DISCLAIMER: I am not so fortunate as to own any of the X-men. That privilege belongs to people with lots more money than me. Darn! I just take them out for the occasional spin around the block.
A MIDNIGHT STROLL
Kurt Wagner stood in the circle of light cast by the streetlamp, closed his luminous golden eyes and turned his face up to the sky. He let his voluminous hood drop back onto his shoulders and just…luxuriated…in the feel of the damp fog beading up on the fur of his face and neck. It felt so good to be out on a city street, not worrying about who might see him, looking in shop windows and imagining himself actually buying any of the expensive and exotic items on display in the trendy shopping district of the small resort town.
All right, it was well past midnight, he would be grounded just about forever if Margali found out he'd slipped away from the circus' camp, and the last person he'd seen on the street had been an elderly wino sleeping it off behind a dumpster in an alley. It still felt wonderful to be out in the city. He could almost see what it would be like in the morning when the stores were open and tourists and shoppers were bustling in and out of the shops, past the somewhat pretentious displays.
He paused in front of a trendy boutique and pressed his nose to the glass, picturing Mama or his big sister Liesl perusing the costly merchandise. His face split into a grin at the thought, his tail twitching within the confines of his coat. Mama would be so indignant at the prices and horrified by the revealing styles. When the family visited she still averted her eyes when the female performers came by in their skimpy costumes – although she had finally given up on covering Kurt's eyes, she reserved that indignity for his little brother Matti now. Kurt supposed that, at the ripe old age of twelve, she had finally given him up as hopelessly corrupt after almost five years of exposure to the iniquity of circus life. Laughing quietly at the image of eight year old Matti trying in vain to evade Mama's grip in order to catch a close up view of sequined bosom or fishnet clad thigh, Kurt moved on to the next circle of light and the next dark window.
The fog was so thick now that he could see nothing beyond the hazy circle of the streetlamp. It was as though everything beyond had disappeared, leaving him in a silent, misty white dream world. Usually, on these late night expeditions Kurt kept his hood pulled up, his head down and his hands shoved deep into the pockets of the ancient greatcoat he wore, just in case. Tonight, though, the fog seemed to have driven even the late night die-hards indoors and it felt so good to walk openly down even a deserted street that Kurt abandoned his usual precautions. Leaving his hood thrown recklessly back he peered through the next shop window and imagined the chaos Matti would create let loose in the high end confectioner's shop he was now facing. He briefly wished he could buy a box to send home, but then, if he got his hands on such a thing he would be hard pressed to let it pass on without pretty much inhaling the contents. His stomach rumbled in agreement and he had to admit, at least to himself, that his reputation as a walking stomach was not, after all, entirely unearned.
He was just turning to move on when he realized that the fog shrouded street had not actually been silent for the past few minutes. While he had been day-dreaming the sound of voices, muffled in the fog, had been coming closer. He froze, heart racing and head thrown back, as he tried to tell where the voices were coming from and how close they were, but the fog muffled not only sound but scent as well.
For one heartbeat he paused, torn between darting up the wall next to him or turning his hood back up and trying to just walk away. It turned out that one heartbeat was all he had. As he stood there, hands halfway to his hood, golden eyes catching the light and magnifying it, mouth wide in surprise, half a dozen burly young men staggered out of the fog and into the circle of light directly in front of him. They were obviously drunk and if he had just recovered himself more quickly he could have been gone before they had time to react. He could have been up that wall so fast they would have thought he was nothing more than a bad dream or a bad drink. If only. That was what he told himself later, anyway, when "if only" was easier to deal with than what had happened next.
While he hesitated in shock and fear one of the men lunged for him with a shout, "What the hell is that?!!" As if that had been a signal everyone began to move. Kurt turned to run, too late, and felt his left wrist caught in a beefy fist, jerking him up short. He responded with a vicious kick to the man's ribs as he twisted free and sprang to the wall, but by then the other five were on him. His heart was hammering in his chest and his breath was coming in short, panicked gasps as he was pulled up short again by a yank on the back of his coat. He tried to struggle out of the bulky garment while still maintaining his grip on the wall, but had only managed to shrug one arm free when more hands reached up and fastened themselves on his hocks and he was yanked unceremoniously down onto the cold, damp pavement.
