Charles rolled onto his side, shivering as the blanket slid down and let cool air settle on the back of his neck. David cried again, not the hungry one or the need-to-be-changed one. Blinking heavy lids, Charles reached out with hand and mind for his son, swaddled close under the covers with him.
But David's mind roused only with Charles' groggy caress, and two pairs of blue eyes blinked and opened as the cry came again.
He sat upright in bed. That was Logan at the door, and—
Charles sent a soothing wave of sleep to lull his son, and struggled from the bed's warmth into the spring chill of an eastern seaboard morning. A glance told him the fire'd gone out. He dragged on yesterday’s thick-cabled sweater and heavy trousers, toes curling away from cold hardwood flooring.
"Charles!" Another wordless cry accompanied the yell, and it was a baby crying, but not David. Charles slipped his feet into sheepskin slippers and shuffled across the bedroom and out, eyelids at half-mast. One hand trailing along the ghost-white wall guided him in the faint light of dawn. How had angry, isolated Logan come across a baby?
The hermit in question barged through the barely-opened door past Charles, panic in his mind mingling with the distrust and anger that kept him alone in that rude cabin, halfway up the spine of the island's single "mountain" at its northern, wooded tip.
"Boat washed up a mile north," Logan growled, laying his bundled jacket on Charles' kitchen table. He unwrapped it more tenderly than Charles had ever seen him touch anything. "Found a man's body a little farther down, been there all night by the smell. She was strapped in safe and sound."
"But wet and cold and hungry, after the storm last night." Charles eased past Logan's uncertainly flexing hands to examine the tiny girl. Cobalt skin, fire engine-red hair, large, blinking eyes yellow as honey. A mutant. She’d just opened her mouth to cry again when Charles shhh’d her, letting the meagre heat of his own palms warm her softly textured cheeks. "There, there," he crooned, checking her face, her scalp, her tiny, fragile bones and delicate skin for tears or breaks.
Altogether, she appeared healthily chubby and uninjured. Wrapping her back up, Charles cradled her against his chest, watching her little face, the way she stared around her new surroundings. Her eyes focused cleanly without any signs of neurological dysfunction, so far as he could tell from such a brief examination. Her weight was good for her apparent age, maybe four to six months, just a little younger than David. But her mind swirled with distress—cold and hunger and a blurry mish-mash of faces—and a need expressing itself rather urgently—
"Oh, dear." Charles mopped at the sudden wet warmth on his sweater, quickly chilling. "I need to build up the fire," he said, but turned at sounds from behind him. Logan crouched by the living room hearth with its store of mixed-size logs. Big hands confidently fed a few more sticks into the smoldering embers from the night before, and a warm, golden light began to spread as the dry wood caught.
Charles carried the baby into the bedroom. David slept peacefully despite the pale morning glow creeping through the north-facing window; only his shock of dark hair stuck up from light blue sheets and cheerful yellow blankets. Quietly, Charles rocked the little girl gently in one arm while pulling supplies from David's diaper drawer. He'd learned solo infant care rather thoroughly in the past three months; he’d cleaned, diapered and dressed the baby in one of David's onesies by the time he sensed Logan at the bedroom door.
The other mutant's concern wasn't impersonal, as anyone’s might be who'd found a lost child; it felt scar-strong, like pulling bandages from old wounds. Charles knew nothing of Logan's past. Perhaps he had a child out in the world, and the baby reminded him. Or maybe the strength of his emotion was part and parcel of his mutation, the instinct attributed to many animals found caring for infants even of other species.
Either way, Logan trailed Charles to the kitchen, alert and anxious, though he hid that well under the veil of irritation that accompanied most of his interactions with the islanders and with Charles, too, the very few times their paths crossed. Acting on impulse, Charles handed the baby to him. "Let me grab some of David's formula." He didn't watch the man. Logan had carried the child here, he’d hardly drop her now.
David was coming along steadily in his intake of soft solids; Charles’ pantry held more than enough for two until he could figure out where this little girl belonged. He wondered about the dead man, what he’d been planning to do on the water before dawn. Darkly, briefly, Charles considered that it might have been an attempt to get rid of an obviously mutant child. But no fear remained in the tiny girl's mind now, no older memories of fear or distress that he could detect, apart from the recent physical discomfort.
