The Uncanny X-Men

STEPPING OUT

By Duncan Johnson

'Kitty, keep your toes straight,' Stevie called over the music. 'That's betterand turnvery good. Good, Kitty, you're really getting there.'

'Thanks, Stevie,' I said as she turned off the music.

'Good job all of you,' Stevie said to the class. 'Same time next week.'

The group began to file out of the studio, passing words of appreciation on to Stevie as they passed. Stevie stopped to say a few words of encouragement to each and every one of them. She was like that.

Why do I dance? It's not that I'm particularly good at it. I'm not bad, but I'm never going to be able to dance professionally or anything like Stevie. And maybe that's the point. I'm a mutant, which sets me apart straight away. On top of that I'm smart, and I'm talking really smart, which isolates me further. Not that I'm complaining - I like being me - but when you're racing ahead of your peers it can get a little lonely. And that's why I dance, because in this one class I'm no different to anyone else. I like that.

I was still zipping up my fleece when Stevie came over to me.

'Hey, Kitten,' she said.

'Hey yourself,' I replied. I slipped my Star of David on its gold chain round my neck. We were not allowed to wear jewellery while dancing. 'Everyone else gone?'

'Just you and me left, slowpoke,' Stevie joked.

'I'd better be off too,' I said. 'Not that it's not been fun, but I've got a physics paper to get done and I promised Doug I'd help him out with one of his projects and'

'Whoa, there.' Stevie laughed. 'You don't need to make excuses, I'm just happy to see you when I can. There is one thing before you dash off, though.'

'Really?'

Stevie picked her purse up of a stool and rooted around in it before producing two tickets.

'My old company's performing at the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday,' she explained, 'and guess who's got two free tickets.'

'No way,' I exclaimed.

'I take it from those saucer-shaped eyes of yours that you're not gonna say no when I ask you to come with me,' Stevie said.

'Me?' I was shocked.

'Why not,' Stevie said. 'I'm not exactly spoiled for choice here and at least I know you'll appreciate it. Besides, I'd hate to have to go alone, so what do you say?'

I thought about it. For like half a second,

'I'd love to,' I said.

* * *

'You have got to be kidding me,' Illyana said. She was lying on her bed in the room we shared, curling her long blond-white hair around her index finger. 'Ballet? That's solame,' she finished lamely.

'You've never given it a chance,' I pointed out.

'And?' Illyana asked. 'I've never seen you drink rat poison, but I don't try and persuade you to start.'

''Yana!' The girl has an odd sense of humour.

Illyana's taste ran more towards rock music, as evidenced by the - frankly rather scary - posters on her side of the room. Don't get me wrong, I like some of that too, but my tastes are a bit more varied. Sure I like the modern stuff, but I still have a soft spot for the classics. My dad's got an impressive collection of classical music albums at home. My mum's not a fan, but back when I was a kid he used to put a record or two on every Sunday afternoon and tell me all about the composers we were listening to. Guess some of that enthusiasm rubbed off.

'I'm just saying that watching a bunch of men in tights prance around a stage isn't my idea of a good time,' Illyana continued. She cocked her head to one side thoughtfully. 'Actually, putting it like that...'

I threw a pillow at her.

'I'm only saying,' Illyana protested. 'You're not going to tell me that you've never pictured my brother dressed up like that.'

'Hey!' Illyana's brother is Peter Rasputin and everyone seems to be under the impression that we're an item. And the truthcan I plead the Fifth?

Illyana pulled a face.

'You're right,' she said. 'That's one scary image.'

Then she chucked the pillow at me. I phased and the pillow passed straight throw me and impacted harmlessly against the wall. (For those of you new to all this, I can do things like that.)

'I'm not even going to begin to defend ballet to you,' I said.

''Cos you just know you'd lose,' Illyana replied.

'Whatever happened to your appreciation of culture?'

'Whatever happened to you not defending ballet?' Illyana rolled over on the bed so that her back was to me. 'I'm not listening.'

'Guess that means you won't be helping me pick out a dress for Saturday night then?' I remarked.

Illyana bounced of the bed.

'What? You really think you can make critical fashion decisions without me? I'm there girlfriend.'