Kurt was strong, fast and obscenely flexible, but he was still only twelve years old and once they had him on the ground he was no match for six full grown men, even if they were more than a little plastered. He continued to struggle long after it was pointless, inhuman snarls of fear and rage escaping him to mix with the obscenities and profanities of his attackers. He did manage to deliver a few telling kicks before it was all over, as well as to bite more than one of the men before they learned to avoid his razor sharp fangs. Soon enough, however, they had managed to flip him face down on the rough stone and strip away his bulky coat to allow a better grip on his arms, both of which had been twisted painfully up behind his back while a knee was planted firmly across his kidneys.
Oh this was bad, this was so bad. He'd gladly go back and confess everything to Margali and be grounded for the rest of his natural life if only this could not be happening. He never wanted to walk a city street again. He would be so happy to just stay in the safety of the circus camp.
Please God, just don't let this be happening. I won't ever sneak out again. Please, just let it be a bad dream, just a nightmare. Please. He wanted to beg these men to leave him be, to tell them he wasn't a monster or a demon, just a boy, but he could force nothing past his lips but a moan of pain. There was no rage left now, only fear, and he lay unstruggling beneath the crushing weight which held him in place.
His breath was coming in labored gasps from exertion, fear and the effects of a few heartfelt kicks to his ribs, delivered with enthusiasm by the recipient of one of his more vicious bites. His head was spinning and he could taste the salt tang of blood in his mouth, although he wasn't certain what had caused the wound which was bleeding freely down the side of his face and into his mouth. In his panic he seemed to have lost track of much of the struggle, although his internal clock told him it had taken no more than a few moments.
As he lay there with his face grinding painfully into the paving stones he began to register the conversation, such as it was, which was taking place above and behind him. He wished he hadn't.
"Jesus, Mary Mother of God, what the fuck is that thing?"
"Look at that, blue fur and a freaking tail!"
"It's some kind of monster, a demon – look at the fangs. Just tell me that thing didn't come here straight from Hell." A frantic, husky voice just above him and to his left.
"Maybe it escaped from some kind of warped animal breeding program?" Asked the man kneeling on his back, with a quick tug at his arms where he had them pinned behind him.
"No way! That thing is definitely a demon, just look at it!" The frantic voice again, rising a full octave with emotion.
"Oh shit, it bit me! What if it's poison, oh my God, I'm gonna die!" this with a choking sob.
"Oh, shut up Karl. What the Hell are we going to do with it?"
"What do you mean 'what are we going to do with it'? Idiot! Kill it obviously. I'm sure as Hell not going to take it home with me." The frantic voice was sounding positively unhinged now and Kurt felt his stomach clench around what he would have sworn was a ball of lead the size of a grapefruit.
Oh shit, it just got worse. We're not playing beat the crap out of the freak, we're playing kill the demon. He thought with a sick feeling of panic. Somehow he didn't think disarming them with self-deprecating humor was going to work, even if he could manage to get out more than the strangled moan which seemed to be the only sound his constricting throat was currently willing to emit.
Abruptly he felt a hand press into the back of his head, grinding his face into the pavement beneath him, then the grip shifted as his head was pulled up roughly by a hand twined into his thick, blue-black hair, straining his neck and sending a burst of agony through his skull from the jarring of the wound in his head.
"You hear me demon? We're sending you straight back to whatever Hell you came from, but first we need a few souvenirs." The voice was harsh and menacing and definitely didn't sound drunk anymore.
