Disclaimer: It's the Marvel Universe for a reason, baby! Boris Arkady is mine, the others are Marvel's. I'm just visiting this planet! No money exchanged hands, just some imagination.
Rating: PG. Mild angst and warm fuzzies abound herein. Kiotr all the way, of course.
Spoilers: not really.
Summary: Peter runs into the girl who broke his heart.
What You Are and Who You Are
DNA is what you are, not who you are."
—Gil Grissom (William Peterson), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
a man's an empty kettle
One should be on his mettle,
And yet, I'm torn apart,
Just because I'm assumin'
That I could be kind of human
If I only had a heart—"
—"If I Only Had a Heart"
from The Wizard of Oz
by E. H. Harburg and Harold Arlen
The smell of fresh-baked dark rye bread wafted from the little bakery and across the streets of New York's Brighton Beach as Peter walked past, and he slowed his steps for a moment, long enough to inhale deeply. He recalled something that Hank had told him once, about how the sense of smell is one of the most powerful memory enhancers. Indeed, one whiff from the bakery and fond memories of his childhood, of his mother baking bread on the hearth, flooded his mind, lightening the burdens of his life for a moment.
Peter glanced toward the source of the aroma and smiled; The Little Odessa Market, he thought to himself. I might have known. Scott had taken him here during his first months as an X-Man, sensing that the aloof young artist was feeling homesick. He had since come here frequently during his free time, playing chess with store employee Boris Arkady while his wife Svetlana watched and played referee, or conversing with the locals about recent events in Russia. It has been too long since Peter had visited Brighton Beach, and far too long since he had visited Boris and Svetlana. He turned on his heels toward the bakery; some traditional Russian rye bread would be the perfect addition to his evening plans.
As Peter entered the small shop, he glanced at the shelves, happily noticing the familiar touchstones of his native land; a collection of blue-glazed white porcelain figures lined a glass shelf behind the cash register, along with a handful of egg-shaped ornaments, while the wall behind the counter was dominated by a print of a traditional Russian painting that Peter recognized as a scene from a favorite childhood story, of a confrontation between Ilya Muromets and the witch Baba Yaga. To his left, away from the bakery displays, he sited a shelf filled with Matreshka nesting dolls, painted in myriad designs; from traditionally garbed maidens with gilded bonnets to figures from Russian folklore and fairy tales, from motifs of Father Christmas and winter scenes to contemporary world leaders and screen heroes.
One in particular caught Peter's eye; an eight-inch tall black doll bearing the painted helmet and cape of Darth Vader, a light-saber glowing menacingly in his hand, opened to reveal, in order, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Lando Calrissian, C3PO, Yoda, and finally an intricately carved R2D2 in the center. Peter glanced toward the cash register and asked in his native tongue, "Excuse me, how much does this doll cost?"
A barrel of a man emerged from the back of the shop, a toothy smile emerging from his shaggy red beard. "Piotr?" he shouted joyously, clapping his meaty hands together. "Ha ha, Piotr Nikolaevitch Rasputin! It is you!" The robust balding shopkeeper rushed toward his customer and wrapped his arms around the younger man in a generous bear hug, the greeting of a long-lost friend. "Dear God it's good to see you again! How long has it been?"
After the initial shock of being suddenly manhandled wore off, Peter relaxed as he recognized the shopkeeper. His hair was thinning and the beard was thicker than he remembered, but his generous smile and infectious good nature gave him away. "Boris," he greeted the ruddy-complexioned figure who was gently trying to crush his ribs. "It has been too long. Still working the counter?"
"Why not?" Boris waved his hands toward the cash register. "It's my shop! Leonid went into retirement last year so Svetlana and I scraped together our savings and bought the store from him!"
Peter's eyes widened in shock. "You used to work here as a stocker, now you own the store? Congratulations!"
"Thanks, tovarich," the shopkeeper answered happily. "It's been a challenge, but Lana and I have managed to turn in a tidy profit."
"How is Lana doing these days?" the younger Russian asked.
"Wonderfully, Piotr, wonderfully," Boris smiled broadly. "She's over at the docks with Misha right now, looking over a shipment of pots and pans from Kiev. She'll be saddened to know that she missed you. And you should see how tall Misha has become. He'll wind up looking down at you, mark my words!"
"I regret that I missed seeing Misha grow," Peter chuckled warmly. "You may rest assured; I have no plans to be a stranger."
