The cages were slightly raised above the bar, so the first thing I saw were boots, black patent leather numbers with stiletto heels. They went up to her knees. From there, black fishnets sheathed muscular thighs that disappeared into tiny black hotpants. Her toned stomach was bare, her halter top - black again - tight as a second skin, displaying beautifully the gifts God gave her.
It wasn't that she was more well-endowed than any of the other women in the room; she had a compact, muscular build, rather than a voluptuous one. It wasn't even that she was more beautiful. There was just something about her. In the way she tossed her mane of chestnut hair over her shoulder. In the sullen tilt of her chin as she surveyed the room. In the challenging grace with which she prowled the cage. She had an aura about her that was animalistic, predatory and very definitely dangerous. I discovered my mouth was dry for reasons that had nothing to do with thirst.
"So ya like the Wolverine, huh?" It was the bartender, wiping at the bar and leering at my reaction.
"Wuh-Wolverine?" I repeated.
He nodded towards the cage. "Her. Thought it was a bit of a fancy-schmancy name myself, but it suits her, don't it?"
I could only nod. Wolverine. She looked like she was going to snarl at any moment.
Not long after, the low, thrumming music ceased, the lights started to flicker on, and the girls stepped down from their cages, filing behind the bar and disappearing out the back. None of the patrons seemed inclined to leave, though, remaining by the bar, joking with the tender. So I stayed too, nursing the dregs of my beer. No one noticed the skinny guy at the end of the bar - they rarely do - and I didn't have any place else to be.
In twenty minutes or so, it became apparent why the men had been waiting. The door behind the bar opened, and the girls, more sensibly dressed now in jeans and sweaters, bundled up against the cold outside, emerged in twos and threes - safety in numbers. They were greeted by wolf-whistles and ribald comments as they threaded past the bartender, who handed out money like some sort of strange father figure. Some of the girls blustered through the crowd of men, disappearing out the door as quickly as possible. Some flirted back, lingering by the bar to join quick-fire exchanges of innuendo that burned my ears.
She stepped out last, a slight and sudden hush falling on the bar. She was still wearing boots, but these were solid, sturdy. Without the added height of the heels, though, she was revealed to be quite short. There was little sexy about her outfit now, worn jeans and leather jacket, a plaid shirt underneath. Her hair had been loosely tied back, but her attitude seemed more forcible than ever. Not aggressive, just indifferent. Other people meant little. She was smoking a cigar, I was amazed to note. Not in a coquetteish, Monica-Lewinsky way, either, but in a no-nonsense, business-like way.
She leaned against the bar in the gap between me and the regulars. The bartender detached himself from the raucous conversation and drifted down to her. He slapped a folded wad of notes on the bar. Immediately, the top few bills began to unfold, the pile slowly unravelling. I found my eyes fixed on it with a desperate sort of hunger. There was more money there than I'd seen in a good while. My attention was snapped as her hand closed over the pile, picking it up and out of my line of vision. I blinked, and looked up to her. There were dogtags hanging around her neck; did that mean she'd been in the army? 'Wolverine' the side that was catching the light said. My gaze moved up to her face. She was older than me, certainly. How old, though? My estimates veered between not much and quite a bit. Her eyes were marked with a weariness that didn't belong in anyone under the age of 35.
"Yer good," the bartender drawled.
She paused in her counting of the bills to look at him, a long level look. She said nothing though, and soon returned to her counting.
The bartender nodded, not seeming too perturbed. "Well, 'Wolverine'. If ya want a more permanent sort of arrangement, the offer's open."
She finished her counting. "I'll think about it." Her accent revealed itself now, a native Canadian. She peeled a bill off the pile and handed it back to him. "Whiskey. The cheap and nasty stuff."
As he took the money and wandered back up the bar, a couple of guys detached themselves from the group of regulars and drifted down towards her, walking with that careful-stepping gait that screamed their drunken state. They stopped just behind her, and I shrank back away from them.
"Hey sweetheart," one slurred. The taller one, but the less brutish-looking one. "Haven't seen you around here before." So many things in his tone. A sniggering lasciviousness, alcohol, unpleasantness. I suddenly wished I was anywhere but here. I couldn't get any further back, the bar pressing against my spine as it was.
She - Wolverine - didn't say anything as the bartender brought her whiskey and went back up the bar. She raised the glass and, with a toss of her head, downed the lot in one swallow. She slapped the glass back on the bar with a grimace.
"Hey." It was the other one, the shorter one, not that much taller than her, but menacing enough for three, who spoke this time. "We're talking to you." His hand, a big hunk of meat, came down on her shoulder.
As if she'd been waiting for this, Wolverine pushed off from the edge of the bar, taking a step backwards. With another toss of her head, she slammed the back of her skull into the nose of the small guy. There was a faint, but horrible, crunch, and then a thud as her elbow jabbed back hard into his chest. He staggered backwards a little, crying out. She merely stepped back to the bar, taking the cigar out of her mouth and stubbing it out in an ashtray.
