A/N: I'm baaaack! Wow, I seriously thought this story was a goner until Mom made me watch X2 again last night. I wrote this entire chapter in the time between midnight and 5 a.m. Dontcha just love weekends? Anyway, I hope -- hope -- that the last two chapter will come out as easily as this one did. This is by far the longest chapter in this story.
IV. Between Myself
... couldn't catch an updraft, though. I think Sean deafened a few dogs when he came down low.
Warren, you know better than that!
He winced. he mumbled.
Ororo sighed, though she was smiling inwardly. Any students with the ability to fly were always sent straight to her; for that reason, she, Warren Worthington and Sean Cassidy had developed a little miniature clique of airborne mutants. The traditional distance between teacher and students was hard to keep up when only three people in the whole school had a common gift, especially one like flying. No one else could possibly understand what it felt like -- and besides, they wouldn't be even marginally interested in deep discussions of weather patterns and wing care.
At the moment, Warren was confessing to challenging Sean to an airborne race that had brought them dangerously close to a suburban neighborhood. Ororo didn't like to think about the students getting that far away from the school, but then again, it wasn't as if they were bound here.
She sighed again, shook her head, and told Warren that as long no one was injured, everything would be fine. She hoped he heard the concern and disappointment in her voice; she didn't like to scold, but she'd do it if she had to.
No need. Warren was a good kid, and he didn't miss much. Sean was a little harder to manage, but at least he followed orders when he could see sense or necessity in them.
From her perch on her desk, Ororo surveyed her classroom, allowing herself a small grin as she did so. Her room was huge, with an arched cathedral-like ceiling, and plants grew in every spare inch of open space. The Professor never objected to her jungle classroom, and neither did the students; it was too beautiful a place to dislike. Ivy crept up the walls, ten-foot-tall bamboo plants looked almost like pillars where they stood in the corners, and African violets trailed over the sides of all the other plants' pots, splashing the ground level of the room with purple and white. Ororo loved anything that grew, and could always create the perfect microclimate for even the most out-of-place plants.
Storm turned her gaze away from the plants and to the students. Though it was nearly 5 o'clock and all classes were out for the day, a lot of the kids liked to come do their homework in Ororo's classroom. It was open enough that it felt almost like a study hall or a library: It was one of those sorts of rooms where, no matter how many people were already in it, a person could find an isolated spot almost immediately. It was great for those kids who couldn't read in the ambient noise of a common room, the chatter of a dorm, or the shouts of the courtyard. The formal garden was another good, quiet place; unfortunately, though, boxwoods and roses generally don't serve well as writing desks.
Jubilation Lee was reading a thick book and taking occasional notes -- The Once and Future King, if Ororo wasn't mistaken. It was the Professor's latest reading assignment, so the library copies of the book had been spread thin recently. Bobby Drake was in the farthest corner of the room, wearing headphones and sculpting a six-inch-tall bird out of ice. He accidentally chipped off one wingtip, and though it would have been simple enough for him to fix, he instead chose to grimace and curse, breaking the entire thing down into shavings. He sat despondently, chin on his folded arms, watching the pile of ice chips slowly melting onto the tabletop.
A sudden, light knock on the door startled Ororo. Quite a few of the kids looked up as well, curious -- people didn't usually knock on Storm's door, they just walked in. It was a very public classroom as classrooms went.
Ororo was just swinging her legs off the desk and opening her mouth to call out It's open when Kitty Pryde, who was doing her physics work at a table just to one side of the door, dodged outside to see who the caller was. As usual, she ignored the door handle entirely and phased right through the wall. Ororo rolled her eyes.
There was a muffled yelp and apology from the other side of the door, followed by an exchange no one could quite make out. Almost everyone was watching the door half-interestedly now, except for Bobby, who hadn't heard anything through his headphones. Ororo walked to the door in the few seconds' quiet, and had just reached out a hand for the knob when the door opened of its own accord.
