Jeremy Harper and Lia Fail

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

On a gray early afternoon Peter Rasputin stood at the edge of an escarpment overlooking the sea, watching the tumultuous Atlantic waves swell and crash over the thin strip of shingle beach below. The dull, fleecy mass of clouds overhead spat slightly as a cold wind redolent of salt blew from over the ocean. Peter felt none of it - in his armored state, he was impervious to the environmental conditions around him. How he wished otherwise. He raised his steel hands, examined them through narrowed eyes. He curled his fingers. They felt stiff, clumsy. It was hard to paint with them, and almost impossible to draw. Perhaps in time he would grow use to it. He did not want to. Once, he enjoyed his powers, despite how they marked him as different; the god-like strength of his steel form, its almost supernatural durability - what a wonderful thing, being able to become a physical paragon with but a second's thought. Now, his armor felt like a prison - confining, suffocating. His hands clenched into tight fists. He needed to get out. Peter took a breath, closed his eyes, and concentrated, pushing at the tangible barrier injury had interwoven throughout his entire being. His face became strained. Knots of discomfort swelled in his arms, legs and back. The barrier distended against his mental exertion, but refused to yield. Peter hissed, gritted his teeth, redoubled his efforts. After an interminable moment of pain, energy coruscated over his body. Peter fell to one knee, gasping, sweat beading on his now human brow. He looked at his large, calloused hands, flexed his fingers, turned them over to look at their backs. A smile flitted briefly over his lips. "It is so good," he said out loud, "to have flesh again."

"Tell me about it." Peter blinked in surprised and looked over his shoulder. Behind him stood Kitty, bundled up in sweats, leaning slightly on a cane. "I never thought it'd be such a joy, being able simply to touch things." She walked over, moving slowly, with care. She looked down at him, a smile brightening her pale, wan face. "Looking good, Petey."

Peter chuckled, smiling back. "Thank you, Kitty. You are looking well yourself." His expression became thoughtful. "But, I wonder if you should be outside right now. You have only just recovered."

"I could ask the same of you," Kitty replied.

"I was not injured as badly."

"It was bad enough. You only started moving again the day before Moira finally let me out of that damn containment chamber. I'm so tired of being cooped up all the time. I just had to get out and get some fresh air." Kitty started to sit down. Peter offered her his hand, but she waved it off. She plopped down and let out a soft groan. "I'm moving like my grandma," she complained.

Peter smiled. "It is but a temporary condition, I'm sure. No doubt very soon you'll be your old self, running the rest of us into the ground with your boundless energy."

Kitty laughed. She laid her cane across her knees and looked out over the straights, her smile fading as her countenance became contemplative. Peter settled down next to her, sitting Indian style, rolling his shoulders, cricking his neck, enjoying sensations long dulled by his armored state. They sat for a while in companionable silence, neither feeling the need to fill it with unnecessary talk. Suddenly Kitty shivered. Peter noticed. He unzipped his sweat coat, shrugged out of it and offered it silently to Kitty. She shook her head. "Thank you, but no. I'm okay."

"You are cold. Take it, please."

"I'm fine Peter, really. Besides, what about yourself?"

Peter shrugged dismissively. "I am Russian. This," he gestured with his free hand, "is a balmy spring day to me."

Kitty looked at Peter, then down at the coat. Smiling, she accepted it, wrapping it around her, its front hem pooling in her lap. "Thank you." Peter nodded. She looked around, up at the sky, across the flat, grassy land stretching between them and Moira's home and laboratory complex, over at the barren, gnarled, salt-stunted tree crouching near the escarpment's precipice. She sighed softly, gazed moodily across the straights. "Pretty miserable today, don't ya think?"

"I don't know," answered Peter. "Even gray days have their own beauty. There is a… grandeur… to this weather, so lonely and aloof. It appeals to me. I think tomorrow I'll try to capture it on canvas, if I have the energy for it."

Kitty smiled affectionately at Peter. "I bet you could find the beautiful side to anything."

Peter smirked. He was about to say something but suddenly checked himself, his face growing grave. He looked down at the grass. "No. There are some things that will never be beautiful, were never beautiful to begin with."

Kitty pursed her lips, her own thoughts mirroring Peter's expression. She nodded in agreement, pulled her knees up to her chest, resting her arms and chin on top of them. "Do you think they're all right, Storm, Logan, Rogue and the others? We haven't heard from them in such a long time."

"I am sure that they are fine," Peter assured her quietly. "Ororo and Wolverine are no amateurs. Our friends are in good hands."

"I wish they were all back here, where it's safe," Kitty murmured wistfully.

"I but wish I were fit enough to help them." Kitty glanced up at Peter, startled.

"Are you actually saying you want to fight?"

Peter shrugged. "I do not like violence, but neither am I afraid to use it, when there is cause. There is much cause for it now. The Marauders, and whomever they serve, must not be allowed to escape unpunished. They are as great an evil as Proteus." He frowned, remembering that battle against Moira's insane son. He had slain Proteus himself, not five hundred yards away from where he and Kitty sat now. "They are more so, in fact. As cruel as he was, at his core Proteus was a confused child, doing what he must to survive. There is nothing on Earth that can excuse the Marauders for what they did to the poor Morlocks, to Kurt, to you."

"I… I guess you're right," Kitty admitted reluctantly. She buried her face against her forearms. "Still, I think that… that if it meant never having going up against them again, I would let them get away."

Peter glanced down at Kitty, started. A thoughtful frown pursed his lips. "You are scared," he murmured. Kitty glared up at Peter resentfully.

"Of course I'm scared, dummy!" she snapped. "I nearly died. So did you. And poor Kurt… God only knows when he'll wake up, if ever. I have every right to be scared."

Peter nodded. "Of course you do. I am sorry, Kitty. I did not mean for what I said to sound… accusatory." Peter smiled, his ocean-blue eyes flashing with pleasant memories. "It is just that I am so use to seeing you so brave at the most inappropriate times, I had forgotten that you have the capacity to be scared."

Kitty looked closely at Peter. She gave out a soft little laugh and dropped her head against her arms again. "I'm sorry too, Peter. For yelling at you." She laughed again, this time bitterly. "I guess… I guess I'm going yellow. I thought I was so tough… What a crock…" She looked up, gazing out across the sea. "It's funny, I've nearly lost my life before this - Magneto, the Brood, the Sidri, Plague… all of them came close to killing me. But those brushes with death didn't make me feel the way I do now." She glanced at Peter. "What you said, about Proteus having his reasons for how he acted, that applies to most everyone we've fought. But the Marauders…" she shivered, pulling Peter's sweat coat tighter around her. Tears glimmered in her large golden-brown eyes. "It was so senseless. They killed all those people, just for existing. I… I don't think I can ever go up against such senseless hate and evil again. If I saw Scalphunter, or worse, Harpoon…" Kitty's hands shook, and she clenched them. "I think I'd freeze, maybe just curl up and wait to die."

Peter carefully mulled through his thoughts before speaking. "I hope and pray, Kitty, that you never have to face evil like the Marauders again. You deserve so much better than that. But I think you underrate yourself. You are… gun-shy… right now, and with very good reason. Yet I believe if the time comes, and you meet the Marauders, you will acquit yourself admirably, and they will forever regret encountering you. You are the strongest person I know, Kitty… Stronger than even Ororo or Logan, and far, far stronger than myself."

Kitty did not answer for a moment, just continued to stare out at the sea. Then she looked up at Peter, smiling shyly. "You really think so?"

Peter nodded. "I know so."

"Thank you. That means a lot to me. But I think if anyone is underrating himself, it's you. I mean, you say that I'm so much stronger than you, but here you are, not even afraid…"

"Who says that I am not afraid?" asked Peter mildly. "Of course I am afraid. How could I not be? Two of my dearest friends nearly died, and I was gravely wounded at the hands of those animals. It still scares me, thinking about that, wondering about what will happen next time. I simply refuse to let that fear rule me."

Kitty's smile widened. "We've talked about this before, I think."

"So we have, but it is good to talk about it again, to refresh one's memory." Peter shrugged his shoulders. "Risk is something that we walk hand in hand with everyday. Even if you hide yourself away, it will still be there. Far better to face risk, I think, than to be afraid of it, to live but half a life, and in the end regretting paths not taken."

Kitty looked away from Peter. "Yeah… I think you're right," she murmured quietly. She looked back at him, got up on one knee. "Peter…"

"Yes, Kitty?" Kitty laid a slim hand on his shoulder. He turned to look at her, and started, surprised by her expression. Her eyes were large and glittering, the look on her face one of almost desperate longing. Without warning she closed the gap between them, wrapping strong, slim arms around his broad shoulders, kissing him fiercely on the lips. Peter sat still, frozen. Then, almost as soon as it began, Kitty pulled away, fright replacing her desire, tears welling up in her eyes.

"Oh God, Peter," she gasped. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have. You still… you don't feel that way… Oh God!" Sobbing, humiliated, she turned away, scrambling to get up to her feet. Peter broke out of his stupor, reached out with a hand and grabbed Kitty by the arm. Kitty stopped, turned back to face him, not sure what to make of his ineffable expression. Suddenly his eyes flashed and he pulled her towards him, catching her in a powerful embrace, kissing her with bruising, hungry force. Kitty let out a little gasp of surprise, then hugged and kissed him back. She moaned into his mouth as a beautiful heat rose up within her. She felt like someone quenching her thirst after a terrible, interminable drought.

Then Peter froze, his eyes snapping open. He pulled away from Kitty sharply, his expression unreadable as he stared at her. He shut his eyes tight, agony tensing his face. It passed quickly. He bowed his head, lifted it, and smiled sadly at her, his eyes bright with pain, regret and longing, tears glistening at their edges. He kissed her gently on the forehead, stood up and walked away. Kitty watched him, feeling confused and uncertain. "Peter," she called out. He hesitated for a moment, and then continued, moving as fast as he could without actually running, entering the lab complex. "Peter," Kitty whispered. She pulled his sweatshirt tighter around herself. She shivered, but not from the cold.

