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The Apples Of The Hesperides

Chapter 1: The Apples Of The Hesperides

by Cuthalion

The Apples of the Hesperides
by Cúthalion

I saw him standing by her grave.

I'd left the house for a walk, early on a crisp morning at the end of August. I'd taken up the habit of walking alone long ago because it chased the spiderwebs from my mind, and because it helped me to deal with what I am (or better, was) before I took the cure. Weirdly enough this is still necessary, even now, and not only for me. After more than a year, Bobby's still not used to me being normal. I can see it in his eyes when I touch his bare skin – a mixture of never ending surprise and shameful joy. He's unable to overcome the somewhat uneasy opinion that I did it for him.

Well, I didn't. At least I don't think so.

“I hope you're not doing this for some boy,” Logan said to me when I left, back that evening shortly after Professor Xavier's funeral. I remember how flabbergasted I was that he didn't chase me back into my room and hadn't forced me to unpack my bag, and I told him so. I can still see the expression of unguarded compassion and fondness on his face when he replied: “I'm not your father, I'm your friend.”

He's the best friend I’ve ever had. When Mystique fooled me into running away from Xavier's school for the first time – before that nightmare on Ellis Island –he followed me to the train and promised to take care of me. It was only a confirmation of what he'd already done before... from the moment he discovered me under that blanket on the platform of his trailer. He threw me out then and left me standing on the street, but only for a few moments. He couldn’t leave me there unprotected, just like he couldn’t not fight with teeth and those adamantium claws when someone attacked him. It was kind of a reflex, and it spoke volumes about his true nature. He'd been turning away from his own kindness for an eternity, and still he couldn't help being generous when the chips were down.

ooOoo

I saw him standing by her grave, his broad back shielding the inscription on the tombstone from me. I knew what it said, of course: Jean Grey. He looked like a stone himself that moment, petrified pain, set into the fresh, velvety green of the lawn. I stood on the path, ready to call his name and break the spell of his bitter memories, but for long minutes I kept my silence. I thought I had no right to challenge his demons.

And yet I know them; I have looked into his soul, far deeper than Jean Grey ever did. There are still nights when I bolt up from my bed, unable to breathe, the taste of blood filling my mouth, the sharp, ice cold agony of razor-sharp metal piercing my flesh and bone... a reminder of that evening when I snuck into his room and tried to wake him

How could I forget how his face changed when he realized that he had stabbed me? All that chiseled hardness, the deeply engraved distrust... they were gone in the blink of an eye, leaving behind nothing but shock and horror on features that were suddenly as young and vulnerable as my own. Touching him bare-handed was the only option I had in that moment; I know how incredibly fast he could heal, and so I swallowed the blood and bile rising in my throat, laid my fingertips against his cheek and felt his power blast through my arm, white hot like a flash of lightning.

And with that power came blurred images of Logan's lost memories, singeing my mind with unbearable sorrow and enormous rage. How can he bear that[i], I thought, still not breaking contact and distantly feeling the impossible sensation of my torn flesh, knitted together again by the strength I stole from him.

Finally I let go, and he collapsed at my feet. “It was an accident”, I stammered when Storm looked at me, and while Jean Grey knelt beside him, closing her hands around his face.[i]I'll never be able to touch him like this
, I thought while fleeing out into the hallway. I must never touch him again.

The next day he apologized. “I'm sorry for last night,” he said. I never understood why. He had only been defending himself.

He paid me back for nearly murdering him with the curse of my “gift” by saving my life again on Ellis Island, and this time he offered his healing powers freely, holding me skin to skin until he nearly killed himself dragging me back from death. I came to my senses merely seconds before he broke down, my heart and soul overflowing by his presence and power, his blood trickling over my fingers, vivid evidence of his stubborn sacrifice. It was Scott who carried me away that night; I couldn't walk. I was blinded by the memory of Logan's pale, lifeless face with the gaping wounds. I was paralyzed by the knowledge of what I'd done to him.

ooOoo

Our friendship has always been a matter of life and death. I’ve seen him crucified midair by Magneto's power over his adamantium bones. I've seen him lying on the porch of Bobby's parents’ house, the black hole of a bullet in his forehead. I've seen him die and revive and heal. And I've seen the look in his eyes when they followed Jean Grey's every movement.

