sitting on the broad sill, dressed in jeans and a black tank top, one knee drawn up to his chest. He was watching her, with those hazel eyes that she sometimes felt were just a little too amber to be quite natural.
"Sorry I startled you," he murmured laconically. Considering that she・d always done her best to avoid him, Jubilee hadn・t often heard him speak, and the quietness of his voice surprised her. His tone was hushed in regard for the sleeping residents of the mansion.
Sleep・ just what Jubilee should have been doing. It occurred to her that she could put an end to the whole conspiracy then and there, by telling Logan what Rogue and Bobby and Kitty and Peter were talking about in her room at that very moment. But she held her tongue・not really because she was afraid Rogue would make good on her threats, but because of that slightly out-of-shape little fiber of decency in her being that knew she would upset her friend.
Rogue had sucked the thoughts and feelings out of this savage not once, but twice・and rather than fear him, she practically idolized him. Jubilee decided it was time to find out why. So, reluctantly, she stepped closer to the windowsill where he sat.
Logan smirked as he watched her wary movements. After the pranks she had played on him・her private revenge against the intimidation and discomfort he made her feel・he certainly had no reason to be fond of her.
"Scared of me, little girl?"
Indignance at being called "little girl", more than anything, compelled Jubilee to stiffen her spine and react with bravado. "No way."
She thought she saw that wry twist of a smile deepen slightly, but then he just turned back to the window, as if dismissing her. That rankled her too, and in one last bold step, she came to stand at the opposite end of the sill.
He continued to ignore her, so she looked out as well, trying to see what was so interesting to him. All she saw was the veranda below, the gardens and grounds beyond. Granted, those owlish eyes of his saw a lot better than hers in the dark, but there was simply nothing out there.
"Whatcha doing?" she finally mumbled at last.
He shrugged his powerful shoulders. "Watching."
She thought about asking what he was watching, but decided on a different tact. "Couldn・t sleep?"
He blinked, without turning to look at her. "No."
His placid responses emboldened Jubilee. Remembering the first night Logan had spent at the school・it was hard to forget, considering what had happened to Rogue・she ventured, "Bad dreams?"
This time he did turn. She clamped down on a sudden gut urge to flinch away, but he simply looked at her for a moment, at last letting out something like a sigh. "Yeah, kid. Bad dreams."
It seemed perfectly weird to Jubilee that something like Logan could have nightmares・after all, he was one himself. Even without claws・ She sat down on her end of the windowsill, her gaze traveling to his hands. They were clasped around his knee, his entwined fingers oddly graceful for someone so rough-looking.
She had never seen his claws・not really, although she was vaguely aware that he had used them at Alkali Lake. All she knew about them was what Rogue and Bobby had told her, and the mental images unnerved her. She found herself wondering now if the reality was quite as bad as what she imagined.
He was looking at her again, conscious of her scrutiny. "What?"
Jubilee looked up at him, swallowed hard, and mentally dared herself.
"I want to see・" She gulped in a breath, and pointed at his hands. "You know. Them."
He gaped at her, which was pretty interesting in and of itself. She hadn・t really thought anything surprised him. A variety of unspoken thoughts passed over his face, and for a moment Jubilee thought he was going to ask her why she wanted to see・a question she had no good answer for. But then his expression shifted again, to something more closed and masklike.
Without taking his challenging eyes from hers, he unclasped his hands and sat up straight. Lifting his right hand between them, he closed his fist.
Then a lot of things happened at once. A twitch and clench of his fingers; the ripple of something moving beneath the skin of his forearm; and remarkably, a sound, like nothing Jubilee had ever heard before. It was the soft yet sharp sound of something metallic as it penetrated flesh.
And the claws were suddenly there, three long shiny metal daggers protruding from between Logan・s knuckles, catching the moonlight with a kind of savage beauty.