I fought to keep a straight face. And lost.

* * *

Stevie slapped my hand.

'Stop fiddling,' she whispered. 'You look fine. Better than fine. You look fantastic.'

'You think?'

I had spent the past couple of days wishing that time would speed up so that tonight would come faster. (I'd even had a word with Illyana about that, but she chose - wisely - to ignore me. Or maybe that was just her dislike of ballet coming through. Whatever.) Of course, now that I was finally here, I wanted to be anywhere but. Stevie, bless her, wasn't letting me out of her sight, though.

She guided me past the fountain in the centre of the Lincoln Center plaza and towards the Opera House, light streaming from its five great arched windows. Inside the building was even more impressive, with its sparkling chandeliers, red carpets and marble staircases. I was too busy staring to remember to be nervous.

'Earth to Kitty,' Stevie said.

'Sorry.'

'Don't be,' Stevie said. 'It is something, isn't it.'

'Did you ever perform here,' I began, 'before'

'Before my accident? Yes, I did,' Stevie said. 'Our company tried to do at least one tour a year and we took on New York a couple of times.' She smiled wistfully.

'Do you miss it?' I asked.

'Only every day,' she replied. 'If there was some way I could get back on that stage and dance again I'd take it in a heartbeat. But there isn't so it's not worth losing sleep over. Everything happens for a reason, I guess, so I'll have to content myself with training the next superstar. Fancy the job?'

'You're kidding, right?' I said.

Stevie shrugged.

'Maybe a little,' she admitted. 'Don't count yourself out, though. Maybe you'll never get a starring role, but there are always places for talented dancers. That's how I started out, after all. Now come on. There's still some time before the performance and I want you to meet some friends of mine.'

* * *

Stevie led me backstage to the dressing rooms.

'Stevie Hunter, is that you?' one of the women called out.

'Stacey, how are you?' Stevie replied, embracing the other woman. 'It's been a long time.'

'Too long,' Stacey scolded. 'The least you could do is write.'

'I'm sorry, I've been busy,' Stevie said. 'Not that that's any excuse'

'Pshaw. Nobody's getting at you girl,' Stacey told her. 'Not seriously, anyway. We've all heard about your dance school and we think you're doing a great job. Now, introduce us to your friend. Is this one of your students?'

'Kitty attends the occasional class,' Stevie replied. 'I'm hoping some of your dedication will rub off on her.'

Stevie made all the introductions and sat chatting with her friends. They were reminiscing about old times and I felt excluded because this was a life I couldn't share. Stacey, to her credit, did try to include me in the conversation, but how could I answer her questions without compromising either myself or the school, so I sat at the edge of the group, listening in without really taking part.

'So where's Cassie?' Stevie asked eventually. 'I hear she's the star of tonight's show.'

'Our Cassie's come a long way since you left,' Stacey said. 'Poor girl's even got her own dressing room now.'

'Poor girl?' I asked Stevie.

'If you've got your own room, who can you talk to,' Stevie replied, as Stacey led us down the corridor to the star dressing room.

'I'll leave you two to get reacquainted,' Stacey told Stevie. 'Some of us have a performance to prepare for.' And she hurried off back to her own dressing room.

Stevie knocked on the door and eased it open a crack.

'Cassie,' she said. 'Remember me?'

A little dark-haired girl shot across the room like a whirlwind and flung her arms around Stevie.

'Stevie, you came,' she said. 'I'm so happy to see you.'

'It's great to see you too, Cassie,' Stevie said. 'Now let me look at you. My, you've grown, haven't you? You were only so high when I last saw you.'

Personally, I couldn't see that there was much difference between the then and now heights - even Rahne had an inch on this girl - but I kept my mouth shut.

'Cassie, I'd like you to meet Kitty, one of my pupils,' Stevie said, ushering me into the room. 'Cassie joined the company shortly before Ileft. And now she's a star.'

'Stevie's the real star,' Cassie told me. 'She took me under her wing and helped me find my feet. She's a great teacher.'

'You're preaching to the choir,' I replied.

'Stop it,' Stevie complained. 'You're making me blush.'

