DISCLAIMER: X-Men:Evo belongs to somebody who is not me, which makes me very sad. So I write fanfiction in an attempt to lay my own claim on some small part of their universe, which makes me fell better. However, this doesn't detract from the fact that Warner Bros. and Marvel actually *own* the characters when it comes down to it. The story concepts are mine, but I actively encourage people to choose one and carry on with it as I haven't time to do so myself. That would make me even happier.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is a response to Emmy's challenge a while back to do a spin-off of InterNutter's fic _'Till There Was You_, with other various characters of her preference. Since my imagination is warped, I've also thrown in a few pairings of my own to the mix. Add inspiration, shake well, and viola - here is the finished result.

FURTHER NOTES: Woooo! These ficlets have just become part of a fanfic challenge courtesy of the wondrous InterNutter and her site. Basically, I'm challenging people to take one of the concepts here and continue with it, making it into a fully fledged fic of its own. Entries should be mailed to InterNutter at cat@devil.com or myself at electric_hairdo@hotmail.com. The only trick is that you MUST include the original text from the ficlet you've chosen. There are no 'dibs'. If you like a universe and someone's already doing it, or has done it, you can still do your take. More information can be found on the relevant page at InterNutter's Bulletin Board http://cat.devil.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t=152 Come one, come all, and join the madness. There's a prize involved, too, so you know you want to.


_Just The Way You Are_ By Scribbler
December 2002


"Each friend represents a world within us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by meeting them that a new world is born." -Anais Nin


[_Having only recently watched the start of the second season, I noticed that there was no scene concerning when the new mutants actually *arrived* at the Institute, just them playing around merrily like they'd always lived there. Here's my take on their first meeting with Kurti. Pretty much a stand alone ficlet, actually._]

Kurt's room - or, at least, the door to Kurt's room - was ordinary enough. No sigils of the devil, no strange marks daubed in red paint, no animal sacrifices smeared across the frame. Just a strong, thick wooden door. The same as all the others they'd passed so far, and presumably the same as all there own would be, too.

Xavier knocked and waited. There was no reply, and he knocked again, rapping loudly with his knuckles.

"Perhaps he's not in there?" Jubilee suggested. The new recruits were all crowded into the hallway, pushing and jostling at each other to get a better view without actually getting too close.

However, Xavier shook his head. "He's inside," he said firmly, and in a tone that brooked no argument. "Kurt?"

No answer.

Behind them all, in the cluster of 'oldies', as they'd been quickly nicknamed, Kitty exhaled noisily and hung her head. "Now this seems familiar. I'm, like, having a distinct feeling of déjà vu over here."

"Huh?" Rogue said intelligently.

"This is pretty much what Kurt did when I arrived," the younger girl inclined her head at the door. "Professor Xavier had to, like, use the master key to get in, and even then Kurt, like, hid under the bed and refused to come out until there was no other option left. Honestly, you'd think I was some kind of ogre, the way he was acting."

Rogue tipped her face a little, a wicked smirk playing about her dark lips. "Well, now that you mention it - "

"Don't *even* go there," Kitty warned.

They were both shushed by a grunt from Logan, who'd been silent up until that point. "Clam up, you two."

They clammed up.

"Kurt?" Xavier was trying the diplomatic approach again. "Kurt, I know you're in there. Kurt, it's alright."

"Nein, Professor," a voice, slightly muffled by the thick wood, replied. "I'm not coming out, and you're not coming in. None of you are." How he knew there were more than a few of them was a mystery.

Xavier sighed. "Kurt, please don't do this again. You *know* what happened last time. I - "

"Ja, Kitty got scared and screamed," came the whipcrack retort. There was a bitter edge to Kurt's tone that made even tabby flinch. "I.... I don't want it to happen again, Professor. And before you say it, ja, I *know* I have to live with them from now on. But.... but I can't.... not yet...."

"Kurt," Xavier's voice softened. "Kurt, you know what I'm going to say next, don't you?"

A sniff. "Ja. You're going to tell me that it's better I get it out of the way now, instead of stewing about it."

"And I thought *I* was the telepath," he chuckled. Then turned serious. "Kurt. Please. You know I have the master key, but I'm not lying when I say that I'd prefer not to use it this time. It'll benefit all concerned if you open the door yourself."

"Do I have a choice?"

Evidently it was a rhetorical question, because there was the sound of a lock being turned on the other side, and the door gave a single long creak as it opened.

"Hafta remember to oil those hinges," Logan muttered, his mundane patter bringing everybody back down to earth with a bump.

Xavier pushed the door open and entered, cautiously followed by the cluster of new recruits sans Rahne. It had been decided on the journey up here that only they should go in so as to be less threatening, and had been specifically briefed on what to do and what not to do upon seeing Kurt for the first time. In all, it had sounded more like the tack used to approach a wild, if timid beast, and their expectations had been raised slightly higher every time a new rule was expounded.

However, it seemed that all their preparation was in vain, since they crossed the threshold to find only an empty room, with no trace of anyone anywhere. Not even the telltale depression of bedclothes where a person may have been sitting down, moping or otherwise. Everything was neatly packed, folded or filed away with something approaching obsessive tidiness, and there was no trace that a person was even in residence here at all. Rather, the room looked more like a guest bedroom, kept spick and span the rest of the year when no aunt, uncle or distant relation was visiting and needed a place to stay.

On impulse, Tabby's eyes were drawn to the bed. "You wanna check under there?" she asked hesitantly, conscious of how ridiculous the question sounded.

Someone laughed from high behind them. "No need, Fraulein. I've changed my tactics a little today."

En masse, they swivelled to trace the source, and also en masse, stifled a gasp.

Whatever mental grounding Xavier and a whole army of telepaths could give them; it would never be quite the same as meeting the real Kurt. Not even close.

He was perched above the doorframe, back to the wall and clinging impossibly with just the tips of his fingers and toes. The crown of his head touched the ceiling, and there was a faint rustling sound as he moved to stare balefully down at them.

"You can start screaming now, if you like," he offered bleakly, showing teeth that seemed just that little bit sharper, and a fraction of an inch longer in real life. "I don't mind."

Nobody said a word.

"No, really," he shifted his weight, and the long prehensile tail slipped into view. "Get it out of your system now. A couple of yips, a full-blown screech, perhaps a banshee wail - I've heard them all, and I'd much prefer you did it when I was ready than not." He paused. "Why aren't you screaming? Even *Kätzchen* screamed the first time she saw me."

Outside, Kitty reddened.

"Perhaps," Xavier said gently, "They aren't screaming, because you don't frighten them."

Kurt snorted, demonstrating exactly what he thought of that theory. "*Pfft*, pull the other one, Professor. *Everyone's* afraid of me at first. After all, it's not everyday you meet a real live demon in the flesh. I don't mind, though - honestly. It's human nature."

Xavier was about to say something more, but swallowed his words as a presence materialized at his shoulder.

Jamie wasn't the bravest of little kids. He wasn't the biggest, either. Or the strongest. Or the fastest. He was the kind of kid that was always picked last for sports, and had captains fighting over who *didn't* get to have him on their team. To be frank0, he'd usually been the resident punching bag in the playground - at least, until one day someone punched and there were suddenly ten of him instead of just one. To all intents and purposes, he knew what it was like to be singled out because of being different, if not for entirely the same reasons as Kurt.

He stared up at the furry mutant with wide eyes, and gulped several times before speaking. "Is it true?" he asked at last.

Kurt's tail-tip twitched in agitation, and he cocked his head. "Is what true?"

"Can you," Jamie gulped again. "Can you *teleport*?"

Kurt blinked for a second. Once. Twice. Processing the question. Then his lips curved upward slightly, and before anyone said a word he'd disappeared with a faint 'Bamf' in a plume of purple smoke. Less than a moment later he reappeared on the floor behind Jamie, causing the younger boy to jump and turn around so fast he stumbled over his own feet.

Kurt caught him easily. "Whoops," he said, still with a slightly nervous note bordering his vocal pitch.

Jamie grabbed onto the proffered arm instinctively, and let out a small gasp as his fingers came into contact with Kurt's bare hands. "Whoa," he breathed with no small amount of awe. "You're real soft, like the chinchilla a boy at my old school used to have. All warm and fuzzy."

"Danke, I think." The slight curvature increased.

"Not very co-ordinated, is he?" asked a voice, and Kurt swivelled his head to see a smallish, oriental girl with merry brown eyes and a playful grin standing behind him.

"Hey!" Jamie struggled from Kurt's grasp. "Am so!"

"Yeah right," Jubilee scoffed jokingly, "You couldn't find your way out of a paper bag if the exit was signposted in neon letters."

Tabby came to stand next to her and stuck out her hand towards Kurt with a smouldering grin that had obviously had a lot of tweaking and practise. "Hey there, cutie. Cool effects, although I could've done without the interesting smell."