Kitty blinked at Ororo, opening her mouth wordlessly. she said eloquently.
Ororo ignored Kitty and smiled at the person behind her. Hey, Kurt, she said.
He was looking more jittery than she'd ever seen him. Kitty's sudden appearance probably hadn't helped his nerves.
This is a bad time? he asked, raising a hand to his neck.
Of course not, Ororo replied. Come on in. She held the door open for both of them, but put a hand on Kitty's shoulder when she took a step forward. Kitty, will you please stop running through things without looking?
Sorry, Storm, said Kitty unapologetically. Um... who's... she added in a lower voice. Ororo brushed her tone aside.
Kurt, this is Kitty Pryde, she said by way of introduction. Kitty, Kurt Wagner. Kitty gave Kurt an uncertain smile.
An instant murmur arose when Kurt walked into the room. Jubilee blinked, startled, and sparks fizzed and popped around her fingers, burning little scorch marks onto her book's spine.
In a moment of pure inspiration, Ororo nudged Kurt and said, Hey, there's someone you ought to meet. He gave a her a questioning look, but she just smiled and led him to the window where Warren was staring out at the courtyard as if trying to spot something. Kurt's eyes widened slightly when he saw the boy's back.
Ororo tapped Warren on the shoulder. Wh -- oh, hi... um, said Warren, startled, looking quickly between Storm and Kurt.
Warren, I'd like you to meet Kurt Wagner. You know, I told you and Sean about Alkali Lake... Kurt saved Rogue's life.
Warren blinked, staring at Kurt. Yeah, I know... I'm sorry, you look familiar.
Something clicked in Warren's memory. You're the assassin! There was a sketch in the papers...
Kurt sighed. Was this how he was going to be recognized from now on? It was not intentional, he said carefully. I was being controlled.
Yeah, Professor Xavier mentioned that, Warren replied immediately, unfazed.
Kurt was somewhat taken aback. Herr Professor has spoken of me?
said Warren. He told us most of what went on after the soldiers raided the mansion.
said Warren, carefully leaning back on the windowsill, ...don't mean to pry, but why haven't we seen you before now?
Kurt looked down. It is... a little complicated.
If you think anyone here holds a grudge about that attack on the President, we don't, Warren said quickly. I mean, you didn't start this war, Stryker did. And since the President's speech, most humans know it wasn't your fault, too. You watched the speech, didn't you?
Kurt's original apprehension and misconceptions of the rest of mutant-kind were being constantly challenged by this angelic teen's banter. There was a split-second pause before Kurt gathered his wits to reply, Ja -- well, most of it.
Yeah. Jones taped it. Warren shifted awkwardly and glanced at Ororo, who gave him a small smile and crossed her arms, as if to say Work this one out yourself.' His eyes flickered over Kurt's tail and ears before he forced them back to the older man's face. So. Um. ...Nice tail.
I could say the same, Kurt replied. You can fly, then, I assume?
Warren shrugged. I'm not the only airborne mutant. It's nothing special. I mean, I would hate for my mutation to be totally unique -- there wouldn't be anyone I could relate to. That would suck.
Kurt glanced down, feeling the truth of that statement.
Warren realized his mistake almost immediately. Um -- sorry, I didn't mean it that way...
No offense taken, Kurt said softly.
Warren shifted again and screwed his face up slightly, looking like he was trying to concentrate on keeping his balance on unsteady ground. Both of them were at a loss, searching for something to say; but Ororo had walked back to her desk quite casually, as if nothing had happened, and left the two to fend for themselves. The other people scattered throughout the room were trying to look busy with their work, but a lot of half-hidden sideways glances, upside-down books, and unmoving pencils were dead giveaways of their interest in the visitor.
A thought suddenly dawned on Warren. he said. So, the Professor said you were in the circus?
Kurt grinned despite himself, and Warren was extremely careful not to show any reaction at the sight of his fangs. he replied. Since childhood.
