Lia Fail and Jeremy Harper

Note - The Uncanny X-Men are the property of Marvel Comics and are used without permission.

Peter pulled his paintbrush away from the canvas and scowled, his brow furrowing, his eyes glinting with displeasure. He had to bite down on the urge to put his fist through his latest landscape. It annoyed him that such a simple piece was giving him such trouble. Three days ago he had been making splendid progress; now it looked nothing like what he first envisioned. Shapes conflicted with one another, the colors looked discordant, almost garish, and the perspective felt oddly skewed. Such chaos offended his aesthetics, and that he was the one to produce this disharmonious riot offended his pride even more. "Tcha!" he spat, dropped his brush on the easel's sill, stood up, set his pallet down on his stool, walked over to his window and stared out sullenly over the manor's grounds, leaning on his right forearm against the window's varnished frame. Some of the younger students were playing out there, enjoying the warm days of a waning August while they could. He noted Roberto, Sam, Dani and Rahne tossing around a Frisbee, boys versus girls. He smiled slightly at the sight of Illyana sitting on a blanket, spoiling Lockheed by having him on her lap and feeding him bits of a sandwich. Kitty sat near his Snowflake and his smile widened a bit more at the sight of her. But it vanished all together when he noticed the handsome, blonde young man next to Kitty, chattering happily away and making her laugh outrageously.

Ice frosted his ocean-blue eyes, turning them hard and steely. A grimace contorted the chiseled lines of his face. He turned his back on the window, inhaled a bushel of air as for a second time he forcibly reined in his anger. He shook his head, disgusted with himself, then collected his pallet and brushes and went to rinse them off. While using the bathroom sink he glanced up at the mirror hanging above it, a wry, somewhat bitter half-smile curving the corner of his mouth as he checked if his eyes had changed their color to green. He returned to his room, put his art supplies away and reassessed his painting. He was tempted to simply throw it out, but decided to give it another chance tomorrow. Perhaps he could salvage it. That settled he changed out of the ratty shirt and trousers he wore while painting and into a dark blue Champions tee shirt and his favorite pair of jeans, then flopped heavily on his bed. He lay on his back, pillowed his head on his large, calloused hands and stared up at the plaster ceiling in contemplation. He felt frayed, off-balanced; everything he had tried his hand at for the past three days he fumbled. He knew the source of his awkwardness, but that did not help matters. If anything, it complicated things further. He knew he should talk to Kitty about it, but the thought of her reaction daunted him. Her anger he could deal with, but what if she laughed at his concerns? He did not think he could handle that.

Peter frowned and heaved out a great sigh. Heartsickness clouded his thought, making him weary in a way he seldom before experienced. He shifted sluggishly, feeling as if each individual cell in his body was slowly calcifying, transforming him into stone. He let out another sigh, closed his eyes and soon fell into a fitful doze.

Peter rapped his muscular fist firmly against the door, waiting a moment before poking his head in. "I am sorry to interrupt, but I-" he stopped suddenly, willing himself not to stutter at the sight of his Katya sitting in front of the computer, the edge of her chair nestled next to Doug Ramsey's, their bodies not much further apart. "I was wondering if the two of you would like a ride to dance practice?" he asked, surprised he was able to speak when his heart felt as though it was caught in his throat.

"See?" Illyana pointed out to no one in particular from her bed, where she was laying on her stomach finishing her homework, Lockheed curled up at her side. "This is the best part about having an older brother. It's like having a free personal chauffeur."

"I know that's why I date him," Kitty added, twisting her body around to grin at her boyfriend, still amused by his endearing habit of lingering in their doorway, waiting for a proper invitation before entering a girl's room.

"Really?" Illyana asked her friend, an impish smile forming on her face. "Cause I thought you said it was because of his big-"

"-Illyana!" Kitty screeched.

"What? You don't have to go and get all hyper on me. I mean, I don't know what word you could possibly have been thinking of, Kitty, but I was gonna say heart," the flaxen haired Russian said with mock innocence, giving Kitty a wink that made both her and Peter blush furiously. "Oh well," she sighed, giving Lockheed one final pat on the head. "Just give me a minute to get my stuff," Illyana told her brother, rolling off the bed and digging through the pile of clothes on the armchair in search of her leotard before heading off to the bathroom to change.

"Come here, Peter," Kitty said warmly, watching him cross the threshold of the room and stand awkwardly behind her, his hands gripping the back of her chair. The young X-Man twisted back around and leaned backwards, resting her head against her boyfriend's firm stomach. "Look. See the genius that is me," she crowed, her chocolate colored eyes shining as she motioned to the computer screen with one hand, the other reaching up behind her, groping the air until she found Peter's cheek. The dark haired Russian turned his face into her touch, placing a gentle kiss on the soft skin of her palm. His left arm slid around her chest, his hand holding on to her right shoulder, the other hand resting on her right thigh, using his arm as a buffer between her and Doug's bodies.

"You did this?" Peter asked, unsure of what he was looking at, but acutely aware of how Doug's posture stiffened and his smile became taut the moment his girlfriend's hand had started to caress his face.

"All by myself," Kitty boasted, showing off by making windows pop up and disappear with one hand as her fingers deftly moved across the keyboard.

"Ahem," the teenager next to her cleared his throat, raising an eyebrow in her direction.

"Oh yeah. Doug helped. A little," she added grudgingly, taking her hand from Peter's face and holding her thumb and index finger close together. "This much."

"That much?" the sandy haired boy questioned, nudging his knee against Kitty's, making her giggle.

"This much?" she squeaked, holding her fingers a little further apart. He shook his head. "Fine," she sighed, crinkling her nose and making a face at him, "don't let me have my fun. The truth is, Peter, Doug is the sole reason we succeeded. He is the master of all things technological, and the god I worship for his sheer and utter genius," she mocked, this time hitting his knee with her own. "There. Now you happy?"

"I'd be happier if you continued with the flattery."

"Fat chance. So what do you think, Peter?" Kitty asked, leaning her head back to look at him, her brown eyes shining in anticipation of his approval.

"I have to admit," the dark haired young man faltered, "I am not exactly sure what I am looking at."

"Oh. It, it's a new security sequence for the house. I guess it probably doesn't look like much now, but once we upload it to the main computer..." she trailed off, trying to hide her disappointment.

"Katya, I am sorry, I-"

"No, don't worry," she assured. "It's ok. I just forget most normal people can't understand this stuff. I mean, even I needed Doug. I don't think I could do this on my own."

"We make a pretty good team, don't we Pryde?" the American boy asked, smiling affectionately at her, a smile that, much to Peter's chagrin, was returned.

"The best," Kitty agreed. "Me Straivarius-"

"-Me Itzhak Perlman," Doug finished with a laugh.


"Katya, we should be leaving soon. Shouldn't you be packing your things?" Peter inquired, anxious to get her away from the blonde haired boy she got along with far too well.

"It's just Illyana today. The prof wants Doug and me to run some tutorials, maybe improve some of the existing software."

"You are missing dance lessons? For this?" Peter questioned, the knot in his stomach growing heavier, anger bubbling up inside of him at the thought of leaving his Katya alone with this boy.

"I'm still on thin ice," Kitty explained, her face darkening. "I don't want to end up with the X-Babies," she grumbled, starting to sulk.

"But can this not-"

"Piotr! I can't find my other shoe!" Illyana wailed as she exited the bathroom.

"Maybe if you weren't so messy, Blondie-"

"Don't start with me, Pryde! We both know most of the mess in this room is yours!" the teenage sorceress shot back, rummaging through the pile of clothes and shoes on the floor of her closet. The steel skinned mutant sighed. In spite of his own desires, he reluctantly let go of Kitty to help his Snowflake, ever the dutiful big brother.

"Did you read the latest 'Star Wars' comic?" Doug said quietly to Kitty as soon as Peter was out of earshot. "I loved the part where the Ewoks attacked the Imperial Guard."

Kitty flashed him another smile. "I loved it, too,"she agreed, smiling wider at the thought of the fuzzy bear-like creatures whose personalities always reminded her of her own purple alien. "What did you think, Peter?" she asked as her boyfriend looked under the bed in search of the younger Russian's lost ballet slipper, gritting his teeth as he listened to them talk.