Kurt eyed her tentatively before shaking her hand. "Uh, ja. Unfortunately it's something I can't help."

"Well, just make sure you don't stand too near me when you pop in and out like that," she smirked. "One of my little boom-balls might blow up in my face - literally. Hey, the kid's right. You *are* soft." Her thumb rubbed the joint of his finger experimentally, brushing the fine blue hairs so that they stood on end, then smoothing them back down again.

Kurt's smile widened into a grin, and then into a beam as the other members of the new recruits surged forward to greet him and check the softness factor of his fur for themselves. Not one of them commented on his outward appearance, nor gave the least hint that it troubled them, and he found himself revelling in the proffered contact like the proverbial cat that'd got the cream.

Xavier backed his chair into the aperture of the door with a smile on his face, resting his chin on his fist and watching as Kurt's inhibitions slowly began to melt away as the new arrivals pummelled him with questions about the Institute and his mutant abilities, and requests to be shown the length and breadth of the mansion via the 'coolness-enhanced' means of teleportation. An indiscriminate thought flew to him through the ether as Amara swallowed her pride long enough to experience the feel of Kurt's fur for herself, and cooed most unbecomingly as she found it more to her liking than even *she* would've realised.

_Oh *ja*, chicks *do* dig the fuzzy dude._

Logan stepped up behind his employer and nodded at the cluster before them. "That go better than expected?"

"It did," Charles answered truthfully.

"We all underestimated 'em, Chuck. Even I didn't hold out much hope on this front." His habitually crotchety voice was low, and lost to Kurt's sensitive hearing amidst the babble and chatter of his new admirers.

At that moment, Jamie emitted a small peep as someone bumped into him, and abruptly there were five of him clinging to Kurt's arms like limpets and looking up at him apologetically. "Sorry," the chorused together with one voice, inflections and timing in perfect, if spooky synch. "Just wait a second while I pull myself together."

Bobby waved a hand in front of his face. "Phew, what a stinky pun. Catch *me* saying anything *that* clichéd." He snorted.

"You said it," added Roberto, pinching his nostrils together. "Pee-yu."

"It would appear," Xavier regarded the scenario with a twinkle in his eye, "That our new arrivals are going to fit in just fine."

~ ^_^ ~

[_Slightly AU, but a tried and tested pairing. This one's for you, 'Nutter!_]

Kurt pattered down the stone steps as fast as his digigrade legs could take him. His robes fluttered as he made his way through the labyrinth of draughty corridors and passageways that made up the old monastery, and his tail swished and lashed in something akin to excitement as his bare feet padded silently across the slabs.

Outsiders were here.

Father Hartmut hadn't wanted him to know, but it was difficult to keep secrets from someone who could hear a whispered conversation from fifty feet away. The idea of newcomers within these old, dusty walls was something of a thrill to the young mutant, and he was desperate to see them, if only for a moment.

He rounded a corner and skidded to a stop. Why was he wasting all this time by travelling on foot? Closing his eyes, he concentrated his mind and focused on the open space of the corridor in front of the Infirmary. It was three floors down, but that hardly mattered to his mode of transportation.

There was no point in teleporting right into the sickbay, he knew, since that would either scare the newcomers, or get him shooed out, or both. Having pointy ears, fangs and a devilish blue tail tended not to win you many friends unless they knew what was underneath the exterior. Which not many people bothered to find out, preferring to yell 'demon' and flee as fast as they could. Or worse, try to harm him. It was people of the latter category who had tried to burn him at the stake four years ago, and taken his parents as 'demon harbourers' when he escaped them.

Focusing all his energies, Kurt abruptly disappeared in a puff of purple smoke and brimstone, re-emerging at his desired destination and stumbling a little as the dizzying effects of bamfing kicked in. It was a good thing he'd eaten not half and hour ago; otherwise such a move could've proved messy. As it was it took only a handful of seconds for him to recover and transfer his attention to the heavy, bolt-ridden door of Brother Fritz's Infirmary.

It was open a crack, and Kurt gamely pressed his face to it in an attempt to see what lay beyond. He kept the hood of his habit up as a precaution, and cupped his hands around his face in order to see better.

For a few moments he could make nothing out, and gritted his teeth in irritation. Then he shifted across a smidgen, and all became clear.

The strangers were... well, *strange*. One girl and one boy, both around his age give or take a year, and dressed in the colourful skiing outfits he remembered random tourists wearing when they got lost in the mountains and had to stop at his village for directions. They were each seated on a bed, and nursed beakers of some hot beverage that Brother Rolf had obviously brought up from his kitchens for them. The girl was pale - much paler than she ought to be - and her hair was an odd mixture of dark brown and white. The boy, on the other hand, was startlingly ordinary. He wore a pair of red sunglasses, and appeared to be talking animatedly with the balding Brother Fritz.

Kurt felt a little put out. He'd been expecting something a little more dramatic than dyed hair, thick make-up and sunshades. His memories of Auslanders had been distorted a little by time, he supposed, but still. They were so *average*.

He was about to turn to leave when a third figure hove into view from the adjoining part of the sickbay, rubbing at her head and moaning slightly. Kurt nearly gasped in shock. She was an angel in Auslander's clothing.

Her hair was a dull brown, rather thin, and tied up into a ponytail on the crown of her skull that left two extraneous bits falling into her face. Her skin was creamy white, her eyes the bluest he'd ever seen, and framed by dark lashes, made thicker by mascara. Her suit complimented the colour of her irises, and in one elegant hand she carried a pair of chunky gloves.

"Like, ow!" she said in a voice that made the roots of his fur tingle. "I, like, totally have a lump the size of a duck's egg on my head."

"I guess that'll teach you not to aim for trees," the boy commented with a sardonic grin. "Very detrimental to your health."

"Oh ha-ha, Mr. Comedian," the seraph replied, and stuck out her perfect pink tongue. "If you hadn't distracted me that tree would've been no problem, but you made me lose my focus."

"'Help, help, I've lost the stick-things! How do I, like, steer now?'" he imitated her, grinning, and she glowered openly.

They spoke English, and thanks to his circus heritage Kurt knew most of what they were saying. It always paid to know a few extra languages when on tour: if only to defend yourself as a non-demon to awe-struck and/or frightened audience members. These people, he discerned from their accent, were American.

Brother Fritz advanced towards her, belly and oversized jowls wobbling. He asked in broken English how she was feeling. "Like, fine," she replied, hand still clamped to a spot on her forehead. "Apart from the obvious."

The rotund monk fussed about her like a mother hen, fetching ice in a cloth and pressing the pack to her injury. Then he moved on to the heavily made-up girl, but she waved him away quite brusquely when he tried to feel her forehead like he had done her companion's.

"Nah, I'm fine," she defended, keeping one hand up and peering between the splayed fingers. Unlike the other two she still had her skiing gloves on, and seemed in no hurry to take them off despite the heat of the Infirmary. "I can deal. Best check out Scott here. He was caught real good in that fire. Hit his head, too."

"Ach, ja," Brother Fritz did as he was bade with nary a backward glance, and the boy with the sunglasses - Scott, she'd called him - knit his brows at the pale girl while she smirked at him. "Es war quite a fire," the kindly monk went on, unperturbed by the daggers being thrown under his arm. "We do not usually get such things up here. Too cold. I am wondering how it started at all."

At this, Scott looked decidedly guilty. Kurt had gotten good at reading facial expressions over the years, and it puzzled him as to why the American would look that way. Even more so when he started fingering his shades, as if making sure they were still on.

"Probably some tourists forgot to put out their campfire," the pale girl offered, but Brother Fritz shook his head.

"We do not get tourists this high up, as a rule, and most definitely not in Winter. You are very unusual."

"'Fraid we can't help you there," Scott said quickly. Too quickly, Kurt thought, but shelved any opinion he had of it so as to listen closer. "All I know is that when I came to, the copse we'd skied into was ablaze. I must've hit that tree pretty hard to knock myself out - "

"You did," quipped the angel. "It, like, knocked your glasses off and everything." She cringed as her friends shot her sudden death-glares, and fell silent.

"We were actually looking for this monastery when you came to rescue us," Scott continued, looking up at Brother Fritz.


"Uh, yeah. We were wondering if we could speak to the reverend - I mean, Father, here."

Brother Fritz screwed up his face. "Father Hartmut is a very busy man. We do not always know where he is gone. But I'm sure he will be seeing you if you wish."

"We, like, wish."

"May I ask why you wish to see him?"

The pale girl took a sip of her drink and attempted desperately not to scrunch her face up. Kurt suppressed a smile. Brother Rolf was an excellent cook, but his patented 'wake-up-tea' tasted like boiled grass.

"We, ah, had a call about a, uh.... you see, we were told - um," Scott fumbled with his words, and looked beseechingly at his two female companions, one of whom rolled her eyes, the other of whom jumped to his aid.