So, what did you do, exactly....? Warren threaded his way around the word sideshow,' certain that it wouldn't be taken well.
Kurt's smile widened, and Warren decided that the expression suited him, despite the fangs. I was an acrobat, a trapeze artist. It is much like flying... so perhaps we aren't so different, ja?
As much as his appearance spoke otherwise, Warren couldn't help but begin to like this soft-voiced demon. He seemed honest enough, at least. he said aloud. I mean, you can't be completely alone in everything. I'm the only mutant with wings but others can still fly, right? He smiled, his uncertainly fading a little.
What... what is it like? Kurt asked, trying to stay on equal ground with Warren.
Warren shrugged, ruffling his feathers. People ask me that a lot, you know... but I can't really say. I don't really remember what it felt like before the wings grew in, so I can't make a comparison.
You weren't born with them?
Nah. Well, sort of, maybe, said Warren, absently plucking out a loose feather and twirling it between his fingers. I had these strange little bone protrusions on my shoulderblades from birth, but the doctors always said it was just an anomaly... like a vestigial tail. When I was about six or seven, the spurs started to grow. Nobody could figure out what to do about it -- I had doctors completely bewildered. Muscles that didn't exist started growing around the bone spurs, and they just kept on growing outwards, until they stuck six inches out of my back and the people who analyzed my X-rays finally realized they were jointed, and not just plain knobs of bone. By the time I was nine, I had full-fledged wings.
Kurt was a little awed at hearing another mutant's story. His mind stuttered for a second before giving him anything useful to say. He made a casual gesture and replied, The only thing late in coming about me was my power. I was this color from birth, or so I'm told.
Um. So, you have a power? I mean, I thought your mutation was just physical.
Nein. I teleport.
That really piqued Warren's interest -- he'd never heard of anyone with such a power before, although he'd thought it must exist somewhere.
Kurt fidgeted, and finally asked the question he'd been thinking for the last minute. I wondered... are you often... do people ever mistake you for an angel?
Warren laughed aloud at that. he said after a moment, but -- always. My codename here is Angel. He gestured vaguely at the building around them. My parents thought I really was one for a long time. Professor X explained everything, though. I think Mom was a little disappointed, really. That I was just a mutant. He paused.
Kurt shook his head dismissively. No reason.
Warren pursued the subject anyway. So, people think you're a demon a lot, then?
Kurt nodded unhappily, and said, slightly longingly, It must be nice, that if people mistake you for something else, it is always something inherently good.
said Warren, frowning a little, it's not. The sorts who jump to conclusions like that never want to know me -- they want me to take their messages to God, or some crud like that. It's just the same as with regular teen life -- as in, if you've got good looks, everyone assumes you have no brains, but if you've got acne and glasses, everyone assumes you're a tactless computer nerd -- only to a higher degree. Mutations are just resetting the old stereotypes. Now, people assume that an ugly mutation makes a bad mutant, where a normal-looking mutant is more likely to be good. Actually, my wings scare more people than they make worship me. It's annoying either way.
Kurt felt something brittle snap inside him as Warren spoke. To hear the truth, so blunt and so naive, coming from the mouth of an angel -- it was too much. No... not an angel. A fellow mutant -- maybe even a friend, if given time. Maybe Warren knew how deeply his words touched Kurt and maybe he didn't, but either way, Kurt could feel the shell he'd created breaking down like a burned paper mask flaking away into ash -- and he could feel something else, too, something new burning up from beneath; the fire that had burned the old mask away.
Laughter bubbled up from somewhere deep in his gut, and for once he didn't try to stop it. he gasped between convulsions that were almost more sobs than laughs. I have not heard someone speak so plainly in a long while.
Warren grinned appreciatively and joined in with a little cheerful laughter of his own. It seemed to be infectious -- a few of the kids who had been watching them sidelong were grinning now, and even Storm looked pleased at the results of her matchmaking skills.