"I have not yet read it," he said abruptly, surprising Kitty with the detached, angry tone of his voice, leaving her to wonder what she had done to upset him.

"Oh. I just thought maybe you had since I left it in your room for you almost a week ago," she explained, a trace of hurt in her tone.

"Piotr! Look in here," Illyana commanded, wrenching her shirt drawer open and glaring at her brother.

"A week? Man, I can barely wait 'til I get home to read my comics," Doug said, grinning at Kitty, who shot him a grateful smile.

"Last time you didn't. After we bought 'em, we decided to finish them on the curb right outside the store."

"Yeah, and then the owner threatened to call the cops on us for loitering," Doug reminisced, knowing the memory would make the pretty girl beside him laugh.

"Found it!" Illyana announced, holding up her ballet slipper in triumph. "Come on, Peter. Let's get outta here before those two computer geeks bore us to death," she added lightly, turning her back to Kitty and Doug to give her brother a frosty look.

"Good thing you found it. If she were late, there would be no living with her, right Peter? Peter? Are you ok?" she asked softly, biting her lip, wondering if she should have said anything.

Peter stared at her, knowing she had just given him the opening he needed, at exactly the wrong time. "Nyet, I am fine. Goodbye, Katya. Doug," he added curtly.

"Bye, Pete..." Kitty trailed off, watching her boyfriend close the door on them without so much as a good-bye kiss.

"What was that all about?" Illyana demanded, as the two siblings made their way down the stairs to the garage.

"Nothing," Peter said flatly, his face expressionless.

"That might work with Kitty, Piotr Nikolievitch, but I don't care how much you pout, or how angry I make you. Now tell me what that was about!" the younger Russian ordered, her temper flaring.

"As I said before, it was nothing," he reiterated calmly and evenly, his face still devoid of any emotion.

Illyana glared at him. "Fine," she muttered, crossing her arms. "So Doug's a pretty nice guy, isn't he?" she asked slyly, giving her brother a sideways glance. "Well?" she prompted.

"Katya seems to think so."

"Yeah, he's a really good friend to her. A friend, Piotr - that's all."

"I know," he agreed through clenched teeth.

"Then act like it," she snapped. His face fell and she sighed, guilty over losing her temper. Illyana placed a comforting hand on her brother's shoulder, and he looked up at her, worry and shame in his eyes. "Don't turn into a jerk, Peter. You're better than that."

"We should delete that file," Kitty instructed, pointing to a folder on the screen.

"Umm, are you sure?" Doug asked hesitantly, giving her a sideways glance.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"Because there's a good chance that will crash the system."

Kitty's brow furrowed as she studied the screen in front of her. "You're right," she groaned, leaning her forehead against his shoulder in frustration. "I'm sorry, Doug. I don't know where my head is today."

"I think we both know that's not true," he said quietly as he continued to work. Kitty leaned forward, her forearms resting against the edge of the desk, and looked away, her eyes downcast. "Is he always like that?" Doug asked, finishing a final command before pushing the keyboard away and turning to face Kitty.

"Like what?"

"So...moody, I guess?" Doug prodded gently, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"No," she sighed, shaking her head. "He has such a good heart. For some reason, he just doesn't seem like letting people know that lately."

"I don't like him," the sandy haired boy growled, his comforting hand tightening protectively on her shoulder.

Kitty turned around and looked at him, giggles bubbling out of her. "Doug," the brunette laughed, shaking her head.

"What?" he asked indignantly, confused by her reaction.

"You're my friend," she explained, nudging him with her elbow. "You have to take my side every time my boyfriend does something jerky."

"He shouldn't be doing anything jerky!" Doug argued, his serious tone quieting her down. "Look," he continued, his hand running down her arm and resting on top of her own, "there are guys out there who would treat you better. Guys who, if they had you, would never take for granted how lucky they are."

Kitty managed a weak smile and looked down, unnerved by the intensity in her friend's eyes and the feel of his sweaty hand on top of hers. "You know, I'm not feeling so hot," she told him, looking back up, but avoiding his eyes. "Must be a headache from starring at the monitor too long," she added, suddenly desperate for him to leave.

"Oh. Ok. You want me to get you some aspirin or-"

"No. No, thanks, I'll be ok. I think I just need rest, y'know?" Kitty asked, walking over to the door and holding it open, her mind still trying to figure out if she was interpreting the situation correctly. She shook her head, finding the idea laughable. This is Doug you're talking about, she thought to herself. Safe, friendly, comfortable, Doug. Or maybe, a thought popped into her head, lifting her spirits in excitement, just maybe, he has a crush on Illyana, and was trying to convince me he was a good guy to work up the nerve to ask me for help. And that's why he doesn't like Peter, because he knows how hard it'll be to get his blessing. The young X-Man watched with a huge smile on her face, thinking of ways she could get her two friends together as Doug collected his belongings from the desk, their eyes locking as he turned around. Kitty immediately broke their gaze and looked away, surprised to find the intensity hadn't left his cornflower blue eyes, making her wonder again if her first instinct had been right.

"Feel better," Doug said, clapping a hand on her arm as he passed her on his way out, his touch lingering a moment more than needed. I must be imagining it, Kitty thought. The Illyana thing makes so much more sense. Either way, I better make things clear right now. If, and that's a big if, but if he has feelings for me, he needs to know where I stand.

"Doug?" she called out from behind the half closed door, causing him to stop mid-step in the hallway.

"Yeah?" he asked expectantly.

"It doesn't matter how some other guy might treat me. I love Peter."

"Yeah," Doug said, turning around and continuing to walk down the hall. "I know."

Neither Peter nor Illyana spoke for almost the entire short drive to Salem Center. Illyana kept glancing at her elder brother, her bright blue eyes flashing with exasperation and concern. When she looked away she sighed and tugged at her ponytail. Peter stared straight ahead, eyes locked on the road, his face as expressionless as a graven image. Illyana noted with no little annoyance that he gripped the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. "You know," she said, finally breaking the silence, "if you don't let up, Piotr, you're going to crack the plastic." Peter ignored her. Illyana scowled and looked out her window for the rest of the way, totally fed up with her brother's fit of bad temper.

Peter pulled the Rolls Royce up to the curb in front of Stevie Hunter's studio. Almost before he stopped Illyana pulled the latch and opened the passenger door. Half way out of the car Peter spoke her name. She was tempted to ignore him, but she squelched the urge and looked over her shoulder at him sourly. He was leaning forward, his forearms on top of the steering wheel, staring out the windshield. He did nothing for a few moments, then took a deep breath and looked at Illyana. The cold veil of ice lifted from his eyes, and they took on the shamed, contrite cast she had seen earlier in the garage. "I am sorry," he said simply.

Illyana got back into the Rolls Royce and closed the door. "I'm not the one you should be apologizing to," she answered softly.

"I know." Peter turned his head away, gazing out the driver's side window. "I did not mean to act so... cold... to Katya. I will make it up to her, if she will let me."

"She will," his sister assured him. She sidled over and put her arm around his broad shoulders. "She's absolutely crazy about you. You're worrying over nothing." Peter looked at Illyana and gave her a weak smile. Illyana's eyes narrowed momentarily in thought, and she smiled mischievously. "Seriously, you should save your concerns for more important matters - like when I start dating. Now that will give you something real to worry about." Peter blinked, an incredulous look flashing over his face. Illyana giggled at his expression. He let out an amused snort in response. His smile widened a trifle and this time it reached his eyes.

"I do not think I will worry overmuch," he said.

"Oh? What, are you going to lock me away in my room, like a princess in a golden castle?"

"On the contrary, Snowflake. You may date as much as you wish. I am certain that after shaking hands with me, the wildest young man will be on his best behavior around you." Peter held up his left hand and clenched it. Illyana started giggling again. She had seen her brother crack open walnuts bare-handed, and once, in response to Roberto goading him, tore a full deck of linen playing cards in half and then quartered it, all this done using only his unarmored strength.