"We were looking for someone, and we, like, thought you might be able to help us. The person who told us about them also said we'd find them here."

"In this monastery?" Brother Fritz laughed. "Who would know such a thing? We are a very private sect. We do not like the modern doings of society, so we stick to the old ways. We have had not visitors before yourselves here for nearly five long years, now."

"Believe me, the guy who told us knows what he's doing," Scott said emphatically. "He knows how to find, uh, special people. *Real* special people."

Brother Fritz froze, and a ghostly smile spread over his face. "Special? We are all special in the eyes of The Lord."

The angel sipped at her drink, and promptly choked. "Yeah, but the person we're after is, like, more special than anybody. He's.... different?"

Brother Fritz was kindly, but not stupid. "There is nobody like that here," he stated. "We are all the same under this roof. United in our love of God. I do not know of whom you are speaking."

Scott, taking advice from the two girls' looks, chose not to sample the tea. Instead, he simply held it in his hands and staring deeply into the brown liquid. "Does the name 'Kurt Wagner' mean anything to you?"

Kurt stifled a gasp. They knew his name? He rammed a fist into his mouth, and listened closely.

Brother Fritz looked torn for a moment. Then, slowly, he shook his head. Kurt could've cried. "There is nobody of that name here."

Scott frowned. "But we were told - "

"You are mistaken. There is no man of that name here." Not quite a lie then. 'No man', didn't cover 'no mutant'. Fritz had kept his vow of honesty, but still managed to protect the smallest member of his order.

Scott seemed about to say more, but the gothic girl touched his arm and shook her head. "Leave it, Scott," she advised. "We'll talk about it with Father Helmut."

"Hartmut," Brother Fritz corrected, his smile icy. He bowed once to his charges, and made to leave, his sandals flapping on the stone floor. "I shall go and see if he can be seeing you now. Please, stay in here. I shall fetch him."

Kurt panicked at the sight of the portly monk heading towards the door. He looked about anxiously. He couldn't teleport out, since the residual smell would alert the Brother to his eavesdropping, but he most certainly didn't want to be caught in the open like this.

Glancing upwards, he pressed his hands to the brickwork and scuttled up the wall milliseconds before Brother Fritz emerged. Kurt froze; hoping the leaking shadow of the ceiling corner would hide him. He dared not move, and even considered holding his breath. The monks were gentle by nature, but reprimands weren't unheard of, and they were often unpleasant.

Brother Fritz paused for a moment, and Kurt quavered. He raised his nose a little, and sniffed, but then shrugged and moved off in the direction of the dormitories where Father Hartmut was scheduled on the rota to be stripping sheets for washing along with Brother Karl-Heinz.

Only when he'd rounded the corner and vanished from view did Kurt allow himself to breathe freely. That was a close one. Too close, and the elf lookalike resolved to abandon the strange Auslanders who knew his name and that he was different in favour of quieter shores. Like weeding the monastery garden, like he was supposed to be doing.

He crawled down the wall, and was just about to leap off when he heard them talking again.

"Do you think that guy was, like, telling the truth?"

"Give me a break, Kitty," said Scott with a snort. "This is the Professor we're talking about. If he says there's a mutant here, then there's a mutant here. End of story."

"He could be wrong," the pale girl drawled in her curious southern accent.

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that."

"Ooch, like, my head. If I get a concussion, I'm totally blaming you two," said the angel accusingly. Kurt's heart fluttered, but he maintained his legendary grip.

"It's your own fault," Scott began, but she cut him off.

"My fault? I'm not the one who skied into a tree and blasted everything to smithereens! We'd be dead now if it weren't for those monks. Burned to a crisp. Oh, yeah, *my* fault."

"Well you distracted me," Scott defended himself, and Kurt heard the crinkle of fabric as he put down his drink and folded his arms. "Like I could ignore you when you skied right out in front of me like that. Why didn't you keep hold of the poles?"

"Like, Sor-ry! I'll try to be a little more thoughtful and stay out of your way next time I go out of control and nearly *die*!"

Kurt stifled a giggle at her comeback. The angel known as 'Kitty' was witty as well as beautiful, then. Even though he couldn't see her face, he could imagine her expression at the moment, and it made him sigh with delight.

Scott grunted. "You didn't nearly die, Kitty."

"Not until after you shot at me, anyway."

"Um, guys," the other girl broke in. They ignored her.

"I shot at you *because* you waved about in front of me - "

"Ah-ha, so you admit it, then!"

"Guys -"

"No way! You're not turning the blame on me this time, pipsqueak. You caused that accident, not me. I was just an innocent victim of circumstance."

"Innocent? You? Ha! And don't call me pipsqueak, Scott. You're not Mr. Lo - "

"*Guys*!" The pale girl put her fingers in her mouth and gave a high-pitched whistle. Kurt's extra-sensitive hearing picked it up like a siren, and he winced.

Her friends weren't much happier. "Yee-owch, Rogue!" Scott exclaimed. "What was that for?"

"Because y'all are both too dumb to shut up an' listen on your own," Rogue replied tartly. "If you'd been payin' attention you'd know."

Kitty rubbed at her ear, torn between the ringing therein and her throbbing skull. "Know what?" she demanded irritably.

"That we're bein' watched."

Kurt's grip on the stonework tightened. She couldn't have... could she? It was impossible.

"What makes you say that?" Scott's voice was low, and it was obvious he'd leaned in to whisper. Not that it mattered to Kurt's superior ears.

"I heard 'em."

Evidently not as impossible as Kurt had thought.

"You, like, want I should go check?" Kitty asked, and he heard her stand, then promptly sit down again. "Woo, the room just went all weird and funny-looking."

"I'll go," Rogue supplied, and he heard her stand and tap across to the doorway.

Kurt panicked. There was nowhere for him to go; nowhere to hide. She was too close for him to skitter away back up the wall, and besides, she'd be looking for him.

The door started to creak open, and in a fit of nerves he acted on instinct.


Rogue poked her head out and peered around.

"See anybody?" Scott asked.

"Nu-uh." She craned her neck upward to look at the vaulted ceiling all monasteries seemed to favour. "No*thing* either."

"You think it could be that mutant we're after?" Kitty sounded excited despite her earlier wrangling about coming on this mission in the first place. Snow and the cold were 'not her thing', she'd claimed, until the prospect of an alternative training session with Wolverine drove her into the German mountains with all speed.

"Could be," Rogue answered vaguely. She suddenly had the strangest feeling of déjà vu. Unexpectedly, she wrinkled her nose and sneezed.

"Yee-uch, what's that *smell*?" Kitty, ever verbose, pinched her nose melodramatically. "Smells like Evan's gym socks."

"It's Brimstone."

"Oh, come on, Rogue," Scott raised an eyebrow above his shades. "Brimstone? These old places are full of damp. It's probably just that."

Rogue disagreed. "Nah, it's Brimstone. I'd recognise that stink anywhere." Although how was a mystery. She just *did*. Shaking her head, she withdrew back into the room and closed the door with a click. "But whatever it is, let's keep it out, huh?"

~ ^_^ ~

[_Oh come *on* people, it's *me*! you knew there was gonna be some fantasy AU in here somewhere ;) Although, it has to be said, this one is more ripping fairytales to shreds a la 'Shrek' than an entirely different universe like that found in OBAB._]

Lady Amanda was not best pleased. Her morning hadn't been going well as a whole, what with incompetent servants spilling her breakfast and yanking great clumps of hair from her skull in an attempt to brush it, but as she sat atop her horse with arms folded and a petulant pout etched into her pretty features, her annoyance seethed and bubbled palpably beneath the surface. Wise folk avoided the Princess when they spotted that look, but a few had been known to cross her path - or worse, speak to her! - when she was in a temper. Their remains were still hanging somewhere in the castle dungeons, as far as people knew.

The bay stallion tossed his head in agitation, and the servant holding the reins was hard-pushed to keep hold. Trust the Princess to pick the most spirited, difficult mount in the entire stables. Her father, the King, had bought her many beasts, most of which were docile mares, much more suitable for a lady to ride. Yet each and every time she'd stuck out her bottom lip, stamped her feet and thrown a fit until she got her way. Again.

Today's creature of choice was a great black thing whose eyes held a nasty spark and whose teeth had found their mark in several servants already. Much like Her Royal Highness.

"What's *keeping* them so long?" Lady Amanda asked aloud, and fixed one eye on a nearby boy. "You there, what's the hold up? Why haven't they come back yet?"

The serving boy chewed his lip and clicked his feet together in that infuriating manner her father insisted upon. "Ma'am, I'm sure they'll be back soon. The pheasants may just be a little bit dozy, is all, Ma'am. 'Tis very early in the morning still, if you don't mind me sayin' so, Ma'am."

Lady Amanda pursed her full lips. "I do," she replied haughtily. "Cheeky wretch. Get out of my sight before I send you for a lashing."