Jubilee recoiled. She couldn・t help it, in the first instant at least. Her back rammed stiffly against the frame of the window, and she stared wide-eyed at Logan・s freakish armaments. She couldn・t even fathom how those wicked things could fit under his skin.
At the moment, she was beyond denying her own fear. She was afraid to look away from those claws, as if they might wind up planted in her gut if she didn・t hold them at bay with her eyes. He turned his hand, and she didn・t need to see his face to know that he was examining them, too・with thoughtful indifference, the way someone would study their fingernails or the lines of their palm. After so long, to him, they were just another part of his anatomy.
Taking a deep breath, Jubilee forced her muscles to relax. She dared a brief glance up at Logan・s eyes, and found that he was watching her again. She licked her lips and tracked down her voice.
"Did・ did he do this? The man who came for us last year?"
Her eyes had quickly gone back to his claws, but she heard him draw a deep breath and let it out. "Yeah."
"Did you let him?"
The words came out in a moment of passion at the horror of it, and Jubilee instantly wanted to take them back. Her frightened eyes shot up to Logan・s, but what she found there was not anger・only an incredibly profound sadness.
His reply was little more than a whisper. "I don・t know."
He could have lied to her. He could have told her no・that only by force could he have been mutilated so, that nothing in him could ever have wanted the claws. But he didn・t. He made no presumptions of what he might have once been.
Jubilee felt suddenly very small, as the strange feeling came over her that this man had lived and died many times.
Her fingers trembled slightly as she reached toward his hand. His head cocked to one side, brows lowering dubiously, and she thought he might pull his hand away or retract the claws・but instead, he only turned his fist a little, turning the sharpest edges away from her.
With one finger, she barely skimmed the place where metal met flesh, then ventured a bolder touch. To her amazement, his hand relaxed beneath hers, his fist slowly unclenching.
The metal of the claws was warm! Somehow she had expected them to be cold・but then she realized that they had been sheathed within the warmth of his own body. His skin closed around the roots of the blades as though they belonged there, and beneath the back of his hand, she could feel the hardness of whatever structure or mechanism guided their extension.
How many people had these things killed?
It would have made sense to wonder what it would feel like to be run through by those claws. Yet instead, Jubilee found herself wondering what it felt like for Logan. To cut and stab with weapons that were a part of him; to feel the life shudder out of something・or someone・as it died on his claws. She thought about that・ and for the first time, she considered the possibility that the Wolverine might not take pleasure in hurting people.
She understood all at once.
Logan・s bad dreams were about this; about the people, or the man, who had done this to him. When those nightmares left him lurking at windows, watching the night, what he was really watching for was other men like that・and if, or when they came, he and his claws would be there to meet them.
The sense of security Jubilee had lost a year before came flooding back. In the past Logan・s presence had prevented it, but now, his presence provided it.
His fist clenched again, and as the claws slowly retracted, Jubilee felt them slide back under Logan・s skin. She saw the three deep narrow gashes they left behind; she watched them heal in a matter of seconds, from open wounds to fading bruises to perfect unmarked flesh. Then he lowered his hand from beneath hers, and it was met discreetly in his lap by his other hand, to rub his knuckles in a way that looked deceptively casual.
Jubilee noticed, and her heart plummeted in the dismay of a sudden revelation. "It hurts?"
"It・s nothing new, kid," he said quietly, and Jubilee was convinced she saw a rueful twitch at the corners of his mouth; almost a smile, as though he was pleased by her concern. That surprised her a lot・especially considering the sudden guilt she felt. Never before had she considered that his own claws might cause him pain・ or for that matter, that he could even feel pain.
"I・m sorry I asked you to," she mumbled, unable to meet his eyes.
He rolled his shoulders in a thoughtful shrug, his interest shifting back to the darkness beyond the window panes. It was as if he・d done nothing more than give her the time of day.
"It・s good, sometimes・ finding out something about people."
Jubilee wasn・t quite sure what he meant by that・but she liked what it meant to her.