Instinctively he startled away when he heard a faint metallic 'snikt' right by his left eye and moaned again as a fresh shock of searing pain lanced through his head at the motion. As the pain eased off enough for him to focus his eyes again, he found himself staring tinto crazed, ice-blue eyes full of hate, fear and loathing. These he was not unaccustomed to, but the raging blood lust was a new twist that made his own blood run ice cold, especially when combined with the sight of a switch blade glittering just within his peripheral vision.
"You understand me, don't you devil?" the man snarled, his face twisted into an ugly rictus of hatred. "You're going to die, but first we'll need those ears of yours, and maybe the tail too. As proof. Just in case you disappear in a puff of smoke when I slit your throat for you."
Kurt felt unshed tears burning his eyes as he tried to wrap his mind around the fact that one sight of him had been enough to arouse this degree of unthinking hatred in what appeared to have been an ordinary group of friends out for a night on the town. He felt an enormous sense of pressure building somewhere behind his eyes and his stomach was twisting in terror as he felt the rough hand let loose his hair only to grab his left ear instead and saw the blade begin to shift just at the edge of his vision. He squeezed his eyes shut against the fear and the now blinding pain in his head, all the while praying, desperately, to be somewhere, anywhere but here. There was a sudden feeling as of something…shifting…in his head, a moment of intense cold, or heat, he wasn't sure which, and a strange smell of brimstone and then the pain and nausea slammed down again tenfold and he knew no more.
It was sunlight burning through his eyelids that finally woke him. He had a brief moment of irritation that he'd slept late enough for the sun to wake him, then stifled a moan as returning pain jumpstarted returning consciousness. Kurt was lying on his side on something hard, uneven and uncomfortable; his head felt as though it were in imminent danger of splitting wide open, every breath was a burning pain and from the smell he didn't think he wanted to open his eyes even if he could, other than that…
His hands flew up to his head and, ignoring the protest from his abused chest and shoulders, clutched frantically at his ears then reached back to grasp his tail. Hot tears stung his eyes and ran unheeded down his face as he curled up into a tight ball, arms wrapped tight around his head and tail clutched in his hands, and began to sob uncontrollably.
Crying made every pain exponentially worse, but he just couldn't stop. He hurt, he had no idea where he was, and he wanted desperately to go home, but at least he was still in possession of all his relevant bits and the relief was enough to overwhelm all the nausea, pain and fear, at least for the moment.
Kurt's hiccoughing sobs shuddered to an abrupt halt as he suddenly realized that it must be broad daylight, he was out in the open and he had no idea where, exactly, he was. Now that he was listening he could hear crowd noises, but they were distant and muffled and seemed to be coming from somewhere below him. He obviously was not anywhere in public view or he would not have wakened undisturbed. He didn't know how he'd gotten away from his attackers last night, but obviously he had or he wouldn't have woken up at all. Wherever he was he didn't appear to be in immediate danger – he was not bound and he could not hear, smell or otherwise sense anyone near him at all. There was only the awareness of being outside, on a hard, uneven surface and the distant sound of a crowd.
He steeled himself against the pain and then cautiously cracked one eye open. He gasped as bright sunlight lanced directly into his head like a knife...a knife... No. No knives here.
Gradually, through tears of pain, the world began to swim back into focus. What he could see from this vantage didn't really tell him anything though. Gritting his teeth he opened the other eye and then, fighting a stabbing pain in his gut and clutching at his battered ribs he managed to heave himself into a sitting position.
Once his vision cleared again he could see that he was sitting in what could only be a Church belfry. It was a small stone 'room', open to the sky above low walls with a steeply pitched wooden ceiling above. Hanging from the center of said ceiling was one very large, very ancient bronze bell, its rope trailing down through a large, square hole in the center of the small room's floor to whatever space below was used by the bellringer. He had been lying half on and half off what appeared to be the slightly raised trapdoor entrance to the belfry.
As he looked around in mute shock his only coherent thought was, thank God it isn't Sunday, I would not want to wake up to that bell. His next thought, as he leaned to peer down through the hole where the bellrope disappeared, was, and thank God I didn't roll over in my sleep! It was a very, very long way down.