The dust hadn't even settled before she finished, and a small figure in a tunic pattered through the small wooden doorway back inside faster than the eye could see. Any reprieve from the Princess' company was worth it, even if it meant peeling potatoes for the rest of the day in the kitchens.

Lady Amanda 'humphed' to herself and readjusted her seat. Her long, azure skirts caught slightly on her spurs and she tutted as three servants were instantly at her side unhitching the fabric and checking for damage. Honestly. Why she wasn't allowed to wear breeches to go hunting was beyond her. Daddy defended his actions by saying it was unsightly for a lady of court to dash around dressed like a commoner, but she could see what he was really up to. He was just trying to spoil her fun, *as usual*.

She glanced at the line of trees that marked the edge of the royal forest. The pheasants should have been sent up *ages* ago. Nearby, a servant stood ready with her personal hawk capped and ready to release when the senseless birds hove into sight. A clutch of hounds stood by too, straining and whining to be off and pick up any fallen quarry they could. Everything was poised and waiting for those imbeciles to flush out the prey. So where were they?

"That's it!" she said at last. A flurry of wan faces looked her way, politely keeping their eyes averted from her own gaze. It wouldn't do to sully herself so by looking at them like *equals*.

Surveying the assembled crowd, she picked a lone servant who held neither hawk, dog nor sack and levelled an arrow at him. "I'm bored. If those pheasants don't go up by the time I count to ten, I start target practice on *you*, instead. One," the servant quavered in his boots, knowing that she just might do it, too. The Princess had been known to punish lower orders in the quest to alleviate boredom before. "Two. Three. Four. Five. Si - "

Suddenly, a cry went up from the front of the throng. Amanda dropped the sight of her bow and called out irritably: "What's going on?"

A lone figure was streaking across the meadow that lay between the forest and hillock they were perched upon. He ran fast, and in practically no time at all the Princess found herself confronted with the unappetising sight of a young lad, cheeks red with exertion, breathing hard from his run and waving his hands around trying to tell her something.

"Majesty...." he gasped, ".... Found it.... stick... rock......::wheeze::...."

Amanda clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "Slow down, you idiot, or I'll have your tongue removed and *then* make you talk."

He straightened up pretty quick sharpish at that, brushing the dirt from his filthy tunic and carefully avoiding her burning brown eyes.

Amanda blinked expectantly. "Well?"

"Majesty," the boy said again, breathing evenly and making it perfectly clear that it was taking some degree of self-control to do so. "We've made a discovery that we thoughted you'd like to knows 'bout."

_Could he *be* any more vague?_ "What discovery? Tell me."

"Yer Highness," he grinned, corners of his mouth twitching as he tried to suppress it. "We dun' catchered the Forest Demon."

A gasp went up from around the crowd, and the servants began talking in hushed whispers. Amanda glared at them.

"Quiet, all of you! The Forest Demon, you say?" the latter was directed at the pheasant boy - as evidenced by the red bird emblem emblazoned across the front of his tunic. He nodded proudly. "Where? How?"

"Jus' north o' the Still Pool, Majesty. He were sittin' on a rock, bold as brass. Had 'is back to us, see, an' you know what he were doin', Majesty?" His eyes goggled in his head as if he couldn't quite believe what he was saying. "He were *singin'*. Jus' as plain as you or I, Ma'am. Words 'n everything."

Another rush of murmuring at this revelation that the beast could *talk*. It was one thing to have a demon roaming the royal estate. Every good court had one, or at least pretended to. Amanda's cousin Juni up in Hurum claimed to have three demons living in her father's forest. Not that Amanda ever believed her. Juni was a wicked liar. A curse from some fairy at birth, if she remembered correctly.

But a demon that could *talk*. Well, that was something else.

Amanda leaned forward in her saddle, bow forgotten. "How did you capture it, boy? Did you play music and lure it into a trap?" There was a sneer to her tone, but her gaze was interested. Her curiosity had been piqued.

The servant snorted. "Nah, nuthin' like that, Majesty. Like I says, he had 'is back to us, so one of our boys jus' crept up, quiet-like, and clonked 'im on the head with a rock. Went down like a sack o' tatties."

"Where is the Demon now?" Amanda asked slowly, aware that her heart was beating faster, and that the same glint that made servants quiver in fear had crept into her eyes.

The boy saw it, and faltered. "Uh... the boys is jus' bringin' 'im, Majesty. I comes on ahead jus' to let you know why we ain't dun' the pheasants yet, like." He twisted slightly and stared down the hillock. "Look, look! 'Ere they comes!"

The crowd surged forward, but Amanda beat them back with a sharp word and a stern glare. How dare they forget their place! It was only a dumb creature, after all. Still, she sat up a little more erect in her saddle and watched intently as the clump of four pheasant boys exited the forest and marched pompously towards them.

Two of them carried a long, stout stick between them. They walked at either end with it balanced on a shoulder each, and dangling like a dead deer from the wood itself was something swinging and furry.

They stopped in front of their sovereign and bowed as gracefully as their lowly upbringing would allow.

"Majesty," said one of them. "We present to you, the Forest Demon."

Amanda stared, open-mouthed. It was a lot smaller than she'd been led to believe. Its spindly limbs seemed almost skeletal as it dangled, tied up by its hands and feet with head flopped back and mouth open. It had fangs, though, just like the rumours had said, and a serpentine appendage tipped with a spade that could only be its tail dragged across the floor behind it.

Yet what held her most was its fur. It was absolutely *covered* in the stuff, from tip to tail. And what was more; the fur was blue. *Blue*. Ha! Let Juni try to beat *that*. None of *her* demons had blue fur.

Amanda snapped her head back. "Is it dead?"

One of the boys poked the Demon with the brush he'd obviously been going to flush the pheasants out with. The thing stayed prone, but its tail flickered briefly as if in retaliation. It was only the merest twitch, but it was enough to send the host of servants scurrying backwards like mice from poison.

_Ignorant fools,_ Amanda thought scornfully.

"T'ain't dead," the boy with the brush informed her. "Jus' outta it. Billy hit 'im really 'ard wiyat stone."

"Dun' know me own strength," said one of the stick-carriers, presumably 'Billy'.

Amanda wrinkled her nose in disgust at him and tossed back her hair. "Take the Forest Demon to the Menagerie," she ordered curtly. "Give it to one of the keepers and make sure it's locked up tight before it comes around. I don't want it getting away after we've only just captured it."

"Yes Ma'am," saluted the brothers pheasant, and made as if to go.

Amanda frowned, remembering a half-hearted rumour she'd come across not long ago concerning the Forest Demon. Something about it being able to move itself from one place to another instantaneously; through both open air and solid objects. She didn't really believe such a thing was possible, but called out as a precaution.

"Tell the court mage to set extra binding spells around its cage, too. Make sure he binds it to *me*, this time. I don't want another performance like the Harpy, last Winter."

"Yes, Ma'am," the servant boys responded dutifully, and trawled off to do as they were bade.

Amanda watched them go with a thoughtful expression. The Forest Demon was a prize indeed, and she wanted to make sure it *was* bound to her, and not her father or mother, as had happened with so many others of her pets. Those mages could be quite sneaky where her parents were involved, and she was determined they shouldn't have their way this time. She wanted the Demon to be *hers*, not theirs.

Purposefully, she yanked the stallion's reins into her grasp and commanded of the hapless servants: "Get this all cleaned up. The hunt is cancelled for today, but we'll start again early tomorrow morning. Make sure the hawks and dogs are taken care of *properly*, or it'll be *your* heads that roll."

The servants all sprang to attention and gave a myriad of hasty curtseys and bows before herding things together, and she purposefully turned her mount around and headed back towards the castle.

This day wasn't turning out too bad after all

~ ^_^ ~

[_Let the AU's commence in full force! Bwahahahaha!_]

Officer Smith leaned backwards against the wall, gun held high in one hand, the other palm by her side and pressed to the brickwork. Her uniform was damp with sweat and clung in all the wrong places. Had her partner been here he probably would've made some chauvinistic comment or other - right before she slammed his teeth down his throat.

As it was, she was alone with only her gun for company, since that idiot, Alvers, was somewhere five floors down with a twisted ankle. She'd told him that the elevator, though not as glamorous, was definitely safer than thundering up ten flights of stairs like cops did in the movies, but had that rookie listened to her? Had he hell!

Tabby twisted so that she could call and be heard through the chipped apartment door without getting her face blown off. There was no evidence yet that the suspect within was armed, but you never could tell in cases like this. This side of town was notorious for that sort of thing. Just last week she'd apprehended a Golgothin whose very *body* was one big disgusting weapon; and then the week before it was that bloody Succubus. Led them a merry dance, that one, and once again Alvers had been a great asset - not!