I think she wounded him beyond any cure, simply by not feeling what he felt – at least not enough - and by being what she was. There are injuries no mortal eye can see, and no one knows how many years it may take for the soul within that unbreakable body to at least turn them into scars. His lifespan is probably much longer than mine – Storm told me once that he might be even older than the professor - but this will only extend the duration of his hurt. Sometimes I still hate her for never being what he needed. I hate her even more for making him mourn her death not only once but twice. And I can’t forgive her for adding yet another burden to those he already carried on his shoulders... perhaps the cruelest of them all.

She made him kill her.

And he did it, because of his damned, unshakable sense of responsibility, because of his knowledge that he was the only one able to break through to her when she had turned into a monster powerful enough to lift the world from its axis. He did it because it was the only way to save her. He did it because it had to be his hands that stopped her from crushing everyone and everything he was determined to safeguard. He did it because he loved her, and because in all her insanity she was still focused and ruthless enough to wield that love like an infallible weapon against them both.

I wasn't there when it happened. I'd left the school and taken the mutant cure. I was hiding away in New York, selling leather in a boutique for kids with that morbid taste for gothic style and too many platinum cards. The countless deaths on Alcatraz were nothing but a distant thunder, delivered through news I refused to watch, through magazines I wouldn’t read. I didn't even hear from Bobby... only that he had come through the turmoil of the last battle alive and well, as had Kitty and the others. He didn’t tell me if she was his girlfriend now, and I did my best to pretend that I didn't care. I don't think that I fooled him; Bobby is much more perceptive and clever than anyone might expect behind that handsome schoolboy face of his.

He also told me what had happened to Jean, and that Logan had survived - alive, but certainly not well. Then he left me in peace to draw my own conclusions, and to decide what I should do. It took me nearly a year to count my losses and my blessings, and to find out that there was only one place where I really wanted to be.

And so I came back to the mansion, back to what was left from the Professor's vision, back to his tombstone, and to the graves of Scott and Jean. I came back to Bobby, and I saw the confusion and disapproval melt out of his face when he dared to touch my bare fingers for the first time since we had met. There was nothing but wonder in his eyes, and our first kiss was nearly sweet enough to banish the memory of the kiss that had started it all, back in the lost life of a girl named Marie in Meridian, Mississippi.

Logan left shortly after I came back - hiding in Canada, I presume, or some other place where the ghosts of those we lost wouldn't haunt him. He stayed away from the institute until the next summer while I settled in, a “normal” woman among mutants... and yet no one wanted me to leave. They knew this was my only home, and I was still surrounded by the people I loved most.

All of them, save one.

Actually, there were many days when I didn't miss him at all. I had Bobby and Storm, even Kitty (who was a far better friend to me than I’d ever been to her); the younger students were nice and funny, and the ivy-covered walls of the school made me feel safe. Still I crossed the entrance hall from time to time, feeling a ghostly hint of his touch when he dropped his dog tag into my palm. I'll be back for this.

He had come back in earlier times, more than once, and I had returned it to him. But he never came for me.

ooOoo

That morning when I went to my usual walk, I saw that the school gate was open. I spied the massive bike, covered by a solid layer of dust and dried mud, one wheel crushing the roses in a blooming border. So he had returned, and despite the solid balance I had gained during the last year, my heart did a short, excited leap.

I was not of his kind anymore, but that didn't make me feel less valuable; the cure had only taken away a so-called “talent” that had crippled me my whole life, and now I was at least able to act like a human being. I could finally give him a hug, or take his hand. I could... well, if I found him, of course. He couldn't be far away.

I found him soon enough. He stood in front of Jean Grey's tombstone, his back rigid, his head bowed. The sight was sobering enough to shut my mouth. I looked at him, too nervous to step closer, and he only noticed me when he turned around, a silent eternity later.