Peter sat on a dull gray folding chair too compact for his body, the metal seat straining against his weight, threatening to buckle from under him. He leaned forward, shifting his weight, propped his elbows on top of his knees, then rested his head in his hands and rubbed his brow, attempting to alleviate the pressure in his temple. He stopped, bringing his hands together in the center of his forehead and began to tap his right foot anxiously against the white speckled linoleum; the occasional squeak from the rubber sole of his sneaker against the floor comforted him. Peter always preferred that sound to the hollow echo of his heavy, metal tread. The latter never sounded human.

Across from him, Peter's former teammate lay silent, his indigo blue fur a stark contrast to the drab, sterile white of the walls and equipment that lined his hospital room.

"I apologize, if I am disturbing you," Peter muttered contritely. "I would leave you be, but there is no one else, and sometimes, this island can feel as suffocating as my armored form," he added, lifting his head to stare at his friend. Kurt continued to breath steadily, but otherwise remained still. The young Russian sighed heavily, shaking his head ruefully at the sight of his comatose teammate before beginning his story.

"I killed the man who did this to you. Riptide. He was blocking my way to Harpoon. We both thought Katya was dead, and he laughed about it. So I killed him. I don't regret that. But seeing her lying there, nearly dead, the pain that welled up in my heart…. it made me want to make things better between us. I tried this afternoon, but all I accomplished was proving myself correct; that she is far stronger than I shall ever be. And I hurt her, all over again. I have been thinking much lately about what Wolverine told me, the night the three of us went to the bar in the city, that I may have done what I did simply because I was scared of losing. I have begun to believe that, perhaps, he may have been right."

Peter leaned forward, once again resting his head in his hands. "I think I still love her," he muttered, his ocean blue eyes full of desolation. "I only wish I could deserve her."

Kitty stood alone near the edge of the cliff, shivering, Peter's sweatshirt doing nothing to shield her from the North Sea's icy winds. "Are ya daft, child?" a stern voice with a thick Scottish accent rang out from behind her. "The X-Men did nay indebt themselves to Dr. Doom to save yuir life just so you could catch yuir death of cold," Moira MacTaggert scolded as she continued to walk up to the young X-Man's spot on the cliff, her mouth curled into a stringent frown. "You should nay be out here doing anything too stressful. If you want to heal you need to- oh child," she said softly as she saw Kitty's face. The young girl's arms were wrapped protectively around her torso, clinging tightly to her lithe body, and her nose was red from the cold; her tear-stained face puffy and raw. "It's alright," Moira soothed, placing her arm on the girl's shoulder and gently shepherding her out of the cold. "Come on. Let's go get you warmed up."

Moira walked the young girl back to the research center and made certain that she was settled in the den's most comfortable chair before leaving to get some refreshments. While she waited, Kitty reached behind her and pulled the blue fleece blanket from where it was lying neatly folded over the back of the armchair, wrapping it snugly around her as Moira came back in the room, holding a mug securely in each hand.

"I don't drink coffee," Kitty lied as she looked at the dark liquid sloshing around in the cup Moira held out for her. After one previous taste, Kitty had had enough of the geneticist's special blend to last her a lifetime.

"It's hot chocolate," the Scotswoman told her with a knowing grin. "I've learned you Americans cannae stomach real coffee." Kitty flashed her a small smile and reached out to take the drink. "Are you tangible, lass?" Moira inquired, waiting for Kitty to nod her answer before handing her the hot chocolate.

Kitty ran her finger around the edge of the ceramic mug, checking to see if it was cool enough to drink, then blew on it, watching as the steam disappeared into the air.

"You're doing a fine job staying tangible," Moira commented from her seat on the couch. "Hopefully today you'll be able to stay solid for a little longer than the day before, and, like we talked about, eventually you may revert back to having it become your natural state again."

"I've been tangible almost an hour now," she told the doctor, her spirits brightening at the thought of being corporal without effort again. "The whole time with you, and when I was talking to Peter," the young X-Man added, her enthusiasm fading at with the remembrance of her and Peter's talk on the cliff.

"Trying to impress him?" Moira teased, but there was a solemn undercurrent in her tone and a look of concern in her sharp eyes as she watched her young patient.

Kitty rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah," she muttered cynically. "Walking like a gimp and staying solid. Do I know how to impress a man or what?" She sighed and wrapped her hands around the mug, finding comfort in the warmth that emanated from it. "Moira?" she asked tentatively, uncertainty in her golden eyes. "Can I ask you something?"

The Scotswoman set her coffee down on the table and nodded. "Of course."

Kitty's brow furrowed and she bit her lip, hesitating. "Do you love Professor Xavier?" she finally asked, her voice soft and apprehensive

Moira leaned back against the couch and closed her eyes, taking a moment to think before nodding her answer. "Aye," she breathed, a bittersweet smile pulling across her face. "He is a dear friend, and I care quite deeply for the man, stubborn as he may be."

"But do you love him the way you used to, like you did when you were younger?" Kitty pressed with a trace of urgency as she stared at her, searching for deeper meaning, unsatisfied by the doctor's answer.

Moira bowed her head and reached for her coffee, taking a long, slow sip before finally speaking. "I chose Joseph," she said regretfully. "And now," she continued, her voice becoming soft and tender, "my heart belongs to Sean."

"But he still loves you."

Guilt filled the Scotswoman's eyes and she looked away, the act carrying more impact than any words could.

"Oh," Kitty whispered, her face falling. "Is that what happens when two people break up? The person who leaves, their feelings just fade away, and the other can't help but love them forever?" She bit her lip again as she felt the familiar sting of tears welling in her golden eyes. "Am I gonna love him forever? Am I gonna spend my whole life in love with someone who doesn't love me back?" she asked dejectedly, angrily wiping the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.

"Oh child, of course not," Moira soothed, smiling back at her sympathetically. "I chose Joseph. I never said it was the right choice." She closed her eyes again, replaying the past in her mind. "By the time I realized that, it was too late. Even so, in the end, I finally got my second chance at love. It just...well it wasn't with Charles. And it's alright to move on, to find someone else." The Scotswoman stood, walked over and put her arm around Kitty's shoulder, comforting her the way she would have done if it had been Rahne sitting in that chair. "You see Katherine," Moira added quietly, squeezing her shoulder, "love can happen more than once."

"But not with the same person, right?" she asked flatly, leaning her head on Moira's shoulder.

"That, child, is completely up to the two people. And from the way Peter looks at you, I'd say there's hope."

Kitty pursed her lips apprehensively, glanced down into the dark depths of her chocolate. She took a sip, savoring the sweet warmth, then looked at Moira curiously. "How does he look at me?"

Moira tilted her head back slightly, trying to think how best to describe the complicated emotions she had glimpsed in Peter. "I've only seen it two or three times, and then only briefly - Peter is rather guarded about his feelings." Kitty smiled wryly and nodded in agreement. "He looks at you with deep affection, child. It reminds me of how Sean looks at me," Moira smiled fondly, "or the way Scott and Jeannie would trade glances. But it's tinctured with - well, regret, I guess. Great pain. There's a longing there, too, as if you were forever out of his reach, and he cannae think of a way to bridge the gap separating the two of you."

Kitty said nothing for a while, her agile mind turning over what Moira told her. "I've never seen him look at me that way," she murmured hesitantly, not certain if what she said was quite true.

"He's careful that you don't see it when he does."

"But why does he hide it?"

"I cannae say for certain. As fond as I am of the lad, I do not know him as well as I would like. But I believe I can make an educated surmise or two." Moira took a deep sip of her coffee. "He's feeling guilty, I think. Peter is a good man - perhaps one of the best you can find - but he can be awfully hard on himself. He's well aware of how much he hurt you, not too long ago, and he's angry with himself for doing so. All the more so since maybe he's discovered that his feelings for you hadn't truly disappeared at all, but were instead… simply misplaced for a while."

Kitty looked at Moira incredulously. "How can you 'misplace' something like your love for someone?"

"You'd be surprised, Kitty." Moira tapped her chest. "Even during the best of times, the emotions of the heart can be more treacherous than the darkest, most tangled of forests. What on one day is as clear as a cloudless sky can the next be quickly obscured and benighted." She smiled fondly at Kitty. "Do not be too quick to judge, child. One day you may be in a similar situation, and you can never know how you'll react until you are there yourself."

Kitty frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe," she conceded. "But I just can't see myself hurting anyone the way Peter hurt me."

"We are all fallible, no matter how hard we try. Take it from one who knows." Moira's eyes glimmered with a wry light momentarily, then grew earnest. "Peter made a mistake. A grave one, true, but an honest one. He never meant to hurt you, and is doing his best to make amends. I believe that's why he's concealing his feelings for you - as penance for what he did, and so not to risk hurting you again." Moira smiled. "Somewhat misguided, I think, and perhaps a wee bit arrogant - a strange thing, calling as humble a man as Peter that! But it counts for something, don't you agree?"

Kitty sipped some more chocolate, then smiled back at Moira. "Yeah, it does… You know, as angry as I was at Peter for what he did, I think a part of me knew he hadn't meant to hurt me, would have done anything not to, if he could have thought of another way. I guess that's why I still… feel the way I do for him, despite how hard I tried not to." Kitty sighed and closed her eyes. "I still hurt though, Moira."

"I know, Kitty." Moira hugged her, rubbing her arm. "But it will pass. Believe me. You are very strong, the both of you. You'll find yuir way. And who knows? Maybe it'll lead to something more glorious than you thought possible. But one way or the other, you'll heal." Moira glanced at the clock on the mantle above the den's fireplace. "I have to go see to my rounds. Would you like some more chocolate? I'll bring in the kettle before I go, if you like." Kitty nodded. Moira gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze before leaving, returning briefly to set a steaming kettle and a spare mug on the table. Moira gave Kitty a reassuring smile before heading out. Kitty smiled slightly, tilting her head back to look at the ceiling, occasionally taking sips of chocolate, contemplating all that Moira had told her. She especially thought of Moira's description of how Peter looked at her. It sounds a lot like how he looked at me after he… he kissed me. Kitty shivered, touching her lips to her fingertips, light pink staining her cheeks. I didn't know what to make of it. But, when he walked away, I thought he was feeling guilty because he was remembering… her She made a face, then let out a soft laugh, bitter and self-mocking. Pathetic. She thought she was so tough now, yet she could not bring her self to even think the name of the woman who took Peter away from her, let alone say it.