"Well, at least you'll keep the wimps away." She gave Peter a quick peck on the cheek. "Gotta run, Big Brother. See you in a few hours. And quit worrying!" She got out of the sedan and trotted across the sidewalk. Peter watched her enter Stevie's studio, his smile flickering away. He sighed, leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. He considered prowling Salem Center until Illyana's class got out, killing time in the Book Nook and the art store three blocks down, but dismissed the idea out of hand. He had behaved atrociously towards his Katya; the sooner he made amends the better. Yet when he thought back on the scene in her bedroom, he could not help but focus on how easily she interacted with Doug, how happy she seemed in his presence. Hot anger roused in him; his hands clenched into large fists. Illyana's reassurances seemed small comfort in comparison. Peter hissed through his teeth, then pulled away from the curb, heading back to the manor.

Illyana walked into the main studio, quiet and reflective. It disturbed her a little to see her even-tempered brother so jealous, but she had confidence in him - he was no dummy, and would surely work through it quickly. She glanced around the room, looking at the other dance students talking with each other or getting a head start on their warm-ups before Stevie started class. Illyana gave a little sigh, wishing again that the Professor had picked a different day to have Kitty and Doug polish the school's software - not only would it have maybe ameliorated what happened earlier, but also having Kitty with her made the time in class pass faster. Illyana enjoyed dancing, but the other students attending Stevie's studio did not talk to her much, and at least one of them outright despised both her and Kitty. The moment she thought of him, she spotted Danny on the other side of the room. He glared at her, giving her the evil eye. She stared back disdainfully, her blue eyes cold, hard and relentless. After a few seconds Danny flinched and looked away. Illyana indulged herself with a slight smirk. Brainwashed fundamentalist zombie, she thought. She still found it hard to believe that after what had happened at Madison Square Garden, and its resulting fallout, Danny and his parents still believed in the lies and garbage spouted by the Stryker Crusade. There'll never be a shortage on stupidity.

Over at the far end of the studio Stevie Hunter was chatting away with another woman. Illyana looked at the stranger curiously; she was as tall as Stevie, and held herself with obvious poise and grace. She seemed young, maybe a year or two older than Peter, and was quite good looking, her skin very fair, her short cut hair colored a rich, reddish-gold. Illyana swore she had seen this woman before, but could not place where.

Stevie looked over her assembled class and saw Illyana. She glanced briefly at her wristwatch and flashed a smile at her second-favorite student. "Cutting it a bit thin, kiddo," she said.

"It's not my fault, Stevie. My brother lost one of my shoes and it took some time for me to find it!" Illyana answered impishly.

"Sounds fishy to me, kid, but we'll talk about that later - or not." Stevie clapped her hands, calling her class to order. "Okay everyone, before we begin I want to introduce you to a colleague of mine. She's visiting from Boston, and is going to observe and help with today's lessons. Class, this is Anya Makarova."

A murmur swept through the students, and Illyana's eyes widened. So that's why the woman looked so familiar... she remembered reading about Miss Makarova. She was a Russian expatriate whose virtuoso performances the past three seasons had helped revitalized the then under-attended and financially floundering Boston Ballet. This was the first time Stevie had ever invited a guest of such eminence to watch the class... and she was even going to help teach! Illyana grinned. Kitty is going to regret missing this!

Peter paused outside of Kitty's door, licking his lips. He raised his hand, hesitated, then knocked softly.

"Who is it?"

"Me. May I come in?"

After a short, pregnant pause he heard Kitty sigh softly. "Sure." Peter opened the door and stepped in. Kitty was alone, with not even Lockheed in sight. She was sprawled out on her bed, flipping through a comic book with an attitude of studied boredom, careful not to look at Peter. Peter glanced around the bedroom curiously.

"Where is Doug?"

"Hanging out with Sam, Rahne and Dani, I guess. A little after you and 'Yana left I started not to feel so hot, so we knocked off early."

"I see..." Peter frowned. Against his best intentions he felt a flutter of relief. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I'm just feeling a bit -" Kitty waved a hand, "- blah."

Peter glanced down at the floor, feeling guilty and not sure on how to approach this matter. A pensive silence stretched between them. "Peter..." Kitty murmured. He looked up. She was sitting up, her comic discarded, her knees pulled up to her chest. She gazed at him, her eyes large, bright and unhappy.

"Yes Katya?"

"May I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

Kitty dropped her gaze, looking down and to the side at her comic. She straightened out her legs, dropping her hands in her lap. Peter noticed with dismay they were trembling a little. "Are you cross with me?" Kitty asked hesitantly. "You're angry, and I can't figure out why. Did... did I do something wrong?" Peter immediately left the doorway, crossing over to the bed, sitting down next to her and taking her small, slender hands into his large ones. They felt cold.

"You have done nothing wrong," he assured her quietly. "I am in no way angry with you." Kitty looked up at him.

"Then what's bothering you, Peter? You've been so distant lately."

"I..." Peter closed his mouth and looked down at his and Kitty's hands. He could not bring himself to mention his concerns. Perhaps it was cowardly, but Kitty was all ready feeling bad enough because of his behavior today. He refused to throw any more worries on her. However, he owed her some of the truth. He sighed, looked up and gave her a slight, embarrassed smile. "I am just in a bad mood. Nothing I've done the past few days is going right, and it is making me sour. I thought I was containing it better, but I guess not. I did not mean for it to spill out onto you. For that, I am very sorry."

Kitty said nothing. She took her hands out of his, scooted up next to him, climbed into his lap and put her arms around his neck, hugging him tight. "It's okay," she murmured in his ear. Peter sighed and hugged her back, feeling the tension slowly drain out of him. He felt much better; though he still wanted to talk with Kitty about Doug, his fears just didn't seem as urgent now. It could wait. He gave Kitty a kiss on the cheek.

"Mmmmm... You are definitely not mad at me." Kitty glanced over at her alarm clock. "You don't have to pick Illyana up for another two hours. Let's go do something."

"I am amiable to that." Peter kissed her on the side of the neck, enjoying the feel of Kitty shivering pleasantly in his arms. "What would you like to do?"

Kitty leaned back, looking Peter in the eyes and grinning. "I want ice cream," she declared. "You are going to buy me some."

Peter arched an eyebrow. "Oh, I am?"

Kitty nodded happily. "Yup. Think of it as compensation for making me worry. And if you're lucky, I'll let you have a bite."

"That is harsh, but fair," Peter conceded with a smirk. "What sort of ice cream do you want?"

"A triple scoop of vanilla-butterscotch smothered in chocolate, topped with diced strawberries, blueberries, banana and a cherry."

"Boshe moi! Katya, that is too much. We are going to have dinner when we come back with Illyana."

"Don't care. I've been working hard all day and I want a treat."

"Ororo will have my hide, feeding you all that," Peter protested. Kitty snorted, smiled wickedly and gave him a deep, lingering kiss. "On the other hand," he murmured when she pulled away, "you have a most compelling counter-argument."

"Did you expect anything less from a genius like me?" she asked gleefully, laughing when Peter rolled his eyes.

"All right, you win," Kitty slid off his lap, standing up, and Peter got up to his feet. Holding hands they headed for the door. "Just do not blame me if you get a stomach ache. Or worse yet, you are not able to fit into your costume the next day."

"Hey!" Kitty bopped Peter playfully on the arm, "Don't you know you're never suppose to kid a girl about her weight? Besides, I've seen how you pack food away. I bet polar bears eat less at a sitting than you do."

"I eat so much out of necessity. I need all the energy I can get, in order to keep up with you."

"Hmmph. You couldn't keep up with me even on the best day of your life, buster."

Peter grinned. "Let us see about that. Race you to the garage." Without warning he dashed down the hallway.

"Ah! Peter! Wait! No fair!" Laughing happily, Kitty chased after her boyfriend.

Peter sat across the booth from Kitty, spinning his empty milkshake glass between his hands and watching with an amused smile as his girlfriend slowly continued to eat her half-finished banana split, poking at the massive pile of leftover melting ice cream and syrup with her spoon in disgust. Underneath the table one of her sunshine yellow flip-flops lay forgotten on the ground, her foot having slipped underneath the leg of his jeans, running lightly up and down his calf. Peter took the spoon out of his glass and pushed the dish away, making space for him to lean forward against the white marble table, holding his spoon just above Kitty's sundae.

