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The last one to die - Part II

Day 732</b>

There was a smell of rotting flesh following them for days, but no matter how much he searched he couldn’t find a source for it. He asked Raven if she could smell it, but she only grimaced and walked away. Her reaction was almost as puzzling as the phenomenon itself. He would have thought it was his imagination, if it wasn’t for the fact that Logan almost constantly tried to wear some kind of protection over his nose, his super senses apparently gave him that much of a harder time.

He decided to go through all of their backpacks in the search of the horrible aroma, hoping that they could leave it behind as soon as possible. He didn’t have super sense of smell and it was starting to bother him greatly, the migraine throbbing behind his eyes felt like a physical wound. The children were quick to cooperate with him, the sense of privacy they still tried to maintain forgotten in face of a chance to get rid of the stench. The only person who wasn’t cooperating was Raven.

She stomped angrily away from the camp and he looked after her confused. After they confirmed that there was nothing in any of the bags that was giving out that horrible scent he followed her to the edge of the camp. He sat beside her and asked what was wrong. She stayed silent for long enough that he thought she wouldn’t answer, angry at him for some reason or another. He couldn’t think of anything that he might have done to offend her, but it happened before. He wouldn’t be surprised.

Her answer floored him completely. She was the source of the stench. The only things that were keeping her corporeal and sane, her bracelets, acted with her skin cells in a way that made her rot from the inside out. She took one of the things off and showed him her arm, now purple and with bits of flesh falling off. He looked at her horrified and started to say that she should just stop wearing them, but she shook her head just when he started. She couldn’t.

They talked for a long time about what they should do, but in the end it went down to what could be done. And the answer was nothing. Either Raven would go insane and probably kill everyone or she would die from the decomposition of her own body from the thing that was supposed to protect her.

She stayed. They left her behind to die and he tried so very hard to not think that it was his fault. She had forbidden him from doing so and he would respect her last wish. Even if he wished it wasn’t so.

Day 387

Logan had acclimated into their little group pretty quickly, becoming a valuable asset when it came to finding food and clean water, and also steering clear of predators. It was easy now to just travel uninterrupted, without fear of being attacked by some sort of monsters. Accidents still happened, but he was just glad that for now at least they could focus their worries on rapidly growing powers in the children who appear to not have full control over the changes happening in their bodies.

Just the day before Warren sprouted a second pair of wings to the horror of everyone present. It wouldn’t be as painful to watch if it wasn’t following hours of agony for the boy. None of them knew what to do to ease his pain even a little. And then his back burst open and the wings emerged. What were supposed to be white feathers were covered in blood and pieces of tissue. It looked macabre enough that even he had to look away for a moment before approaching his young protégé and helping him to his feet. The small back was a series of open wounds and it seemed that the wings didn’t help matters, every movement of the new appendages causing a cry to escape the young throat.

He and Logan both sat with the boy and cleaned the wounds carefully, proceeding then to the feathers, so very careful to not break anything. Warren passed out sometimes during the wound cleaning, probably from the pain. Erik could only tighten his lips in sympathy, any pain medicine they had found was gone by now. They hadn’t seen a city in far too long.

They did what they could, and by the end the wings looked even kind of pretty, still a little wet, but white and sleek, becoming shorter and fluffier the closer they got to Warren’s back. The back was different story altogether, still a crisscross of open wounds, blood seeping through the white bandages. Erik sacrificed one of his remaining good shirts for them, but it seemed they would soon just add to the pile of reused ones that they could never really get the stains out from.

The boy slept peacefully for now and they decided together with Raven that it would be safer to just put him on the supply wagon, let him rest while the rest of them walked. There was a lot of pain in Warren’s future and he had to catch as many minutes of peace as he could.

Day 543

Bathing was one of the activities they didn’t get to enjoy very often. Water was scarce overall, so when they did find a clean supply of it, the more pressing matters was to keep their supply of drinkable liquid full, not getting their skin and clothes clean. Besides, by now no one cared anymore if you smelled when everything around them smelled even worse. Not to mention there could be something said about solidarity in being dirty, all of their faces smudged with dirt and mud, specks of blood still visible when wounds closed long time ago.