"We know you're in there!" She chose not to mention she was alone, although the prospect of badmouthing her idiot partner, even to a felon, was tempting. "You might as well give it up now. We have you surrounded," she added as an afterthought.

There was the sound of movement from inside, and what sounded like furniture being turned over. Tabby swore under her breath.

The details on this one were sketchy, at best. All she knew for sure was that there were at least two people inside this room, one of whom she was after, the other..... she didn't really know much about. NYPD had received a desperate call from a neighbour just short of an hour ago, claiming that something distinctly unnatural had been spotted in the upstairs apartment. It'd taken two more reports of raised voices and sounds of a scuffle before the police hierarchy finally agreed to dispatch her and Alvers to deal with it.

Those higher up in the pecking order didn't like the Demon Division, as a rule, despite their usefulness in situations like these. The Chief of Police was likely to let Imps chew his face right off before he even admitted to their existence, and had dismissed the reams of supernatural sightings as flukes and college students for years, until his own superior demanded he at least make the effort in the eyes of the public and employ a set of officers to handle the cases he and his boys couldn't even explain, let alone solve.

Something thudded against the other side of the door, causing bits of whitewash to flake off. One of the three metal digits came loose on one side with a squeak, and it lurched, swinging upside down on the other nail. The sudden movement caught Tabby's eye, and her trigger-finger twitched involuntarily as she looked up and read off the new number.



More scuffling, and the jingle of breaking glass. An unexpected scream rent the air, but was abruptly cut off.

_Right, that's it!_ Tabby pushed off the wall and took a few steps back to get a good run up. Then she ran at the door with her shoulder down. Her body struck it solidly, but though the hinge creaked, it didn't give way. She tried again, with much the same result. _If only it *was* as easy as they make out in the movies. One good kick and *boom*, you're in. Jeez! Much more of this and I'm gonna put my flippin' shoulder out!_

It took three collisions in all to open the door. Tabby grit her teeth and smashed into it one last time, feet pedalling the floor like pistons to get up enough power. The lock gave one pitiful whine, followed by a suspicious crunch, and then she was in with her gun raised and both hands ready to fire at a moment's notice.

"Police! Freeze!"

And then her jaw dropped.

From the reports and noises she'd been expecting a Filth Demon, or at least a run-of-the-mill troll. The figure that looked up at her entrance was demonic looking enough, but she could tell at once that he was either a child, or a simpleton, or both. His golden eyes went wide at the sight of her gun, and he emitted a small squeak more suited to a mouse than hell spawn.

Tabby's eyes narrowed, taking in the grisly vista at a glance. The demon was covered in blue fur that highlighted it against the sunlight streaming in through one of the windows. No chance of it escaping without her seeing then, but she kept her gun raised just in case. Trailing from each of its wrists were manacles affixed to knots of cord that looked like they'd recently been broken, and his spaded tail was attached to a wide steel ring around his neck via a chain that made it impossible for the serpentine appendage to move. It was a classic breakout look, and the patches of bare, rubbed-raw skin under each fetter supported the supposition.

The room itself was in tatters. Furniture had been smashed, the window hung open like a rotting wound, and there was a dressing table against one wall that sported a shattered mirror where a body had obviously been thrown against it. The blood spatters told her that much.

A corpse lay spread-eagled on the floor. Human male, Caucasian, he stared blankly up at the ceiling with sightless eyes. There was a ragged hole in the front of his shirt, rimmed by a rapidly spreading circle of red. From the way the blood was moving it was obvious he'd died mere minutes, maybe even seconds ago. Probably while she was still breaking the door down.

Damn it!

The demon was clutching at a long kitchen knife in one grotesque, three-fingered hand. Its blade was smeared in blood. Tabby blinked. From her experiences, knives and weapons like that weren't usually a demon's first choice of killing implement, especially if humans had made them. Something about impurifying the deed, as she recalled.

_Still,_ she cocked the revolver.

The demon laid his ears back and looked in horror at the bloodstained bread knife. Tabby almost fired as he dropped it and it clattered noisily to the floor, but stayed her hand when, instead of running or trying to attack her, the beast covered his head and crouched down on the floor into a tiny rocking ball.

"I didn't mean to!" he whimpered pathetically. "I didn't... he came at me. I... he was going to.... but I... I-I-I *didn't*. I couldn't.... I didn't mean to." And then he did the last thing she expected.

He started to cry.

_What the f - ?_ Tabby wasn't stupid enough to relinquish her hold on her weapon, but the incongruous sight made her stare all the same. The demon was really crying. Weeping like a baby with his head in his hands. It was such an odd sight that she wondered whether it was actually an illusion - hypnosis or glamour or something, but a bite to the tongue soon cured her of that idea.

"I didn't mean to...." wept the creature soulfully.

For the first time in her career as a member of the Demon Division, Tabby Smith had absolutely no idea what to do.

_Oh, shit!_

~ ^_^ ~

[_This one's for Emmy, although I'll leave it up to the readers at large to figure out what the heck to actually *call* this pairing._]

The crowd roared tumultuously, and their stamping feet and pounding fists made the flimsy wooden benches shudder and creak. Every now and then they'd stand up as a single mass of flailing bodies, and the struts holding the tiers in place let out breaths of dust that betrayed the strain being put upon them.

The object of their excitement stood sedately in the centre of the caged arena. He was, to all intents and purposes, asleep on his feet. Certainly, his eyes were closed, and he cradled one arm - clearly broken - against his bare chest like a slumbering child. There was no outward acknowledgement of the mob, though a thin sheen of sweat veiled his brow in the close atmosphere of the tent.

Across from him another man breathed hard and glared openly. He was a bristle of muscles, hair and a pair of ripped Levis, and when he tossed his head he sent a shower of droplets onto the mesh of the cage surrounding the ring.

The crowd shouted again, becoming annoyed at the lack of action. Sprays of popcorn laced the air along with their irritated cries.

"Hey, I ain't paid five dollars to see this crap!"

"Get the lead out!"

"Beat the fucker into oblivion!"

"Pound 'im!"

"What you waitin' fer? Gold edged invitation?"

"Come *on*!"

Levi-man turned and waved to his public. He was greeted by a verbal surge of approval. Obviously, he was favourite to win, and he revelled in the praise received, all the time keeping one eye fixed on his strange opponent.

For his part, the other man did nothing. The only sign he was even still conscious came from the rise and fall of his chest, and the blinking red light on his restraint collar. He was well-muscled, and the copious scarring across his face and bare chest told their own story of how many fights like these he'd been in. And won. He had to have won. That was the only way he was still alive now.

Levi-man gave one last salute to his adoring public and dove right in. He left no room for hesitancy, ploughing forward with all the speed and stature of a freight train. He intended to power into his opponent and knock his off his feet while he wasn't looking, and with any other person he probably would have succeeded.

But this wasn't just any old person.

Faster than the eye could see, Levi-man switched from running across the ring to flat on his back with a hand pressed firmly to his throat. It happened so quickly he barely had chance to register the sudden change in altitude, let alone the strong grip cutting off his airway.

The crowd went wild.

"Gettim!" one of them screamed.

"Don't let the mutie bastard win, you scmuck!" yelled another, equally outraged.

A woman in plaid stood up and threw something. It rattled against the cage mesh, revealing itself as a rock.

The rest of the mob took up the game, hurling anything that came to hand at the wire. A thousand whips cracked simultaneously as empty drink cans, pieces of brick, wood and mortar, plus an array of other, more exotic missiles bounced off the cage.

The mesh wasn't as close-knit as perhaps it could've been, so it was naturally only a matter of time before something got through. As it happened, that something was a set of keys someone had thrown in a moment of madness, and the sharp edge caught the fighter with a broken arm a glancing blow. A thin cut opened up next to his eye, and his face went wild with pain and rage.

Levi-man didn't know which emotion to swing for when the crushing pressure on his neck let up. He was grateful, sure, but also very wary of what the other fighter was now doing, and found himself breathlessly backing away into the corner.

The first few rows of audience members leaned back as the enraged fighter slammed against the mesh, a fury of snarling teeth and angry eyes. He clawed at the netting, slicing his fingers but heedless of the pain. In fact, it only served to madden him further, and he literally started climbing the cage wall in an attempt to get at the jeering crowd.

It was difficult to believe that this eruption of rage and pure, raw animalism was the same man who, only moments ago had seemed as peaceful as a sleeping babe. Even more so when he let out a feral growl to equal that of any untamed beast.

The handlers ran forward and thrust long metal poles tipped with wicked spikes through the mesh, but he batted them away easily and continued climbing. The cage wasn't exactly made of adamantium, and the wall started the buckle outwards as he pounded against it. Even with the restraint collar on he was strong enough to do some severe damage. The adrenaline coursing through his system from the fight made him howl and he glared openly at the crowd, gnashing his teeth.

Several people screamed, and a few even went running for the exits. Chaos was about to break out if someone didn't *do* something. And fast.