Formula warming on the stove, Charles opened a few small jars of Gerber's. When he turned around, he nearly dropped them. Logan’s habitual annoyed expression had vanished, the grim lines of his whiskery face replaced by a half-smile, crinkles around softened brown eyes, a gaze Charles could only call sweet. The man’s attention focused entirely on the tiny girl hooking a fat little hand around his forefinger. And—Charles blinked—that little hand just turned pink. Tanned, he absently corrected himself, for her skin’s color now exactly matched Logan’s finger. And when her other little fingers grasped at Logan’s chin, the same thing happened, including a stippling of dark hairs springing up. Within an instant, the little girl in Logan’s arms changed from a blue baby with bright red hair, to a pink baby with brown eyes and dark hair.
“Human transformation!” Charles exclaimed, mind spinning with speculations about what genes might have led to such an amazing mutation; he fell silent when Logan remembered where he was, that he and the child weren’t alone. Half-hostile eyes met Charles’, instinctive withdrawal curling the baby closer to Logan’s chest. Charles bit his lip, sorry to have interrupted a rare scene. “I’ve got several flavors we can try,” he offered, setting out the jars and napkins and a couple of spoons on the kitchen table next to David’s high chair.
Logan moved after a moment. He let Charles help him position the baby in the chair, her little legs slipping through the holes to kick happily while she shrieked and tried to grab Logan’s beard, skin rippling back and forth without any seeming side-effect. Charles left them to it, spooning from the first jar. “Let’s see what we can get down her.”
As it turned out, a lot. Charles got nearly a tablespoon of puréed apple between working lips without having it spat out, and the same amount of banana; the baby outright rejected puréed carrots, chicken and corn. Logan looked temporarily outraged when Charles started putting the jars away, but Charles collected the warmed formula, quarter-filled a bottle and snapped on a nipple. He handed it to Logan and pointed. “See if she’ll take any. David normally takes a little less than she managed, but we don’t know when her last meal was.”
Charles stifled a laugh at Logan’s lingering expression, but the baby latched onto the nipple ferociously, and that seemed to ease him somewhat. By the time Charles cleared the little mess from the table, Logan was rocking in place, the same unconscious soothing motion that Charles had discovered, not long after his first clumsy attempts under the neonatal nurse’s and Gabby’s instruction. His hands paused in their motion for a moment, his eidetic memory taking him back to that other day in the hospital, his wife’s pallor, the fragility of her cracked skull under torn, paper-thin skin, the dimming brightness of her mind within a dying shell.
“Oh, right.” Charles was glad for the distraction. He didn’t mind the nickname; he rather enjoyed that his anti-social neighbor bothered to do more than grunt “Bub” as he did with most everyone else. Perhaps because they were both mutants; that might explain also why he’d brought a foundling to Charles instead of to the doctor in town. Mutations were known in the world, of course; on the island, people minded their own business. Still, flaunting one’s differences without reason only led to stares and whispers following one down the street.
As a new widower with a small child, a Columbia professor taking a sabbatical at the lighthouse to write a book on ‘genetics and mutation’, Charles’ mere presence had fueled the rumor mill for his entire two-month stay. Interest seemed to be dying down at last, though; Charles rarely did anything more exciting than come into town once a week for mail and groceries. The ladies he met at the local market focused their attention on David instead, blue-eyed charmer that he was.
Charles had first seen Logan there on a similar errand. They’d met a couple of times since in the sloping woods and along the sandy shore, lone wanderers crossing paths. David’s presence seemed to do more to loosen Logan’s reserve than anything else, and that hidden compassion made Charles more than a little curious about the self-exiled hermit.
Charles belatedly grabbed a dish towel, meaning to hand it over, but Logan didn’t dab at the mess of spit-up on his shoulder. Instead, he pulled his shirts entirely off, nose wrinkling. Charles’ eyebrows shot upward; his eyes wandered without conscious intent over the sudden revelation of healthy, healthy expanses of tanned skin taut over flexing muscles, a latticed abdomen and furred chest, nipples peaked with cold, thick-corded arms swinging up and back down as Logan’s shirts cleared his head and—
“You in there, bub?”
Logan smirked at Charles. Charles’ fair skin heated and he quickly began dabbing the baby’s messy little face, watching her instead of the man he’d just been mindlessly ogling.
“We’ll have to call the sheriff,” he said. “You didn’t happen to find any ID?” He looked up in time to see Logan running a hand through thick, wild hair. Charles licked his lips, then looked back down to murmur softly at his armful of baby as she shifted, curling closer to him, eyes beginning to flutter.