Kitty sighed, setting down her mug of chocolate. She covered her face with her hands, rubbed at her eyes. She remembered, the day before she took her sabbatical from the X-Men, how she had snuck into Peter's room and peeked through his sketchbooks, hoping maybe to get a glimpse of this mysterious woman he had loved. She did find a sketch, and it broke her heart all over again. She looked beautiful, like a princess from a fairy tale, tall and regal and exotic. Kitty hated her even more than she did before. She wanted to hate Peter as well, but somehow could not. She still loved him, even after how he hurt her, and in truth, how could she blame him, wanting to be with someone as gorgeous as her, instead of a geeky fourteen year old? Kitty pulled her blanket tighter around her, remembering how inadequate and awkward she felt in comparison. During her trip to Japan with Wolverine, she had found new reservoirs of strength within her self, quite unexpectedly. Her pain had abated somewhat, and she eventually buried both it and her still palpable feelings for Peter, convincing herself it was his loss for not recognizing a good thing when he had it. When she returned to the team, she treated him with cool, distant contempt, which he accepted stoically. But it was a façade, one she could not keep up for long. It culminated with a cruel joke she played on Peter, while they were defending Arcade - the little jerk, she thought with an annoyed grumble - from Miss Locke. She got a brief, bitter spark of satisfaction from it, but it also made her feel awful. She was tired of trying to make herself hate him, and finally accepted his attempts at reconciliation. Maybe friendship would be enough. And for a time, it seemingly was.

Then came the Massacre, and her near fatal injuries. She could not remember much about her stay in the containment chamber. A deep, enervating lethargy had swept over her as the molecules of her body slowly drifted apart, making her thoughts hazy and sluggish. She could recall thinking of her parents, of Storm, of Illyana and Doug and Rachel. But what surprised her was how often her thoughts went to Peter, and how much she wanted to hug and kiss him one last time before the end…

Kitty shook her head, looked up and picked up her chocolate. She smiled sadly. Despite all her effort not to be, she was still in love with Peter. She tried to ignore it, hide it from him, but then he had to go and talk today about risks. About taking chances so you could live without regret. So she took a risk, and ended up making herself more confused than before.

Kitty finished her chocolate, blinking her eyes, trying hard to hold back the tears she felt prickling them. "I'm so tired of this," she whispered. "I just want to know, to be certain. Is that too much to ask for?"

Peter watched Kurt, feeling sad and lonely. He missed his friend, and hoped he would find his way back to them soon. It was odd, seeing the blue-furred mutant so silent and still. He had always been so full of life and energy before, quick to smile, to laugh, to play a joke, or lend a hand or a sympathetic ear. "I would give much to have your advice now, Kurt," Peter said quietly. "I am such a fool."

"Well, isn't this a pleasant surprise." Peter turned in his chair, saw Moira standing in the doorway, smiling. She walked over, put an arm around Peter's shoulders. "When did you shift out of your change-form, Petey?"

Peter gave her a small smile, glanced at the wall clock across from Kurt's bed. "Over an hour ago, I guess. It hurt, making the effort to change, but I feel all right now." He looked at his hands resting in his lap, flexed them. "It takes some concentration, keeping human. Like clenching a muscle. But it is not too bad."

Moira nodded. "Good. That's very good, Peter. Yuir coming along wonderfully, and I have no doubt you will be fully healed soon - as long as you don't go doing daft things."

Peter glanced up at her. "Daft?"

"Like going out in cold weather without a coat," she answered pointedly, a twinkle in her eye and a pat to his shoulder lightening her chastisement.

Peter snorted. "I have experienced far colder weather, wearing much less. In Siberia, during the winter, sometimes after a hot bath I would go take a roll in a snow bank naked, so to cool off."

"What a sight that must have been!" Moira teased with a laugh. She went over to check Kurt and his monitors. "But in all seriousness, I don't want ye to be taking chances with your health, no matter how small. We all ready know how tough you are. You have no need to prove your strength."

Peter frowned, and looked down at the floor. "I am not so strong," he muttered.

"Och, that's something you'll never convince me of. I know first hand just how strong you are." Peter shifted uncomfortably, while Moira gave him a thoughtful look. "You look tired, Petey. Go to the den and rest. It's warm and cozy, and there's a kettle of hot chocolate waiting to be drunk." Peter looked up. "Doctor's orders. No arguments."

Peter nodded and rose. "Thank you, Moira." He gave one of Kurt's hands a soft, encouraging pat and walked out. He moved through the hallways toward the den slowly, feeling weary and heartsick - a depressingly familiar state for him. He paused for a moment, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, taking a deep breath. You are wrong, Moira. I am not strong. Not strong at all. If I were, I would not have kissed Kat… Kitty back. She would have been embarrassed for a little while, but would have gotten over it quickly. But I am weak, and I kissed her, and complicated things all over again. I want her back, when I have absolutely no right to even consider it. He hissed, as if he were in pain. He thought about what he had said to Kurt, starting to think Wolverine was right about his reason for breaking up with Kitty. Was he truly that small of a man? Peter leaned on his shoulder against the wall, folding his arms across his chest. Perhaps what Wolverine had said was true, but it was only part of a larger truth. Guilt played a role in his decision as well. The guilt he felt for betraying Kitty so completely; the guilt he felt for living while Zsaji died…

Peter shut his eyes tight, his lips contorting into a bitter sneer. Zsaji… On Battleworld, she had consumed his thoughts almost completely. For weeks after the terrible, costly Secret War, he felt absolutely empty, devastated. But soon after, without even realizing it, she began to fade from his mind. Now, not even a scant half year later, he needed to look through his sketchbooks to remind himself of how she looked. If not for Kitty providing a constant reminder of his actions, he would probably think of her as often as he did of Anya Makarova or Betsy Wilford… What sort of man did that make him, to forget so thoroughly a woman he said he loved, who sacrificed her life to save him? I have no doubt now what Professor Xavier and Logan said was true, that I mistook an empathic effect for attraction, for love. He remembered Johnny Storm's behavior towards Zsaji and winced. So obvious now, in hindsight; he had thrown away something fragile, beautiful, irreplaceable, for an illusion. "Fool!" he snarled, hot, angry contempt for himself surging in his blood. He pounded the wall with a clenched fist, making it shiver. He gritted his teeth, reined in his emotions, barricading them behind walls of steel. He let out his breath, feeling even more tired. He let out a soft, bitter laugh. "I wish I could go back, make things right, but I cannot. I must learn to live with the consequences of my actions." With a sigh he pushed himself off the wall and made his way down the hall.

Peter stepped into the den, so lost in thought that for a moment he did not see Kitty sitting in the plush armchair, wrapped in a blanket, staring into the empty cup in her hands. They noticed each other at the same instant, their eyes locking. A spark seemed to jump between them, and a shivering thrill coursed through their spines. Peter paled slightly and glanced down at his sneakers. Kitty's eyes went wide, and she looked away, huddling slightly under her blanket. They said nothing for a few moments, then Peter blinked, sighed softly and looked up. "Hello."

Kitty turned her face towards him, not quite looking at him directly, smiling weakly. "Hi."

"Moira said that she made some hot chocolate," he murmured slowly. "Do you mind if - ?"

Kitty shook her head. "Not at all."

"Do you want some more?"

Kitty set her cup on the table. "Yes, thank you." Peter refilled her cup, then poured himself some chocolate and sat down on the couch. The chocolate had cooled a little, but was still quite warm. It smelled good, but he had no appetite for it right now. He turned the cup in his large hands, watching the sweet liquid swirl. Kitty was looking down at her knees, drawn up onto the armchair. She raised her cup, took the tiniest of sips, and set it back on the table.

For a long minute both of them were quiet. Then, suddenly, as one, they looked up at each other and spoke.

"Peter -"

"Kitty -"

They both laughed nervously. "Sorry-" the two X-Men began in unison.

"No, it's my fault, I-"

"No, it's mine. Go ahead," Peter pressed gently, inwardly cursing his own cowardice. He had no doubt this was much more difficult for Kitty then it was for him, as he had been the one to reject her- twice- yet he still could not find the strength to admit his feelings first, even with the knowledge that his confession could assuage Kitty's pain. "I insist," he added, hanging his head to hide the shame and contrition in his eyes.

The posture of the willowy girl next to him mirrored his own; slouched over, looking tired, and near defeat, pairs of sapphire and golden eyes staring downwards, away from each other, concealing the emotions in their depths. "I was just..." Kitty began quietly, reaching for the mug on the table and bringing it back up towards, holding it just above her lap as she stared fixedly into the murky liquid. The young mutant closed her eyes and sighed painfully, then started again. "I was just gonna say I wish we had some marshmallows, you know, for the hot chocolate." Kitty grimaced at her words and looked down again at her drink, lightly shaking the mug between her hands, causing a whirlpool effect on the liquid inside. Across from her, Peter observed wordlessly, his cool expression as stoic and unflinching as a mask, baring not even the smallest trace of emotion. "I like the little white ones better than all the pastel colors," Kitty continued faintly. "It's nice, to watch them melt into the cocoa, and sorta relaxing, like when you take off your glasses and stare out at a big city at night, and when the lights blur they just seem to get bigger and glow brighter in the darkness, like stars all around you. Huh." She looked up from her mug and fixed her eyes on the wall behind him, cracking a weak smile. "Kinda makes you feel like you're in 'Star Wars'."

Peter returned the smile and a touch of affection shone in his eyes, belying his stoic nature. "You've had your own fair share of adventures in space," he reminded, slightly teasing.