"Indeed," Boris nodded vigorously. "It has been far too long since I've beaten you at chess! Business is slack for now until the evening, perhaps I can set up the board…"
"As I recall," Peter teased the older shopkeeper, "I beat you the last time we played. Anyway I haven't the time today, perhaps next time. I'm making some purchases right now, and would like a loaf of that rye bread I smelled coming in here. And this set of dolls," he added, pointing to the Star Wars nesting dolls.
"For you, the dolls are fifteen dollars," Boris announced. "And a dollar fifty for the bread, it's on special today. That's the display model, I'll get a boxed one for you."
"Spaciba," Piotr nodded as Boris hurried his bulky frame to a shelf in the back of the store. "So, Piotr," Boris grinned as he rummaged through the shelves, "is there a reason for your little shopping spree? Or did you simply become a Star Wars fan over the last few years?"
"Actually, it's a gift for someone," Piotr answered. "Her birthday is tonight, and I promised her I'd prepare a traditional Russian feast. That reminds me, can you recommend a good seafood market? I'm planning on grilled salmon steaks and bean soup."
"Ah, a romantic dinner for two," Boris chuckled. "And the lucky lady, she wouldn't happen to be Yekaterina, would she?"
Piotr smiled, blushing slightly. Boris Arkady had always been a perceptive individual. "Da," he confessed, "the woman in question is Katya."
"Ah, young love," Boris sighed theatrically, emerging from the back of the store. "Hmm…I do apologize, Piotr, but I can't seem to find any of the Star Wars dolls."
"Oh, too bad," Piotr shook his head. "Katya would have loved those."
"Let me check with Anya in the back room," Boris suggested.
"Anya?" Piotr asked.
"Yes," Boris announced. "I needed to hire a few people to help keep the shop going. You'll like Anya, she's a sweet young thing. Used to be a dancer, I believe. Anya?" he called out, "Are there any of the Star Wars dolls in the back?"
"I think so, Mr. Arkady," a soft, but haggard-sounding female voice emerged from the back-room, a faint tone that stirred something in Piotr's mind. A shuffling sound followed, and a slight figure emerged from the shop's backroom. "We had a few left from the last shipment, sir," she announced, walking toward Piotr, a small cardboard box in her hands. "Here you go—" she stopped suddenly as her eyes met Piotr's, her frame shuddering with recognition.
Piotr felt his good humor slowly desert him as he eyed the woman at the counter. The woman whom he had once rescued from KGB thugs. The woman who had given him his first kiss. The woman who ran away in terror when she saw his armored form. The woman who told him, "A man who is made of steel can have no heart."
The woman who broke his heart.
"It has been a long time, Piotr," Anya Marakova spoke gently, handing him the box.
Piotr stood rigidly, his eyes glaring at Anya like angry suns. "Yes it has," he intoned sternly. "Please place the box on the counter, and I will be on my way."
Anya lowered her head and set the package on the counter. Boris watched the terse exchange with gimlet eyes. "Do you two know each other?"
Anya stood silently, not making eye contact with either man. "We met," Piotr nodded curtly. "Boris, I would appreciate it if you rang up my order."
"Very well," Boris answered. "Anya, would you do the honors?"
"Boris," Piotr repeated, turning his head toward Anya to insure that his meaning was clear, "I would appreciate it if you rang me up."
Anya sighed slightly, her eyes staring intently at the toes of her shoes. Boris watched as his friend and his employee regarded each other with the silence of a battlefield before the war. Whatever had passed between these two, he chose for now not to interfere. "As you wish, tovarich." Stepping behind the recalcitrant cash-register, his fingers tapped the prices onto the clicking keys. "Here's your total," he announced quietly as Piotr gave him a twenty-dollar bill. As he returned the change, he added, "You may wish to check the fish market on Vorhees Street. I hear they got in a shipment of Alaskan salmon flown in today."
"Again, spaciba," Piotr nodded as Boris handed him a paper bag containing the dolls and a loaf of rye bread. Piotr nodded once, before leaving the shop hurriedly.
So intent was he in placing distance between himself and Anya that he almost ignored the changing traffic light, until the blare of a car horn shook him from his rancor. Jumping back as a Chevy Impala sped past him, he could half make out the driver's voice shouting, "Wake up, crackhead!"
Piotr shook his head, chastising himself for letting his emotions consume him. Anya was a brief moment in his life. Barely a footnote in his biography. They dated twice, before his mutant nature and her prejudice were simultaneously revealed. He moved on, to happier times. To a vibrant American computer geek with the smile of an elf, the gentle curves of a dancer and the courage of a lioness. Anya meant nothing to him.