“Rogue.”

He gave me something that vaguely resembled a smile; deep lines were running from his nose down to the corners of his mouth, and despite the weathered complexion of his skin he was very pale.

“Marie,” I countered automatically, but the catch in my voice spoiled the effect. Still, his expression softened, and for a moment his eyes rested on my bare fingers. “You took the cure, then – Marie.”

“Yeah.” I stared at him, feeling stupid and painfully young. “Now I can touch whomever I want. Weird, huh?”

“No, kid.” He reached out, and after a second of hesitation I took his hand. “This is what you wanted to have all the time, isn't it? And I bet Bobby is happy.” His grip was firm and pleasant, just I had imagined it to be, and the sensation made my skin tingle.

Very happy,” I admitted, and my cheeks grew hot. Now his smile was a tad more genuine.

“Good to hear.” We walked away from the graves, and he didn't let go of my hand. “Will you stay here, kid? Must be strange for someone who's quit performing mutant magic.”

“I found a 'normal' college, a pretty fine one” I said. “My grades are good enough. A bit late, maybe, but better late than never, Bobby says. And Storm, too.”

“They're right.” Logan's gaze was distant. “You have a lot to catch up on.”

“And I will.” I stopped in front of the entrance and turned to look up at him. Suddenly I would have given anything to wipe that expression of bottomless fatigue from his face. And then I had an idea... a reckless one, surely, but anything was better than seeing him like this.

“When I was younger, and much more impressible than today, I had a crush on you.” My tone was light, almost teasing. “Did you know that?”

“Ah...” He loosened his grip around my fingers, and I had to bite back my protest at the sudden absence of his touch. “I had... no idea.”

“Don't worry, it was harmless,” I said, feeling each heartbeat in my mouth. “I dreamed of holding your hand without those silly gloves.” Our eyes met. “Remember what I told you before I left to take the cure?I want to be able to touch people. A hug...”

“A handshake...”
He spoke very softly.

“A kiss.” I stared down at my feet, slightly taken aback. “I didn't expect you to remember that. It... it was silly.”

“No.” The quiet sadness of his tone weighed down on my heart like a stone. “Nothing of it. And I'm glad that you got all that at least... even the kiss.”

Bobby's kiss, I thought. But not yours. I never got yours. And then the blood left my face when I realized that I'd said the last few words aloud.

For a long while nothing happened, and I cursed inwardly: I had made a complete idiot of myself, and my attempt to help or at least to distract him had been too desperate and transparent to fool a man with his sharp senses. I should have known better.

But then I felt a featherlight touch against my cheek, sliding along my jaw, and rising goosebumps on the back of my neck. It became more insistent when his hand lifted my chin until I was forced to return his gaze.

“Rogue.” It was more a sigh than anything else. “I can't, kid. I would feel like shit afterwards.”

I gritted my teeth.

“Don't.” Pain tightened my chest, turning rapidly to seething anger. “Stop it. Do you really want to add more guilt to the pile you carry around like Atlas?”It had been the Professor who once told me the legend of the giant who carried the earth on his back, and I wondered why I had kept it in mind. Greek mythology was absolutely not my kind of thing.

Logan frowned, but he didn't object, and I drew strength from his silence.

“There's nothing you of all people should feel bad about… and it was my idea, wasn't it?” I said, still speaking with some heat. “Let me regret it... if you really think there's anything to regret.”

One of my hands touched his face, grazed skin and hair that felt thick and slightly coarse...a bit like fur. There was no need to stand on tiptoes to reach his mouth, but he was taller than Bobby, of course.

No. No thoughts about Bobby now.

The next moment, and to my greatest surprise, Logan gave in. His mouth touched mine, and any thought whatsoever fled from my mind.

His lips were cool and soft, much softer than I'd expected them to be. I tasted a sharp, bitter hint of tobacco, and something else that seemed to come from his very core... wood perhaps, fern, and a spice I didn't recognize, heady and intense. At the same time, my thumbs drew an exploring line along his prominent cheekbones, and I felt the crow's-feet beneath my palms smooth out when his eyes dropped closed.