Leaning back upright, he sat for a moment, cradling his pounding head in his hands and trying to catch his breath past the pain in his chest.
Please, don't let them be broken. I can't have broken ribs, how will I perform? Please don't let me have screwed up the act, he thought in mild panic.
It was easier to worry about whether or not he'd be in trouble for hurting himself when he got back than it was to worry about exactly where he was, how he'd gotten there and how he was going to get back to camp. From the angle of the sun and the workings of his internal clock, he was sure it was at least ten in the morning, and he'd have been missed before first light when he failed to show up for the aerial team's morning run through.
With a groan Kurt managed stagger to his feet. He stood there gasping in pain as his head spun and his stomach clenched.
I will not be sick, I will not be sick. Oh God! He doubled over in agony as his stomach voided itself of what little it had left.
So much for mind over matter, he thought bitterly as he crouched, elbows on knees, gasping for breath. He ran an arm across his mouth in an effort to scrub away the taste and feel of vomit and was shocked to see it come away bloody. A little probing confirmed that his nose was bleeding and, from the crunchy feel of the fur on his face and neck, probably had bled copiously at some point in the recent past as well.
"Shit," he muttered, pinching his nose tightly in an effort to stop, or at least slow, the bleeding. One more problem, and he still didn't know exactly where he was or how he got there. Thinking about it, it seemed more than a little ironic that had found shelter in a house of God from men trying to kill him because they thought him an agent of the devil.
He straigtened carefully and half walked, half staggered towards the low wall surrounding the small 'room', crouching low just short of his destination. The crowd noises that had faded into the background of his consciousness were louder now as he peered cautiously over the edge and down to the street below.
He was very careful to keep his head low and hopefully out of sight. Even without last night's 'reminder' of just how dangerous it was to let humans see him he would have been as cautious. He remembered all too well the last time he had been spotted peering down on a city street in daylight and he didn't particularly want to re-experience the thrill of being chased into the countryside by a panicked mob. As a child of five he actually had considered the experience something of a thrill, at least until someone with an ancient blunderbuss had managed to wing him. Now, the memory just brought another wave of nausea roiling to the surface and left him crouched, gasping, behind the wall as he gripped his aching chest and tried to catch his breath again. Even healthy the prospect of such a chase sickened him, in his current condition it was not an option.
Trying again, Kurt rose cautiously from his crouch and peered over the low wall. It took him a moment to focus his eyes at distance, but eventually he could make out the small town square far below. He was less than a hundred yards from where he'd stood when everything had gone pear shaped the night before. The little square was awash with people going briskly about their business, locals and tourists alike bustling in and out of the same trendy shops he had been peeking into what seemed like a lifetime ago. If he'd had the energy to care, he might have been pleased by how similar the scene was to the fantasies he'd entertained the night before. As it was he simply allowed himself to sink down against the cool stone of the wall he'd been leaning on as he tried to wrap his mind around his current predicament.
Now I know where I am, but how the hell did I get here? he thought in desperation. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. He glanced apologetically skyward. It's better by far than staying where I was would have been. His mind skittered in a panic away from thoughts of what had been about to happen as he fought a surge of nausea that had nothing to do with his physical condition.
Okay, forget how I got here for now, how I get back to camp is a little higher on the priority list.
Der Jahrmarkt was set up just outside of town, no more than a mile and a half from where he sat right now, but for his purposes it might as well be on the dark side of the moon. He might have risked making the trip in daylight if he'd had his greatcoat to hide in, but that had disappeared in the struggle last night. And besides, after last night, he seriously doubted he could bring himself to walk a street in daylight even if his life depended on it, no matter how well hidden he might be. The very thought had his stomach clenching violently in protest.
He could wait until dark, but that would mean an entire day away from camp, not to mention missing tonight's performance. His absence for such a long period would doubtless cause a panic among the caravans as well as compelling Margali to notify his parents of his disappearance. If things got that out of hand there would be no hope of keeping last night's confrontation to himself and there was no way Kurt wanted anyone else to know what had happened.