But her words still stabbed him. A man made of steel…
He made his way to the fish market on Vorhees Street and purchased a large salmon, requesting that the fish be sliced crossways into inch-thick steaks. The fishmonger happily obliged, and the gentle rumbling of the crowd around him helped bring him out of his sour mood. He relaxed as he paid for the fish and left the market.
Before heading for the bus-stop to return to the Institute, Piotr found himself strolling along the piers near Brighton Beach. He looked out at the harbor, watching cargo boats ply their way to and from the docks, as clouds of seagulls wheeled and dove above the waters. The salt sea air was bracing against his face, and helped to clear his head.
Anya. He wanted to say that he had scarcely thought about her since their sudden and angry breakup. But her words still had power over him, after nearly ten years. He heard her mocking him, time and again in his head over the years. When he told Kitty about an alien healer he hardly knew. When he sat still and said nothing as Kitty needed comforting after watching Illyana die. When he abandoned Xavier's dream for Magneto's false sanctuary. When he pummeled a coarse but decent British rogue for the sole crime of displaying affection to the woman he still loved. When he learned that she had scattered the ashes she thought were his remains over Lake Baikal. Whenever Kitty was in pain and he knew beyond doubt that he was the cause of her anguish…
A man made of steel…
Enough of this, Rasputin, he chided himself. Her words are nothing. She is nothing. You need to get her out of your mind, or else you won't be fit company for Katya, and then what kind of birthday dinner will it be? Resolve strengthening his form, he collected his packages and turned away from the harbor—
Anya Marakova stood ten feet away from him, her arms wrapped around the faded denim jacket she wore as though to ward off the sea breezes. Piotr appraised the figure before him; her hair had been what lyricists once called 'strawberry blonde', a few shades closer to honey than true blond, with pale golden highlights. Now, gray hairs threaded through her hair, which was tied into a bun. Her eyes had been pools of crystal blue, flecked with gold. Now they seemed dull, faded, the light Piotr remembered dimmed by the years.
"Piotr," she spoke plainly. "Boris asked me to speak with you."
"And so you have," Peter nodded, just as plainly. "And having done so, please leave me."
"Please, Piotr," Anya raised her eyes and turned her head toward Peter. "I wish to apologize for...leaving things unfinished between us."
Peter turned his back to the young woman, his eyes again training on the birds overhead. "They must remain unfinished. If you seek forgiveness, then I must disappoint you."
Anya stepped behind Peter and placed a hand on his arm. Peter grabbed her hand, his grip not hard enough to crush but enough to cause pain. "I asked you to leave me," he half-whispered, half-growled, and threw her hand aside. "I will not ask again!"
"How can you be so cruel?" Anya breathed. "I know I hurt you, but—"
"Hurt me?" Peter snarled. "You cannot hurt me. Remember? I am a man made of steel, I have no heart!"
Anya lowered her head in shame. "I said some terrible things to you. I deserve your hatred. It may please you to know that the scorn I expressed for seeing what you are has been visited upon me."
Peter turned slowly to face Anya. There was a blunt quality to the pain in her voice. It wasn't sharp, it was dull, a built-up pain, a burden that her shoulders bore unwillingly for years. He took no pleasure in seeing her so low. Despite what she had said and done to him before, no human deserved the pain she seemed to be suffering.
"What has happened to you?" Peter asked, his tone no longer menacing. "I had expected to find you living a lush retirement, after years as a ballet star."
Anya dared to look into Peter's eyes and sighed visibly in relief that she did not see the hatred she expected. "Things don't often happen as we would have them, Piotr." She slipped her hand inside of her denim jacket and withdrew a billfold, which she opened slowly. She handed the open wallet to Peter, her thumb pointing to a small photograph in one of the plastic card sleeves.
The child couldn't have been more than two years old at the time it was taken. Apart from the almost fluorescent blue skin, she looked like any healthy toddler. Deep blue eyes, partially obscured by locks of coral red hair, peered wonderingly out of her face, and her smile was warm and welcoming. "She's a beautiful child," Peter said honestly. "What is her name?"
"Marina," Anya said. "Two months after I left you, I auditioned for the Manhattan Ballet Company, and was quickly promoted to solo ballerina. I had quite forgotten you as I was swept up in the constant rehearsals, the thrill of again dancing for a major company. Trevor Martin was the lead choreographer for the company, and he and I worked very closely, especially when I danced my first lead role, the Firebird."
"I believe I saw your costume once," Peter nodded, recalling a poster he had seen once in Stevie Hunter's dance class while watching Kitty go through her rehearsals shortly after she had first joined the X-Men. He recalled Kitty asking him why his face turned hard and cold at the sight of the poster. "You looked splendid."