Erik knew what He would have to say about it, wrinkling his freckled nose at the state they were all in and procuring a handkerchief from one of his pockets, trying valiantly to clean at least some of the faces. He would probably just end up smudging the dirt, but it would be a valiant effort. There was just too much. The thoughts brought a rare soft smile to his lips, but he shook his head when Raven raised a questioning eyebrow at him. She blinked and gave him a knowing look, which she knew he hated.

This time though they found themselves on the verge of what once had to be some sort of pool or something similar that was made to hold water and he hesitated. Simple things like that could do miracles in raising people’s spirits and this was something they needed lately, if not for anything than because they were walking for weeks now without a sight of anything resembling a city when they could replenish their supplies.

The simplest solution would be to talk to Ororo, but he wasn’t sure if the girl would be powerful enough to fill the pool with rain without exhausting herself in the process. There also came an issue of them being too vulnerable while naked and submerged in water. But in the end he decided that maybe it would be worth the risk just to see the smiles on the children’s faces. Ororo was willing to try and in no time lifted herself to the sky, clouds gathering at her will and the rain slowly fell, soaking them and slowly filling their bathtub.

Raven and Jean made sure that the rest of their supplies were covered, safe from water, Warren and his wings hiding under the tarmac as well. Everyone else just stood and lifted their faces to the sky, relishing at the wetness that fell and left smudges of dirt on their bodies. Sometimes he forgot how they all really looked under the layers of mud and dust.

They split in two groups after small consideration, one taking a bath and the other keeping watch in case anything would happen. Fortunately it was quiet and safe, and after a while even Logan relaxed, splashing kids with water when it was his turn to get in the pool. He observed it all from the sidelines, put his spare clothes on skin that felt alien it was so clean, and smiled. It really wasn’t often they had time to just let go and let the children be children, but they should consider making it a habit.

The laughter, the smiles, it was all heartwarming, reminding him why was he travelling with this little group in the first place. They were going to reach a safe haven for all of them and then they could just forget about the nightmare all of this brought to them. Once, He told him that there was nothing more beautiful than a child’s smile. He had to agree with it.

Day 368

He couldn’t help staring at the new member of their group, the man looking more rough and wild than the last time they’d seen each other, but still recognizable. He wasn’t sure there was any other person in the world who managed not to look ridiculous with hair and sideburns like that. Logan also kept mumbling angrily about cigars, which made no sense if you haven’t seen the man Before. He did. Not alone though. He could easily recall the smoke filled bar, Canadian hunters and lumberjacks chatting jovially while drinking the type of beer that he wouldn’t even looked on back then. The smell of resin had filled the air, the atmosphere of a day spent in woods on an honest hard work almost palpable. Two men looking like high-end businessmen had garnered few nasty looks back then, but no one really cared enough to approach them.

They had walked to the bar confidently, the excitement radiating from Him so much that he could taste it on the back of his tongue, this was how he loved Him the best, so open and cheerful, ready for another adventure life would throw his way. It was naïve and eventually what had drawn them apart, but at that moment in time, back in the smoky part, he couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful, anything that he wanted to preserve more in his friend.

Of course all the confidence in the world couldn’t help them when the man they approached hadn’t even wanted to hear what they had to say, preferring his solitude and keeping to his honest work. It wasn’t like he could blame Logan for that. Maybe if things were different, in some different world even he himself would have been able to made a life for himself like that, with a two story house, a wife and maybe a few kids. That was his dream life when he was growing up, take over the family watch making business, and how delightful it would be to just use his powers all day and not be lynched for it, marry his childhood sweetheart and have two or three kids. He wanted daughters, always, maybe because he’d always known that he wouldn’t be much support when it came to teaching boys “manly” things, too afraid where the line lay of things acceptable and those not.

He remembered a woman coming over to the man in that bar, swinging her arm over his shoulder and pressing close, his arm automatically going around her waist. They had looked comfortable around each other, homey, like they knew each other for lifetimes. He wondered what happened to her, if Logan still mourned her. He knew that if he somehow lost Him, he would never stop grieving.