"Yeah, but I always liked Luke and Leia's better. Watching them was the only time I got to enjoy space."

"I don't believe that is true."

"You better believe it, mister," she said, a far away glint in her eyes as she recalled her memories of being away from the Earth. "First time I went to space, I ended up locked in a cell, thinking you were dead from that tape that jerk Samedar showed me. Then before we even had a chance to celebrate defeating Deathbird there was the Brood, and everything that came with it. The helplessness of knowing you're going to die and there's nothing you can do about...having to kill," Kitty trailed off, looking away as she pushed the dark thoughts aside. "I guess it just looks more exciting when it's romanticized in books and movies and comics and stuff."

"One would imagine you had some fairly exciting moments yourself, Kitty," Peter countered with a slight grin. "From what Kurt told me, it appears you found ways to amuse yourself while imprisoned with a certain 'clothes makin' gizmo'."

Kitty pursed her lips and shook her head in disagreement. "Doesn't count, that was all part of my master plan. Try again."

"Da, let's see...Your first encounter with Lockheed comes to mind."

She made a begrudging face, hiding her smile. "Alright, but that's still only one."

"Freeing the Acanti. Discovering Ororo was still alive. Our kis-" Peter stopped counting off examples and looked away, mentally berating himself for not thinking before he spoke. He snuck a glance at Kitty, who was sitting very still, her lips pursed and her brow furrowed, looking as though she was contemplating something very deeply. The slender girl opened her mouth to say something, than stopped, deciding against it. Kitty closed her eyes, gave her head a tiny shake, and took a deep breath, directly followed by another.

"You know, now that I think about, in a lot of ways Muir isn't so different from space," Kitty mused, her mischievous twinkle in her eyes masking the sadness. "There are no relaxing melting marshmallows up there, either."

Peter breathed a sigh of relief as he watched as her face broke into a genuine smile that nearly reached up to eyes as warm and sweet as the hot chocolate he held in the mug in his hands. He stared at her face, so familiar and comforting, and his demeanor began to soften as he found his courage steeled and himself at ease while gazing into the depths of her golden eyes.

While he gazed at her, Kitty's lips fell into a crooked, bittersweet half smile, the warmth in her eyes fading away into sadness. "So I think I was right before," she told him softly. "You really can see the beauty in anything."

"I try."

She looked up him as he gave his answer, her face still sad and searching, but now tinted with hurt and anger.

"Then tell me, what's the beauty in you breaking my heart?"

Peter's eyes snapped wide open, startled by the question. Kitty watched him evenly, feigning a mettle she did not feel as she waited for him to answer. The Russian mutant quickly mulled over her question is his head, quickly thinking of the good that would come out of the mistake he had made. He gazed at Kitty, and saw in her new-found strength, as well as the warmth and innocence that she still possessed, albeit now tempered by maturity and experience, and how she sat across from him, brave yet sad; a lonely grandeur, much like Muir itself. In the end he could only find one answer for her question that seemed to fit.

"You," he breathed quietly, standing, walking over, reaching out and placing his hand on her cheek, gently stroking it with his thumb. Kitty leaned into his touch; his hand was still warm from the mug of hot chocolate that had been resting in his strong hands, and the heat of his skin felt pleasurable against her cold face. She looked up at him, her brown eyes, full of hope, searching in his sapphire ones, trying to decipher his actions. His face remained cool and guarded, but he continued to caress her skin, both X-Men unwilling to pull away from each other. "You're beautiful."

Kitty furrowed her brows and squeezed her eyes shut. "How beautiful?" she asked softly.

"Just... beautiful," Piotr responded, unsure of how he was supposed to answer. Kitty turned her head away from his touch and pulled her knees up against her chest as she huddled under the blanket further, until it covered her up to her bottom lip.

"Just beautiful," she whispered. "But not as beautiful as the dawn. And never as gentle as a spring rain."


"-I saw your drawings of her, Peter, and I heard you talk about her, that day, on the cliffs. She was beautiful, inside and out, just like you. How could I ever compare?" the young X-Man asked softly, realizing with a heavy heart that she could never compare to the woman who had so easily stolen Peter's love away from her.

Her question threw him, and he stumbled through the words. "Because were real, Katya! Zsaji... she was only an illusion."

"An illusion," she murmured, hurt and confusion potent in her barely audible voice. "Oh. I see. I meant less to you than something that wasn't even real," she worked out, familiar tears brewing in her golden eyes. She exhaled deeply and shook her head, feeling the tears slide across to the other corner of her eyes before rolling down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry, Peter," Kitty apologized, biting her lip. "If you promise to forget about what happened today, or at least not talk about it, I promise I won't throw myself at you again, or act like a silly child. It's what's best. We...we don't work." Kitty looked down and stayed quiet, trying unsuccessfully to compose herself, her emotions breaking free. "Except that we do!" she burst out. "We do work, or at least we did!" she exclaimed, her coffee mug slipping from her hands and cracking against the floor as her body found itself unable to stay tangible. "Why did you have to throw us away?" she demanded, attempting futilely to pick up the broken pieces of ceramic off the floor with phased hands. "Why couldn't you have just loved me?"

"Kitty, I.... I am so sorry, Katya. This is not-"

"-Please. Don't call me that. Not if you don't mean it." Kitty stood up and Peter reached for her hand, but there was nothing for him to grab onto. He looked up at her sadly, regretfully as she made her way out of the room, her feet treading a few inches above the carpet, walking on air. She stopped in the doorway and spoke to him once more, facing away from him. "I think I liked it better when I thought you loved her."

"I hate him. I hate him so much, you don't even know," Kitty ranted, pacing back and forth across the distance of her room, her feet hovering on air molecules inches above the Berber carpet. Her companion raised his head up off the bed and stared at her, confused at hearing angry words about a teammate who wasn't Rogue or one of the New Mutants coming from his beloved pet.

"CooOooO?" Lockheed questioned.

"I do!" she protested, her temper ebbing as she realized how childish she sounded. Kitty stopped pacing and stood still, rolling her eyes as she grudgingly admitted the truth. "I mean, I guess I don't hate him, hate him, but I hate him. You know what I mean, little dragon?" she asked in a small voice, tucking her legs up against her chest and burying her head against her knees, her intangible body comfortably supported in the air. "I hate him for what he did, not for who he is. I love him for that last part." She gave a short laugh. "How messed up am I? I hate him, and I love him, and I miss him. And I miss Illyana. And Doug, and Logan. I even miss the X-Babies, how sad is that? And I miss Ororo, and more than that I miss the old Ororo, and my parents' being together and me being tangible. I can't even find my dad, or Rachel. And it feels like I'm always afraid of everything; the Marauders, Kurt never waking up, afraid that this is as good as it gets, that I'll never heal, that Peter never really loved me to begin with. And what if I stay like this, huh? Who's gonna want a girl they can't even touch?"

"Coo," her purple dragon gurgled, fluttering around her phased body in a show of support.

"Aww, thanks, Lockheed. It's nice to know you'll always stick with me, but that's not exactly what I meant. Human girls need human boys to love, and to love them back. Without that, life can get awful lonely." With a sigh she wandered over to the window, looking out onto the shadowy grounds to the spot she and Peter had kissed, analyzing their moment in her mind. Turning away from the quiet landscape outside, Kitty moved back to her bed, wishing she could hug her pillow. "You know what Lockheed?" she asked her pet as the little dragon sat down beside her. "Peter must be lonely, too. At least the guy I love is still around, and sometimes I can trick myself into thinking there's hope for us. But Peter... the woman he loves is dead."

Kitty fumbled around behind her as she lost herself in thought, absentmindedly searching for a blanket or pillow to hide her face in. Remembering her situation, Kitty's face tightened in frustration, and she slammed her fist against the bed, her hands passing harmlessly through. With a defeated sigh, Kitty turned and smiled bitterly as her dragon regarded her with concern. "You don't have to look so worried, Lockheed," she soothed, trying to force a carefree smile, "I'll be ok eventually. It's just hard right now, being almost all alone when the world seems so scary." She gave another short laugh and looked back down at her dragon. "Don't tell anyone this, Lockheed, cause I know I'm always bragging about it, but sometimes it's hard being a genius. Your head is always telling you one thing and your heart is telling you another, and you know your head is right but when you don't listen to it anyway... it just makes you feel that much worse when everything finally falls apart like your head knew it was going to. Makes you feel that much dumber, because you should have known better." Kitty got back up and began to pace in the air again, her gaze focused on the ground below. She paused and shut her eyes, looking desolate. "I should have known better," she murmured. "He doesn't still love me. He was just lonely."

Peter sat on the edge of his bed, rubbing the dust from the loose charcoal on the tips of his fingers off on the empty corner of his old drawing. Charcoal had been the wrong medium for this portrait. He should have colored his sketch of Zsaji; perhaps then he would be able to recall what color her eyes had been. Blue seemed to fit in his head, but he wasn't completely sure. The shade of Kitty's eyes, however, was much less of a mystery to him. Peter could imagine them with perfect clarity; how they shone a warm, gentle brown, like firewood under the golden glow of the flame.

He flipped the page over the spiral binding to find another picture of the silver haired alien healer as she held the bouquet of flowers he had gathered for her. He studied the portrait, trying to find emotions he had felt so strongly for her on Battleworld, but the only feeling stirring within was one of detachment. Looking at Zsaji's picture was like looking at the Vermeer paintings he had viewed on temporary display at the Met. In the Dutch artist's paintings, the women were lovely, with a lonely beauty about them, but in the end they were simply nothing more then their title proclaimed them to be; Girl With Pearl Earring, Young Woman With A Water Jug, Woman Holding a Balance. For all their symbolism and meaning in the art, Vermeer had chosen to reduce them down to the simplest of terms when he named them. It was how Peter found himself regarding Zsaji now. She was a girl he had once loved who had died. Beyond that, there was nothing more.