One of the handlers reached to his waist and withdrew an object that looked not unlike a mobile phone. Frantically he tapped at the buttons, then held it out towards the fighter gone wild like a weapon. The mutant screamed once, pawing at his throat, and then fell. He hit the ring with a dull thump and lay moaning.

A man in a suit emerged and held up his hands for silence. Martin Buckelheim chewed on the expensive brand of cigarette permanently dangling from his lips and waited for some semblance of quiet to return before speaking.

"Ladies an' Gennelman," he boomed, not needing a megaphone to be heard. "Due to unforeseen circumstances, Ah'm afraid today's fight has been postponed indefinitely." There was a chorus of boos, and he nodded grimly at them. "If y'all just go to th' ticket office, ya can get yer money back less tax. Sorry for th' inconvenience, an' Ah hope y'all can come again some time. Ya know how much Ah like to see your smilin' faces."

"More like the faces of presidents on our money!" quipped one of the throng. Others laughed half-heartedly, but Martin said nothing.

He backed down to a series of curses and insults, but the crowd grumbled away to the ticket booths to retrieve their cash, minus tax, of course. It was an odd thing to say, since mutant battles like this one weren't rare, but were most certainly illegal and so not taxed in the slightest. Usually the authorities never found out, since they only lasted until the mutant attraction in question gave up the ghost and died. Usually in a blaze of glory in the ring against some opponent or other. Then the entrepreneur who'd owned it moved on to pastures new.

Buckelheim's arena was special because his mutant just kept on kicking no matter how hard it got beat up. A real spitfire, as the posters said. The audience knew that he'd live to fight another day, and that they'd probably come back to see him do it, too. If nothing else, Buckelheim's mutant always delivered.

Martin let them all leave before finally transferring his gaze to the arena. He jerked a thumb at one of the handlers, who snapped to attention and let Levi-man out of a side opening in another, undamaged wall. He was given a precursory audience, in which time he managed to swear and curse fifteen times and in fifteen colourful different ways.

He seemed about to say more when Martin waved him away. He hadn't lost the fight, but he hadn't won either. The rules were simple. You win, you get the prize money advertised on the flyer. You lose; you most likely end in up hospital or worse. Levi-man found himself escorted out by his lapels.

Only when everyone bar himself and the two remaining handlers had gone did Martin at last ascend the creaky wooden steps and enter the ring himself. He stood, hands clasped behind his back, watching the fallen mutant with one eyebrow raised. Nothing was said, and silence reigned between them. It was a dangerous, unprotected position to be in.

Not that the mutant in question was capable of doing anything much at the moment. The inhibiting abilities of the collar were still active, and an angry red burn was clear spanning the circumference of his ample neck.

Martin cleared his throat. "Well, Ah hope you're happy wit yo'self," he drawled. "You just cost me a whole lotta money in sales, mutie. Not to mention cash for damages. That cage weren't easy to make, y'know. Things like that don't come cheap these days."

The mutant opened one eye and grunted. "Go to hell."

"Shuddup," Martin replied, drawing back a foot and kicking him squarely in the stomach. The mutant didn't try to fight back. He'd learned a long time ago that to fight back only meant more pain later. Pain with the collar on, too, which made it ten times worse.

Martin kicked him once more, for good measure, and then stood back, brushing a few greasy strands of hair out of his face. "Ah dun' told you before. No talkin' unless Ah say so. S'bad fer business an' yo' health." He hunkered down and squinted at his bread-and-butter. "So why'd you wimp out on the fight, mutant? Not like you."

_That's because I'm usually imagining that it's *your* neck I'm wringing._ But he stayed his tongue.

Martin frowned. "Less of the funny stuff. Now Ah'm tellin' ya to talk, mutie. You let that guy go just when you had 'im beat. Ah know you. You ain't never backed down like that 'afore. Now Ah'm askin' ya, why?"

No answer. Martin reached for the collar control device at his belt with deliberate slowness.

"I'm not a performing monkey."

The answer, apparently, didn't please Martin, and he swept to his feet with a puff at his cigarette. "That so? Seems to me yo' getting' a little too big for yo' boots, boyo. You fight when Ah say to fight, y'unnerstand?"

A growl. "Get bent."

That *really* didn't please him. "Ok then. Seems you need re-educatin' some. Chug, Goldo, help our friend here back into his cell. Do *not* deactivate the collar to let him heal until I give the say-so, and do *not* feed 'im. We'll see how co-operative he is after a night of that."

Chug and Goldo did as they were bid, albeit after waiting for their employer to leave. They were big, heavy men, probably with a handful of brain-cells between them. At some point or other they must have been in the military, because they clicked their heels together and saluted smartly as Martin went past as if he was some kind of general.

The mutant looked on, uninterested. He'd seen many handlers come and go in his time. None of them ever impressed him, and he closed his eyes as soon as Martin was out of sight, not for the first time wondering where he'd gone wrong to get himself lumbered with a schmuck like that.

Footsteps. Evidently Chug and Goldo weren't wasting any time following orders. He sighed. Guess he'd have to bear the pain of their manhandling. Come morning he'd be allowed to heal again, as much good as it would do him. Somehow recovery in this place was more of a curse than a blessing.

A curious sound suddenly reached his ears, dulled as they were by the collar. Like the pop of a lighted splint placed in pure oxygen. He briefly considered opening his eyes to see what it was, but simultaneously deemed it too much effort.

_Probably just one of those idiots lettin' one off._

Then an even more curious noise came from nearby. It sounded like light, pattering footsteps, and the floor of the ring vibrated against his face. One of the heavies - Goldo, it sounded like - cried out, and there was the distinct sound of a smart punch and a body falling.

_What the - ?_

The second handler, Chug, shouted; "What the hell....? What *are* you? How the hell did *you* get in?"

Whomever that was directed at didn't answer, and Chug yelled something else unintelligible. His feet thudded loudly on the canvas as he evidently ran forwards, and that odd 'pop' came again, closer this time.

This time, the mutant opened his eyes, and was just in time to see something small and.... blue drop from above onto his handler. Whatever it was kicked out a foot, which caught Chug on the side of his jaw. He went flying into the wire mesh of the cage, and slid down, out for the count.

The blue thing landed delicately into a crouch that would've made a gymnast proud, and scuttle on all fours toward him. The mutant struggled slightly, instantly mistrustful and ready to fight whatever his condition or incarceration.

A heavily accented voice attempted to soothe him, and it took a moment to realise that it came from the blue shape. "Shhhh, mein Freund. I'm here to help you."

Soft hands touched his neck, brushing against the collar. The defence mechanism kicked in and gave them a sharp shock. "Scheisse, what was that? Ach, never mind. We can deal with this thing later. Right now, the most important thing is to get you out of here."

"Who *are* you?" he asked.

Those same hands looped around and under his chest, hauling him up with no small amount of grunted effort to his feet. The mutant felt something long and serpentine snake around the backs of his legs, keeping them vertical. As his head flopped forward he saw it was a spaded tail, blue, and completely covered in a fine carpet of velvety fur.

"I'm a friend. That's all you need to know at the moment," said the voice. A lungful of air sucked through teeth, and it sighed dejectedly. "Usually I prefer not to use violence. Doesn't do our credibility much good, ne? But I couldn't just let them carry on like that."

Comprehension dawned directly. "You're a mutant."

"Catch on fast, don't we?"

He snarled, and felt the arms twitch.

"No need for that. Ja, I'm a mutant, just like you. Which is primarily the reason I'm busting you out of here. Places like this are a sick excuse for entertainment. I only go to them to liberate the attractions."

"You gonna give me your name, kid?" For a kid it was indeed. His tone was too flutely to be fully mature, and his frame was spindly and possessed a gawkiness that had nothing to do with his mutation.

"Depends. You going to give me yours, mein Freund?"

He blinked. His name? It'd been a long time since anybody asked him that. "Logan."

"Kurt Wagner."

~ ^_^ ~

[_And finally, the just plain weird. A couple I've never seen done before, but one that could be intriguing. Plus, this thread unites my great loves; Evo, fantasy worlds, and anthropomorphism. Just as a random note, would you believe that this idea came from listening to the soundtrack of Disney's 'Aladdin'? Well it did. I kid you not._]

All things considered, this was singularly the worst day of Pietro's life.

It was even worse than the day he'd been dared to climb the tallest stone in The Caverns and broken his leg in a consequent tussle with gravity. Even worse than when he'd fallen into the underground river and nearly died from the resultant fever. Even worse than when, as a child, he'd ventured aboveground, got lost, and cried like a baby until someone came and found him.

Today eclipsed all of that without even breaking a sweat.

"What am I bid for this fine specimen? He's young, strong, and lithe - everything you could ask for. Come on, what'll you give me?"