"Thank you," Anya nodded, unable to fully accept Peter's praise. "Two months after we finished our run of The Firebird, Trevor and I got married. Eleven months later, Marina was born."
Peter looked again at the photo, seeing the punchline a mile away. "Marina is a mutant."
Anya gulped back a tear. "She was born with bright blue skin, webs connecting her fingertips and her toes, and gills on her neck. When she was born, she almost suffocated, until the doctor realized what she was and placed her in a tank of water. After six months she was able to breath in the air for up to twelve hours at a time, but she had to sleep in an aquarium."
Peter returned Anya's wallet and stood by silently as she continued her story. "When Trevor first saw Marina, he screamed and fled the hospital. Two days later, his body was found in our apartment, a gun barrel in his mouth. In his suicide note he claimed that he and I were both damned for bringing a monster into the world. Before I could leave the hospital, I was informed that my contract with the ballet company was cancelled, and that I was considered blacklisted by every company in the country. The press would not be informed of my child's existence, but for all intents and purposes, my career as a dancer was over."
"I am truly sorry to hear that," Peter spoke grimly, reminded once again that the world was not a friendly place for those who were different. Whatever anger he bore Anya had completely faded, replaced by sympathy.
"I suppose that this is what they call karma," Anya shook her head bitterly. "The terrible truth was that, for months, I hated Marina. I resented her for destroying my life, my career, my marriage...but that hatred was not something I could sustain. She was a baby. Defenseless, innocent. She was a mutant, true. And whatever else she was, she was my daughter. So she became my life. I worked for a temp agency, for anyone who needed a typist or a file-clerk, or a cashier. A few of my employers immediately fired me when they first saw Marina, but one or two accepted her. And Marina was a joy, no matter how hard things got, she always woke with a smile. We would take walks in Central Park, and although I kept her covered to protect her from other people's narrow-mindedness, she still enjoyed running across the grass, picking dandelions and presenting them to me in bunches." Anya chuckled ruefully at the memory. "Her bouquets of dandelions meant more to me than all the roses I ever received as a ballerina."
Peter turned his head to Anya, a question in his mind. "Anya," he asked, "have you considered bringing Marina to the Xavier Institute? I know that she would be more than welcome there. And we do have facilities to help her deal with her mutation."
Anya didn't answer at first, she only lowered her head. Peter considered coaxing her to speak, but held back, letting her speak her peace in her own time. Finally she spoke; "Two months after the photo was taken, Marina was diagnosed with an incurable disease. The doctors called it 'Legacy virus'. She died two years ago. She had just turned three—" A sob wracked her slender frame, and she could speak no more.
Peter took Anya's face in his hand, guiding her gaze back to his, his thumb gently wiping a tear from her cheek. "I share your grief, Anya," he intoned sadly. "My sister Illyana, she died of Legacy. I am truly sorry for your loss."
"I wish I hadn't been so pig-headed," Anya began to sob lightly as Peter's arms encircled her waist. "I had let my pride keep me away from you, from your Institute, because I did not wish to face you again. But then it was too late for Marina...I am so sorry, Piotr, for the hateful things I said to you..."
"There's no need to apologize," Peter assured the crying woman in his arms. "I'm just sorry that you had to face this hell alone..." The two said nothing else, they only held each other, bound by their shared grief, as tears fell freely. At length, the storm had passed and Anya's sobs subsided, but she still remained in the friendly embrace, accepting comfort for perhaps the first time since her daughter's death. Peter, for his part, was somehow relieved by this reconnection to his past. A sense of closure filled his heart. He felt the hot wetness on his cheek and realized that he had been crying with Anya. The tears he would not shed when Illyana had died finally fell, cleansing his soul.
"Hey, Big Guy," a familiar voice chimed, breaking Peter out of his melancholy. Startled, he and Anya rapidly disengaged their hug. "Who's your friend?"
Peter turned to the always-welcome voice, seeing the woman he loved standing before him. "Ah, Katya," he blushed furiously. Glancing at Anya, whose cheeks grew crimson as well, he hastily added, "Uh, this isn't what it looks like."
"Oh?" Kitty grinned. "So you weren't comforting a friend?"
"Well, yes, I was," Peter admitted, "but that was all it was, I assure you…"
"Did I give any indication that I was jealous?" Kitty laughed. "Sorry, but you're cute when you think you're busted, anyone ever tell you that?" She walked toward Peter, linked her arm in his possessively and kissed him on the cheek. "Figured you'd be here today, so I thought I'd surprise you. So, introduce me, willya?"