Peter closed the sketchbook, set it to one side, and leaned forward, resting his chin on a closed fist, staring with brooding, half-closed eyes at the writing desk against the wall, where his other sketchbooks were stacked in a small, orderly pile. He rubbed the line of his jaw thoughtfully, vented a soft sigh and pushed himself up. He hesitated for a moment, touching his chest with his fingertips - he had felt a slight twinge, very faint, like the brief prick of a needle. He pursed his lips in thought, then shook his head and dismissed it. He still ached a little all over, even after all this time, from the massive punishment Riptide had inflicted before he broke the Marauder's neck. It would fade, eventually. He walked over to the desk, carefully pulled a sketchbook from the middle of the stack, then returned to sit on his bed. He flipped through it until he found what he wanted to review - a colored sketch of Kitty, done a few days after she first arrived at the mansion. He remembered the circumstances behind it vividly. She had just came back from Salem Center with Ororo, excited beyond measure at meeting Stevie Hunter, a long time idol of hers. Her joy was pure and unbridled. He just had to set it down on paper. He examined the sketch carefully, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He liked how he caught the light in her eyes, turning them almost golden, how careless and innocent her smile was, how it made her glow.

Peter closed the sketchbook, put it down and picked up the one containing the pictures of Zsaji. He opened it at the back, to the last sketch it contained, a charcoal portrait of Kitty in her Shadowcat uniform, finished not long after her return from Japan. His finger hovered a millimeter above the paper as he traced the taut lines of her face. The joy long inherent in her was gone, snuffed out, replaced by a tired, jaded wariness. I put that there, Peter thought. Not all of it, but more than my fair share. It is not right, for her to look so sad. He slammed the sketchbook shut, dropped it on the bed, anger at his stupid, selfish actions welling within him. A sudden claustrophobic wave washed over him, making his spacious room seem cramp and confining. He needed to get out, do something. He stood with a jerk, ignoring another twinge pricking his chest, and stalked out, heading for the gym. In the hall he passed Kitty's room. He hesitated before her door, staring at it with longing. He raised his hand to knock, then jerked it down violently. Fool. Have you not done enough to hurt her? If there is any decency left in you, let her be. He grimaced, a soft, contemptuous hiss escaping him. He moved on, wondering if he would ever feel whole again, or if it was his fate to forever be caught in a cold, gray place.

In her room Kitty watched the door, wary and alert, having heard Peter's soft, heavy tread in the hall, waiting nervously when he paused at her door, wondering what to do if he knocked. Part of her wanted to tell him to go to hell, while the other part… she shook her head and smiled bitterly, recalling what she told Lockheed a little while ago. Even after being broken again and again, her heart still hoped, longing for what she could never have - perhaps what she never had to begin with. Illyana's right. I must be the stupidest genius around. Peter walked away and Kitty let out a soft sigh of relief. Or was it regret? She could not tell. She turned her back to the door and treaded air to her window, staring out at the deepening dark. The wind blew, and the rain fell harder, rattling against the glass panes. Kitty shivered, drawing the sweat coat she wore closer to her body. Suddenly she laughed humorlessly, realizing the coat she was wearing was Peter's. She moved to take it off, but stopped. Instead she pulled at its collar and dipped her face down to it, breathing in its scent. She smelled cool air, salt, clean rain, and beneath those scents, just faintly, she detected a musky tang that reminded her of fresh pine, healthy loam, and paint. She closed her eyes and wrapped her slim arms tight around her body, letting her mind float free, imagining Peter hugging her from behind, holding her close. She could almost feel his warm breath on her face as he moved to kiss her…

Kitty's eyes snapped open in surprise when she felt her bare feet touch down against the carpet. She released her hug, looked at her hands as if she had never seen them before, then reached out to touch the window. The glass was slick, cool and unyielding beneath her fingertips. She slowly pulled her hand away, rubbing her fingertips together, a thoughtful, pensive frown creasing her lips. She looked over her shoulder at her door, sucking on her lower lip, then let out a loud sigh. I must be a masochist. She left her room and went looking for Peter.

One wall of the gymnasium was paneled with mirrors. Peter looked at himself with a critical eye. He was quite pale, almost blanched white. Faint, bruised colored rings circled his eyes, and his countenance was slightly gaunt. He frowned, ran a hand through his hair, then pulled off his shirt. His frown deepened. He had lost some muscle, and his definition was not quite as sharp as it had been a few months before. That irked him. Though far from being a narcissist, he was proud of his conditioning, and went to great lengths to maintain it. He enjoyed exercise; for him, the solitary pleasures he derived from weight lifting, boxing training, and running served as a focus for meditation and introspection. His long convalescence and enforced inactivity had left him feeling scratchy and irritable. It had been too long since he last had a proper workout. He folded his shirt, threw it on a table, and surveyed the gym, his eyes settling on the heavy bag over in the corner, hanging in proximity with a speed bag. He walked over, gave the heavy bag a push, watched it sway back and forth, a blue canvas pendulum. He made a face, shook his head, rubbed the side of his neck. He needed to vent the blackness within him before he choked on it. He turned his back on the bag, stepped away, and started a series of warm ups. Once finished he took a pair of training gloves hanging on a rack near the bags and tugged them on. He faced the bag, frowning. There was another twinge in his chest, so faint that he was barely cognizant of it.

Peter punched his right fist into his left palm. Teeth gritted and bared, he settled into a stance, shuffled in, and began to attack the heavy bag with savage ferocity. He started with the repetition of a simple combination: two left jabs, followed by either a right cross or right hook. His punches snapped the air, and the sound of their impacts echoed like gunshots. The heavy bag hopped and jumped as if it were alive, shuddering from the blows. Peter attacked at a rapid pace, taking only brief half-second breaks between flurries, and began throwing longer, more complex combinations. Jab, right cross, jab, left hook, uppercut - it was hard to land a good uppercut on a bag, but he managed it, making it pop up in the air several inches, its chains rattling and twisting, falling back down with a sharp jerk, swaying back and forth drunkenly. Peter circled to the right, struck with two fierce body blows, left and right, then stepped in and slashed it with forearm strikes, right then left. He backed off, circled to the left, attacked with a blistering sequence of ten punches, finishing the combo by stepping in, grabbing the bag by its top and kneeing it. He pushed it away and stepped back, turning from it, squatting down on his hams, hands resting on his knees, his head bowed as he panted, his mouth thick with saliva.

Peter closed his eyes, swiped at the sweat on his forehead with the back of his glove. This isn't helping. Instead of a release, he felt his emotions wind tighter and tighter; every strike he landed twisted them a bit more. The twinge in his chest was now a hot pain that made him grimace. I am out of shape. The thought made him angrier. He surged up to his feet and ran backwards, hitting the heavy bag with an elbow thrust, then spun around with blurring speed, landing a blistering roundhouse right. He backed away momentarily, then attacked with renewed, relentless fury, ignoring the fatigue weighting his arms, the burning in his chest.

Peter continued for twenty minutes, his anger never slacking, assaulting the heavy bag without pause for three or four minutes at a time, followed by one-minute breathers, either squatting down or leaning against the wall, eyes pressed against his forearms. His anger, contempt and frustration with himself fueled his exertions, his punches growing stronger while somehow maintaining their speed and precision. The pain in his chest now felt like someone had sewn a red-hot coal in him. Sometimes while he rested he coughed, letting out short, rough, snapping barks. Once a crackle of energy coursed up his arm, and he had to bite down hard to keep from shifting into his armored state. He forced himself to continue, somehow achieving a remoteness from himself, his consciousness floating above pain and weariness - invulnerable, aloof. He stoked his rage to a fever pitch, and it railed within him, demanding release, threatening to sunder him. He reared back with his right fist and struck, letting loose a roar as he punched. His fist hit like a cannon blast, and the heavy bag's support chain broke with a piercing snap. The bag went flying several feet through the air, landing hard on the polished wood floor with a loud thump.

Peter stared at the fallen bag, taken in great, gasping breaths. His towering rage suddenly fled, vanishing like a burst bubble, leaving him without support. Hollow, empty save for the hot pain in his chest, he deflated, dropping down to one knee, feeling absolutely defeated and bereft. His breathing slowed and the hot pain subsided slightly. He yanked off his gloves and threw them aside. He closed his eyes tight, trying very hard not to cry. He had no right to tears. Suddenly Peter grew still. He sensed someone watching him. Somehow, without looking, he knew it was Kitty.

Kitty phased through the door and stared at the man standing before her, unable to tear her eyes away as she drank in every line and curve of his gorgeous, flawless body. Peter was shirtless; his bare chest displaying every toned, defined muscle that rippled as he attacked the punching bag with might and vigor, the occasional grunt of determination and fatigue escaping his lips. Sweat glistened off his chiseled body; his skin was red and flushed from exertion. Kitty bit her lip as she felt the slight tingle of familiar warmth that often came from watching him. His body was perfect in her eyes, a fantasy made flesh. Once upon a time, she had looked forward with eager anticipation to the day she would finally be allowed to explore it, to feel his strong muscles ripple with pleasure from her touch, to melt into his body, warm with sweat and desire, as he caressed her with tender hands. With the intake of her breath, Kitty's excitement rose, then fell with the exhale, sobering as she realized that this guilty tingle warming her body as she watched in the shadows would be the closest she may ever come to that dream ever coming to fruition.

Kitty continued to watch, worry in the pit of her stomach replacing passion. When she had first entered the room, Peter had taken on the punching bag as he would a tree ready for chopping, strong and steady. As his workout progressed, his movement changed. Peter's jabs were fast, and he attacked agitatedly, almost manically, his movement becoming more jerky with every fit of coughs; all this in sharp contradiction to his calm, simple temperament. Kitty jumped as he let out a howl of frustration and rage, slamming the bag with full force. It dropped to the ground with a flat thud, the chains that once supported it still jingling as they twisted against one another. Frightened, Kitty turned to flee. In all the time she had known him, she had never seen him look this way; angry, volatile, savage. With a start she realized that the power and strength of his muscular body, which she had drunkenly admired moments ago, could just as easily be a flaw as much a fantasy. Behind her, she heard Peter gasp. She froze. He took another, heaving deeper this time. She turned. He was on the ground, on one knee, a strangled choke now added to his gasping breaths that sounded as though he was desperately trying to hold back a sob. The fear drained out of Kitty, and she inwardly cursed her overactive imagination for allowing it in the first place. She knew Peter, probably better than anyone, even Illyana. He wasn't dangerous. He would never hurt her in that way, though a part of her wondered if hurting her body would have hurt less than hurting her heart. She looked over her shoulder, back at the man she knew so well. He had a good heart. Peter was kind, and gentle, and he was hurting. Kitty closed her eyes, wondering of she should comfort him and reveal her presence, or leave him to wallow in peace. She squeezed her eyes tighter as she felt his heavy breathing stop and an air of nervous tension fill the room. He knew she was here.