And so I was the only one who saw the taller, thinner guy pull the flick-knife out of his pocket. The grin on his face as he flicked it open suddenly made him the more menacing of the pair.
"Look out!" a voice made high with fear squeaked. With a start, I realised it was me.
Wolverine spun around so quickly I wondered if she'd even needed my warning, or if she'd somehow known about the knife anyway. One hand came up, knocking aside the first swing of the blade. There was a sound, like a knife tearing through wet silk, and then her other hand came swinging through, skewering the wrist of the guy's knife-hand with one metal claw.
The knife clattered to the floor, unnaturally loud in the sudden complete silence that had fallen over the bar. The only sounds were a faint groan from the smaller guy with the now-broken nose, and a sort of gagging noise from the taller man as he looked at the foot of metal upon which his wrist was impaled. When the claws disappeared back into her knuckles with another sibilant sound, he fainted, hit the ground in a boneless heap.
And then there came the chik-chak of a gun loading. I swivelled my gaze back to the bartender, who was now sighting along a rifle. "The offer's withdrawn," he said, curt and cold. "We don't like your type 'round here."
Your type. My type. *Mutant*.
In another time and place I might have found it funny, the sudden surge of kinship I felt with this stern woman who had just proved herself so deadly so quickly. I mean, we appeared to have nothing in common, the skinny kid with too-wide eyes and too-soft accent and the terse, hard-as-nails woman. Nothing in common except 'something different'.
While I philosophised, she acted. A whirl, another rip of metal through flesh, and the barrel of the rifle was suddenly half as long, then it was flipped out of the bartenders hands and skittered away into a shrouded corner. Her arm drew back, and I could see the next stroke, the claws shearing down through his shoulder and chest, so clearly that it was a shock when it didn't fall.
My eyes flicked from the frozen bartender to her to meet her icy eyes for a bare moment before she jerked her gaze away. It was merely part of her turning away, claws disappearing with a slightly wet hiss of metal. She stalked from the silent bar.
A cacophony broke out as soon as the door clanged shut behind her, but I didn't stay to listen. I grabbed the pack at my feet and ran out of that bar. Sprinted as if my life depended on it. Which I was suddenly convinced it did. A hurried look around as I exited; the world was stained with the pale grey light of a false dawn reflected off the low, sullen clouds. More snow before nightfall, and there they were, footprints in the snow already fallen, off to the right. And further down the street, a figure, fairly short, compact. I ran after her.
The snow crunched under my shoes and my breath whistled through my teeth as I closed the distance. At ten metres, she barked, never looking over her shoulder: "Piss off, kid."
I closed the distance more, coming up beside her now and trying to slow into a walk, but her pace was fast. I had to keep breaking into a jog to keep up. "I was..." No way like the straight way. "I was hoping you'd help me."
"Do I look like a damn nursemaid?" she snapped. Those tags around her neck jingled as she turned to glare at me, not slackening her pace.
"No, but we're -" A swallow; this wasn't an easy thing for me to admit. Too much like acceptance, which I wasn't sure I wanted. "We're the same."
She watched me for a long moment. A truck roared its presence a few blocks over, a long drone. She looked back ahead, face implacable. "We're nothing alike." Just a gesture and a few words, but I felt the sting of rejection like she'd slapped me.
My pack was sliding off my back, and I had to keep twitching it back up. "I've got nowhere to go," I said baldly. Go for the sympathy vote. "No money, no one, nothing."
"Not my problem." Her voice or the pavement beneath our feet; a toss-up which was colder.
My pack slithered off my shoulder, through fingers numb even with the gloves, and landed with a wet thud on the ground. I stopped dead, Wolverine kept walking. Not even a pause. Suddenly I felt too tired even to cry. "I saved your life in there!" I called after her. One last-ditch attempt.
"No you didn't." Words tossed over her shoulder and she kept going. I wanted to scream, to rage, to run after her and force her somehow to take me with her. I couldn't think past this monotone moment on the frozen sidewalk. I couldn't see the future. All I could do was stare at her departing back, brain as numb as my fingers, as my toes curled unfeeling in my boots.
Then she stopped. Just stopped in the middle of the pavement. A slight thawing, a sliver of hope. I grabbed up the pack and sprinted after her.
This time her pace was slower, less uncompromising. I could keep up easily, but we walked in silence. I felt liked I owed her something. A name at least. "I'm..." Not my real name. That guy ended with an innocent girl's choked gasps. Yeah, he's a real ladykiller. A real... "Rogue."
We reached a road, and I almost stepped out into the path of a car the same colour as the sky. She reached out to grab my arm, and I flinched away from her hand. Even fully clothed... Accidents happen and I don't want them to.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"I... It's just. You shouldn't touch me. It's... not a good idea." Come on, she deserved more than that. "You'll get hurt."
She shrugged. "OK." Just took it in stride, as easy as that; it made my head spin. Waiting for the cars to pass, she pulled out another cigar, raised her hands to light it. She wasn't wearing gloves, and I found my gaze drawn to her knuckles, looking for some sign of the metal that lurked beneath. There was none. Like I'd imagined it all. But I hadn't.