I am in a house of God, he thought finally. Perhaps it wouldn't go amiss to request a little assistance with this.
Kurt pushed himself back to his feet, finding that it was easier now. Though his head still hurt, the vertigo was almost gone and his stomach only emitted mild protests at his change of position. Even his ribs weren't paining him quite as much, and he dared to hope that they were only badly bruised, rather than broken.
Bending down, he grabbed the metal handle on the small trap door and pulled it open revealing a narrow old staircase hugging the old stone walls of the belfry. It was dark, the only light was what filtered in from the rope hole and a few very narrow windows set at intervals in the bell tower's walls, but that wouldn't be an issue. He could see almost as well in full dark as in daylight, so after only a moment's hesitation he stepped cautiously down onto the first step and began to descend, pulling the trap door closed again behind him.
He went slowly, staying close to the wall as there was no rail and he was still somewhat less than steady on his feet. Still, it only took him a few moments to reach the the bottom of the stairs, where the bell rope terminated and where the bell ringer would stand to call the congregation to services on Sunday. Kurt paused, looking at the door before him, nerving himself to open it. Was it safe? Would there be anyone there at this time on a Friday morning?
He heard no sounds from beyond either door. It was probably well past morning Mass and a good two or more hours before afternoon Mass, if they had one here. There was a fair chance that the Church would actually be empty, unless it was a haunt of tourists. But in all the years the circus had stopped here, he didn't recall ever hearing anything about the local church. Perhaps it wasn't sufficiently historic to attract tourist attention? He would simply have to hope.
He gently pushed the battered old door open, glad that the hinges were at least well oiled, and found himself looking into the narthex of the tiny church. The only light at this hour was from sunlight streaming through the brilliant panes of ancient stained glass and the small, empty foyer was filled with all the muted colors of the rainbow. Kurt paused again, holding his breath and listening for any signs of occupation. Hearing nothing he stepped to the font of holy water by the open door into the sanctuary. He quickly dipped his fingers and, entering the nave, he crossed himself and genuflected reverently to the Presence in the chancel.
He let his eyes rove quickly across the tiny old church until they settled on a small oratory recessed into the wall on the gospel side of the nave. Looking nervously around the still empty sanctuary, he moved quickly to the tiny room and found, as he'd expected a prie dieu before a statue of the Virgin surrounded by a sea of votives. Stepping into the dim space, he quickly lit one of the small candles and, pulling his rosary out of the jeans pocket he usually had it stashed in, settled in to pray for guidance.
Kurt didn't know exactly what if was he was hoping...praying...for, so rather than going into specifics he let the familiar cadence of the rosary settle over him. The Apostles Creed, Pater Noster, Hail Mary, Glory Be... The well worn beads slipped through his fingers as the well worn words slipped from his lips. Hardly more than a whisper, but carrying all the reverence his twelve years could muster. His body still ached, and he found himself leaning more and more against the shelf of the prie dieu, trying to take the strain from his protesting ribs and back, but as he knelt there he felt the turmoil of the night before begin to dissipate, replaced by the profound peace of this place.
The lingering perfume of incense from the mornings mass wafted over him and soothed him body and soul. He had so rarely been within a church in his short life and always like this - furtive, clandestine, fearing discovery - yet still it brought him peace. He did not know how he'd come here, but it must mean something that he'd found his refuge in God's house.
He was so absorbed in the rhythm of his prayers and the tranquility of the place that he never heard the quiet footsteps in the sanctuary beyond. Heard nothing, in fact, until a warm voice in the dimness behind him said, apologetically, "forgive me my son, I did not see you. My old eyes aren't what they once were."
With a startled cry Kurt threw himself into the darkness in the far corner of the tiny oratory, behind and to the left of the Blessed Virgin's statue. He crouched low, clutching at his chest in agony as his head began to throb again. He couldn't believe he had let himself be discovered again.