“Nothing.” Logan dropped his clothing on the just-cleaned kitchen table. “Where’s your phone?”
Charles pointed to the ancient land line phone on the kitchen wall next to the living room door. “Mobile reception is a bit spotty this far out, but we can drive in closer to town to try if that relic’s on the fritz again.” Charles started for the door. “I’ll put her down for a nap. Oh.” He snagged Logan’s soiled garments. “I can throw these in the wash with mine, if you don’t mind waiting—” He looked up, and found himself talking to Logan’s chest. Logan’s very well-defined chest.
“I don’t think there’s anything here that will fit you,” he told it, and felt Logan’s mind brighten, streaks of amusement distracting briefly from the disruptions of the morning, especially now that the child was safe and fed and being held by Charles, whose face and imagined form had featured more than once in Logan’s morning sessions—
Charles flushed at the flurry of images rising to the forefront of Logan’s mind. He hurried off to drop Logan’s shirts in with the waiting load, flicked the switches, then shuffled on to the bedroom to lay the baby down, tucking her next to David. His son snuffled, close to waking naturally. Charles loosened his mental grip completely, sat on the bed watching David blink and smack tiny lips, tiny hands pushing against sheets, and the adorable little frown forming as David woke up enough to feel the room’s lingering chill.
In an instant, Charles swept him up. His own blue eyes looked back at him, his lips and his nose, the mirror image of himself as a baby in his mother’s photo album. Only Gabby’s soft olive skin, the black of her hair proved David hadn’t been cloned from Charles’ DNA alone.
The little girl—they’d have to give her a name, call her something—cuddled into the warmth David left behind. Her velvety skin seemed brighter than the sheets, her slowing blinks glittering gold, her hair a flare of alarm in the morning placidity. But her expression was human to the core, a baby fed and warm and sleepy. The thought that anyone could hate her, that the purpose of the man’s voyage could have been murderous…
Charles stroked the back of his knuckles along her tender cheek, fierce protectiveness blooming deep within him from the same wellspring that made him pull David closer. “No one will ever harm you,” he whispered, an unrealistic, infinitesimal hope already rising that they might not find her family.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” Charles didn’t look around. Logan shifted in the doorway. “No one’s safe in this world, Chuck.”
“But we can do our best to make it safer,” Charles returned over his shoulder. He took in Logan’s crossed arms, the half-light of morning sun gleaming in crescents over dark irises, the prism of colored window panes patterning his shoulders, chest, the line of dark hair descending.
He shouldn’t notice such things. Not yet.
Gabby had made her final flight to Israel only three months ago. Charles had stood numb and silent at the graveside, lost in a sea of his own and foreign grief, still shocked, dazed by the quickness of it all: Gabby’s death, the long flight to Israel with a small child and Gabby’s new-met cousin, the seeming rush to funeral services and burial.
Gabby’s parents had guided him through the seven days of Shiva. He’d felt grateful for their acceptance and kindness to a foreign goyim mutant and their mutant grandchild, held close in the heart of Gabby’s family and friends. He’d been forced to shield his mind from much of the miasma of loss pervading their home, lest he lose himself in it; he’d shielded David from all of it after the funeral. Too young to comprehend anything except that his mother wasn’t there, David’s inarticulate distress only worsened the feedback loops.
Before: four months of utter exhaustion and smelly nappies and vomit; of tiny fingers and toothless smiles and kicking feet; of joy and amazement and love growing different and wider and stronger, a family of three instead of two, parents and child, the future he and Gabby planned together getting closer every day.
Then the car accident: no one’s fault, no one to blame, just cold rain and slick pavement. Three became two over the course of hours.
After: Columbia’s compassionate leave. He’d not known what to do with himself, had thrown all of his efforts into caring for his half-orphaned son after returning from Israel. A day, a week, a month of solicitous advice from colleagues, friends; his mother’s cool condolences and distant comfort, the most that she could muster from her alcoholic haze at the old house.
It was Moira, head of his department, who’d suggested a year-long sabbatical, ostensibly to work on his next book. She’d squeezed his hand, spoken of a friend of a friend with the rather old-fashioned job of lighthouse keeper; said friend of a friend would be leaving for another job, and needed a replacement. Simple routines day in and day out, in a place with little contact with the mainland. Quiet, isolated.
Perfect for a grieving telepath with a telepathic baby.