I swear I can't recall when exactly I opened my mouth, or if it was really me who did it first. All I'm sure of is that I tried to take a shaky breath and then simply inhaled... him. My fingers left his face and slipped down to his shoulders, desperately seeking for a firm hold when my knees grew weak, and at the same time he wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me close. I heard a gasp, not knowing if it was mine or Logan's. I no longer cared where I ended and he began.

And even so it was me who stopped it.

I honestly don't know how long it took to come down from that overwhelming trip, but after what felt like a deliriously wonderful eternity I pulled back just far enough to see myself mirrored in his eyes. My whole body was humming like the strings of a huge guitar, my heartbeat a frenzied gallop. His hands still clasped my waist, and I was very aware of his fingertips in the small of my back.

“Erh...” I cleared my throat, but my voice was quavering. “That's been... enough to make up for a lifetime without kissing, I think.”

“Wow. Kid, I... I don't know what... my God.” Logan swallowed, and I was oddly pleased to notice the unchecked amazement on his face. The clouds of grief had cleared away, and even though they would be back only too soon, a spark of joy kindled a small fire in my heart. He would heal... not at once, but he would.

Suddenly he laughed and shook his head. “Shit. Bobby will have my head if he gets wind of this,” he stated. “Or he'll turn me into the biggest icicle you've ever seen.”

“Why should he?” I retorted. “This wasn’t about Bobby, not even about me. This was about you.”

“Me?”

“About what you need, Logan.” I stepped away from him and fought how incomplete I felt without his touch. “Love. Friendship. Closeness. Isn't that why you came back?”

“Maybe.” He had obviously regained his composure, watching me with a hint of wry humor. “I still can't believe you really did that, kid.”

I couldn't either.

“Kid or not,” I gave back, “I'm not your daughter, I'm your friend. And it's Marie.”

Marie. I'll try to keep that in mind.”

I slipped into the house, and before the heavy oak door closed between us, I could see that he was smiling at me.

ooOoo

He stayed in the institute for nearly a month. We didn't see each other very often; I went back to college when the new term began, and I only spent the weekends at the mansion. College fees and housing were paid from Xavier's fund; Storm had waved my protest away with a determined gesture. “You're still one of us,” she said. “And we are here to help you with the first steps into 'normal' mankind.”

I met him from time to time, of course; we brushed past each other on the way from lunch on a rainy Saturday, and one evening I saw him wandering aimlessly on the grounds, his head surrounded by a cloud of blue smoke from his cigar. Once or twice he even ate together with the smaller kids (who regarded him with a mixture of nervous awe and solid hero worship). It was fascinating to watch how he inevitably lowered his cover for them, with the result that after a while they nearly stumbled over each other in their eagerness to show him their abilities and to confide their little secrets to him. They could sense his kindness – as I had sensed it, years ago, when I sat in his truck. I'm not gonna hurt you, kid, he'd told me when I didn't want him to put my icy hands on the heater. There had been no need to say that: I had known with quiet certainty that I could trust him, from the very beginning.

Speaking of senses... I don't know if it was due to the fact that Logan had been a part of my mind ever since I'd first touched him with my bare hand, but after that first morning I didn't need to see any evidence that he had been in a room: I could smell it. That same mixture of tobacco, of wood and spice that had stormed my senses when he held me in his arms formed a track so clear and easy to follow that I could have found it in my sleep. I wondered if it was just a curious side effect of the kiss, or a distant echo of my lost abilities. But whatever it was, I kept it to myself, and I certainly knew better than to tell Logan about it.

The fourth weekend, late on Sunday night, I went down to the kitchen for a glass of milk: I had been struggling with a particularly tricky essay about American history, and now I felt all wound up, tense and overly awake. I had barely reached the door when the familiar scent hit my nose: tobacco and wood, overlaid with the strong, tart aroma of beer. For a second or two I considered going back to bed; then I sighed and entered the room.