The old priest who had come upon him had stepped back in surprise at Kurt's sudden flight and now the boy peered warily up at him from behind his raised hands. Trying to hide the golden glow of his eyes and waiting for the man's wrath to descend on him. He was prepared for just about anything - a tirade on God's wrath at his desecration of consecrated ground, an attempted exorcism, even a straightforward shriek of fear followed by flight. He was taken totally by surprise when the frail old man stepped forward and, bending down, retrieved Kurt's rosary from where he'd dropped it by the prie dieu in his flight.
"I believe you dropped this my son," he said in the same calm, warm voice he'd used before. "Please, there is nothing to fear in God's house. Come, my child, take it. I promise I don't bite."
Kurt's eyes widened in shock as the man approached him, realizing that in the dimness he mustn't have seen him. The priest simply thought him timid and startled by his unannounced presence.
Oh, this can not end well, he thought in rising panic.
"Please Father," he managed to squeak out past the lump in his throat and the searing pain in his chest. "Please, don't come any closer. I don't want to frighten you." He was ashamed to feel tears beginning to trace their way down the fur of his cheeks as the man paused, just beyond arm's reach.
"You don't want to frighten me? And here I thought it was I who had done the frightening." Still looking cautiously from beneath his hands, Kurt could see the humor in the old man's eyes, as well as hear it in his voice. He cringed farther back into his corner as the priest took a tentative step closer, hissing in pain as he doubled himself over his injured ribs.
"Child, are you injured? Come now, I promise I won't hurt you. Come out into the light so I can see you better," and then he was stepping forward, reaching out a hand.
"No! Please, don't! Please, Father." His voice was a strangled moan as he threw both hands over his head and buried his face against his knees, unwilling to see the look of revulsion he knew would replace concern on the elderly priest's kindly visage as soon as he saw what was really crouching before him.
Why God? Why did you bring me here? Why to this?
He felt a strong but gentle hand clasp firmly about his wrist and begin to tug before stopping abruptly. He stifled a moan as he heard a gasp and then the hand pulled abruptly away. He steeled himself for the tirade which would surely come now and was entirely unprepared when two hands reached out to gently pull at his arms where they were crossed over his head, pushing them down until they were around his knees. There was another quiet intake of breath from the man in front of him and from its direction Kurt realized that the priest had crouched down in front of him. While one hand gently but firmly held his arms down out of the way, the other reached out and, oh so tentatively, touched Kurt's cheek. There was another startled intake of breath and Kurt couldn't stifle his answering moan of fear, but this time the hand didn't retreat. Instead it slid hesitantly down to his chin and then with a firm but gentle pressure the man was raising Kurt's head to peer into his face.
"What are you my child?" he asked in a tone of awe, slightly tinged with fear. "What has God sent to me?"
Kurt couldn't bring himself to open his eyes and meet the man's gaze. He couldn't believe that the old priest was actually touching him, looking at him and had not run screaming either in terror or rage. He held his breath, head throbbing, chest protesting in agony at his awkward position, and awaited the explosion that never came.
After what seemed an endless moment the hand shifted from his chin to wipe gently at the tears still tracing their way down the damp fur of his cheeks. "Why do you cry child? I promise no harm shall come to you. There is nothing to fear in God's house."
With those amazing, unexpected words Kurt's golden eyes shot open to meet warm brown eyes only inches from his own. There was no revulsion or horror there, no hatred or anger. Certainly there was some fear, but it was tempered with concern and Kurt realized that this frail old man saw not a demon crouching before him but a child. An odd and disturbing child perhaps, but a child none the less.
The relief was almost overwhelming and as he broke down in wracking sobs the most amazing thing of all happened. He felt a pair of arms slip firmly around his shoulders and he was bundled carefully up against a warm, broad chest and...held...held while he cried as though he could never stop. And it was a very long time before he did.