Now, two months in, David required most of Charles’ waking attention; his book required its own share, and tending to the lighthouse broke up the days nicely. Gabby still laughed in his dreams, eyes sparkling and lips soft, brilliantly eloquent in memories that merged with daydreams. But he could go for entire hours without thinking of her, guilty though such lapses made him feel. And David no longer looked for her every morning and bedtime, though his thoughts occasionally held images of her, and he’d want his mother. Charles did, too.
It remained far, far too soon to think of anyone else. But. Charles was still alive, and he had David, the best reminder of Gabby that could ever be.
He was allowed to live. Allowed to look. But… he wasn’t ready to do more than that.
In the quiet, punctuated by early morning bird calls, Charles listened to David’s breathing, let their minds cling along the edges, rejoiced in his son’s curiosity and wordless affection, his waking mélange of emotion and forming thought. Charles bent to kiss David’s forehead and recognized the chorus of relief and gratitude at the back of his own mind: safe, safe, safe.
The little girl wriggled deeper into the sheets, fingers curling under her chin. At the door, Logan stood half-in and half-out of the bedroom, poised as if to move quickly in either direction, although his mind felt considerably calmer then when he’d stormed in earlier. He turned from watching the baby as Charles rose with David, giving way a little so they could pass. Still shirtless, he didn’t even possess the decency to develop goosepimples or to shiver from the cold lingering in the air.
David blinked slowly, then recognized Logan. He broke into a grin, glee as bright and sweet as fresh cherries. “Ub!”
Logan sighed and took David before the baby could fling himself from Charles’ arms. Charles watched indulgently; David had taken to Logan instantly the first time they met, although perhaps he simply enjoyed the additional height.
Logan grimaced with the abrupt two-fisted grip in his hair. “Isn’t he too young to talk?”
“Precocious, I’ve told you.” Charles yawned. “I keep hoping for Dada, but no luck yet.” He slipped past Logan. Gave himself permission to appreciate toned muscle, musk, clean sweat; a mind scarred and dark in places, bright and warm in others; kindness under old pain and bitter anger, and a good heart under a gruff manner. “I’ll make coffee. The sheriff just reached the turnoff. He’ll be here in about ten minutes.”
Logan stiffened up again. David craned his head around to look at Charles, likely having sensed the telepathic net cast a moment before. “Yeah. Rogers said on the phone they’d leave as soon as Barnes came in.”
Charles set up the coffeepot, took out four cups and sat them on the table. He remembered then that the former lighthouse keeper had been burly, and that he’d abandoned or forgotten an old flannel shirt in the hall closet by the front door; Charles had worn it a time or two as an additional layer. Then he’d cottoned onto the constant chill in the air and purchased local weather-appropriate gear. He glanced up from the gurgling pot. Leaning against the kitchen door, Logan muttered nonsense at David, making faces, unaware of observation. Charles turned to grab a potholder, tucked his smile away.
He brought the pot to a trivet on the table. A mental tendril sent to check on the child in his bed found her sound asleep, blurred emotions and images mingling, her dreams peaceful despite the dreadful conditions in which Logan had found her.
A man with no ID, a visibly mutant child, a trip to sea at night; none of it sounded good. Possibly, she came from a loving family somewhere; possibly, she was an orphan, prior to or after the man’s death. If so, most humans preferred to adopt human-appearing children; a little girl like this one would have an incredibly hard time finding a permanent home.
Charles let the half hope of earlier lodge more firmly. Remembered his own lonely childhood. He’d always wondered if things might have been different if he’d had a sibling. Someone to play with, talk to, figure out the world and how to live in it, stand back to back with against all comers. Someone to love, who’d love him back unconditionally.
David would have him, of course, but no sister now, no brother. Maybe one day. If Charles met the right person, if they shared a dream and a life. The baby in his bedroom was here right now. Lying next to David even for such a short time, they’d fit. Two mutant children, sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
Perhaps the little girl had no one. If she was alone… She need not be. Charles could make sure of it. But any budding plans would wait. The future depended on the present, and the circumstances surrounding their mystery girl remained unknown.
Their mystery girl… Logan was a mystery, too.
Pouring into the first of the four cups, Charles spoke warmly to the man currently entrusted with his child’s entertainment.
“Neither. Thanks, Chuck.” Logan directed a brief smile his way. “Might as well, before going back out there.”
“We’ll get it sorted out, I’m sure.”
Charles would give him the flannel in a minute or two. Maybe three.