“Hey, kid. Why are you up?”

He sat behind the counter, a bottle of Beck's in front of him.

“I'm thirsty,” I said. “And cranky. I hate history classes. And history essays even more. - How did you get that in here?”

“Found it in a store, paid for it, and smuggled it in under my shirt.” He grinned like a boy caught with a prank. “Last time I came down here because I couldn't sleep, I had to drink a diet coke. There are a few things a man shouldn't have to do twice.”

He didn't mention the fact that shortly after having emptied the diet coke, he had been forced to kill someone in this kitchen, the only defender awake in a school full of sleeping children. That night I had returned the dog tags to him, when we fled to Boston, Bobby and John on the backseat of the car.

I took the jug out of the fridge and a glass from the cupboard. The milk was very cold, and when I had drunk it down, I felt a sharp, piercing pain right in the middle of my forehead. I turned to Logan and found that he had maneuvered one of the high bar stools around the kitchen counter.

“Take a seat.”

I climbed on the stool and we sat face to face. It could have been a bit awkward and uncomfortable, especially with the memory of my... assault in mind, but strangely enough it wasn't. I watched him take a sip from his beer; he didn't look at me, and I noticed a fine, steep fold between his eyebrows.

“Who is Atlas?”

“Who is...?” I stared at him. “Why?”

“You said I'm walking around carrying a load like Atlas. Who the hell is he?

“He... oh.” I rubbed my brow; the pain was slowly fading.“He's from Greek mythology. Professor Xavier once told me about him. He was... a giant, I think, and he messed up with the Greek gods, because he fought against them, together with the Titans.”

“The Titans?”

“They ruled the universe before the other Gods came. And they didn't like the idea of giving up their power. But they lost the fight, and Atlas was sentenced to carrying the world on his shoulders, and with it the entire sky.”

“Because he'd chosen the wrong side.” Logan's smile was grim.

“Yes. And then a kind of super hero came to him – Heracles. Close to where Atlas lived, there was a garden, with a tree full of golden apples. Three women guarded it – the Greek legends call them Hesperides- and no one was allowed to pick any of them... but Heracles wanted them, and the women would've never given him the permission to enter. So he used a trick.”

It was astonishing how well I remembered this ancient tale... it came back to me without any effort, and along came the warm light of the lamps in the library, the rich aroma of leather chairs... and Xavier with his noble British accent. Suddenly I had to swallow around a lump in my throat.

“Good story.” Logan's voice was soft. “Go on, kid.”

I took a deep breath, and at the same time felt his fingers close around mine. I made no attempt to pull my hand back.

“He... he made a deal with Atlas. He asked the giant to go into the garden. The Hesperides liked him, and they would let him in without any problems. Heracles promised to carry the globe until he was back, and Atlas decided to trust him.”

Logan's thumb began to move in slow, caressing circles over my palm, and I closed my eyes.

“So Heracles took the globe from Atlas' shoulders, and the giant went to fetch the apples. Suddenly he realized that he was free from his heavy burden... free to leave if he wanted, and it felt great. He came back with the apples, but he didn't want to shoulder earth and sky again.”

“Aha.” I heard Logan's stool creak when he leaned in, and his scent grew stronger. “I guess Heracles was seriously pissed.”

“You bet. He had to come up with something, and fast. He told Atlas to carry the globe just for a moment longer, to give him the chance to relax his muscles or something.

I heard him chuckle. “And to do a few super hero sit-ups?”

“Maybe.” I grinned. “Atlas gave him the golden apples, took up the world again, and that was that. Heracles had what he wanted, and the very next second he turned tail and ran.”

There was a long silence, and when Logan finally spoke, his voice was hard, almost angry.

“One thing is sure: your giant was a giant jackass.” I opened my eyes and discovered that he watched me with narrowed eyes. “Tell me one thing, Marie: should I be pissed that you’re comparing me to such a prick?”

My fingers twitched, but still I didn't let go of his hand, and neither did he.

