The room Kurt chose was relatively small, equipped with the necessities and little more. A bed, one unadorned wooden chair, one table. Kurt flicked on the light as they entered. Mr. Brandon tossed his blazer on the head of the bed and flopped onto the mattress corner directly opposite. Kurt remained where he was until Mr. Brandon impatiently gestured to the remaining chair.
"I won't bite," the man said. "Unlike Jennifer."
Kurt took pains to sit correctly in the chair, instead of turning it around or perching on the edge. Mr. Brandon opened his mouth to speak, and his cell phone rang. Mildly impressed, he looked back at his blazer and pulled the device from an inside pocket.
"That was fast," he muttered, looking at the return number.
No sooner than he had opened the line than Mrs. Brandon's voice shrieked loudly enough for Kurt to hear. "You son of a bitch! Just what the hell do you think you're doing!"
Brandon punched the volume control, lowering his wife's voice to a tolerable, private level, then placed the phone to his ear. He waited for several seconds, eyes rolled, apparently listening to her rant.
"All I did was freeze the common funds, Jenny," he said calmly. "I can't get at it, you can't get at it. You've still got full access to yours. It's completely legal, and you know it." Pause. His eyes narrowed, and his voice grew dangerously soft. "Don't do that. You won't like the results." Pause. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe telling the SEC about some of those questionable trades you've been doing for the past few years." Pause. "Dead serious, woman. You drag Regis into court, and I'll make sure you go to jail first." He gave a sneering smile. "Oh, and who are the police going to believe? A hysterical woman who just physically assaulted her husband, or the headmaster? Besides, he doesn't have a warrant out for his arrest anymore. That was dropped last year. It was in all the papers." Pause. "No, this is a civil case. You know it, I know it." Pause. He rubbed his temple. "Well, if you're so sure, why don't you try it? See how far you'll get? I've already contacted Channels, Meredith, and Buldin. They're filing it all now as we speak. You've wanted one for years, and now you're going to get it." Pause. "Good luck, bitch, they're changing the locks."
He terminated the call, switched the phone off with a flick of his thumb, then casually tossed it on his blazer again. He ran a hand through his hair and looked off at a wall.
"Worst day of my God damned life," he mumbled. The weary man looked back at Kurt. "You mind if I call you Kurt?"
"Not at all," Kurt responded.
He sighed. "Kurt, I'm going to lay it on the line. I'm a piss-poor father. I know it. I keep meaning to spend more time with my son, and it keeps getting waylaid by some emergency or another. At least I admit it. Jenny seems to think she's the best thing since June Cleaver, and she's home less often than I am.
"Regis is a smart kid. He knew we were having troubles before we sent him to this institute, but he kept holding out hope that we'd fix things up. I thought Xavier's school could help all three of us that way. Regis would get the support and mentorship he needed, and Jenny and I could spend some time together and work things out without worrying about him. It didn't turn out that way, though, and I'll be God damned if I'm going to let her drag Regis into a custody battle."
Mr. Brandon's blaspheming was starting to get on Kurt's nerves, but he suppressed his discomfort. He stayed where he was, frozen to his chair, his tail wrapped around the back leg so tightly that it was starting to lose circulation. Any wrong move on his part, and this whole situation could explode. He couldn't do that to Regis.
"The thing is, Regis has really bonded to you," Mr. Brandon went on. "He talked about you over the holidays. He's never had that kind of a bond with any of his teachers." He gave a wry, sad smile. "I know he never had it with me. Jenny's been getting more and more jealous of it. She kept dropping hints that she thought it wasn't healthy for a grown man to be so 'close' to a young boy."
Kurt sucked in a startled breath. "Surely she was not suggesting…."
Louis' face screwed up in an expression of utter contempt. "She was suggesting it in spades. She told me all the way to the school that if she found anything screwy she was dragging Regis away right then and there. If you hadn't panicked her, she would have invented a huge case that you and Regis were … well, I don't think I need to go all the way there, do I? She made you into a demon before she got here."
"How could she think I would do such a horrible thing?" Kurt asked, appalled. "How could she think Herr Professor would let that happen?"
"It's either that or feel like she's been replaced. Guess which one's easier?"
Kurt sighed and looked down and away. "I have been used as a scapegoat before. But never has anyone accused me of something so… awful." He looked back at Louis. "Mister Brandon, please believe me. I never meant to put myself between you and your son. I would not think I could do that."
"You leave that much space between the two, and something's bound to step in at some point."