Finally Kurt reigned in his wayward emotions and choked back the mirth that still wanted to escape. He didn't think he'd ever felt so free in his life, and he wondered briefly how on earth he'd ever managed to feel unwelcome in this place.
Kurt said again, more seriously this time. I must admit that I had been feeling... lost. Speaking about these things helps, ja. He grinned that impish grin that used to send so many people running for cover.
Warren had gotten used to the fangs by now -- he didn't even flinch. He knew Kurt's mind better than the teleporter thought he did -- Warren had been there, after all; been through the misgivings and the doubt and the mistaken identities, the whole comedy-of-errors spheil. He knew why this talk was so strange and so freeing for Kurt, because he'd had the exact same conversation with Storm... the very first time he'd ever talked to another mutant about flight.
I understand, was all Warren said out loud -- his expression said the rest. The last of Kurt's apprehension vanished like snowflakes in flame.
Kurt repeated softly, almost to himself.
Warren gestured vaguely with one hand, as if to say, That's done now, don't worry about it, can we start over? Kurt smiled his assent. Enough about me, then, Warren said out loud, leaning forward from the windowsill. I want to hear more about your power. I've always thought teleportation would be way more handy than flight, huh? He laughed.
Kurt shrugged, a little flattered despite himself. It's nothing, really. It makes other people feel ill when I take them with me. And no one likes the smell.
Can I see? Warren asked anyway, curiosity overcoming propriety.
Kurt flashed that impish grin -- that circus grin, fanged and shadowed but still unmistakably clownish -- and vanished in the blink of an eye. Tendrils of sulfurous blue smoke drifted idly in his wake. The implosion of air sounded like a sharp, loud clap in the murmuring noise of the study hall.
All pretense of study was instantly forgotten -- everyone dropped what they were doing and stared agape at the place where Kurt had been. Amazed whispers quickly turned into low-level chatter, every pair of eyes searching for the demon-mutant and none seeming to be able to find him. Storm watched this unfolding with mild concern -- but her worry quickly vanished when she saw what Kurt was doing.
The teleporter called out something mocking in guttural German that seemed to echo around the room. Storm and Warren instantly knew where he was from the location of his voice, high in the ivy-draped rafters of the room, but the younger kids didn't get it -- they thought he was anywhere and everywhere. Eyes widened in stunned fear, and a few kids turned to Ororo as if imploring her for help, should the blue man turn out to be bad. But she just smiled at them and put a finger to her lips as if sharing a great secret, so they relaxed a little and listened to Kurt's harsh voice instead.
Another clap of displaced air sounded from the general area of the roof, and there was a brief second of total silence as the murmurs stopped and the adults held their breath.
Then, an explosion of motion -- blue whirls and blurs danced through the room, mixing the scent of sulfur with the wild jasmine that bloomed in the corners. Kids' ears were tweaked, hair mussed, shoelaces untied, all before anyone had a chance to blink. Some shrieked, but it turned into laughter within seconds as unnerving taps on the back became deft tickles to the sides -- Kurt was toying with them like a stage magician, and most of them knew it.
What was more, they knew that it was great.
Then the blue blur left their midst and returned to the ceiling. The smoke cleared and Kurt hung there upside down, tail wrapped around the center rafter, framed with hanging vines and looking around with devilish feigned innocence. He called out something that sounded like a question in German -- as if on cue, kids started laughing and applauding. Apparently there was no language barrier in the theater.
Warren laughed, but he didn't join in the clapping until Kurt did something he hadn't expected -- no one had expected. No one could predict the way Kurt moved, because no one else had a prehensile tail, and they couldn't think around the tactical corner presented by the idea of having a fifth limb just as useful as any arm or leg.
He started performing.
Kurt, high above his audience, was feeling drowsy and exhilarated at the same time -- drunk on the act. He hadn't meant to do more than a few acrobatic tricks, but the attention of so many children had simply begged for a joke or two, and now -- now he was in center stage. Now he had to deliver a show, or else what was the point of gaining himself an audience in the first place?