"Ah, yes," Peter coughed slightly, steadying his nerves while Anya chuckled, amused at his discomfiture. "Anya, this is my girlfriend, Katherine Pryde."
"A pleasure, Katherine," Anya smiled warmly, offering her hand.
Kitty shook Anya's hand, saying, "Call me Kitty."
"And Katya," Peter continued, "this is one of the first people from Russia that I met when I first came to New York, Anya Marakova."
Kitty glanced at the woman, recognition lighting her eyes. "Anya?" she asked. "The Anya Marakova?"
Anya nodded once, afraid of what Peter must have told Kitty of the terrible woman who dumped him for being a mutant.
"Oh—my God," Kitty breathed. "I saw you on PBS when I was ten years old, dancing the Firebird! You were the reason I wanted to become a dancer when I was a kid! Wow, this is an honor! I am a huge fan!"
"Many thanks," Anya nodded, touched at this sudden display of emotion. She hadn't even considered that she might still have fans, that anyone would remember her brief career as a ballerina.
"What happened to you anyway?" Kitty asked. "You were ready to take the dance world by storm and then you drop off the map. What happened?"
"Uh, Katya," Peter interrupted softly, "perhaps we shouldn't pry..."
"No, it's fine, Piotr," Anya shook her head. "I have no reason to hide the truth. Kitty, I had a daughter—"
For the second time that day...and the second time in five years, Anya told someone else the story of her fall from stardom, and the birth and death of her daughter Marina. When she finished, Kitty's eyes were as tear-filled as Anya's had been. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Miss Marakova. I had no idea."
"No one did, Kitty," the former dancer replied soberly. "And please, my name is Anya."
"I'm honored, Anya," Kitty replied. "But seriously, it's not fair that some narrow-minded jerks should kill your career. You were something to watch. I mean, in my ballet classes with Stevie Hunter, I used to wish I could be half as good as you."
"Even so," Anya admitted, "if I wanted to, I still couldn't go back. Dancing is too demanding, and my body isn't quite up to the rigors of ballet anymore—excuse me, did you say 'Stevie Hunter'?"
"Yeah, Professor Xavier set me up in her dance class when I first came to New York," Kitty smiled hugely. "She's a great teacher. Tougher than a drill sergeant, though, let me tell you."
"It's my turn to be impressed," Anya smiled slightly. "Miss Hunter was good in her day as well. She was one of my idols when I first aspired to dance."
"Yeah, she was my hero back then too," Kitty nodded. "Hey, you ever consider teaching dance?"
"Once or twice," Anya replied. "Why?"
"You should look Stevie up," Kitty stuck her hand in her purse and grabbed a pen and a pad of paper. Scribbling an address and phone number on the top sheet of the pad, she ripped the sheet off and handed it to Anya. "Stevie's been busy with the Dance Theater of Harlem, directing and doing choreography. I looked her up a few weeks ago, and she told me that she was looking for a few teachers. And she would be nuts to pass you up."
"Do you really think so?" Anya's eyes widened. "Would she willingly work with the mother of a mutant?"
"Hey, she's taught a classful of mutants," Kitty grinned. "And I'm one of them." She phased her hand through the guardrail she was leaning on, by way of demonstration. Her arm still phased through the rail, she waved at Anya.
Anya stared briefly at Kitty, who smiled slyly at the dancer. "Look, I'll call Stevie tonight and tell her to expect you. Just call her tomorrow, huh? Trust me, she'll love you."
"Thank you, Kitty," For the first time in longer than she could recall Anya smiled without a hint of sorrow. "I will call her."
"Great, and tell her I plan to catch her production of The Nutcracker next month." Turning toward her boyfriend, Kitty added, "And we'd better head back to Salem before it gets dark."
"A capital idea, Katya," Peter conceded. Turning toward Anya, he added, "It was good to see you again."
"I feel the same, Piotr," Anya nodded. "Thank you both, for everything."
"Hey, I'm glad I met you, Anya," Kitty gave her a brief hug. "You take care."
"I will. And please, take care of Piotr." Affixing his eye with her own, she added, "He has the biggest heart of any man I know."
Kitty smiled knowingly. "Don't I know it!" She stepped away from Anya and turned to head back to Peter's car, but stopped suddenly. "I just thought of something. Peter told me he dated a girl named Anya once, just after he came to America." She eyed Anya suspiciously. "He told me that she broke his heart."
Peter took Kitty's hand in his own, his free hand carrying his shopping bag. "No, she is not the same woman, Katya," he assured her.
Looking at Anya, he repeated himself; "Not the same woman at all."