Kurt was growing alarmed. Not for himself, now, but for Mr. Brandon. "Mister Brandon, your son loves you dearly! I am no substitute for a boy's father!"
"Oh, yes you are, Kurt. If you weren't, you couldn't take him under your wing. It's part of the job. He needs a father here, whether it's you or one of the other instructors." He stood up and paced a little, clearly planning his next words. He stopped abruptly and looked down at Kurt. "What happened in the Oval Office, Mister Wagner? I know the President let you go, but he didn't explain anything."
Kurt closed his eyes. "Do you want the short version or the long version?"
"Let's start with the short version."
Even recalling the short version brought the taste of bile into Kurt's throat. He was not aware of the fact that his hand reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "I came to America to visit and was walking after dark when soldiers took me. They sprayed me with mace and beat me unconscious. The next thing I know, I am on the President's desk with a knife in my hand, and my arm is bleeding. I would not remember anything between for months."
"Did this have anything to do with the 'world migraine' two days later?"
"Yes. The same man whose soldiers took me made the machine to cause the 'world migraine.' He is dead now. I was told that he was the first victim of the machine."
He knew that last part wasn't entirely correct. Stryker had drowned, along with the entire Alkali Lake basin. But if Stryker had created the base to house his twisted version of Cerebro, and its dam broke, then perhaps there was some truth to the statement. Mr. Brandon nodded thoughtfully.
"Something tells me you don't like giving the long version of that," he said.
Kurt shook his head. "No, I don't. I have bad dreams about it even now."
"Does Regis know?"
"He knows the short version. He does not need all the details to keep him up at night, too."
"Yeah, he'll have enough on his mind from here on in," Louis muttered. He smiled a little again. "I've got this dream, Kurt. When I found out what Regis could do, and when Xavier said he could get training, I started thinking. I've been seeing my son as a government courier. Someone who could never be intercepted or confined. Or maybe a rescue worker, who could get people to the hospital faster than any helicopter. I wanted him to use this gift. I wanted him to be successful." His smile faded. "Now I'll just settle for him surviving past his teens."
"That is my duty, Mister Brandon. I am to teach him about teleporting. If necessary, I am to protect him as well."
"Yeah, I noticed." He laughed once. "Guess I should feel sorry for any poor SOB who tries anything with him.
"I don't know exactly what's going to happen from here, Kurt. Jennifer could call the cops, but then she'd have to explain hitting me. I guess we'll have to keep an eye on what her lawyers file, to make sure she doesn't drop the 'M' word anywhere."
"Were you serious about turning her in for illegal trading?" Kurt asked.
Louis sighed. "I've got enough evidence to put her in the slammer for years, let alone strip her broker's license."
Kurt did not ask further. He knew it would be sure to take him someplace he did not want to go.
"My wife is emotionally unstable, Mister Wagner," the man said, in a formal tone. "I don't think it will be safe for her to see my son or you. She might try to attack you as she did me. Therefore, you have my expressed permission to remove yourself and my son from her presence at any time. I'll speak with Professor Xavier on this, to work everything out." His voice changed a bit, back to the "concerned casual" of before. "In the meantime, if you don't mind, I think I need to speak with my son."
Kurt stood up. "Of course, sir. Do you wish for me to bring him here?"
"Well … if you don't mind, he's already in your room…."
Kurt gave a slight, formal bow. "It is no trouble, sir. Take all the time you wish."
A few moments later, Kurt and Ororo stood outside of his room, quietly closing the door behind them. Both of them felt utterly, completely drained. She looked at him, noting the way his tail dragged on the rug, barely twitching.
"You look beat," she said.
Kurt nodded. "I think I will rest in one of the other rooms, as mine is occupied."
"Why not mine?"
He turned to her. "Your room?"
"It's a lot more comfortable than one of the spare ones here." She took his arm. "Come on, this way. It's not too far."
What made Ororo's room so very comfortable, in Kurt's opinion, was the abundance of greenery. Plants hung from the walls and rafters, springing up just about everywhere. It was a forest of life, warm, steaming like a jungle, granting spots of privacy all around what would otherwise be an open room.
She led him to her bed, which was a futon rather than the standard mattress in the other rooms. "Rest here for a moment. It's time for me to feed the room."
He reclined on the bed as Ororo brought up a warm, localized mist. Soon each plant was gently dripping with moisture.
For a moment, her back was to him as she worked. "What did Mister Brandon talk to you about? Or is that too private?"