"So tell me then, Katya," he asked with a smirk, "am I going to get lucky?"

Kitty stopped caressing his leg and kicked him with her foot, smiling back at him playfully. "You better watch it, mister, you're getting pretty frisky. If you're not careful, I'm gonna tell Wolverine on you."

"I only wish to help you!" he protested, trying to scoop out a bite, thwarted by his girlfriend blocking his way every time. "You don't seem very eager to finish your dessert. I merely do not want any of it to go to waste."

"I'm tough. I'll work through the pain," she declared, looking warily back at the mound of food she had left. "On the other hand, if you really want to help..."

Kitty and Peter finished the rest of the sundae off together, bantering with each other as they battled over the last bit of chocolate syrup. The couple stopped talking, smiling politely as the waitress who had taken their order, a tall blonde wearing a short pink uniform trimmed with a white collar and apron, came over, smiling shyly at Peter as she placed the bill on their table. "I, uh, hope you don't mind, but I wrote my phone number down." She laughed nervously, a little embarrassed, turning back to look at her friend behind the counter, who gave her an encouraging nod before she continued. "I've never actually done that, I just, well I thought you were really sweet, taking your little sister out for ice cream and all."

Peter and Kitty's smiles faded, and the older X-Man's face grew very pale. "I'm not his sister," Kitty explained frostily, sliding her hand over his.

"Oh God. I'm so sorry," the waitress squeaked, her face turning bright red as she bent down to scribble out the phone number on the check with her ballpoint pen.

"And she's not getting a tip," Kitty grumbled as the waitress quickly walked away to talk with her friend waiting behind the counter.

Peter looked down, focusing on counting the money in his hand. He placed it down and pushed it to the front of the table, taking a deep breath and forcing a carefree smile on his face before looking up. "It is an easy mistake she made, Katya. You are, after all, ridiculously short."

"I'm not short!" she argued as the couple made their way to the door. "You, mister, are just freakishly tall."

"Ahh, so that's what it is?" he asked, quickening his pace so he could hold the door open for her.

"Oh course. You have to remember, Peter, I know these things because I'm- ooh, cold, cold, cold," she moaned, wrapping her arms around her chest as soon as the door opened and they were met with the chilly evening breeze. Peter grabbed her hand and pulled her over a few steps, waiting until they were past the ice cream parlor window before pulling her close in an embrace, his hands moving up and down her back as she held on to him with svelte arms already covered in goose bumps.

"Better?" he whispered in her ear, his breath warm against her face.

"Much," she agreed, snuggling closer to him as people passed by them on the sidewalk. "Why is it so cold in summer?" she muttered, enjoying the feel of his hands rubbing against her back in slow, comforting circles.

"It's not. This is what happens when you eat three scoops of ice cream when you are wearing a tank top and shorts. You get cold," Peter said simply. Kitty looked up and he smiled back impishly. "And to think, you call yourself a genius."

"Well then," the young X-Man said coyly, "seeing how you're so smart, here's another problem for you to solve: my lips are cold. What can you do to warm them up?"

"That's easy," the blue eyed Russian answered playfully, pulling away from her embrace. "I can go across the street and buy you a coffee-"

"No, see that takes too long," she giggled, still holding on to his hand, tugging him away from the curb and back into her arms. "I'm looking for a more immediate solution."

"Well in that case...." he murmured, his strong arms wrapping around her waist, lifting her up to his mouth. Kitty felt a thrill as one muscular hand strayed from her waist, traveling down to grab her backside, something Peter had done many times in their own private space, but never in public. Their kiss deepened, becoming more and more passionate, and she welcomed his tongue as it slipped into her mouth, melting into his touch. Without warning, Peter's eyes snapped open and he set her down, turning away from her.

"I was thinking" he said in a strained voice, refusing to face her, "why don't you go get Illyana now and I'll warm up the car."

"Alright," Kitty agreed, watching him cross the street, hardly bothering to look for traffic as he headed directly over to the driver side door of the Rolls Royce. "I wanted to say hi to Stevie anyway," she muttered to herself, walking down to the dance studio alone.

Peter unlocked the car door as quickly as possible. He leaned back against the driver's seat and closed his eyes, trying to will the excitement to drain from his body. He felt fortunate that his Katya, unlike a more experienced woman, had not seemed to grasp what was going on. Of course, had it been a more experienced woman, he wouldn't have had to be so concerned about hiding it, nor would it have made him so ashamed of his feelings. Peter could feel his resolve to keep his relationship with Kitty chaste weakening. He knew if she came to him like she had in space when they were fighting the Brood, he would not be able to hold himself back again.

He sighed and reached up to rub his eyes. How that waitress had thought Katya was his sister was something he could not understand. He never looked at her and saw a child, he saw a beautiful girl who grew more stunning with each passing day. And yet, if Illyana were to date a man his age, he would forbid it without hesitation. She should be with someone she could grow up and learn with, not someone who was always waiting for her to catch up. And so should Katya he admitted to himself with a heavy heart, the image of her with Doug Ramsey popping back into his head.

His thoughts were interrupted as he heard Kitty and Illyana approach, excitement in their voice.

"I can't believe we met her!" the flaxen haired New Mutant exclaimed as she yanked open the back door of the Rolls Royce.

"I can't believe you danced with her! Of all the days to miss!" Kitty moaned, climbing into the front seat next to Peter.

"At least she said she'll be back next session-"

"And I will definitely be there."

"So I take it class was fun today, Snowflake?" Peter asked with amusement, watching her reflection smile in the rear-view mirror as he maneuvered the car from the tight space it was parallel parked in, going backwards before shifting into drive.

"You will never guess who was there. Anya Makarova."

Peter's heavy foot slammed down on the gas in surprise, his hands momentarily forgetting to steer. Regaining his senses, he moved his foot to the brake, confused as to why there had been no impact with the side of the fender on the car in front of him.

"Keep going," Kitty ordered through clenched teeth from the seat next to him. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye and saw her sitting forward, her hands on the dashboard, a look of deep concentration and exertion on her face. Immediately, he shifted his foot to the gas, Kitty's powers allowing them to pass through the side corner of the Plymouth in front of them without incident.

"Peter, you almost hit that car. If we hadn't phased..." Illyana trailed off, looking at her friend slumped back in her seat, breathing heavily.

"I apologize. My foot slipped," he said gruffly, furious with himself for putting the two people he loved most in danger over the mere mention of a woman who should mean nothing to him.

"You have to be careful," Illyana chided, still keeping a close watch over Kitty in the passenger seat.

"I know," he agreed, annoyed that she wouldn't simply drop the subject and let him forget it had happened.

"Illyana, it's alright," Kitty said weakly, using what little strength she had regained to put her hand on her boyfriend's shoulder.

"You shouldn't be phasing things in public, Pryde. If someone like Danny had seen..."

"It's ok, Blondie, no one noticed. Hey, Peter, don't worry. It was just an accident," she soothed, starting to sit back up. The dark haired Russian kept his eyes on the road, wishing his girlfriend would stop trying to help. Her being so understanding was only making him feel worse, especially since the reason there had even been a problem was because he had been distracted by thoughts of another woman. "You know, Petey, at least now I have something to use aganist you when you start teaching me to drive," Kitty teased, reaching up to ruffle his hair. "You just remember this the first time I crash into-"

"Kitty, could you for once in your life be silent and let me concentrate?" he barked, unable to take any more of her understanding. The brunette girl hesitated for a moment, stunned by his outburst, then withdrew her hand from his shoulder and turned to face the window, blinking back tears.

Peter pulled the car over, hanging his head in contrition as they came to a stop. He had been ashamed of his actions so many times today he could no longer keep track. "Katya-"

She ignored him, reaching over to flip on the radio, blasting David Bowie into the air. With a sigh Peter turned the key in the ignition and pulled back onto the road, making his way to Greymalkin Lane.

"Ahh my friends, you arrived just in the nick of time. I was about to start a movie," Nightcrawler said as Kitty and the Rasputins lumbered into the hall. "It's 'North by Northwest', an old Hitchcockian thriller. Would you like to join me? I have snacks," he added, holding up his incentive bowls of popcorn and potato chips. Kitty walked past him wordlessly, plopping down on the couch in front of the tv, earning a concerned look from her German-born teammate. "And will you be joining us, Peter?" Kurt inquired, a look of understanding dawning upon his face.

