Chapter three
"We'll Drink a Cup of Kindness..."

Two years later;

"Forty-five! Give me forty-six!" Kitty's therapist encouraged her as her legs strained against the 25 lb weights tied to the bar on her feet, her teeth grinding at the strain.

"And forty-seven! Do you have forty-eight?" She gripped the hand holds tightly as her legs pulled the weights, struggling to finish the last of her exercise regimen, a loud groan exploding from her throat with each lift.

"Forty-nine! And fifty!" Kitty relaxed visibly, letting the pulleys slacken as leaned back. Slowly she sat up from the weight machine, wincing at the ever-present stiffness in her legs, and gingerly lifted herself to a standing position. When she didn't collapse in an ungainly heap(as she had all too frequently when her therapist began these sessions over a year ago) she breathed a sigh of relief. "And that's all for today," the therapist announced. "Hit the massage table."

"Thank God," Kitty groaned as the ever-present stiffness in her legs reasserted itself as she slowly made her way to the massage table. "Just how I want to spend the first night of Hanukkah," she groused bitterly. "Reminding myself of how weak I've become. Man I'm glad Logan can't see me now."

"Don't beat yourself up, Kitty," her therapist assured her. "Logan would be proud of how you're progressing. Just as I am."

"Thanks," Kitty made a wry face as she lay down on the table, stomach down. "I forgot, Stevie. Were you this tough on me when I was in your ballet classes?"

Stevie Hunter flashed Kitty a quirky smile as she poured a dollop of baby oil from the bottle into the palm of her hand and started rubbing her hands briskly. "No," she answered. "I was tougher. And you never let me down yet." With that, she gently massaged the back of Kitty's left thigh, her expert hands kneading sore muscles.

"I almost miss those days," Kitty admitted as she relaxed under her old friend's ministrations. "Not all of it, of course. Not the Brood, or the Hellfire Club, or Reverend Stryker or all that, but being able to move like I used to. To fight. To dance. God, I miss that."

"Hey, considering the shape you were in this time last year," Stevie reminded her as her hands moved skillfully to Kitty's other leg, "I'd say the rate of your recovery qualifies as a minor miracle."

Kitty nodded ruefully. After all that happened to her, she was amazed at the fact that she could get out of bed in the morning. Or that she could want to.

Finally, after Stevie's nimble fingers finished poking and prodding Kitty's legs, she clapped her hands and announced, "And I'm through torturing you for this week. Hit the showers."

"Thanks, Stevie," Kitty nodded as she made her way to the shower stall. There was still some stiffness, but for the most part she was slowly beginning to feel more human than she had since that last terrible mission with the X-Men.

As she turned on the water and began to soap up her legs, she could still remember when it started, during her first week back with the X-Men. That first time she phased through a hundred feet of alien metal to infiltrate Benetech's sub-basements, she sensed something wrong. She knew from experience that phasing through super-dense materials tended to put stress on her body; she preferred to dodge Logan's adamantium claws over phasing through them during their frequent sparring sessions for that reason. The Breakworld metal was more than merely super-dense. The further she traveled through the substance, the harder it felt, the more it seemed to squeeze at her. Concentrating on the task at hand, to uncover the secrets of the alien gladiator Ord's alleged cure for the mutant genome, Kitty chose to file that information away and planned to speak to Hank McCoy later.

Plans that were all but forgotten when she discovered Benetech's secret; Ord drew his 'cure' from the blood of Piotr Rasputin. Colossus. The man who sacrificed his life to end the threat of the Legacy virus.

The man whose death prompted Kitty to finally walk away from the Xavier Institute close to two years before.

The man whom Kitty could never let out of her heart.

Drained as she was from phasing herself and Peter back through that mass of Breakworld metal to reunite with the X-Men, she didn't care. Piotr was alive.

Even then, they tended to tap-dance around each other, afraid of bursting the fragile bubble of hope. Between Piotr dealing with the rise of his hated ancestor Grigori, and Kitty facing down her personal demon in the form of Ogun for one final showdown, they barely had ten minutes in the same room, before the terrible situation with the AI entity called Danger. The situation that was precipitated by the suicide of Edward Mathews, who lost his mutant gift of flight to Ord's 'cure'.

When he suggested that she shouldn't join the X-Men in facing down Danger in Genosha, something within her snapped. She demanded to know why Piotr wanted her left behind, why he seemed to think she was crowding him. She still didn't know how he had learned about her father's death in Genosha, but true to character he was thinking of her emotions, putting her ahead of himself. And then his next announcement floored her; "And to be clear, Katya, you haven't been crowding me...nearly enough."

After their confrontation with Danger in Genosha, she and Piotr seemed to fit into a more natural groove. They had taken to picnicking together, or the occasional movie, while sparring matches in the gym took on a more playful tone. But there still seemed to be a wall between them, one even she couldn't phase through. So finally he broke down the wall and made the move.

Two years later, and she could still remember that kiss. And the joyous night of passion that followed.

And within two days it all went to hell.

Emma's seeming betrayal, using the X-Men, using Kitty. Her mind raped, her memories and emotions twisted to free the monster Cassandra Nova. Before they could even recover from Nova's machinations, they found themselves on a space-ship heading to the Breakworld, along with Ord and Danger. Breakworld's tyrant, the Powerlord Kruun, planned to destroy the Earth in retaliation for the predicted destruction of Breakworld, at Piotr's hands.