"Not all of it was so private," Kurt answered. "He will be speaking with Herr Professor on many points, I'm sure. He believes that his wife has grown... jealous of me. She had convinced herself that I did not have Regis' best interests at heart, and that she had to take him back."
She tensed, but did not yet turn around. "Is she serious about a custody battle in the courts?"
"Yes, but Mister Brandon seems to have a plan to stop her." His voice softened. "I do not much care for his plan."
She turned swiftly. "Why? What is he going to do?"
"He is threatening to turn her into the police for illegal stock trading. He will not if she does not bring Regis into the fight."
Ororo went back and sat by his side. "He's blackmailing her?" Kurt closed his eyes and nodded. She continued, "Does he have any real proof?"
Kurt sighed and looked up at the rafters. "Ororo, he says he has enough to send her to jail for years. He must have been gathering evidence in secret for this for a long time. Knowing her crimes, he has kept quiet to use them for his own gains. He has not tried to make her stop, he has not called the police, he has kept silent and let her crimes continue. And if she does not touch Regis, he will let her crimes continue without interfering." He paused. "It is appalling on both sides."
It was so easy for Ororo to forget where Kurt came from, his comparatively sheltered life. He had never seen such manipulations on anything but the silver screen, and perhaps not even then. The chances were he had also never seen a divorce, let alone one so vicious.
"Sounds like both of them have egos the size of Westchester County," Ororo noted.
Kurt nodded. "The man, at least, is honest about it. He is saddened that he feels Regis is closer to me than to him and blames himself for it. The woman seems to think I am doing--...." He cut off that sentence and chose the next one carefully. "She does not want to think she could be less than perfect, so I must be worse than evil."
Ororo felt a stab of anger towards the woman. It wasn't very difficult to see what Kurt was trying not to say. How dare she accuse him of such an atrocity?
"Looks like Regis isn't the only one caught in this battle," Ororo told him, rubbing his chest with her fingers.
He caught her hand gently in his and held it close. He was still not looking directly at her.
"It's horrible to see human nature at its worst this way," she agreed. "I've witnessed it too many times to count. Both of them want to think they're acting in their son's best interests, but their egos keep getting in the way. It could be that Mister Brandon just recently went digging and found evidence against her in the past month or so. We should give him the benefit of the doubt in this. His actions may be the only thing that can put the brakes on his wife."
"Two wrongs do not make a right, Ororo."
"And one does?" He did not answer immediately. She continued, "Kurt, what could you do to change this? What ability to do you have to affect the outcome in any way besides making it worse? I'll save you the trouble of thinking: you don't. This is out of our hands. The thundering egos are at war, and the only thing we can do is shelter Regis and ourselves as best we can. He's going to need all of us more than ever in the coming months."
"I know," he whispered.
She nudged off her shoes and climbed into bed beside him, still fully clothed. He pulled her close, both arms around her, and did not let go.
Mr. Brandon stayed as a guest of the institute for the next two days. He spent much of that time on his cell phone or with Professor Xavier. The rest he spent with his son, including when Scott lent him them of the institute's cars to go to the city for a few hours.
Mrs. Brandon tried to call Regis twice. The first time Xavier firmly warned her off. The second time, Xavier deliberately handed the phone to Kurt, who got out three words before she hung up on him. Only her lawyer called after that. He made veiled threats about bringing the police, then the FBI, and then the media, for an investigation of the school. By the third day, the lawyer had stopped calling and no one had dropped by for an unannounced visit.
The evening of the third day, Scott drove Mr. Brandon to the airport. The rest of the faculty gathered in Xavier's office for any news on the up-and-coming battle.
"Regis is staying for the foreseeable future," Xavier told them. "Mister and Misses Brandon seem to have come to a tentative agreement."
They all looked at each other uncomfortably. By this point, everyone in the room knew about the Brandons' mutual extortion efforts. So far, Mr. Brandon seemed to have the upper hand.
"What does Regis know about the matter?" Kurt asked.
"He only knows that he can stay here as long as he wants, and that his father is taking care of things," Xavier replied.
Kurt nodded. It was best for things to remain that way.
"Is Misses Brandon making good on her threat to bring more attention to the school?" Ororo asked.
"So far, no," Xavier answered. "Should the situation change, I will be sure to inform you, but I think that was all bluster on her part."
"Yeah, now that she's had a couple of days, maybe she's thinking about how hard her career would crash if the world figured out she had a mutant for a son," Logan added with a sneer.
"In any case," Xavier said, "the best thing we can do, for Regis and for the rest of the students, is to get back to our usual schedule."