'That's the general idea,' I said and Cassie giggled.

'So, I hear this is your first starring role,' Stevie said. 'About time too, I say.'

Cassie shrugged.

'Maybe,' she replied, 'but I'm so nervous. I mean, what if I go out there and muck it up?'

'Then you muck it up,' Stevie said, 'but you won't know if you don't try. Besides, you're going to do fine. The old man must have faith in you and you know how hard he is to convince.'

Cassie shook her head.

'It's just cheaper to get me to do it than to employ a special guest star.'

Stevie laughed.

'Yes, that would be just like him,' she said, 'but I've got faith even if you two haven't. And when this is over the old man better start being more free with his wallet or he'll lose you to all the other companies desperate to snap you up.'

Cassie beamed.

There was a knock on the door.

'Delivery for Miss Phillips.'

Cassie opened the door, accepted the parcel and thanked the delivery guy.

'I'm sorry I can't give you a tip,' she said. There isn't exactly a place for a purse in this outfit.'

'That's quite all right, miss,' the guy said, 'but'

'Yes?'

'Well, I shouldn't really ask, but is there any chance of an autograph. My daughter's a huge fan and she'll kill me if I don't at least try.'

Cassie happily complied and the deliveryman went away star struck.

'Autographs, Cassie?' Stevie asked.

Cassie squirmed.

'They've been promoting me heavily,' she admitted. 'I'm supposed to be the next big thing, whatever that's supposed to mean.'

'And you're worried that you can't cut it on the stage,' Stevie said. 'How many people is it going to take to convince you?'

'Aren't you going to open the parcel?' I asked.

Cassie picked it up.

'I wonder who it's from,' she said, as she unwrapped the box and lifted the lid.

Then she dropped it, backing away with her hand to her mouth.

There were a dozen roses in the box. At least, I assumed that they were roses. The heads had been cut off.

* * *

'I'll be fine, just give me a minute,' Cassie said.

The dressing room was crowded, with Cassie, Stevie, Stacey, two other ballerinas and myself all crammed in there. Mr Shelby, the company manager - or 'the old man' as Stevie called him - had tried to force his way in as well, but had been shooed away by Stacey. I was standing in one corner of the room, trying to keep out of the way, while the others fussed around Cassie.

'Who would do something like that?' I asked at last.

'Someone with a sick mind,' Stacey replied. 'It happens.'

'It happens?' I said, shocked.

'It comes with the territory,' Stevie explained. 'We put ourselves out there, practically begging for attention so it's no surprise that some of that attention is of the wrong sort. I wish there was more we could do about it, but most of the time you just have to ignore it and try and deal.'

'But the police' I began.

'Will do all they can,' Stacey insisted. 'But even if they catch him there'll just be another. It's one of the less pleasant sides of celebrity.'

'You're talking as if this is normal?' I complained.

'With Cassie's profile being hyped the way it is,' Stevie said, 'the only surprise is that it hasn't happened before.'

'It has,' Cassie whispered.

'I'm sorry?' Stevie said. Everyone else went deathly silent.

'There's a letter,' Cassie explained. 'In the drawer. I-I didn't know what to do with it.'

'Let's see this letter,' Stacey said.

Dearest Cassie,

You are the star in my evening sky, the light that greets me every dawn. You are the most precious diamond in the world to me and I know that we will only be complete when we are both together. And somewhere in your heart I know that you know this too, even though you try to deny it. I have been forced to watch you for so many nights know as you debase yourself, selling your body to a crowd of strangers while you strut about on stage for their entertainment. How can they ever appreciate you for what you truly are? And how can you carry on living a lie? You are defiling everything that is special about you and I cannot allow this to continue. Please come to me and I promise to protect you from the cruel world around us. We can be happy together, if only you will open your eyes and see what I already know. If you do not come, I promise not to stop loving you. I will save your soul, whatever sacrifice it takes.

Yours with devotion,

Josh

'Oh my God,' Stacey said. 'Please tell me you've taken this to the police.'

'I-I didn't know what to do,' Cassie stammered.