The small crowd that had assembled on the walkway bustled and murmured amongst themselves. Some pointed, others stayed at a respectful distance and whispered to their neighbours with open curiosity; maybe a little wonder.

"What *is* that thing?"

"Not a scrap of fur anywhere."

"No scales neither, see?"

"And so *thin*. Creature's practically skeletal."

"What strange eyes. Have you ever seen such strange eyes?"

"Where's his tail? Mommy, where's his tail?"

"He doesn't have one, poppet."

"No *tail*? Then how does he walk?"

"Good question."

"What I want to know is; where did it *come* from?"

"Which? The tail, or the creature?"

"Don't give me no lip, son. I seen more in my years that you - "

"But you ain't never seen one of them before, have you?"

The trader's expression dimmed a little, and he jerked the chain in his hand. Pietro's head jolted backwards as the metal band around his neck followed suit, but he resisted crying out. He already had quite a few cuts and bruises from the stick the trader had permanently in his possession, and had no desire to gain any more.

"Come on, ladies and gentleman. You'll not find a stronger worker this side of the forest. What am I bid for him?" Still no takers. The trader grit his teeth with an audible click and prodded Pietro in the spine. "Get up and show the customers the merchandise."

Pietro did as he was told, rising stiffly to his feet and turning around as far as the chain attached to his neck and wrists would allow, which wasn't very, considering his arms were locked behind his back in a most uncomfortable position.

"See these legs?" the trader pointed with his stick. "Good, strong muscles on him. Perfect for carrying heavy weights and the like. Make an ideal house-slave, this one. Arms too," Pietro felt the tip of the stick jab his upper arm near the shoulder. "Not a bit of excess fat anywhere. Betcha never seen one so good as this."

"I ain't never seen one at *all*," quipped one of the crowd. He couldn't see whom.

Evidently, the trader didn't like that comment, for he thrust Pietro around until his shoulder joints ached from the strain. The chain, however, remained taut as the trader pointed out some other plus points of his merchandise to the mixed assemblage of buying public and spectacle-hounds.

The walkway was narrow at this point, though it widened out into a platform that encircled the huge tree where the crowd stood. Pietro suddenly found himself with a superb view over the rope handrail that edged all the wooden walkway-bridges up here. He stared straight down, since there weren't many other places to look, and promptly wished he hadn't.

All he could see was open space for a few hundred feet, which then disappeared into a cloudbank that licked hungrily around the massive Kalido trees; whose trunks thirty men couldn't fit around with their arms outstretched. He knew, because he and some other young ones had tried it once just to see if they could. There had been thirty-two of them, and they hadn't even come close. Beneath the clouds, he knew, was a few thousand feet of nothingness before you finally hit the ground.

As he recalled, it was a dare by those 'friends' that had landed him in this mess in the first place. He'd been foolish enough to take it up, he knew; but he also knew that if they hadn't suggested climbing as far as he could go up one of the Kalido trunks to test his manliness the idea never would've occurred to him. He never would've made it so far he couldn't see the ground anymore, and he never would've run into the dragon patrol that captured him so effortlessly and brought him here to Pelzbaum.

Pelzbaum. Even the name tasted bad on his tongue. Had he been allowed to speak, that is. As it was, the steel bit they'd placed between his teeth before he even woke up took care of that easily. He could barely move his tongue, let alone make any coherent words around it.

Finally, the trader let him turn around again, and he would've sighed with relief if he didn't already know that sighing with a bit in your mouth makes you gag.

Pietro was forced to his knees with head respectfully bowed once again, and his spine protested profusely. But what could he do? The chains were lax when he crouched like this, at least. Easier to jerk free and pull them out f the trader's grasp; although why he was thinking of escape was a mystery. Where exactly could he go? There was no way down, and definitely no humans hereabouts. Above the clouds was Anthro territory, and from the way this crowd was reacting, it was clear he was the first human to be brought here in quite some time.

"Yes, ma'am," the trader cried appreciatively to a voice in the crowd. "Why, Kimi, how nice to see you."

Footsteps came forward, and firm hands gripped Pietro's chin. They pulled his head up, and he found himself staring squarely into the face of a stern female Anthro. She looked like a mix of human and panda, with longish white facial fur, rounded ears that jutted from a mass of white hair tucked neatly under a kerchief, and dark circles around both faintly drooping brown eyes.

She scrutinized the young human, tilting his head this way and that. He knew he must look a sight, since he hadn't had chance to wash in the entire week since he was captured. Hell, the only thing they'd found time enough to do outside of branding him with the trader's Sigel - which still hurt like hell - was feed and water him; and even then only intermittently.

She pressed one claw into the fleshy hollow of his cheek and watched the skin spring back into place, then felt along the muscles of his arm. Obviously she didn't believe the trader's pitch, and wanted to check his quality for herself.

Finally, she returned to Pietro's face. There, she tugged at the base of his eyes, checking the pallor of his inner-eyelids for sickness or frailty. Prizing his mouth open, she looked critically at his teeth as one might do a horse, and poked experimentally at the bit. It was set firmly in place, and jarred the back of his gullet so that he gagged involuntarily.

"I'll give you fifteen Silver Kistrils for him," she said at last. Her voice was clipped, and there was a harshness to it Pietro took an instant dislike to. Not that her treatment of him so far hadn't already done a great deal to instigate an aversion. He dared not show it openly though, for she was still knelt before him, and the claws of her left hand rested dangerously close to his jugular.

The trader frowned. "Only fifteen? I'm surprised at you, Kimi. That's chickenfeed, compared to what he's worth. Forty is what I'm asking, and I'll not go a copper lower."

Kimi looked up at him, narrowing her eyes. "You're a greedy one, Gelaph. Strong though he might be, he's not worth more than fifteen and you know it. I'll raise my offer to twenty, and that's your lot."





"Twenty-ni - "

"He's a Furless, Gelaph. You're not going to get any better for the likes of him." She sighed, releasing Pietro's jaw, for which he was very grateful, and hung his weary head. "My final offer is this; twenty Silver Kistrils, and a bolt of cloth."

The trader, Gelaph, a wiry ferret Anthro with eyes like grey flint, considered her proposal for a moment. The rest of the crowd hung back, and he was wise enough in the ways of good trading to see that he'd receive no more bids this day. At least, none to rival the one he already had. Still, it never hurt to try....

"Twenty Silver Kistrils, a bolt of cloth - the *full* bolt, mind you - and," he paused, rather more for dramatic effect than because he needed to. He stroked his furry chin with the back of one hand, as if weighing her offer against another, previous one. There was no such offer, but it generally made a bidder that little bit edgier, that little bit more willing to jump when he said so, when confronted with the notion that they weren't as in control of the bartering as they'd thought.

Kimi's eyes became mere slits. She'd dealt with Gelaph before, and knew all his tricks. A low growl exited her throat, and he held up his hands, occupied as they were with the chain and stick, in the universal gesture for 'hold your horses'.

"A'right, a'right. Twenty Silver Kistrils, a full bolt of cloth, and a pouch of your patented flea-powder. I know you got a new batch ready to sell at market next week."

Kimi got to her feet, showing her height as compared to the diminutive ferret. He cowered back a little, scratching behind one ear with the butt of his stick. However, instead of striking him, the female Anthro reached into a small leather bag tied to her belt and brought out a tiny brown pouch, drawn tight with string. She tossed it to him, and he suspiciously opened and sniffed at the contents. Gelaph sneezed; then smiled a grin that gave the merest hint of fangs. Tucking his stick under one arm, he extended a hand to the panda woman to seal their deal.

"Wait!" cried a sudden voice from the crowd.

Gelaph paused just as his hand was about to touch Kimi's. Another inch closer and the transaction would've been set in stone by their contact, and any further bidding laid to waste until the next similar lot came along - which, considering the nature of this one, wasn't likely to be for a very long time.

"What is it?" he asked guardedly, eying the throng.

A heated muttering followed a robed figure that pushed its way through the mass of people and stepped out onto the walkway, but quickly hushed as they noticed the robes worn by the interrupter. Green, with sleeves edged in gold - the order of the mages.

Gelaph balked a little at the unexpected visitor, but Kimi was unimpressed. She squared herself at the newcomer, puffing out her not-unsizable chest and folding her arms across it.

"What do you want?"

"I wish to bid."

Another flurry of cracking whips as a collective gasp ran through the crowd. It was obvious from his garb that the newcomer wasn't actually full mage, as they'd first thought, but a mage in training, or 'Estagi' as it was more commonly known. Still, to have such Anthro hierarchy associating with a lower-worlder - a *Furless*, no less. It seemed ridiculous, and one or two folk giggled nervously, as if they expected this to all be part of some elaborate joke.

The look on the newcomer's face quashed that theory almost as soon as it appeared, and a deathly hush fell across those gathered.