"Actually, I think I will-"

"You're staying," Illyana commanded simply, her arms folded across her chest.

Peter made his way to into the room, Illyana shepherding from behind, making it quite clear that he was to sit next to his girlfriend. He gave Kitty a small, shamefaced smile as he sat down next to her on the loveseat. She returned his grin with an icy stare, then leaned against his stiff shoulder to show her forgiveness, expecting him to follow suit and put his arm around her. After a few moments of waiting she sighed and picked up his arm, pulling it up over her head and onto her shoulder. Peter hesitated, then dutifully patted her upper arm with his hand before retracting it from her body. Kitty turned to glower at him with narrow eyes, her temper growing. With a disgruntled "humpf" she stood up, grabbing the popcorn bowl as she made her way to the vacant armchair across the room. He reached out to take her hand as she passed in front of him, embarrassed by his behavior, but she ignored him, phasing free of his grasp without a look back.

Peter allowed her to leave and turned his attention to the movie, trying to escape the emotional chaos that tormented his spirit. The opening credits had barely finished when he felt something brush against the back of his neck. He turned around to find his girlfriend sitting cross-legged in the armchair, the popcorn bowl in her lap, glaring at him with a look of fury. She reached into the bowl and fished out another kernel, throwing it at his face. Peter grimaced as he watched her purse her lips and raise an eyebrow, challenging him to ask her to stop. With a sigh he turned back to the movie, his reaction only fueling her annoyance. The dark haired Russian tried to ignore his girlfriend's childish games, fully aware he deserved her wrath, but every kernel she threw grated on his already waning patience.

"Kitty, stop!" he commanded, frustration winning out over composure.

"Fine!" she fumed, slamming the popcorn bowl down on the coffee table. "I'm gonna go find Doug," she added, glowering at Peter one last time before stalking out of the room.

Peter held his head in his hands and rubbed his temples, weary and tired from the day's events. "Thank you for inviting us to watch the movie with you, Kurt, but I believe I shall retire early tonight."

"You gonna go talk to Kitty?" Illyana whispered as he walked by, staring at her brother with a look of disappointment that broke his heart and filled him with shame. Her face broke into a hopeful smile as he nodded mutely, guilt swelling inside him as he left the room.

Peter pounded the trunk of the tree with his axe in the darkness of the night, blindly striking, his frustration and pain empowering every stroke. He stopped hearing light rustling on the path leading from the house. He put his axe down, listening to the footsteps draw closer. "Katya?" he called out hopefully, wishing to see her face and know that she came here, to him, instead of to Doug Ramsey.

"Wrong roomie. Kitty's inside, with Doug," Illyana taunted, leaning against a tree, her face hidden in the shadows. "You said you were gonna talk to her."

"I changed my mind."

"About talking or about Kitty?" she asked softly, walking into the clearing where he could see her face in the moonlight. "You know, I remember you and Papa used to chop wood outside when I was little," she reminisced, picking a jagged piece of wood off the ground and examining its contours. "I could hear the two of you talking in between the sounds of the axe hitting the wood, and I would be so jealous. I wanted to spend time with you, and I wanted to spend time with Papa, but Mama would never let me. She always had some excuse for why I should stay inside; it was always too cold or too dangerous or something, but I think she kept me with her because she didn't want to be lonely. But then, when Mama and Papa were gone, you'd always let me sit outside and watch you work, remember? You would tell me jokes and stories and laugh with me, and it was like we had our own little club with just the two of us. Then they'd come back and I'd have to go sit inside again. I hated them for that. I hate them for a lot of things."

"Illyana Nikolievinya, do not ever speak such things! They love you!" he yelled, horrified by her words.

"That doesn't matter! It doesn't matter how they feel, I still hate them for what they did!" she screamed back at him, remembering her first, brief escape from Limbo, when she begged her parents for help, only to find her pleas fell upon deaf ears. "I don't want Kitty to hate you," she said quietly, rogue tears brimming in her dark blue eyes.

"Katya does not hate me, Snowflake," Peter explained, wondering if he was wrong in his sentiments. "We are just...things are difficult."

"Because of you! Doug's not the problem, you are. Can't you see that?" she demanded, kicking a pile of wood chips at her feet. "You have to let it go, Piotr! You can't keep lashing out at Kitty over Doug!"

"This is not about Doug Ramsey!" he roared, the day's pent up frustration finally reaching the breaking point. "This is about Anya!"

"Makarova? Look, I know Kitty really likes dancing and, you know, apparently Russians, but I'm pretty sure you don't need to worry about her falling for Miss Makarova, okay Big Brother?" she joked dryly, her smug expression fading as realization dawned on her. "Piotr? Why did you call her Anya, like you knew her?"

"We met in New York, years ago, before you or Katya came here," he explained, sitting down wearily and leaning his back against a tree.

"Were you in love with her?" Illyana asked hesitantly, sitting down next to him. The news of her brother having feelings for another woman was a revelation to her. She knew he and Kurt occasionally used to double date some women in the city, and Logan once made an offhand comment about some girl in the Savage Land, but she had never thought much of it. Piotr with Kitty was all she really knew.

"Nyet, no, I don't know. Perhaps I could have been, if she had given us a chance. It all happened so fast. We were strangers, but so much the same. We were both artists, she...she understood. We shared a country and a background." He paused for a moment and gave a bitter laugh. "An age. We were alike, the way...the way Katya and Doug are alike."

"So then this is about Doug."

"Nyet. Don't you see? I fell for Anya so fast because we connected so easily, like kindred spirits. What's to stop the same thing from happening with Kitty and Doug?"

"Because, you big idiot, Kitty loves you," she told him, her heart aching at the sight of pain in his gentle eyes. "Besides, for all you had in common, you and Anya didn't stay together."

"Because of our difference, Snowflake," Piotr explained looking away. "We were alike in every way but one, and that one was enough for her."

"And what could that witch possibly see that was bad about my big brother?" the Russian sorceress demanded lightly, hoping to see a ghost of a smile to pass over his face.

"I was a mutant. She saw me turn into steel and she fled." Illyana's face fell and anger welled inside her, wondering how someone could throw a person as wonderful as her brother away just because he was born different, and if, when, she fell in love, the boy she cared for might reject her for the same reasons. Next to her, Piotr closed his eyes, his voice laced with heartache. "Katya and Doug do not share that difference."

Illyana stared at him, unsure if she should hug him or slap some sense into him. "You want to know what Kitty did after you left?" she asked quietly.

"Found Doug Ramsey?" he asked bitterly, a haunted, empty look in his eyes.

"Nope. I just said that cause I wanted to make you angry. She went upstairs and locked herself in her room, asked me for some time alone." Peter looked at her, a spark of hope returning to his eyes. "What can I say, that girl's the stupidest genius I ever met. Don't ask me why, but for some reason she loves you, you dolt. And trust me, I'm her best friend. I know these things."

Peter sat silently for a few minutes, taking comfort from his sister's presence and words. He closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, and exhaled, letting go of the turmoil that had poisoned his emotions. For the first time in nearly four days, he felt somewhat relaxed. He knew what he needed to do; it still scared him, but it was good to have the confusion and doubt cleared away, no longer tangling his feelings. He put his arm around Illyana, drew her towards him, and kissed her on the temple. "I think you are much wiser than I, Snowflake."

"Well..." a quip was on her tongue, but Illyana decided against it. "Not really. I just have a better perspective on this than either of you."

"Perhaps." Peter stood, offered Illyana a hand and pulled her to her feet. He glanced at the pine he had been cutting. Energy flared over his skin as he transformed into steel. He placed his hand flat against the tree and gave it a gentle push. Wood splintered, cracked, and the pine fell over with a loud crash. Peter shifted out of his armor, picked up his axe and planted it in the ragged stump. The air was thick with the scent of fresh pinesap. "Tomorrow - no, the day after - I'll strip and section it," he muttered.

"Why didn't you knock it down like that in the first place?" Illyana asked.