Peter let out the softest of sighs. He stood slowly, careful not to look towards the doorway. He did not have the strength for it. If he caught a glimpse of Kitty right now, he knew he would cry, and that was the last thing he wanted her to witness. He picked up the heavy bag and carried it to the corner, the pain in his chest flaring in protest. He propped the bag against the walls and leaned against it for a moment. He took a breath, girded himself, gave the bag a pat and turned around. Kitty was standing in the doorway, her right hand resting against the jamb. Her cheeks were flushed and she was staring at him with a gaze that seemed both intense and abstracted. Suddenly the light pink coloring her face blossomed to a deep red, and she looked away. Peter could not keep a smile from flickering briefly across his face. She looked so adorable, then and there. He sighed again and rubbed at his eyes. He should not think such things. They would only lead to him wanting something forever lost. "Hello," he called softly.

Kitty's eyes darted towards him briefly, then away. "Hi." Silence followed and stretched, neither of them able to think of something to say. Finally Peter sighed quietly and fetched his shirt, wiping the sweat from his body with a towel before donning it. He moved sluggishly. Kitty watched him, her face expressionless but her eyes eloquent with emotion. She looked away again when he turned to face her. He stared at her for a moment, rubbing at his chest. He had not felt this tired, this utterly fatigued, in a very long time. He gave Kitty a weak smile and nod, then walked towards her, intent on heading for his room to lie down. When he came near she looked at him again. "Peter." He stopped.

"Yes, Kitty?"

"I… ah…" Kitty bit her lower lip, scrambling through her thoughts for something to say. Suddenly, she shrugged out of the sweat coat she was wearing. "I just wanted to… give this back to you…" she trailed off weakly as she held out the coat to Peter. Pathetic, Pryde. Can you get any lamer?

Peter looked at Kitty closely, then down at the coat, then back to her again. He reached out reluctantly, took it from her. "Thank you," he murmured. Beneath the hot pain in his chest, he felt his heart quiver, resonating with a final bleak note of loss that somehow hurt more than the fire licking at his ribs. He draped the coat over his shoulders, like a cape, nodded to Kitty again, and walked past her. She bowed her head and hugged herself tight as coldness permeated her body, sinking into her so deeply she thought she would never be warm again.

Suddenly Peter checked himself, an impulse striking him. For a moment he struggled with it, then submitted to the demand. After all, what is there left to lose? He turned back to Kitty. "You know," he said quietly. "You never gave me a chance to explain myself, back in the den."

For a moment Kitty did not react. Then she faced Peter, a small frown on her lips, the gaze of her golden-brown eyes challenging. "Do you believe you deserved one?"

Peter smiled sadly. "No. In all honesty, I know I do not." He closed his eyes, remembering. She should know what I think. I owe it to her. And if she rebukes me, so be it. "I was wrong, earlier today. About you being 'just beautiful'."

Kitty canted her head slightly. "Oh?" she said softly, not sure she wanted to hear what else Peter was going to say.

"Yes." He opened his eyes and looked at her, without guile, for the first time in almost half a year, all wards concealing his soul banished, all gates to his heart thrown wide open. "You are as beautiful as spring," Peter continued. "You are energy and warmth and joy incarnate. I have thought that since those first days you came to the Mansion. I should have told you long ago."

Kitty's eyes had grown large and bright, and she was trembling. "Peter," she began, but he stepped to her, cut her off by bringing a finger to her lips.

"Please, let me speak. Words - the right words - are always so hard for me to find." He took a breath and continued. "You are gentle, too, but that is but one facet of who you are: gentleness, ferocity, happiness, sorrow, sympathy, kindness, and so much more." Peter lifted a hand to her cheek, just stopping short of caressing her. "You are an intricate, beautiful jewel, Kitty. One could get lost in your depths forever." His hand clenched closed, and he withdrew it. "I wish I were worthy of you. Maybe I never was to begin with… You are beautiful, inside and out, Katerina. Me, I am not. I am but a fool who did not realize what a treasure he had until he threw it away, lost it forever." He smiled sadly at her again, bowed his head, then turned and walked away, bitter guilt seeping through him.

"Peter," Kitty called out. He hesitated for a moment, and she said his name again with greater urgency. He started to turn towards her, and then the hot coal burning in his chest exploded, a horrific coughing fit seizing him as something hot and sharp raced up his throat, desperately trying to escape. He reeled to one side, hitting the wall with his shoulder, collapsed onto one knee, then slid down into a sitting position as the fit quickly subsided, leaving him weak and gasping for air.

"Peter!" Kitty cried out, rushing over to him, kneeling before him to check him out. "Are you - what hap-" she let out a little gasp. "Oh, Peter…" He blinked at her, shook his head, grimaced. His mouth was awash with a coppery tang, and he felt something trickle from the corner of his lips, down his chin. He touched it with his fingertips; they came away red.

Peter let out a little laugh. In a strange way, it was the most frightening thing Kitty had ever heard, his laugh so devoid of concern or fear. "Well," he murmured breathlessly, his tone clinical, detached, almost amused. "This is not good." Against his will his eyes closed, and he slithered down into darkness.

"And on that note, Pirate Kitty and her band of motley adventurers decided to leave the Port of Nhu Yorkh and once again set sail on the Seven Seas. For the next few months they would have many adventures, against Ice Demons and Ninja Pirates, but they would still find time to fight hatred and injustice around the world," Kitty finished, taking a break from her story to shut the med lab blinds and keep the late morning sunlight from streaming into the sterile white room, which was already well lit by the rows of halogen fixtures. With a sigh, she moved back to the folding chair she had spent the night on, placed between Kurt and Peter's cots, and resumed her story, trying not to worry over the unconscious men on either sides of her.

"After many journeys abroad, Pirate Kitty and her crew decide it was time to return to the Wizard's castle in Nhu Yorkh. They prepared Lockheed immediately for the flight home, despite the gray skies and harsh clouds lying on the edge of the horizon. The happy group nearly made it to their destination when the tempest finally hit. It was a storm unlike any Pirate Kitty had ever seen before - full of rage, striking hard and fast, and while the Genie fought it fiercely with her magiks, it, the unrelenting storm overpowered her and she fled from its darkness. Unable to stay aloft in the savage winds, Lockheed fell from the sky and crashed into the sea, his passengers spilling out into the raging water, where they were separated, thrown apart by the waves that carried them off to different corners of the world. Bamf, who was really not as bad as he may have first appeared, found his way back to Nhu Yorkh, while the Genie flew back to the oldest home she could remember, deep in the jungle where she was safe and happy. The Fiend-With-No-Name ended up being carried away by the same current as Pirate Kitty, and he kept her safe until they were back on dry land and out of danger. But Colossus, Pirate Kitty's true love, washed ashore on an island unknown by the rest of the world. Alone and weak, he found comfort in the arms of another, his pirate love seemingly forgotten in favor of the exotic woman who had saved his life, much like the ancient tale of Odysseus and Calypso."

Kitty paused again and looked down at Peter. His face was gaining color but he was still unconscious, as he had been for the last two days. Kitty had stayed at his bedside through the entire ordeal, excluding the short time this morning, when Moira had ordered her to leave and take some time for herself. Kitty had heeded her commands and left for her quarters, intending to shower, and after had collapsed on her bed to rest her eyes a moment, only to awaken three hours later. She had only returned less than fifteen minutes ago, and, unable to locate Moira, she had decided to entertain her two teammates with another chapter of her now-famous fairy tale, as she had done the last time the two men had been in this condition, immediately following the Mutant Massacre, before the uninjured X-Men had taken her to Doom in a last ditch effort to save her life. While she had still been on Muir, Kitty had taken to slipping free of her containment chamber to visit her two friends. She was like a ghost haunting the living then; unable to speak, her form fading with every passing day, and neither teammate could respond, yet she came faithfully, hoping if they could not hear or see her presence, perhaps they could feel it. Betsy had once found Kitty there, sitting silently in their teammates room. Unlike Moira who would shoo Kitty back into the containment chamber, the telepath understood why she needed to be there. Often, when Psylocke would sense Kitty's roaming presence, she would join her and speak her stories aloud - a sort of psychic translator. Kitty shook her head sadly. All that time had passed, and the two men were right back in the same spot they were all those months ago, fighting for their lives. She studied their faces, looking for signs of life. Kurt stayed silent and indifferent while Kitty told her yarn, but Peter's face had grown somber, and a frown marred the peaceful look he had worn before she had left that morning. She wondered if parts of her story were reaching him. With a sigh, the young X-Man reached out and entwined her fingers around his own, holding on to his hand.