'Didn't know? Cassie, are you blind?' Stacey said. 'This guy's planning to hurt you, maybe even kill you, just because he thinks he loves you.'

'Stacey,' Stevie warned.

Cassie was crying now.

'Itit doesn't say he'll hurt me,' she managed.

''Whatever sacrifice it takes'? Do you really think this sicko's talking about himself here?'

'Stacey, that's enough,' Stevie snapped.

'I'm going to get some air,' Cassie sobbed, hurrying out of the door.

'Cassie, wait,' Stacey said, making a start for the door.

Stevie blocked her path.

'I think you'd better stay here,' she said.

'I was only trying to help,' Stacey insisted. 'I'm scared for her.'

'We all are,' Stevie agreed. She looked at me and I got the meaning from her eyes.

I hurried off in pursuit of Cassie Phillips.

* * *

'Are you sure you should be out here?' I asked.

Clouds had slid across the moon and it was threatening rain.

'I dunno,' Cassie sniffed. 'I just need time to think.

'Been there. Done that, ' I agreed. I shucked off my jacket and draped it across Cassie's shoulders. My own dress might not have been particularly warm, but it was a whole lot more substantial than Cassie's outfit.

'Stacey thinks I've been stupid,' Cassie said.

'No, she doesn't.'

'She's right,' Cassie continued. 'I should have gone to the police.'

'Yeah, well, maybe,' I agreed. 'But we all make mistakes. Question is, what are you going to do now?'

'What would you do?' Cassie asked.

Me? I'd set Logan on this Josh character, but I didn't think that would be a helpful thing to say right know, so instead I said, 'It's not up to me, is it?'

Cassie sniffed and managed a weak smile.

'Guess not. Kitty, would you mind helping me get cleaned up? I've got a show to perform.'

* * *

That should have been the end of it, but I'm an X-Man and since when has life ever run smooth for any of us?

We were at the side door. Cassie was just inside, in the warm, and I was about to follow. That was when we heard the shouts.

'Cassie! Cassie, wait for me!'

'Do you know this guy?' I asked.

Cassie shook her head.

The man was not familiar to me either, but a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach told me that I did know his name.

'You're Josh, aren't you?' I said.

Cassie's face paled and she put a hand to the wall to steady herself.

Josh beamed with triumph.

'I knew you'd know me,' he said. 'Yes Cassie, it's me, Josh.'

A security guard had heard the commotion and out of the corner of my eye I could see him running over.

'Why don't you just leave her alone?' I shouted at Josh. 'Can't you see you're scaring her?'

'Scaring her?' Josh looked genuinely shocked. 'But I love her. I just want her to be happy. With me.'

'And being with you is going to make her happy?' I asked. 'I don't think so. This is what makes her happy.'

'This is destroying her,' Josh said. 'She's prostituting herself before the masses.'

'She's what? Buddy, you've got more than a handful of screws loose in that head of yours.'

'I'm here to save her,' Josh said. 'Cassie, come with me, please. Before it's too late.'

He reached out a hand towards Cassie and the security guard launched himself into him, knocking them both to the ground.

'Inside,' I ordered Cassie, shoving her through the door and hurrying after her.

'I'll save you, Cassie,' Josh shouted. 'I promise I'll save you.'

* * *

'Do you think she'll be all right?' I asked.

Stevie and I had taken our seats in the auditorium.

'She'll be fine,' Stevie assured me. 'Cassie's stronger than she looks. She may be a bit shaken up, but once she gets on that stage it'll be pure professionalism all the way. You just wait and see.'

'You sound like your talking from experience,' I remarked. 'Stevie?'

The lights dimmed and the orchestra began to play.

And then the first dancer bounded out on to the stage.

From that moment on I was captivated. Nothing else existed for me except the dancing figures down below and the music that accompanied them. It was magical seeing a story brought to life without a single word being spoken. Whatever Illyana said, I was going to have to drag her down here one of these days. One day soon.

When the music stopped, I turned away from Stevie so she would not see me drying my eyes.

'Enjoy that?' she asked.

'Well, it was all right, I suppose,' I replied.

Stevie frowned at me.