"Because if I had, I probably would not have stopped until I had uprooted every tree between here and Albany," Peter answered wryly. "Making Kitty mad is bad enough. I do not need Ororo or the Professor wondering where my wits have gone as well."

Illyana giggled. "Good point, Big Brother." Peter smiled slightly, shrugged, sighed, and ran a hand through his black hair.

"I have been a fool," he murmured.

"No, you've been foolish. There's a difference. Everyone is foolish once in a while, but you're only a fool if you don't realize how you're acting and not take steps to change it."

Peter nodded. "That I shall do directly. I only hope Katya gives me a chance before setting Lockheed on me."

Illyana grinned wickedly. "Nah, she wouldn't do that. She wants the pleasure of roasting you to herself."

"What a comfort you are, Snowflake," Peter said dryly. Illyana laughed, hooked her arm through her brother's and together they headed down the path to the mansion.

Peter rapped Kitty's door and waited, trying not to fidget. A minute passed with no answer. Peter sighed. He had been doing that a lot, lately. "Katya, it's me," he called.

"Go away." Peter winced at her tone.

"Please, I want to talk to you."

"Tough." Peter winced again. A snake scaled in thorns coiled in his stomach. He glanced down the hall at his sister. Illyana gave him an encouraging smile. He girded his will and tried again.

"Katya, I know I deserve only your anger, but please, give me one moment." Silence, then he heard the click of a lock and the door opened slightly. Kitty glowered out at him, her eyes wet and red.

"Are you gonna yell at me again?" she asked, her voice quavering a little. Peter shook his head. Kitty looked at him closely, her lips pursed tight, then opened the door and stepped away. Peter entered and shut it behind him. Kitty walked over to her computer desk, pulled out her chair, swiveled it around and plopped down on it. Lockheed was perched on top of her monitor. The little dragon bristled and growled menacingly at Peter. Kitty crossed her legs, folded her arms and waited. Peter found it hard not to duck his head in shame.

"Katya," he began. "I am so sorry. I know how inadequate that sounds, after the horrible way I have acted-"

"And just what exactly is wrong with you?" Kitty demanded. Her face was very tight and the quaver in her voice became more pronounced. "I thought I knew you better, but I've never seen you behave this way, Peter. I can't figure out why you're so angry, and that... it scares me."

"I never meant to scare you. I regret making you worry so. I..." Peter took a deep breath to steady him self. "I... was not completely honest with you, earlier today," he said with slow care. Kitty's expression softened a little, and she looked at him curiously. "I told you I was in a bad mood, but not what caused it."

"And what is the cause?" Kitty prompted. Peter grimaced, looked down at the floor and muttered something inaudible. "I didn't hear you, Peter."

"I am jealous," Peter muttered. Kitty blinked in surprise.

"Jealous?" she echoed.

"Yes. I am jealous of... of Doug."

Kitty's eyes widened. "But why?"

Peter sighed and looked up at Kitty sadly. He turned away from her, not wanting her to see the pain and shame in his face. A tremor ran through his shoulders and his hands clenched. "It seems ridiculous, childishly petty, feeling like this, but no matter how I try to thrust it away, it refuses to leave. I have no right to begrudge you your friendship with Doug, but your... closeness... with him, how comfortable you are in his presence, it unnerves me." Peter closed his eyes and rubbed at them with his right hand. "And it does not help matters that sometimes... sometimes I think that he would be far better for you than I could ever be."

Kitty felt the blood drain out of her face. Her heart began to beat rapidly against her ribs and she suddenly found it very hard to breathe. A cold cloak of fear settled over her body, making her tremble. Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes. No, no, no, no. Don't let this lead to what I think it is... "Peter..." she said in a soft, scared whisper. "You aren't... you don't want to break up with me, do you?"

Peter's eyes snapped open and he whirled around. Kitty was pale and shaking slightly, staring at him with wide, frightened, tear-filled eyes. "Nyet!" he exclaimed, shaking his head vigorously and cursing himself for being a fool ten times over. Can I not do anything right today? He had come to Kitty with the intentions of mending the rift he had caused in their relationship and, thanks to his clumsiness, had ended up scaring her. "I want to be with you. I care for you... love you... very much, Katya."

Kitty inhaled deeply as the fear gripping her loosened its hold. She wiped her eyes and gave Peter a small smile, relieved by his heartfelt reassurance. Then she frowned, perplexed by what he said earlier. "I... I want to be with you too, Peter," she said, still feeling a little shaky. "But I want to know - why do you think that way about me and Doug?"

Peter sighed and looked down at his sneakers. "Because he fits into your life in ways I cannot," he began. "Because you and he are the same age; because you two share so much in common, and he makes you laugh so easily." His hands clenched and he grimaced violently. "Because I can't help but think he would be a better match for you than a half-literate peasant five years your senior." This last he spat out, his tone harsh with self-contempt.

Kitty stared at her boyfriend wide-eyed, not knowing what to say. After a few moments she stood, walked over and embraced him, wrapping her arms tight around his body. Peter stiffened in surprise, then relaxed into her hug and returned it.

"You shouldn't think of yourself that way, Peter," Kitty chastised gently, her head against his chest, listening to the quickening tattoo of his heart. "I think you're wonderful."

"I have not been acting so wonderful today," Peter muttered. Kitty looked up at him with a soft smile.

"Hey, everyone has off days. Even me." Peter chuckled weakly and ran his hand through Kitty's hair, but his face was still melancholy. Kitty looked at him earnestly. "I don't know if Doug would be better for me, and I don't think it matters. He's one of my closest friends, and I care about him a lot, but he doesn't make me feel the way you do." Peter stared somberly into her dark eyes, taking in the honest sentiment and affection shining in their depths. Kitty smiled again, moved her arms to around his neck, and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. He ducked his head in order to meet her lips. The kiss was deep, gentle, loving. When they finally broke it Kitty gave a little sigh of contentment, pressed her face into Peter's chest and gave him a soft push. Peter followed her cue by stepping back and sitting down on her bed, pulling her onto his lap. They sat silently for a while, holding each other, enjoying the feel of each other's body.

"I think perhaps I should go now," Peter sighed, looking at the alarm clock on her nightstand, the numbers 11:38 glaring back in bright red lines. "Illyana will be wanting her room back soon."

Kitty laid a hand on his chest, stopping him as he began to move her off his lap. "What if I said I don't want you to go?" she asked softly. "What if I want you to stay here with me, all night?"

"Then that is all the reason more for me to go now, before we allow things to...escalate," Peter explained gently.

"Like this?" she murmured. A slight moan escaped from his lips as she turned around and straddled him, pressing herself close against his body. She reached up and ran her hand through his dark hair, gently nibbling his ear, as her other hand moved to the inside of his thigh.

"Katya, I... I can't," he protested weakly, the familiar rising feeling in his body growing with each caress as he met her lips for another kiss.

"What's stopping you?" Kitty breathed, leaning back onto the pillows. She grabbed his hand and gave it a small tug, and he allowed her to pull him on top of her.

"I... nothing," he trailed off, giving in to temptation as she phased his shirt free, running her delicate hands over the ridges of his back. He nuzzled the crook of her neck and ran his hands up her stomach, unbuttoning her collared tank top and taking satisfaction in feeling her body writhe with pleasure at his touch. He bent down to kiss her exposed stomach, starting above her belly button and working his way up. Sighing blissfully, Kitty ached her back to allow him room to unhook her bra. Peter wrapped his arms around her, fumbling slightly as she moved forward, grabbing onto the back of his neck and kissing him passionately as he continued to work the clasp. He unhooked it and laid her back down against the mattress, running his hand forward to touch her chest. Her body tensed and she slapped his hands away, covering her breasts protectively with her arms. Peter froze and looked down at her. Kitty turned away, her eyes awash with guilt and shame. He smiled dully, trying to hide his disappointment, and leaned down once more to place a reassuring peck on her cheek before climbing off the bed to collect his shirt. Kitty sat up and watched him, hugging her pillow to her bare chest, tears glistening in her golden eyes. "I'm sorry, Peter."

"No, I'm the one who should be apologizing. I should never have-" he started, sitting back down on the side of the bed.