Accepting that she had been dismissed, her head spinning with new thoughts, she turned to go back the way she had come; back toward her room. If the rest of the gang was still there, she had some ideas to sort out with Rogue.
"Pleasant dreams," she heard Logan murmur over his shoulder.
There was a certain grim irony in his voice. Pleasant dreams after seeing a man grow deadly metal claws out of his hands? Yet that was more than possible, because now Jubilee understood the gentle monster who stalked the darkened hallways of her home. Now she knew she was safer for his presence・and that was pleasant indeed.
On Tuesday, Cyclops caught Logan as he was heading up the stairs toward his room.
"Hey. That trip to the hardware store that・s been on the to-do list?"
Frozen in mid-stride, Logan warily frowned down over the banister at Summers. "Yeah?"
"Well, we need to go ahead and get it done. There・s trouble with a faucet in one of the bathrooms."
With a resigned sigh, Logan trudged back down the stairs. Shopping for plumbing fixtures with Summers was not his idea of a good time・but this was part of his job at the school. Manual labor was a lot more productive than trying to pound book-learning into teenagers, as far as he was concerned.
"This better not take all day, Scooter," he warned. "I got a hockey game to catch later."
In the hallway, Rogue and Jubilee were conversing in hushed, giggly tones. They fell silent as Logan and Summers passed them・both girls smiling a little too innocently. Logan guessed that somebody was going to find an unpleasant surprise waiting for them somewhere. Fortunately, if Rogue was involved, it wouldn・t be him・ but he pitied the unknown victim. He knew from personal experience that Jubilee was a terror.
Yet not always, apparently.
Since Friday night, Logan had been thinking a great deal about his encounter with Jubilation Lee. Although he kept it to himself, that curiously intimate contact had affected him.
She had wanted to see, to touch his claws. That was extraordinary. The only other person who ever asked to look at them was Jean, and that was purely for medical reasons. He couldn・t figure out Jubilee・s motive. Was it curiosity? That seemed to be the only answer, but somehow he felt there was much more underlying their cautious exchange・on her part and, truth be told, on his.
He wasn・t even sure why he had indulged her. Maybe at the time he simply wanted to scare her away, to be left alone with the bitter aftertaste of his nightmares・ but no, that wasn・t it. The truth was that somehow, it mattered to him that she had approached him. She was lying when she said she wasn・t afraid of him; he had smelled her fear. Maybe he had wanted to know if she was willing to confront that fear, and overcome it.
She surprised him by doing exactly that.
The claws hurt, but there was more pain in being feared by those he didn・t want to fear him. If Jubilee had finally accepted him as he was, then the demonstration was worthwhile.
Especially if her nefarious super-glue antics would stop now.
The outing to the hardware store was as tedious as Logan expected, and it took entirely too long. Summers dawdled hopelessly over brass fittings and ceramic faucet knobs, until Logan was convinced he was doing it on purpose. Not even he could have such an excruciatingly minute interest in nuts and bolts.
By the time they got back to the school, Logan was twenty minutes late for the start of his hockey game on television. He slammed the door of the black SUV and turned to go inside, but Summers trotted after him, dropping a hand on his shoulder. "Wait a minute."
Logan turned, automatically scenting the air for any sign of danger that Summers may have detected・but there was no alarm in the younger man・s face. Concern, yes・ but not alarm.
Summers huffed a sigh. "Look, I・m not supposed to say this, but・ I・ve gotta make sure. So when you go in there・" He suddenly poked a finger at Logan・s chest. "Don・t pull the claws."
Baffled, Logan scowled at him. "・Scuse me?"
"Never mind." With an air of determination, Summers turned to unload the SUV. Logan stared at him for a moment, then shook his head in consternation and left him to it. Forget the screws they・d just bought at the store・ol・ One-Eye needed to tighten the screws in his brain.
As for himself, Logan felt he had done his share for the day. He thoroughly intended to settle in and enjoy what was left of the hockey game, and to that end, he headed inside.