"Should I continue with the story?" she whispered. "Well, since you don't seem to have an opinion, I don't think I will. I really don't want to. I don't know where it goes from there." She sniffled, and with her free hand she rubbed her eyes, trying not to cry. Kitty sniffled again and looked away. "You know how I said you and… and the woman were like Odysseus and Calypso? Well, it took him seven years to be free of her, twenty for him to find his way back to his wife. In all that time, his wife never knew if he was alive or if he'd return, but it didn't matter. As long as there was hope, she could wait." Kitty looked back at Peter's sleeping face and smiled sadly. "I can wait." She closed her eyes, trying to compose herself before continuing. "What you said, in the gym...I don't know if you said those things out of guilt of hurting me, or because you missed me, or even because you want me back, maybe, but if you think there's a hope for us, then I promise you, I can handle waiting. I can even handle you never coming back to me, but don't die. Please...I can't handle that," she breathed, silent tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Don't worry, you won't have to," a kind voice said from behind her. Kitty smiled gratefully at Moira as she entered the room and laid a motherly hand on the young girl's shoulder. "The boy's biggest problem is that he's exhausted himself; he's worn out and worn down. He'll be fine as soon as he sleeps it off and learns that he's not about to heal in one day, so he better start taking it easy. Now wipe that look off of your face, lass, tis nay your fault," Moira demanded, squeezing Kitty's shoulder before walking to the other side of Peter's bed and fiddling with the equipment. "He's the one who's been pushing his body too far before it was ready, the stubborn man, and I'm the doctor who should have been watching him more carefully," she fumed, angry with both herself and her patient. She strode over to Kitty's chair and put her arm around the girl, standing her up and leading her towards the door. "You've been watching over him long enough. Why don't you go to the den or someplace a tad less disheartening?"

Kitty stopped in her tracks and looked back over her shoulder at Peter, reluctant to leave. "And do what?" she asked softly, looking at Moira with pleading eyes, which the Scotswomen seemed impervious to.

"Something other than worrying about this," she said, marching the young girl out the door and closing it before she had time to argue. Moira waited until she heard Kitty's soft tread walking away from the med lab before she strolled over to Peter's cot, standing crossly at the foot of his bed, her arm folded staunchly across her chest. "You should be ashamed of yourself. How long have you been conscious?"

Peter winced and looked up into Moira's stern face, shame welling up inside him. "I awoke sometime during her story," he admitted. "I do not know why I didn't tell Katya. She was in the middle of her story, and it seemed somehow wrong to interrupt her. Besides, I had no idea how she would react to me being awake, to what I told her. It is harder now than it was then, in the moment..." he trailed off, his explanations sounding feeble even to his own ears, and he prepared himself for a verbal tirade from the Scotswoman, knowing he deserved nothing less.

The doctor glared at him, but reached out to help him sit up. Peter waved her hand away. "It's too bad the only answer you can come up with is 'I don't know' when the girl has done nothing but stay by yuir bedside and cry over you, but that's none of my business. You were in here nearly two days," Moira informed him. "For exhaustion, among other things. If you actually listen to what I tell you to do this time, you may not end up back in here again, you understand?" Peter gave a succinct nod. "Good. How are you feeling?"

"Rested, I suppose."

"It's a start, but that does nay mean you're out of the woods yet. From this moment on, you will be following all my orders to a tee, you hear me? And that means no leaving this room without my permission, no unnecessary physical activity, and no walking around outside without a jacket, I don't care how many times your bum rolled around naked in the snow as a child!" she snapped, holding out her index finger in warning. "Are we clear?"


"Good." She sighed. "I need some coffee," she muttered to herself, feeling frazzled. "You: follow my directions. I won't hesitate to lock you in a room if that's what it takes to keep you from over-exerting yourself," she warned, striding towards the door. Moira grabbed the doorknob and paused, looking back at her patient, her voice taking on a softer tone. "You know I never understood any of you X-Men. You fight for what's good and just, risking everything, even yuir lives. Why is it you can fight for equality, and justice, and goodness with all you have, but it's the rare one of you that willing to fight for love?"

Peter frowned. "It is easier, I think, to risk your life than it is your heart."

"Aye," Moira agreed, walking out the door, "That's true. But that does nay mean it's right." The Scots doctor closed the door and strode away, leaving her young patient alone to contemplate her words, and to remember something he had spoken of, three days before.

Peter limped stiffly towards the bluff, finding walking to be a difficult- and somewhat painful- chore. Yards away Kitty stood barefoot, moving slowly across the island's grassy expanse, her eyes closed to the rest of the world as she nimbly moved through a series of blocks and punches, a calming technique she had picked up under Wolverine's tutelage in Japan. Peter watched her as he continued towards her with a steady gait, enthralled by her movement. Her chestnut colored hair blew softly around her face as she shifted her body forward, and then to the left, her palm opening into a block. There was no joy in her movement, but there was confidence and strength, and she was composed, looking as poised and graceful now, on this cold and lonely island, as she had dancing safe and secure among friends at Stevie's Studio back in Westchester. He walked a few steps closer then stopped to rest, staying silent, ensuring a few more precious moments of watching the girl who held so much of his heart, before speaking.

"Good morning, Kitty."

"Peter!" Kitty cried out, rushing towards him and throwing her arms tightly around his neck. He winced silently from the pain of her pressing into his stomach, and placed a gentle hand on her slender back, returning her embrace. Peter winced again as her hands grasped his shoulders and she pushed herself away, a deep pink spreading across her face. "I'm sorry," she apologized, shaking her head in disgrace over her actions.

"You shouldn't be," he murmured softly, reaching out to stroke her arm. Kitty stared at him with puzzled eyes and turned away, moving towards the edge of the cliff, her loose hair tossed about behind her by the harsh North winds. It pained Peter to see the confidence and strength he had witnessed in her from afar become so quickly displaced by fragile vulnerability. He took his place beside the lithe beauty and she stiffened under his gaze. With a sigh, he shook his head. "I should be the one apologizing to you," he muttered contritely. "I have already done so much, and now I have interrupted you when you seemed to be at peace."

"No, I'm glad you came," Kitty began quietly, still speaking into the wind. "I was worried about you. I just… I came out here to get my mind off things for awhile." She closed her eyes and swallowed. "I didn't want to think about more death."

Peter nodded mutely. "You could have fooled me. Watching you, you seemed somehow serene," he supplied, turning to face her. "It never ceases to amaze me, to see how skilled you have become, how easily you must have learned."

"It wasn't easy," she whispered. Kitty raised her head, and for a brief moment his eyes met with hers. Sadness that Peter had never before witnessed sprang forth from their golden depths, and he had barely begun to wonder what was the source of her pain when she turned away.

With a sigh, Peter sat down on the grass, still damp from the morning dew, and ignoring the sharp pain the coursed through his chest as he shifted positions. Kitty glanced back at him and followed suit, sitting down Indian style a few feet away and wrapping her arms around her stomach. Peter stared at his lithe teammate, his gaze soft and tender. Hesitantly, Kitty snuck a glance towards the handsome man beside her. The moment their eyes met she snapped her head forward bashfully and hugged her arms tighter around her stomach.

Peter studied her profile for a moment, then faced forward, his nerves causing him to fidget slightly as he decided to broach conversation. "I wanted to thank you for the story," he told her, offering a small smile. "It was a nice thought."

Kitty stared at him, wide eyed. "You heard it?" she asked apprehensively.

"Da, parts of it." She nodded and turned away. For a time the pair sat in silence, and Peter used the quiet to gird his strength. "You never reached the end," he commented. "Tell me, does Pirate Kitty wait for her true love?"

As Peter waited with baited breath, the girl next to him remained still and silent, contemplating her answer. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft and cautious. "I guess that kinda depends on if he wants her to wait. If he thinks that he could come back to her."

"And if he does?"

"Then he has to say so!" she exclaimed, beginning to speak quickly and with passion, her words coming straight from the heart. "He needs to tell her everything that he feels, because when he only says bits and pieces, it confuses her, and it makes her feel like even more of a fool than she's already been. And it's not easy waiting, you know. There are all those Bamfs chasing after her and plenty of other boy pirates out there who could just snatch her heart away. She's very lovable, you know."

"I know." Peter sat quietly for a moment and looked over at Kitty, who was nervously chewing her bottom lip. "So what you are saying is that if Pirate Colossus tells Pirate Kitty how he feels, then she will forgive him?"

The young woman frowned. "I wouldn't really know the answer to that until I heard what he has to say. And Colossus isn't a pirate. Only Kitty gets to be one of those."

"I see. I have to say, I was a little surprised that Colossus was even allowed to be in the same story as Pirate Kitty," Peter said lightly, a small smile forming on his face.

"Well he wasn't before, but the whole calling her as beautiful as a jewel and then almost dying won him some pretty major points," Kitty explained as her own lips curved upwards. She looked away as a slight blush spread across her cheeks, her voice taking on a more serious tone. "But if he doesn't stop beating around the bush and say what she needs to hear him say, he's in danger of losing a lot of them."

"You are beautiful, Katya," Piotr began. "I meant every word I spoke back th-"

"-That's not enough!" she told him, her golden eyes boring into his sapphire ones imploringly. "I don't want to know what you think about me, I want to know how you feel."

"Da, it is just.... hard." Peter winced inwardly as she glanced over at him, a sour expression on her face. Then he smiled without humor and shook his head. "I am sorry. That was a selfish thing for me to say. It has not been easy for you either, these past six months." Peter turned his head and looked out over the sea, while Kitty's expression softened. He took a breath, composing his thoughts, examining what he felt. He looked back at her. "You were wrong before, when you told the story of Odysseus and Calypso," he began slowly, picking his words with care. "It's true that the King of Ithaca spent seven years on her island, but from the moment he washed ashore, his only thoughts were of returning home to Penelope. If he ever spurred his love for his wife in favor of this other woman, it was only due to Calypso's enchantments, and also because he was weak, and perhaps even scared. He was very, very far away from his wife, and it was easy to imagine that in the time he had been gone she had moved onto another suitor, as there had been men with their eyes on her, even when she stood at her husband's side. It is understandable that he might believe she had chosen one of these men in Odysseus' absence; a king, or a warrior, or an intellect like herself, whom her husband had always, always been wary of, even though she assured him he had no reason to be jealous. Perhaps there was a part of him which believed he had already lost her." Peter stopped and turned to face Kitty, his hand sliding gently over her own. "You were right about the ending though, Katya," Peter murmured, staring lovingly into her shining eyes, smiling shyly when he felt her slender hand curl around his large one. "He did return to his first love."

Kitty smiled back at him, her eyes shimmering. "Are you saying that you love me again, Peter?"