'Oh, okay, it was brilliant, better than brilliant, it was fantastic, wonderful, magical'

'Hey, slow down there, I think I get the idea,' Stevie said. 'Now do you want to pass on some of that praise to the star because I think she needs to hear it more than I do.'

With a spring in my step, I followed Stevie down to the dressing rooms. There was already a crowd of people outside, being held back by security guards. Security took one look at Stevie, however, and ushered us through.

'Cassie, you were terrific,' I said as we burst into her dressing room.

'Really?'

'Like you need to ask.'

'And to think I almost didn't go out there,' she said. 'I can't tell you how exciting it is. Terrifying, but exciting too. I'm still shaking.'

She held up a hand to demonstrate and I took it between both of my own.

'I can't believe how brave you are,' I said. 'I mean I've done some strange stuff in my time, but I could never do this.'

'What? Go out in front of all those people,' Cassie asked, 'or are we talking about Josh?'

'I meant the audience,' I said, 'but yeah, Josh too. Why not? You've certainly proved him wrong.'

'I have, haven't I,' Cassie agreed, grinning.

'I hate to break up a beautiful moment,' Stevie said, 'but the second half starts soon.'

'And you wouldn't want to miss that,' Cassie agreed. 'The best is yet to come.'

* * *

It seemed to take an age for the lights to dim and the curtain to rise on the second half. But then the music struck up once more and I was carried away to another time and place. Everything seemed to move so fast and before I knew it the performance was drawing to its conclusion. The orchestra had taken on a deeper, more melancholy tone and the lighting was colder. Then the lights went out altogether. The audience gasped in unison as a single spotlight came on and we could see Cassie alone in the centre of the stage. Collectively, we held our breath and waited.

'Cassie!' someone shouted.

I couldn't believe it. It was Josh.

He was in one of the boxes jutting out above us. And he was holding a gun.

'Cassie,' he began, his voice breaking, 'I tried to save you. We could have been happy together, if only you'd been able to listen. But I can still save your soul from thisthis whorehouse!'

He raised the gun.

'Goodbye, my love.'

I did not have time to think. I could only pray that the darkness would hide me from view as I sprinted towards the box. My mutant power allows me to walk - or in this case, run - on air and I used this gift to climb a set of invisible steps between my seat and his box as fast as my body would allow. I leaped over the railing and tackled Josh, struggling for possession of the gun. Unfortunately, enhanced strength is not one of my mutant abilities and, try as I might, I could not wrestle the gun from his grip. Josh struck me with his free hand and the impact sent me sprawling across the floor.

Josh aimed the gun once again.

'It didn't have to be like this, Cassie,' he sobbed.

He pulled the trigger.

Click.

Clickclickclickclickclick.

'Looking for these?' I asked, opening my hand to revealed the bullets I had phased from his gun moments earlier.

* * *

Security burst into the box seconds later and dragged Josh away. He was kicking and screaming the whole time, but no one was paying him any attention anymore.

I hurried backstage to discover what had become of Cassie.

She was being smothered with attention.

'Terrible,' Mr Shelby was saying. 'Absolutely terrible. And to my company, no less.'

Stacey was hovering over Cassie like a mother hen attending her chick.

'Of course we'll stop the performance, dear,' she was saying. 'You've had a terrible shock. No one would expect you to carry on under these circumstances.'

'She's right, you know,' Stevie said. 'The best thing you can do is get some rest.'

'But I want to go back on,' Cassie said.

'And that's a brave thing to say,' Stacey told her, 'but you really don't have to. No one will think any less of you.'

'You're not listening,' Cassie said. 'I'm going to finish the scene. 'That man, Josh, he didn't want me to dance. But I do. I love dancing, I love going out there and giving my all in front of an audience. And if I stay down here, whose interests does that serve?'

'But' Stacey began.

'Good for you,' I said to Cassie.

'Thanks, Kitty.' Cassie beamed, then looked pointedly at Stacey. 'Now, if you'll excuse me.'

'I still think this is a really bad idea,' Stacey muttered as she got out of the way.

'Uh, Cassie?' I began.

'Yes?'

'Could you give us five minutes to get back to our seats. I really don't want to miss this.'