“No,” I said, holding his gaze. “Try to figure out when you have to carry a burden on your back, and when you should throw it off. And if you find a garden with golden apples, use the chance... and keep them.”

ooOoo

Very early the next morning I sat in the train back to college and began my week. There were three essays to write (including the history essay that had kept me awake half the night), the beginning of four new advanced courses and a girl in my dorm who threw tantrums on a daily basis – about her boyfriend not calling, about her boyfriend calling and saying the wrong things, about her mother hating her and her classmates being mean. We'd had that stuff in the mansion, too – enough teenagers and hormones to raise the roof – but it had never been that bad. Probably because our students were used to living under a constant threat, and much too thankful to risk the chance they were given.

Friday came and I all but hurried back home. The sky was clear and of a pale, translucent blue; a strong wind tousled the treetops and covered the lawn with a layer of red and rusty gold. I paused in front of Xavier's memorial stone, sidestepped the ever-burning flame and gently brushed the leaves from his metal face. When I turned around and leaned down to shoulder my bag again, I saw someone sitting on a bench close to the hedge.

Bobby.

“Hey...” I walked over to him, the gravel crunching under my boots. He's two years older than I am, but in that moment he looked much younger, and his face above the black Aran sweater gave nothing away. When I settled beside him, he slowly reached out for my hand; the gesture was hesitant and halting, as if he tried not to overstep some invisible border.

“How was your week?”

“Too long.” I stretched my legs and watched his silent profile . “I'm fed up, and glad to be back. Anything dramatic while I was away?”

“Nothing.” He turned his head, and our eyes met. “Save that Logan left.”

It felt like a blow against my solar plexus.

“He left? When?”

“On Monday, immediately afteryou left. Had a short meeting with Storm, and then roared off on his bike into the sunset.” The corners of his mouth curled to a tiny smile. “Okay... into the sunrise, more likely.”

I tried to collect my thoughts, but my mind felt strangely numb. “Did he leave any... note?”

“A note for you, you mean?” He slowly shook his head, his gaze never leaving my face. “I have no idea. But he wouldn't tell me anyway, would he?”

“Bobby...”

“You know what?” He spoke very quietly. “I liked you from the very beginning, and I would've never asked you to take the cure, even if it made things a lot easier for you and me. I hoped we would...” He looked down at our entwined fingers. “It was so good to have you back, you know.”

“I know.” Suddenly my eyes were burning. “And it was good to be here again.”

“I thought you might want to... well, find out where you belong. I know this is still your home, but you had to struggle for some new way to live, without danger in your skin, and being watched like some type of terrorist, only because you're a mutant. I thought I should see how things are going, before...”

A long pause. I leaned in, studying his calm face. “Before what?”

He took a deep breath, and I realized that he wasn't half as calm as it seemed. “Before things got really serious between... between us. My father always said that falling in love with a girl should never be a game. 'Don't mess around with her, ' he told me, 'the price might be too high, when all is summed up, for both of you.”

Once more he was silent, and when he continued, the words came as a pained whisper.

“He abandoned me like I’m some crazy, dangerous freak, and I wish I could hate him... but I still try to... to make him proud.”

“Jesus, Bobby.”

Without thinking I reached out and pulled him into my arms, burying my face in his sweater. He sank against me, breath labored and hovering on the brim to a sob. I felt very close to him, and to my surprise his embrace was that of a man, not of the sweet boy I thought I'd known better than anyone else. He spoke again, his breath warm on my ear.

“That night when the mansion was attacked, I met Logan in the kitchen. We had a talk about you.”

“You had – what?” My head snapped up.

Suddenly Bobby grinned. “He began to drill me about my... intentions. Not that whole first-date-with-your-daughter business, of course. He let me off the hook easily.”

“Aha?”

“Maybe because I told him that I had noticed the way he looked at Dr Grey... at Jean.”

“Oh.” I felt my heartbeat speed up. “Did you.”

“Yeah. And then the attack came, and there were other men he could fight.” Bobby chuckled. “I guess I was lucky.”