The utter silence that confronted him within the mansion was disturbing, at best.
This was the late afternoon at a school. There should have been noisy kids scattering in every direction at just about that hour, but instead・ nothing. Logan frowned grimly and stalked down the hall, listening and sniffing for signs of life.
Don・t pull the claws, Scooter had said. He obviously knew something was up, and furthermore, there were no smells that shouldn・t have been there. Alright, so there was no danger・but that didn・t make Logan like the mystery any better. In his experience, nothing that needed figuring out had ever led to any good.
At last detecting familiar smells from the TV room, he edged to the doorway and cautiously reached for the light switch.
Logan flinched back as though he・d been shot・though the claws, fortunately, stayed put.
Staff and students alike stood gathered in that room, looking at him with smiling, expectant faces. The walls and ceiling were festooned with red and black balloons and streamers・colors to match the uniforms of the X-Men. An enormous cake took up most of the table, and on the far wall hung a banner which read: Happy Birthday Logan.
A birthday・ for him?
Logan drew a breath and stepped further into the room, looking around at the gathered children and adults. He suddenly realized that they were waiting for him to say something・or possibly to do something, in the case of a few younger kids who were nervously eyeing his hands. Either way, the silence was going to get awkward if it went on for much longer.
"I," he began rather unintelligently, then paused and blinked. "No one・s ever." Yet still something felt stuck in his throat・and his eyes itched somewhat, as well. He cleared his throat and blinked again.
It was Rogue who rescued him, stepping forward with a knowing chuckle to throw her arms around his ribs. "Happy birthday, Logan."
Of course. All of this would have been her idea.
Bewildered by unfamiliar feelings, Logan carefully put his arms around her and returned the hug, closing his eyes for a moment. A very brief moment, because of the odd feeling that lurked about his eyes・a warm dampness that threatened to spill over, if he didn・t blink it away.
When he realized what was coming next, one thought did manage to distract him from his impending danger of showing sentiment.
Don・t sing, don・t sing, don・t sing・
"Happy birthday to you・"
As Logan rolled his eyes, he felt the mist in them clear away, like rain clouds before the sun. Bearing with mild chagrin the only slightly dischordant serenade, he shook his head in wry humor at his friends・and at himself.
The gifts were few and simple, and for that, Logan was relieved. The teachers, and apparently even some of the kids, had chipped in to buy a few items of clothing・which he had to admit was not a bad idea, since most of his clothes had seen better days. It was his guess that Rogue or possibly even Jean had picked out the jeans and shirts.
Of course, there were a few smaller, more personal gifts. Rogue presented him with a new pair of leather work gloves; when they spent time together, he often quietly insisted that he wear gloves instead of her, and she had noticed how worn and ragged his old gloves were. He smiled without comment as he fingered the small slits between the knuckles, neat and precise and undoubtedly stitched by Rogue・s own hand, that were meant to accommodate his claws.
Professor Xavier discreetly passed him a small but very fine bottle of scotch・with the strict proviso that it was only to be consumed in small quantities, and never shared with anyone under the age of twenty-five. But then, Logan wasn・t about to share it in the first place, so that was hardly a problem.
Just when he thought the surprises were over, Jubilee came up to him, producing from behind her back a rectangular package wrapped in loudly colored foil paper.
"It・s not really a birthday present. Just something I owe you."
Eyeing her warily, Logan took the package and gave it a cautious shake. It didn・t explode, and there was no sign of anything alive inside, but he was still reluctant to open it. Knowing Jubilee, he was entirely unsure of just what might pop out. Yet something about her smile encouraged him, so he braced himself and tore away the paper.
It was a box of cigars. Fairly expensive ones, at that・and definitely not made of chocolate.
Logan lowered his brow and frowned at Jubilee. "Who would・ve sold these things to a kid like you?"
Jubilee flushed slightly and glanced over at Summers, who had joined the party at length and with obvious reluctance. He shook his head violently at her and mouthed something, but she gave him a helpless shrug and turned back to Logan.