Pietro took the opportunity to look up at his newest potential owner. The Estagi was pretty much like all the others up here. What little of him showed from beneath his robes was furry, and a long, thin tail tipped with a triangular spade curled behind him like a pennant. He couldn't see them properly, but he would've bet his life that there were also digigrade legs under that green fabric, too.

The only ways in which this newcomer differed were his hands, which possessed only three, thick fingers and blunt nails rather than the more dexterous four or five of most; and his fur. That was blue.

Pietro blinked, but it didn't change colour. No, the fur was most definitely indigo.

Well, that was a first.

Kimi stepped towards the Estagi, dwarfing him. "And what do you have that could quash my bid? I've already bought this Furless. He's mine."

"Correct me if I'm wrong," the Estagi smirked, "But don't you have to shake hands before a deal is confirmed?" Over her shoulder, Gelaph nodded. "Then he's not yours yet, madam. I'm perfectly within my rights to bid on him."

Kimi's expression turned murderous. She wasn't a creature to be crossed at the best of times, and especially not by some upstart fully half her age. "Why would an Estagi want a Furless? Can't you just use your magic to do your hard work for you? Why do you need a slave?"

"That just proves your ignorance, madam." The Estagi gave a broad smile, but it was barbed. "Magic is rarely as that simple. Most folk know that basic fact from childhood. You, evidently, do not." He pushed past her without another glance and advanced upon trader and lot.

His eyes were stark gold and searching. Pietro found himself looking away from their gaze as if shameful for meeting it, and stared solidly at the hem of the robe as it brushed the wooden slats of the walkway.

"I'll bid the entire forty Silver Kistrels."

Gelaph hastily stuffed his eyeballs back into their sockets and slotted his dropped jaw back into place. "The full.... Sir, may I ask the name of such a generous bidder?"

"Kurt Wagner."

"Would anyone here like to challenge Estagi Wagner's offer of *forty* Kistrels?" The ferret couldn't help a note of triumph creeping into his tone. It was rare he ever got close to the asking price, which was why he often raised it ten Kistrels higher than he actually wanted. That way he got the *real* worth of a lot, and customers went away thinking they'd got a bargain. But to be freely served up the pseudo-cost.... "Anyone at all?" he asked again, knowing very well nobody would. Nobody could afford to.

"Forty-five Silver Kistrels," Kimi replied, stalking back to join Estagi Wagner by his side. "Plus the bolt of cloth and pouch of flea-powder."

Gelaph turned to Kurt. "Any advance on that, good sir?"

"Fifty Silver Kistrels and two bolts of finest cloth," came the prompt answer. He didn't hesitate, and Gelaph's mouth practically watered.

"Fifty-*five* Silver Kistrels, two bolts of cloth, and the pouch of flea powder." Kimi's jaw was set. Whatever her reservations about buying a Furless earlier, they vanished now in her anger against young Estagi Wagner.

Kurt, however, was unflustered by her counter attack. Which was more than could be said for Gelaph, who was fast approaching apoplexy at the prospect of receiving so much money for so little material.

The demonic looking Anthro gave a deliberate grin, and shot a sidelong glance at the simmering Kimi. "I bid," he said quietly, with deliberate slowness, "Sixty Silver Kistrels, Two bolts of cloth, and a Protection Spell."

An audible intake of breath went up from everyone, including Gelaph. Spells were notoriously expensive, and lowly traders such as himself were unlikely to save up enough in their entire lifetimes to purchase one. To be handed a Protection Spell on a silver platter was unheard of, and he very nearly leaped to grab Kurt's hand before he could retract the offer.

Kimi met Kurt's knowing stare and seemed about to say something. Then her shoulders drooped as she visibly deflated, and she said nothing more as she turned and melted back into the crowd.

*Then* Gelaph seized Kurt's hand. "Sold!" he cried joyously, suppressing the urge to hug the young Anthro as hard as he could. He still had to actually *cast* the spell, after all. "Sold to Estagi Wagner for *Sixty* Kistrels, two cloth-bolts and a Protection Spell!"

Pietro raised his eyes to look once again on the Anthro who'd just bought him. Kurt Wagner didn't look any older than himself, though there was a cruel line to his mouth that somehow made the human boy uneasy. He still felt a burning hatred for all Anthros in general for bringing him up here to this accursed place and selling him like he was no more than a mere chattel, but there was something about the Estagi that chimed a chord of apprehension he couldn't quite place.

Gelaph tugged hard on the chain, and all further thoughts were cut off as Pietro was hauled unceremoniously to his feet. He stumbled a little as he was dragged along into a nearby hut, legs filled with pins and needles, and received a sharp crack across his exposed back with the stick for his troubles.

Once inside the hut, the human was yanked sideways and his face pressed up against the wall while his manacles were temporarily removed in favour of a thick, leather cord, which was looped tightly about his wrists. His joints creaked as his arms, kept bound for so long in an unnatural position, were raised above his head, and the cord tied to small metal rings embedded in the hardened mud that all trader huts and those of the lower orders were made up of.

Pietro couldn't see, but he knew what was coming next. The heat in this part of the hut was virtually unbearable, but it was that way for a reason. He heard the clink of metal against metal, and the sound of bellows being pumped. The heat increased slightly, and Gelaph yelped as a spark from the hot coals caught him.

Pietro gritted his teeth as the familiar footsteps of the trader approached from behind, where he couldn't see, and his hands balled into fists in preparation for what could only come next. Still, he cried out as the hot metal touched his skin, and bucked against it, pressing his body closer to the wall. It didn't let up, however, and he could feel it burning into his flesh as Gelaph branded a line through his own Sigel on the boy's left shoulder-blade to signify that the human was sold goods now, and not stolen or unpaid for, as might have been assumed by authorities who otherwise found the mark. It was a common practice amongst traders, and one that he'd described in great detail previously that week.

The steel bit inhibited his ability to voice the pain, and instead Pietro let a few stray tears slip past his defences and down his face.

When it was over, Gelaph at least pressed a scrap of cloth doused in cold water to the sore spot, but it stung horribly. His words did little to deaden the agony either.

"That's just a formality to keep him reserved for you at the moment, but you'll have to get him branded properly with your own mark as soon as possible. That is, after you've paid me." His voice dripped greediness, and no doubt his eyes were shining with want and lust for wealth.

Kurt's soft tones replied calmly, and he seemed unaffected by either the amount of money and goods he'd just spent, or the incredible amount of pain his new buy was at that moment going through. "I don't carry that amount of money on me for obvious reasons, and, as you can see, I bear no bolts of cloth."

Gelaph shrugged. "That's all fine and dandy, you can pay me later."


"Excuse me?"

"I shall need a night to gather your fee, trader Gelaph. Tomorrow, at first light I'll return to pay you fully half what I owe."


"The spell will take a little more preparation, I'm afraid."

Gelaph 'humphed' and folded his arms, furry to the elbow where his sleeves had been rolled up. "Well... OK, then. But you don't get the Furless until I get paid. He'll stay here with me - "

"Until tomorrow." Kurt was quite firm on this point. "I give you my word as an Estagi that I'll prepare and personally cast the Protection Spell I owe you in due course, but I insist on taking what is rightfully mine tomorrow morning."

"Well...." Gelaph seemed to consider this for a long moment, and then gave in to the strange Anthro's demands with a resigned sigh. He'd done so well today. Better than he'd ever done before. Best not to temper it now with an argument that could ruin the whole thing. "Fine. Tomorrow morn it is, then. I'll keep him here tonight, but at first light he'll be ready and waiting."

Kurt nodded, and tucked his hands into the wide sleeves of his robe. He turned silently to go, but paused at the last moment in mid-step. Swivelling his head, he fixed an odd, probing gaze on the gasping human still pressed face-first to the wall.

"Do you have a name, Furless?"

Pietro kept silent. The last time someone had asked him that it'd been Gelaph, and it had only been a test followed by a swipe with the stick to emphasize that he shouldn't talk.

Yet Kurt's stare was penetrating, and he couldn't move his head, nor tear his gaze away, and was forced to stare blankly into it without saying a word.

"Trader Gelaph, does he have a name?"

"Hmmm?" Gelaph broke off unrolling a scroll from his pack on the table and blinked. "A name? He did at first, I think, but I soon beat it out of him. Just goes by 'Furless' now. Unless you want to call him something different."

"What, exactly, was the name you beat from him? Did he tell you?"

"Ummm, let me think." He scratched at a random flea somewhere on the back of his skull and squinted in thought. "Ah, yes, now I remember. Pietro. His name was Pietro."

Kurt didn't acknowledge him in thanks, nor say anything else. Instead, he simply swept out of the doorway through the curtain and was gone. Leaving behind one newly purchased slave, and one moderately satisfied trader.

A sly grin leisurely spread across Gelaph's pointed face, and he patted the pouch of flea-powder at his waist that Kimi had forgotten to take back.

Not bad for a days work. Not bad at all.

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