"Those... Doesn't it hurt?" I could hear that sound again, the knife tearing through wet silk. It made me wince.
No need to explain what. "Yes." Curt, simple. She strode across the road and I trailed half a step behind.
We walked half a block in silence. "Where are we going?" I asked.
She pointed forwards. "That way." Just as I was starting to seriously doubt her talents as a conversationalist, she stated: "Your parents never called you Rogue."
I gestured vaguely in the direction of her dogtags. "And yours called you Wolverine?" I was tired. Tired of everything. I didn't want to explain about a girl gasping for breath, lying in a coma, hiding in my mind. It was all too complicated. Couldn't I just be Rogue?
"Who knows what they called me," she muttered, then turned to look at me. "My name's Morgan."
Apparently I couldn't be. "Lawrie," I admitted. Lawrence, actually, named after a movie my mother loved. Back when I had a mother and a family and a normal life.
"You've got nowhere to go, Lawrie." It wasn't a question. A statement of fact. I nodded anyway. She was still looking at me, and I wondered if my whole pathetic story showed on there somewhere. Somehow I knew she understood my situation anyway.
And because she was still looking at me, neither of us saw the motorbike on the road as we stepped out.
It was like some sort of horrible dream. Because people don't get hit by moving vehicles right in front of your eyes in real life. They don't get lifted off their feet by the force planted in their lower back, tumbling up into the air with the momentum. Morgan landed ten metres down the road, face down and limbs twisted. The bike was black and powerful, the rider the same, dressed in leather with a visored helmet. It snarled to a stop further down the road, the back wheel skidding around. The rider kicked down the stand, left the bike purring in the middle of the road to stand up, pulled off the helmet to shake out a mane of tawny hair.
I took an unbelieving step backwards, my eyes going back to Morgan's unmoving figure. A mistake, that step, as my weight settled on a drain covering rusted and frozen and protesting. It gave way under my boot, just enough for my leg to fall through until the jagged metal bit against the meat of my thigh. No, not now. I wrestled with it, wrenching at my leg, metal tearing at me. I looked up, and the rider was walking back towards us, the dead Morgan in the road, the trapped me in the gutter.
But then she wasn't dead; she was struggling to her feet facing me, spitting blood into the snow. Even as I watched, the horrible disfiguring graze along the right side of her jaw and face faded, disappearing into perfectly healed skin. The rider broke into a run, now distinguishable as a woman, her face contorted into a feral snarl, teeth longer and larger than any human's had a right to be. Morgan's eyes looked a little glazed and even as she heard the crunch of snow under heel and turned around, I knew she'd be too slow.
The first punch took Morgan square on the jaw, knocking her head back. It was followed by a solid body blow, sinking into her stomach. Even as she started to fold up, the final fist came through, an uppercut swinging in and launching her into the air. Morgan flew half the distance separating us and landed on her back in the snow, her breath whooshing out of her. Her eyes closed.
I was screaming at myself inside my head. Get out, move it, move it! My knee was caught in the grate, too big to fit through. I twisted desperately, and wrenched it through leaving a jagged tear in my jeans and a trickle of blood running stickily down the inside of my calf. But my boot stuck.
The rider started towards us, her gait slow and menacing, her eyes vicious and teeth bared. Suddenly there was a flurry of wind, picking up snow and flinging it towards her. And the clouds seemed lower, grimmer. The rider turned, and I followed her gaze. There, through the rushing snow - two figures in the road beyond her. A man and a woman, in dark, form-fitting costumes that could have been uniforms. Something about the man - perhaps the silver sheen to his eyes, perhaps the way the wind ruffled through his hair, ice-white despite his dark chocolate skin - made me sure he was responsible for the sudden weather change. The woman beside him had a visor with a red tinge wrapped around her eyes.
The reason became apparent as she raised a hand to the side of it, and a sudden beam of red light flashed towards the rider. She leapt out of the way, and a section of curbing behind her disappeared in an explosion, a flurry of snow and a cloud of cement dust.
When it settled, she was nowhere in sight.
The new arrivals walked towards us, the white-haired man stopping over Morgan as the red-visored woman came up to me. She had dark hair, pulled back severely into a braid. I suppose you definitely wouldn't want it getting in the way.
"My foot's stuck." I was quite proud of how steady my voice was, all things considered.
She only took a moment to gather the whole situation, and raised her hand to the visor again. I flinched, seeing again the pavement exploding, and she saw that too. Stepped closer and held out her hand. "Hold on to me. And look away."
So I did as I was told, and felt the drain give way completely underneath me. If I hadn't been holding on to her arm, I would have fallen in completely. As it was, I staggered away with her support, and looked up the road. The white-haired man was hefting an unconcious Morgan. He looked towards the visored woman with a slight question in those now-blue eyes.
My escort nodded. "Let's go," she said, her tone all business, curt in a different way to Morgan. She looked to me. "Come on. It's not far."
And that was the first time I met Morgan, and Sarah, and Oliver. It was the moment everything changed. It was the moment I stopped running. It just took me a little while to realise it.