Peter pursed his lips. "I think, honestly, I never fell out of love with you to begin with. I just… lost my way, for a time." He finished this softly, thinking it sounded like a weak excuse, but Kitty's smile widened a bit.

"You know, Moira said something like that to me, that the heart can be treacherous, and how it can sometimes lose sight of what it once knew as certain." She stroked his thumb with hers, and her face became thoughtful, serious. "Peter, you said to me that… that Zsaji… she was an illusion. Is that true, or did you really love her?"

Peter closed his eyes and bowed his head, his hold on her hand tightening a bit. He remained silent for a few minutes; Kitty waited patiently. Finally he opened his eyes and looked at her. "Do you truly wish to know?"

Kitty nodded. "Yes. It's… it's important."

Peter nodded in turn. "Yes, it is." He sighed gently. "It is a matter I have much contemplated, these past months, when the pain of her death faded. I guess I did love her, a little. But not for who she was, the way I love you, but for what she felt, what she believed, the ideal she represented. She loved everything, treated all things with gentle kindness, as if they were her dearest kin. Perhaps that is why her healing touch was so powerful. But it was empathic, as well. Unwittingly, it amplified what should have been simple admiration into something more. The Professor and Wolverine told me as much, but I refused to listen, even when evidence lay stark before my eyes - Johnny Storm reacted much the same way to Zsaji's touch. After a month, the… ardor… I felt for her vanished, as if it never was." Peter frowned, looked down and to one side. "I am not trying to excuse my actions," he whispered. "There is no excuse for them. I was not being controlled, my will was not usurped, as Mesmero once did; I still had freedom of choice." His face stiffened with pain. He gently pulled away his hand from Kitty's and turned towards the sea.

"Peter?" she asked hesitantly.

"It humbles and awes me, Katya, that you still feel for me, after what I did." He took a deep breath, then continued, his voice strained, his hands curling into tight fists in his lap. "You said that I was beautiful, inside and out. I told you I was not. In fact, I am very ugly, in here." He rapped his knuckles against his chest.

"Don't say such things, Peter!"

"Why not? It is truth… You were going to trade your life for mine, submit forever to a vile bondage, so I could live, and I repay you by breaking your heart, by betraying you as completely as a man can betray his love. Zsaji died to save me, gave her life for someone who mistook a childish infatuation for love, and who does not even have the gratitude to miss her." Peter closed his eyes, but not before a tear escaped, trailing down his cheek. "Yet, despite the way I have acted, despite not being worthy of you in the least, you still love me, and I do not understand why…"

Kitty gazed up at him as he trailed off, a small, tender smile tinged with sadness upon her face. "That's easy," she whispered, reaching up to softly brush away the tear caught on his cheek. "I love you because, after everything, you're still you." Kitty reached across and took Peter's hand from his lap, fumbling slightly as he turned his wrist, allowing the young woman next to him to intertwine her fingers with his own. "I don't think you realize what a good person you are, what a good heart you have," she continued. "I know you weren't trying to hurt me before. What happened on Battleworld, you did those things because it's what your heart thought was right. You broke up with me for the same reason, and because it wouldn't be fair to either of us if you had pretended your feelings hadn't changed. You were just trying to do the right thing, and that's one of the qualities I've always loved about you. So how could I hate you for doing something I always loved?" Peter gave a soft sigh and shook his head, still feeling guilty, unworthy of her kindness. In turn, Kitty looked at him warmly and held his hand tighter. "Besides," she added lightly, "I don't know if anyone's ever told you this before, but you're awful cute. And there aren't many guys out there whose sisters happen to be my best friend. You're a good brother, you know that? You take care of Illyana, and you never give up on her. No matter what she says, she needs that, probably more than most people. And you stay strong for her, for everyone you love, no matter how much you're hurting inside. I love that you try so hard to protect everyone you care about, but more than that I love when you let me in and tell me how you feel, or let me see you cry. You're gentle, and thoughtful, and you take me to the ballet without complaint because you know how much I love it. You don't mind my temper; you actually seem to think it's funny. I mean, yell at most guys for hours about something that's not even their fault and they'll get pretty annoyed, but you just seem to get a good laugh out of it. Plus, you cook, which is something I need in a man, 'cause when it comes to me and the kitchen, I'm worse than Charlie Brown, and he burns toast. You're good at chess, but not quite good enough to beat me, and you're lousy at video games, so I get to win every time we play. And you're kinda quiet, so between the both of us we talk the perfect amount for two people. I love your voice, how it's deep and strong and honest, and you're the only one I know who uses the words "da" and "tovarich" and "by the white wolf!" You're the only one who calls me "Katya". I love it when you call me that."

"Illyana also calls you by that name."

"Only because it's what her big brother taught her. It comes from you."

"Katya..." he half sighed, reaching up to stroke her face with his free hand. Peter touched her gently, the tips of his fingertips dancing lightly over her skin; across her cheek and down to her chin where he retracted his hand, placing it on the ground beside him. He tried to pull the hand she held away, but Kitty clung on to it stubbornly. With a weary heart he lifted his arm up, gently using his free hand to slide hers away. Kitty's brow furrowed and she looked at him, wounded. Peter closed his eyes and turned away from the sight. "I am overjoyed to know that you still think of me with such warmth and affection, but tell me, calling you a certain name, accompanying you to the ballet, losing at a game I have no skill at, how is that enough to make up for what I have done, to warrant forgiveness? I do not know if I even deserve that. I hurt you Katya, deeply"

"You didn't just hurt me, Peter. You broke my heart," she retorted, her voice becoming hard, filled with frustration and a touch of anger. "But seeing how it was my hurt and my heart, I think it should also be my decision about what exactly it is you deserve from me. I already saw my parents break up. My dad- he loved my mom, but Mom, I don't know if it was because she was lonely or bored, but she hurt him." Kitty choked out the last two words, fighting to hold back tears. "And poor Dad, he had too much anger and stubbornness and… and pride to take her back. It was more important to protect himself, and to make her hurt the way he did, than it was to let himself keep loving her. The last time I saw them, they were both alone, and unhappy. Bitter." She looked up at him, her golden eyes shining and vulnerable. "Sometimes, when I think about you, I'm scared that you'll hurt me again, and I'll think of you as the bad guy, because that makes things easier, and yeah, sometimes I think that I hate you just a little bit, but more than any of those, I love you. And my love, it's stronger than any other one of my feelings. Doesn't mean they're not there, it just means that...that hating you isn't gonna make me happy, and neither is trying to hurt you the way you hurt me, or even us being just friends. So if you don't believe that you deserve to be with me, then do you at least think I deserve to be happy?"

"Da, always," Peter answered quickly, his voice full of sincerity. "More than anyone."

"Good," she responded, a crooked, half-smile on her face. "Because being with you makes me happy. So if I deserve to be happy, then I deserve you."

"I do not think it works quite like th-"

"-Peter, how many times do I have to tell you: I'm a genius. I know much better than you."

Peter stared down at her hesitantly, trying to read the pretty girl sitting before him. Kitty smiled up at him with affection, encouragement, and, most importantly, forgiveness. His face broke into a grin and his mask fell off, allowing Kitty to see all that he was feeling and all that he had kept hidden. "You are sure?" he asked hesitantly, still unsure if this is what she truly wanted.

Kitty nodded, her face still brightened by her smile. "Checked and double checked all the math."

"Then you and I, we may start again?"

"Mm-hmm," she agreed softly. "But slowly."

"Slowly," he repeated, as though seeing if the word was a good fit. "Da, that is what's best," he murmured, looking down. When he raised his head, there was a smile on his face, and a playful glint in his eyes that Kitty had not seen for a long time. "Tell me, what do we do now, Katya? After all, you are the genius."

Kitty's smile widened into a flirtatious grin and she let out a small giggle. "Well, first, you put your arm here, like this," she explained, picking up his arm and draping it around her shoulder. "Now, I put myself here," she told him, nestling her head against the crook of his neck, "Then I move my hand right here," Kitty continued, gently laying her hand on top of his chest. "Now we hold each other," she finished softly, turning her head to gently nuzzle her cheek against his shoulder, kissing it lightly. Peter gave a soft, contented sigh and pulled her closer, tenderly pressing his lips against the top of her head. A quiet "Mmmm" escaped from Kitty's lips, and she snuggled closer to Peter's warm body, her hand slowly caressing his muscular chest, rising and falling with the beat of his heart.

"Katya?" Peter whispered.

"Mmmm?" she said again.

"Do I ever have to let go?"

She looked up at him to find his eyes, as blue and as warm as the sea illuminated by the morning sun, alight with love for her. "Only if you want to," she whispered, closing her eyes as he reached forward, tenderly brushing a lose strand of hair away from her face.

Peter's smile widened at her words. "Good," he murmured, reaching his other arm over and resting his hand on the nape of her neck, enveloping the slender girl in a strong embrace. Kitty leaned her head back against his shoulder, and Peter rested his forehead against the crown of her head. Around them, the icy north winds howled, but neither Kitty nor Peter felt any of it; their bodies clung fiercely to each other as they cuddled, leaving them warm and content and happy.

Jeremy's Notes- Lia called Muir 'The Story That Never Ends', and I have to admit, this one took a while. If I recall correctly, we started it sometime in the middle of November. I had fun, the way I always have fun, writing with Lia, but it's nice to be done with this, and I'm sure my partner-in-crime agrees with me.

So far Lia and I have written two angsty romances, though they both ended well for Peter and Kitty. We will be doing something a bit fluffier for our next story. It'll make for a nice change of pace.

As always, comments and criticism are welcome, and wanton flamers will be fed to a small, purple dragon. Thanks all for your time and tolerance.

Lia's Notes- Writing Muir was an adventure. At times it was a very long, seemingly never ending adventure, but one that was ultimately worth the work and very fun to write. Working with Jeremy is always a pleasure, and I'm very much looking forward to our next story.

I hope you enjoyed Muir. If you feel compelled to leave a review, positive or negative, it will be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance, and, in the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, "Stay classy, Planet Earth."