So he started his old routine, a little rusty from underuse and a little hindered by the different layout of Storm's classroom from a big top or a theater building, but magnificent all the same. He even made do without a trapeze, using the toughest strands of ivy to support his weight instead. He regained the rhythm of it with barely a thought, moving so fast that he was gone from a place as soon as a onlooker glanced there; he flexed his inhuman fingers and prehensile toes, and for the first time in weeks, he remembered exactly why he loved this body.
It was like flying, really.
After about ten minutes, Kurt ended the show with a fall from the highest rafter, making all the children gasp and step forward in fear -- it looked like he had lost his balance and toppled over, but that was the idea. Timing his fall perfectly, Kurt twisted in midair and did a triple somersault before he hit the floor, absorbing the shock by falling into a low crouch and balancing himself with a tightly coiled tail.
Instant cheering broke out -- Kurt stood up, slightly out of breath, and bowed deeply to his audience.
Ororo and Warren smiled at him over the heads of the children who were now crowding around to talk to him; Kurt smiled back, laughing as he realized that tears had been streaking down his cheeks for the entire performance. He wiped them away and crouched down to speak face-to-face with the children.
The paper mask was gone, and the vulnerability had all been in his imagination. He realized that now. And now, being hugged by a laughing young mutant girl with rainbow streaks in her hair, the most repulsive thing he could imagine would be to lose his natural form to the forced illusion of a human body.
Several days later, evening found Ororo wandering the halls of the mansion with no real destination in mind. Bobby wasn't doing well. The loss of John had hit him hard, and it was only getting worse. Not to mention the fact that Jean's absence was becoming steadily more evident every day... it was so hard to pretend that things weren't different; so hard to believe that they were the saviors of the world when they couldn't even save one woman from herself.
Kurt was the brightest point of Ororo's day now -- indeed, nearly everyone's days. To all outward appearances, he seemed to have warmed up to Xavier's School in way that took most new arrivals months. He played with the younger children, put on performances for the older teens, and was well-liked by everyone. He was an actor, all right; his performer's nature loved living in a school and having a (literally) captive audience.
She wasn't sure how he was doing underneath the facade, though. Children were one thing -- he didn't hesitate around them. But he still hadn't asserted himself to any of the adults. He avoided them, in fact; whenever they did end up speaking, he would always defer to them and get away as soon as possible. She didn't blame him... it was much easier to win the hearts of children than the minds of adults.
Storm found herself outside the door of the Professor's office -- maybe she'd come here intentionally on some subconscious level. Stepping forward, she gave a light knock and barely waited for the Professor's usual greeting before opening the door.
He looked up from the book he was reading and smiled at her. She gave him a brief, troubled smile in return and turned to shut the door.
Something's bothering you, Ororo? the Professor asked mildly, putting a marker in his book and setting it on the desk.
She sighed and leaned against the doorframe. Yes, I suppose. She fell silent, biting her lip slightly.
I could read your mind, but I'd prefer it if you told me yourself, the Professor joked gently. Storm smiled more honestly at that.
Sir, I've been giving a lot of thought to Kurt and that image inducer you proposed to him, she said finally. I think he has gotten to a certain level of... ignoring reality, now. He won't even speak to me for long periods of time -- he just stays with the children. Maybe with the image inducer he could answer a few questions he still has about himself. She shrugged and sighed, looking out the window at the clouds. I only want him to feel at home here.
At home in his own skin, you mean? the Professor said, and she nodded. To tell you the truth, Storm, I've had the device completed for three days now. I'm waiting for Kurt to ask for it himself... if I give it to him, there will always be the feeling that I pushed it on him. If he comes for it, he must take full responsibility for his own choices -- and those choices are what he needs to make now, to decide whether or not he can live with himself.
Storm couldn't think of a response to that. She toyed with the thought of telling Kurt that the image inducer was ready, but she dismissed it almost as soon as it came up -- the Professor was right.
Kurt needed to make his own choice now.