"Well・ Mister Summers helped me out there. But I paid for them myself."
Summers let out a hiss of breath and squirmed on the loveseat beside Jean, who looked to be torn between hugging him and scolding him. Raising an eyebrow, Logan gave him his most insolent grin, then favored Jubilee with a much gentler smile. "Thanks, kid."
Jubilee shrugged again, glancing sweetly at him through her eyelashes. "So, uh・ you think you could give back the chocolate ones now?"
Before Logan could answer, Rogue pushed her way to his side, pointing at the cake on the table in front of them. "Ahright, if that・s all out of the way, it・s time for the birthday boy to cut the cake."
The impulse that came over Logan then was positively mischievous. Coming as close as he could to a look of total innocence, he started to raise his fist.
"Not that way, ya big ox!" Rogue protested, her gloved fingers seizing his wrist・but he heard the quiver of suppressed laughter in her voice, because she knew he was only playing with her. She let go of his hand and picked up the serving knife that lay beside the cake. "Use this."
"He won・t even know which end to use," Summers remarked, visibly resisting a smirk, and took an elbow in the ribs from Jean・s direction.
In present company, and to a chorus of giggles, Logan settled for shooting Summers a "loser" gesture with finger and thumb before taking the knife from Rogue and doing the honors.
Within minutes, the kids were all well on their way to an icing-induced sugar high. Not particularly one for sweet foods, Logan picked slowly at a small piece of the chocolate cake, contemplation setting in now that the attention was on the food instead of him.
Someone had put some music on the stereo, and Peter Rasputin had moved the table・clearing floor space for dancing, of all things. Logan was thoroughly determined to remain a spectator.
When Rogue left his side to dance with Bobby, Logan took the opportunity to move down to the end of the couch where Xavier sat, watching the activity with quiet satisfaction. His air of authority and grace was somewhat undercut by the styrofoam plate of cake balanced precariously on the arm of his wheelchair, the unnoticed fleck of icing stuck to his upper lip・and in particular, the conical, tasseled party hat perched on top of his head. It was always something of a shock to see the man in so relaxed and casual a light, even though he greeted each birthday with almost as much enthusiasm as the children.
At Logan・s approach, the Professor turned, smiling in fond regard. Logan half-smiled in return, then blinked and sobered.
"So why today?"
The significance of the date was not lost upon him. Memories of what had happened a year before were the reason his nightmares had assaulted him with a vengeance of late. Part of him even wondered if this entire little display wasn・t just a convenient distraction for the kids, something to stave off their own memories of the fear and hurt they had suffered when Stryker came.
But Xavier smiled thoughtfully. "I believe it・s something to do with new beginnings, my friend."
An image flashed through Logan・s mind: a dogtag with a broken chain, lying abandoned in the snow. He wasn・t sure whether it was a thought of his own, or perhaps a telepathic prompt from Xavier, but that didn・t matter. He understood.
One year ago, William Stryker had tried, and failed, to bring about a day of destruction. Logan had made a choice that day, had buried his past in Stryker・s watery grave・ but it still haunted him. Now, today, he had a chance to make another choice. He could lay the ghosts to rest; he could take that day as his own, just as he had taken the animal name which Stryker had given him. Already he had come so far in building a new life for himself・a life he now knew these people had embraced as part of their own.
He was the Wolverine. The X-Men were his family.
And today was his first birthday.
Breathless with laughter, Rogue spun away from Bobby and dropped onto the couch beside Logan, giving his arm a tug. "Come dance with me, sugah."
Logan rolled his eyes and winced. "I don・t dance."
"Then I・ll teach you!" Rogue replied brightly, pulling a little harder. Logan shot Xavier a pained look, but in response he received only a chuckle and a dismissive gesture. Heaving a sigh, he got up and let Rogue tow him off across the floor.
It was going to take him until his next birthday just to live this one down.