Day 617

They stumbled upon it accidentally while looking for some place in the earth they could fill with water and then stock up on the precious liquid for the rest of their journey. The food was getting scarce and he already cut on daily portions, not enough for children to go hungry but enough for Raven and Logan to notice. After a few days they started to shoot him curious glances, but eventually didn’t say anything, probably figuring out that he wasn’t doing it out of spite. But the water was more important and something they could procure themselves, if they only found a semi-clean place to gather it from.

It was Kitty who noticed the downward slope of the road and ran head first into the valley, Raven close on her heels, yelling about being careful and not separating from the group. They all followed, but stopped frozen at the bottom of the place, the sight before them making something uncomfortable unfurl in his stomach.

There were dozens of rows of simple rocks and wooden cross to sign places of burials and despite the already enormous number of them standing there, he could tell that these were mass graves. Directly below their feet might have been hundreds of bodies, of people who died either in the initial blast or in the attacks of the beasts afterwards. Someone was thoughtful enough to dig these graves, mark them, pay the respect to all these people and he suddenly couldn’t breathe from the pain and guilt that filled him. He had left so many of his own people to be unburied, their bones scattering on the wind, without a prayer, without a grave, without proper sending to the next world.

He wondered who would be so patient and so emphatic to do a thing like that before Raven pointed to something deeper in the valley, somewhere in the middle of the make-shift cemetery and he got his answer. Half-clothed skeleton, still on his knees, the open palms spread on the dirt beneath him, the white hollow cheek pressed to the ground. There was a rosary clutched between bony fingers, proof that whoever it was, he died while praying for the dead around him.

The children around him were trembling, some of them sniffling slightly, no doubt shaken by the sight, not yet desensitized enough to not be moved. He hoped they never would be. He told Raven and Logan to take everyone up, keep searching for the water hole. Raven sent him a soft sort of look, but he couldn’t look at it in that moment, he hardly deserved sympathy. This person, the one who spent the last minutes of their life paying respect to a group of people he might not have even known, that was the person who deserved their sympathy.

He kneeled near the man and gently took the rosary from between his fingers, slowly unbending the stiff bones and laying the person on their back, in a traditional burial position. He was murmuring half forgotten prayers in the tongue he didn’t really know anymore, but it was more of an instinct than anything else.

The grave was the only one with the metal gravestone, the only one with the engraving, the soil freshly turned and still smelling earthy. He put the rosary in his pack and didn’t let go of it for the rest of their journey, hoping that it would keep reminding him what was important in life, even in their circumstances.

Day 451

He didn’t even notice it, how would he, busy as he was with making sure as many of them as possible survived and got to their destination, he had no time to observe the social cues between his kids or listen to gossip. It was Raven who pointed it out to him, and he thought in retrospect that he should have seen it coming. Some of the children were already on the verge of the adolescence when he found them, it was only natural that they would grow up and mature as the time went by, maybe even faster because of the lives they had.

Still, when Raven pointed out to him a scene on the verge of the camp, unusually timid and shy Scott pushing some weed that could have been generously called a flower into Jean’s directions, it took him by surprise. It made sense, living in a close quarters as they were it was easy to deduce that some close bonds would be created. He just didn’t expect any romance to bloom between who he still perceived as little children. But they weren’t. Jean was fourteen and Scott was over a year older than she, making them perfect age for first crushes and dates.

It shook his world a little; that despite everything that was going on around them, this was still possible. These children could have a seed of normalcy if, in nothing else than in relationships, they built between them.

From then on, he noticed more things. How Warren shuffled after Jean also and made an unhappy face anytime he saw her and Scott together, how Kitty sighed after Piotr, how close were the twins, Ororo and Ilyana, gossiping and playing together. Some of them were relationships that he expected from teenagers, some were just deep friendships. Still, it warmed his heart to know that they would have this, the importance of a family and friends in anyone’s life was not lost on him. Next time when Scott was looking around for another weed to give to his girl, he crouched next to the boy and made a small rose from the nickels he was still carrying in his pocket. Scott beamed at him gratefully and Jean took to carrying it in the strap of her bag for the rest of their journey.