“You were tired of life, I'd say.” My face relaxed in the first real smile since I had found him on that bench. Now my head lay against his shoulder, and I could feel the rise and fall of his chest under my hand. It was slowly getting cold now; the sun was gone, leaving a feathery brush of red and pink across the sky behind the trees. We would have to go inside soon.
Bobby sighed, as if he had made a difficult decision.

“You know, Logan... I think when he came back this time, he came because of you.”

I sat up straight. “Wait a minute... I rarely saw him those past few weeks!”

“Well, he couldn't possibly know that you are in College now, right? And while you were gone, he had long talks in the library with Storm; he even went with her to Washington, to see Hank McCoy. And on the weekends... he always noticed when you were about to come into a room. It was strange, in a way, even funny... he would raise is head, like a hound getting wind of a scent, and his eyes lit up. And then he left through the next door. He didn't want to meet you, I believe.”

I eyed him sharply. Again it struck me how clever he was, how very able to look beyond the surface of things. While I had dodged the sensitive matter, afraid of what I might have started with a kiss back on that morning in August, he'd been the one to sort out all those mixed emotions for me... watching Logan, watching us both avoiding each other, watching me being unable to draw the conclusions he'd already come to.

“And if he came back because of me,” I asked softly, “why did he run away whenever I dared to come within arm's reach?”

“Oh, come on... last time he loved a woman, she didn't want him, and in the end he had to kill her because she'd turned into a monster. Not exactly what I would call a lucky devil, huh? No wonder that he tried to see you as a kid all the time... I bet you scare the living daylights out of him.”

“Enough to run?” I closed my eyes.

“Not for long.” Bobby's voice was a little sad. “Believe me, not for long.”

ooOoo

September passed by, and October coated the bare branches of the trees with a glittering layer of frost. When I came home for the third weekend that month, I found a small package on the desk in my room.

I stripped off my woolen gloves and studied the unknown handwriting on the label; the return address was a POB in Alberta, and I saw a smudgy maple leaf in the postmark. Canada? Who on earth would send me...

“Oh!”

I got rid of the stiff, brown paper, heartbeat hammering somewhere behind my teeth. There was a small box inside, and when I lifted the lid, I discovered a velvet bag. I weighed it in my palm: it felt heavy, and some small item shifted under the fabric, giving the soft clang of metal

I pulled at the cord. The bag opened, and its content slid into my palm. It looked like a broad wristband, made of soft, thick leather. Small eyes went around it in regular intervals, and a flexible circlet made of gold wound through them like a snake, smooth and shining. On the underside I saw three tiny rings, each of them fastened on the golden circlet. The ring in the middle was empty, but from the left and right ones dangled... two small golden apples.

I found myself sitting on the floor, head spinning and hands shaking so badly that I had to drop the wristband on the carpet. I reached for the box and got hold on it, lifting it to my face. There... the scent of wood and spice, this time mixed with the strong aroma of leather. It must have taken days for this package to get here, but I could still smell him.

I rummaged through the box; there was a thick layer of wrapping tissue, and underneath, on the very bottom of the box, I found a scrap of paper.

The words scribbled down on it were in the same, unknown handwriting. There was no signature. It wasn't necessary, though he'd never left me a note before; I could almost hear his voice, harsh and gentle at the same time.

Send it back if you don't want it. But if you do, I'll bring the third apple on Thanksgiving. They belong together.

The world seemed to slow down, and everything fell into place. I sat on the floor in front of my bed, paper and wristband in both hands, listening to my heartbeat and filled with an overwhelming sense of peace. Outside it was getting dark, and suddenly I noticed that the first snow of this year was blown against the window pane.

“Yes, Logan,” I whispered, gently stroking one of the golden apples with my fingertip. “They belong together. And this time we'll keep them.”

FINIS
_________________________________________________________________________

My heartfelt thanks to the amazing and generous Neume Indil who agreed to beta this, and who helped me with my first foray into a new universe. Bless you, dear!