Kurt looked at the ornate clock on the wall. "If so, I should probably be going, yes? Or does Regis still have his practice with me tonight?"
Xavier nodded. "He does. He will be there."
Kurt excused himself and teleported out of the room, reappearing on the ceiling of the corridor right outside of the danger room. He heard a voice gasp underneath him; Regis had been waiting. Kurt dropped down next to him. There was something different about the boy tonight....
"Regis, where are your glasses?" Kurt asked, pointing to his own eyes.
Regis grinned at him. It was the first genuine smile he had given for the past three days. "Dad said I was ready for contacts. We went and picked them up the other day. What do you think?"
Kurt put his palm over Regis' face, then turned the boy's grinning head this way and that, a bit of roughhousing before practice. "I'll have to get used to that look. Now I have nothing to steal off of your face."
The boy's mind was not entirely on his practice. He made many mistakes. Kurt was tempted to cut the lesson short, to give Regis more time to recuperate from the past week's events, but he would surely see that as a mark of Kurt's disapproval. The boy needed confidence now; he needed distraction, rather than to be reminded over and over. And so, mistakes or not, Kurt not only kept him for the entire practice, he had it go for an extra half hour.
"I'm sorry, Mister Wagner, I really sucked today," Regis apologized as Kurt shut the room down. "I'll do better next time. We're doing this again tomorrow, right?"
"The same time and place," Kurt said. "And, perhaps, the same obstacle course."
Regis cringed a little as they left the room. Kurt put his hand on his shoulder and gave a brief hug.
"It's all right, Regis," he assured him. "Everyone has a bad day sometimes. You will do better tomorrow."
They walked to the elevator.
"I think dad likes you," Regis started. "We talked about you in the car. He said he was glad there was someone else who could teleport who could teach me." The doors shut in front of them and the room began to rise. "I don't know if I'll ever be as good as you are...."
"I have been doing this for as long as you have been alive, remember?" Kurt scolded. "Do not make those kind of comparisons."
"Anyway, dad asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I wasn't really sure. He talked about using my power as a job. 'Porting back and forth with people or with stuff, you know? I don't think they have jobs like that, yet, do they?"
"Oh, there are people who make a living doing delivering. There's a special name for it that I can't remember right now, but they carry important documents."
"The kind of guys who have briefcases handcuffed to them?"
"Yes, something like that. It's just none of them can teleport, so they always take jets and cars. If we can make the government accept us, I think your power would be very important for that. Your father may be on to something."
The elevator stopped on the second floor. The two of them walked out into the corridor. The sounds of competing music drifted from different, open doorways, mingling with the students' conversations. Regis stopped and looked up at his mentor. He seemed to be trying to remember something. Then his eyes widened with some hidden, sudden knowledge.
"Mister Wagner, I wanted to show you something," he said quickly. "Can you come with me for a minute?"
Kurt gestured for him to lead the way, and Regis ran ahead into his room. As Kurt came to the open doorway, he noticed that Regis' two roommates were absent, probably downstairs playing foosball or watching TV. Most of the students didn't settle into their rooms until nine o'clock or nine-thirty. Kurt waited there, leaning on the doorframe with one hand, as Regis went to his part of the room. Though his back was turned to him, Kurt gathered that he was removing his contacts.
"I wanted to show you these," Regis was saying, slightly distracted by his work. "I got kind of tired of brown eyes, so I wanted to try something different, and they said everyone's doing it and they had a lot of styles. They even had these weird ones with swirls and cat's eyes and everything? One set had the Pittsburgh Steelers on it and their four diamond color symbol thingy, if you looked really close? And there was one set with the American flag, and one with the Dallas Cowboys star, and they were really cool."
"I'm almost afraid to know what you've tried," Kurt said. "Tell me they didn't have any pink bunnies?"
"Ewww, no way. I wouldn't wear contacts with pink bunnies if you paid me."
He finished and straightened up, looking in the mirror one last time. Without turning to face Kurt, he motioned for him to come in.
"C'mon, I want you to see this. This is so cool."
Kurt stood away from the doorway and walked over to Regis' side. He got up to the point where he could see Regis' face and stopped, letting loose a little gasp of surprise. The boy's image in the mirror was made all the more startling next to Kurt's own. The juxtaposition brought forgotten dreams to the forefront of Kurt's mind. Ideas of a family truly his own; of a life that, until recently, he never thought he would have the chance to lead.
The "special contacts" that Regis had chosen were bright yellow.