"-No, no, you were, I just," she mumbled through clenched teeth, holding her edge of the pillow case in her mouth, covering her naked skin as she re-fastened her bra. "I wanted to, really I did. I just, I wasn't-"

"You're not ready." She nodded. "It's ok. We're young. We have lots of time; we don't have to do this now. Not until you're ready," he soothed, holding her tight as he saw her tears begin to fall.

"It's not ok," she sniffled, burying her head into his chest. "I wanted to give you something, to prove how much I love you. Something no one else could ever take."

Peter held her tighter and clenched his t-shirt in his fist, furious at himself for letting his passion for her win out over his love. "You don't need to prove it," he assured her, tenderly kissing the top of her head.

"Yes, I do," she protested, looking up at him with coffee colored eyes full of melancholy. He smiled down at her and she closed her eyes and bit her lip, gathering her courage. "I... Have you ever been with someone else?" she asked timidly, looking up at him fearfully. Peter shifted uncomfortably and furrowed his brow, finding it impossible to lie under her vulnerable, trusting gaze.

"Things were different," he started haltingly. "I didn't know you then and..."

Kitty squeezed her eyes shut and turned away "It's ok, Peter. I understand," she said in a strangled voice. "You're nineteen, that's what nineteen year old boys do, I guess. It's not like I expected you never..." she trailed off, still sniffling, and put her head in her hands, covering her eyes. Peter inched closer to her, his hand hovering above her shoulder, unsure of what he should do. A small, muffled noise came from her, as though she was trying to choke back a sob, and he instantaneously placed his hand on her back, calmingly stroking her soft skin. Kitty ran her hands down her face, brushing away the tears from her eyes and cheeks, and looked back at him, a look of trepidation on her face. "Was she, or they, maybe, were they... I mean, was it...did you like it?" she asked apprehensively, not sure she wanted to hear an answer. Before he could think of an answer she gave a scornful laugh and ran her hands through her dark hair, stopping at the nape of her neck. "Dumb, dumb, dumb," she muttered to herself, giving another short laugh, this time full of dizzy tenseness. "Of course you liked it. Why else would you have wanted to do what we almost just did?" she murmured, weakly shrugging her shoulders.

Peter took this as an opportunity to take her hands in his. "Katya," he asked gently, his eyes full of concern, "where is this coming from?"

"It's because I don't understand," she explained miserably. "I don't know when I'm gonna be ready, Peter. Three, four years, maybe even longer. But you already..." she paused and looked away, her lower lip trembling, "Why do you wait for me?"

Peter quickly mulled over his feelings for her and dreams he kept to himself of their future together that always crept into the forefront of his mind while he was alone at night, cautiously selecting his words, afraid to tell her too much. "Because I fell in love with you," he said simply. "Which, incidentally," the Russian added, attempting to cheer her up, "isn't too hard to believe considering you didn't give me much of a choice in the matter, always jumping into my arms and kissing me whenever I wasn't paying attention."

"You know you liked it," she sniffed, a halfhearted smile forming on her young face.

"If I hadn't, would you have stopped?" he teased, watching with great amusement as she tried to suppress her smile.

"Of course," she protested defensively. He cocked an eyebrow and stared at her, and she squirmed sheepishly under his gaze. "Eventually," she added with a small laugh that was little more than a puff of air. Peter chuckled, relieved to see her spirits lifting. She cuddled up next to him and he leaned against her, inhaling the clean scent of her shampoo.

"It will be different Katya, you and I," he murmured, the blissful feeling of being snuggled up next to his girlfriend girding his confidence and loosening his tongue. "I've never been with someone I loved. I've never loved anyone but you."

Kitty blushed sweetly, moved by his words, but worry still weighed heavy in the pit of her stomach. "I still feel like I need to prove something," she admitted, looking up at him for answers.

Peter reached out and placed his hands on her cheeks, wiping the last traces of tears away with his thumb and gently kissed each eyelid, holding Kitty until her face was dry and her eyes were as clear and bright as the sky after the rain. "Do you love me?" he questioned, his heart beating like a steel drum as he anticipated her answer

Kitty took a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah," she said quietly. "I love you."

"Then you've already given me your heart," he told her earnestly, his ocean blue eyes shining with adoration. "That is enough for now."

"That was beautiful, Kitty. You have excellent form," Anya Makarova called out as she watched the young girl complete an entrechat. "I can see why you are Stevie's favorite student."

"Nonsense, Anya. You know I don't have favorites," Stevie chided, a twinkle in her dark eyes as she placed her hands on Kitty's shoulders and gave her an affectionate squeeze. "Wonderful job, Kitten," she told her young pupil, pride and warmth in her voice. "It almost makes up for you missing the last session," she added, a bit more firmly, as she moved along to check on her next student.

"Now Kitty, why don't you try the same combination again. But this time, be sure to keep your eyes up, not down at your feet. Remember what we talked about; no matter how difficult a step is, it should always appear to be easy."

Kitty shook her head vigorously, anxious to impress the professional dancer instructing her. "Sorry about that. I was really trying."

"No child, do not apologize. You did quite well. I only wish you to keep your eyes up so you can practice what it would be like in front of an audience. I expect that you will have many watching you in a few years when your name begins replacing mine on the marquees," she complimented, shooting her an encouraging smile.

"Spaceeba," the young X-Man muttered, ducking her head to hide her embarrassment, but overjoyed by her praise.

"You can speak Russian!" Anya exclaimed, clapping her hands, delighted to hear her native tongue.

"Yeah, my boyfriend's from there," Kitty explained.

"Ahh, then you know," the Russian ballerina said, a naughty smile playing at the corner of her lips.

"Know what?"

"That there is nothing better than a strong Russian man to keep you warm on a cold winter night," she told Kitty, her smile widening to a smirk as the two women giggled together. Anya continued to instruct her for a few more minutes, talking animatedly in Russian as she continued to help Kitty perfect her steps. Satisfied with the younger girl's progress, she moved on to another student working on a fouette.

"Isn't she amazing?" Kitty marveled as she wandered back over to Illyana, who was stretching alone on the barre.

"She's something all right," the young blonde muttered darkly.

"What's with you? You've been on her case all- hey, watch it!" she yelped as someone shoved hard against her shoulder.

"Sorry," Danny snickered, looking down at her in distaste, "but you should really learn not to be so clumsy. I guess it just goes to show, some people can't afford to miss a lesson."

Kitty's eyes narrowed in contempt. "I see you're still as pleasant as ever," she said with mock sweetness, continuing to shoot daggers at him.

Danny snorted. "And I assume you're still in love with the muties."

"And I assume the reason you beat up girls is to compensate for your...other shortcomings," Illyana quipped, smiling smugly at him as a hard glare frosted over her deep blue eyes.

Danny's posture grew tense under her reproachful gaze and he turned his attention back to Kitty, ignoring the Russian. Like most people, he was instinctively afraid of her. "I only hit you to try an' knock some sense into you," he sneered, a haughty look of superiority in his eyes. "Reverend Stryker's a good man. Can't you see he's only trying to protect us from the freaks?"

"He's right, Kitty," Illyana conceded, nodding her head with feigned remorse. "That broadcast from Madison Square Gardens showed he's quite dedicated to saving the world from the imposing threat of unarmed teenage girls."

"She wasn't a girl, she was one a those mutie X-Men," Danny argued, his rising voice attracting the attention of the rest of the room. "He was trying to put her out of her misery, same as you would a lame horse."

"Daniel!" Stevie's voice rang out in warning, a harsh, stern look drawn upon her face.

"You better watch your back, you little-"

"-Kitty! Illyana! Let me handle this," Stevie commanded, stepping between her feuding students. "Now young man," she began, staring down crossly at the young boy, her hands placed authoritatively on her hips, "what did we discuss about bringing up the anti-mutant movement in class?"

"Let him speak, Stevie. The child has a point."

Stevie looked at the tall woman standing next to her, stunned by her words. "A point, Anya?" she asked incredulously. "He's advocating murder and racism!"

"It's not racism," the Russian ballerina explained calmly. "Mutants are not a part of our kind. They are freaks, aberrations. Nothing more."

"They're people, just like us. Good people," Stevie argued, her temper flaring. She looked back and stole a quick glance at Kitty and Illyana, who were watching the two women argue with great interest and, she noted, a small amount of fear. "Maybe you wouldn't be so quick to judge if you met one," Stevie chastised, perturbed by her colleague's beliefs.

"I already have," Anya began, her face darkening at the memory. "A man, a 'Russian' I met in Brighton Beach. I had been kidnapped by gangsters trying to return me to my home country and was knocked unconscious. When I came to he claimed he had rescued me. He hid his true self from me, pretended he was a good, gentle soul. Who knows, given enough time I may even have begun to develop feelings for this..." she trailed off, giving a sharp, embittered laugh. "The night we met we spent our time walking through the city, just talking, until we were attacked, and his flesh turned to steel as he fought."

Kitty gripped the barre for support as realization set in. Stevie put a comforting, motherly hand on her shoulder, and shot a quick look back at Illyana, who was leaning against the mirror, arms folded across her chest and a sullen glare on her face, warning the girl to reign in her temper and not say anything that might expose the X-Men's identities. Illyana looked away and closed her eyes, her entire body flinching as she forcefully willed herself to stay still and silent while dark thoughts raged within her.

"After," Anya continued, oblivious to the shift of posture in the woman listening to her, "he tried to convince me that did not matter, that it was his heart that was important, but I would not be fooled by his trickery twice. I told him 'a man of steel has no heart'. And a man without a heart is no more than a monster," she finished proudly, still pleased at how deftly she had handled the situation several years ago.

"He doesn't sound like a monster to me," Kitty said quietly, tears welling in her wide, doleful eyes. "More like a knight in shining armor."

"You are young, child. Perhaps, when you are older, you will see the truth."

Stevie's eyes narrowed and she took a step closer to the ballerina, pushing Kitty protectively behind her. "I think she sees just fine. I think it's you who has a skewed perspective."

Anya's brow furrowed, and she regarded her old friend with indignant surprise. "I am your guest, Stevie," the Russian chastised. "You should not address me so rudely. It does not make me eager to visit your class again."

The former ballerina gave an indignant snort and glared at the red head standing before her. "What makes you think you're still invited?"

Anya gaped at her, then lowered her head in lamentation. "I'm sorry Stevie, I had thought better of you," she said sorrowfully. "But the Stryker Crusade taught us that the only thing worse than mutants are people like you; race traitors whose beliefs and actions are what allow the mutants to continue to hide and flourish. If I cannot convince you to change your mind, then perhaps it is time we end our friendship. I just don't think I can associate with people who have such dangerous views of the world."

"Funny," Stevie muttered, turning her head to the side and watching Kitty and Illyana's still reflections in the mirror, "I feel the same way."

Anya's shoulders slumped and she bit her lip, nodding regretfully. "Well then, I guess that's settled," she decided, sighing deeply. With a graceful turn she walked across the room, grabbing her duffel bag and bottle of water off the polished floor before making her way to the door of the stairwell. "I hope that one day, the two of us can see eye to eye on this."

Stevie returned her melancholic half smile and nodded sadly. "Me too."

Kitty propped her leg up on the barre and began her routine warm-down, her eyes anxiously wandering back and forth between the clock and the large bay windows at the far side of the room, waiting for the last five minutes of the lesson to pass. Across the room, Stevie took note of her favorite student's restless behavior and followed her gaze out the bay windows to the street below. I should have known she thought to herself as she recognized the outline of her prized pupil's boyfriend leaning against his car as he watched the studio, his face barely visible in the hazy glow of the streetlamp. "Go on, Kiddo," Stevie told Kitty, giving the young X-Man an understanding smile.

"Really?" she asked, tearing her eyes away from the clock and looking hopefully up at Stevie, her eyes still slightly red and tearstained.

"Wait," her teacher commanded, leaning down to give the girl a maternal hug. "She was wrong, you know."

"Yeah," Kitty agreed, her voice full of conviction. "I know."

"Good girl," Stevie smiled, looking down at her affectionately. "Now go," she ordered, ushering her out the door.

Kitty's face broke into a grin and she hurried down the stairs, her ponytail bouncing up and down with each step. She shoved the door open, taking no notice of the blast of cool air prickling her flushed face, and ran towards Peter, his pensive expression breaking into a grin as he strode over to greet her, stumbling backwards a few steps as she leapt into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist and kissing him deeply.

"Miss me?" he asked with a smirk as she pulled her face away from his and buried it against his shoulder.

Kitty raised an eyebrow and turned her face away. "I don't know what gave you that idea," she said coyly, moving her head back to return his smirk, love shining in her golden eyes as she reached up to finger the ends of his dark hair. Peter gazed up at her adoringly, a mischievous glint in his ocean blue eyes as he tilted his head to reach her lips, giving her a kiss as intense and passionate as the one she had greeted him with moments before. Her mouth widened in surprise as he began to spin around with her in his arms, breaking their kiss as he began to chuckle. Kitty shrieked with laughter, unsuccessfully trying to kiss him through her fit of giggles, both oblivious to the disapproving and startled glances they were gathering from the students and parents exiting the studio. Peter came to a stop, and the couple stared at each other and kissed again, this time gently, full of tenderness. By the time their lips broke apart, the rest of the class had gone home and Illyana was watching them, a disgusted, stunned expression on her face.

"I'm gonna wait in the car," she muttered, shaking her head.

Peter and Kitty looked at each other and grinned, and she leaned her forehead against his, staring contentedly into his sapphire eyes.

"How were lessons?" he asked softly, bouncing her upward to tighten his hold on her.

Kitty's smile faded and her eyes clouded over. She moved one arm from around his neck and placed her hand on his cheek, looking somberly down at him. "Miss Makarova is an amazing dancer, but an idiot about everything else. She told us a story, about a mutant she met at Brighton Beach a few years back."

Peter flinched and set her down, staring at the sidewalk beneath him.

"Hey," she said softly, placing her hand back on his cheek, "look at me." Reluctantly, the dark haired X-Man raised his head, allowing her to see the shame and dejection in his kind eyes. "I know you have a heart, Peter," she whispered, her brimming tears making it hard to speak. "It's the part of you I love the most."

Peter drew her close and wrapped his strong arms around her, a soft smile playing at the corner of his lips.

"Promise me you won't ever forget that," she murmured, returning his embrace.

"I promise," Peter muttered, feeling his tension and disquiet drain away while he held Kitty. He kissed the crown of her head and she leaned backing, her hands sliding down to his shoulders. "You're amazing," he added, staring into her eyes with a trace of wonder.

"And don't you forget that either, mister," she warned lightly, shaking her finger threateningly at him.

"I won't," Peter vowed, a peaceful smile lighting up his face as he took hold of her hands and guided them back up around his neck, placing his arms around her waist and pulling her into a warm embrace, lifting her gently to meet her lips for another kiss.

Jeremy's Notes - Lia Fail recently did me the favor of writing a continuation of one of my stories, Pushing It. I enjoyed her story Moving Forward very much, and asked her if she'd like to work on a collaboration, something I had never tried before. She agreed, and the result of our work together you've just read. I think Lia and I did a pretty good job (he said modestly).

If you're curious to know how the process went, it was pretty straightforward. I started by writing the initial scene, and we took turns working on it, passing it back and forth, making the occasion suggestion, making slight tweaks here and there, and basically just reacting to what the other wrote - pretty much an improvisational jam. I waited with anticipation each week to see what Lia had written in response to me, and in general I had a lot of fun.

Lia ended up writing two-thirds of Jealous. Any flaws in this work are probably my fault, so apply blame accordingly. Comments and criticism are quite welcome, and flamers will be fed to a small, purple dragon.

Thanks all for your time and tolerance.

Lia's Notes- First off, Jeremy is far too modest, not giving himself any of the credit he so richly deserves. He came up with the premise for 'Jealous', as well as many of the twists and turns that made this story interesting, and I am very pleased to have had a chance to work with him. He is a wonderful writer, and if you haven't read his story, "Deathless" you're missing out. It is an intriguing story of rare high quality, and a real treat to read.

I really enjoyed writing this story, and I hope you all enjoyed reading it as well.