So the X-Men were forced to face the aliens on their homeworld. Where all the building materials, even the very mantle of the planet, was as dense and as difficult to phase through as the mass of metal above the Benetech sub-basement.

The X-Men managed to halt Kruun's plans. Lockheed lost his life on that distant world, taking the brunt of an energy weapon that would have cleaved Kitty's skull. Colossus defeated the Powerlord in single combat, ironically fulfilling the prophecy that he would break the Breakworld, by breaking the tyranny of the Powerlords. But by this time, Kitty was in no condition to celebrate.

She had phased through the missile aimed at the Earth, a ten mile long solid mass of Breakworld metal, a bullet meant to split the Earth in two. She walked through literally miles of that substance, pushing herself past her levels of endurance with each step. By the time she had found breathable air at the tip of that gargantuan bullet, the damage had been done.

When she awakened in the Xavier Institute's infirmary, Hank McCoy informed her that she had been comatose for over a month. And then she made the mistake of trying to get out of bed, only to fall to the ground like a limp ragdoll.

As Hank had explained it to her, the native minerals of the Breakworld contained chemical compounds that acted as toxins to the nervous system. Hank had realized that Kruun's weapon was designed to launch the giant bullet at the Earth, where it would burn up in the upper atmosphere, releasing its toxins. The toxins would then dissipate into the atmosphere, rendering Earth's life-giving air poisonous. Within a week, had the X-Men not been successful in routing the missile, all life on Earth would be extinguished.

When she phased through Breakworld matter, these chemicals somehow interacted with her body. They seemed to be triggered by the presence of female hormones, which explained why Piotr was unaffected, even when she phased him through the same substances. These toxins attacked her limbs and portions of her spine, in a manner analogous to the disease multiple sclerosis. And the effect was cumulative; the more she phased, the more they collected in her system.

By the time the X-Men diverted the missile and freed her, the damage had been done. Katherine Pryde was effectively paralyzed from the waist down. She could still feel her legs, she simply couldn't move them.

All she could remember from immediately after that terrible pronouncement was Piotr's strong yet gentle arms surrounding her, as she cried over his shoulder. He whispered assurances to her that whatever ordeals she would have to face now, he would face them with her.

Hank later assured Kitty that with time and exercise, the toxins would be purged from her system and she would regain some mobility. But her dancing days were effectively over. There would always be some stiffness in her limbs and for the first few months she would require either a wheelchair or braces. He recommended a diet and exercise regimen and suggested a few therapists in the greater New York area who could assist her.

Kitty only asked one thing; did he know any therapists in Chicago? Hank only nodded, sadness evident in his leonine features.

That night she penned an impassioned farewell letter to Piotr before she quietly left the mansion. She didn't expect him to wait for her, and she wouldn't burden him with a paraplegic girlfriend. Logan drove her to the airport, and she would swear to her dying day that despite his trademark stoic expression she saw the faintest trace of tears forming in his eyes as she kissed his cheek before boarding the plane, wheeling herself onto the gangway in one of Professor Xavier's old wheelchairs.

She wasn't surprised to see her mother waiting for her at O'Hare airport, but the sight of her mother chatting amiably with her former dance instructor came as a complete shock. Stevie smiled at her former star pupil, saying, "Hank McCoy called me, said you needed a therapist."

Stevie, Kitty had learned, had moved to Chicago shortly after Kitty had rejoined the X-Men, and was enjoying a fairly successful career as a choreographer and dance instructor for the Joffrey Ballet. When Hank McCoy called her up and informed her of Kitty's condition and that she was returning to Chicago, Stevie promised Hank that she would meet her at the airport. Given Stevie's own experience with a debilitating knee injury that ended her ballet career, along with their previous history as teacher and student, Kitty was glad that Stevie had volunteered to be her therapist. Perhaps she could finally heal, both body and soul.

After an extended emotional reunion during which Kitty could only cry on the willing shoulders of her mother and her close friend, Kitty allowed them to push her toward the luggage carousel, and toward her new life.

That was over a year ago. Since then, Kitty allowed herself to fall into a familiar routine; college on the weekdays, therapy sessions with Stevie on the weekends, and part-time work at a store that sold custom computers during her off hours. True to Hank McCoy's diagnosis she was able to shed the wheelchair within three months, and now was able to get around with a carved cane of polished Wakandan mahogany, a gift from Ororo. Queen Ororo, she reminded herself, smiling at the memory of her being Ororo's bridesmaid when the older mutant married King T'Challa of Wakanda.

The stiffness was still there, she reflected as she stepped out of the shower and sat on a bench placed next to the stall to towel herself dry. That would probably never go away, not completely. But she was getting stronger. Despite her protestations earlier, she could feel that strength returning to her limbs. She wasn't as strong as she used to be, but she was stronger.

But am I strong enough? She asked herself as she peered into the vanity mirror as the steam faded, seeking a trace of the scared, painfully shy girl who first joined the X-Men in the eyes of her reflection. She scowled back at the mirror, finished putting on her clothes, and headed back to Stevie's gym, cane in hand.

"Oh, Stevie," Kitty announced as she approached her therapist before saying goodbye, "You're gonna make it over tomorrow for dinner right? It's the second night of Hanukkah and Mom promised to pull out her old roast chicken recipe."

"Wouldn't miss it, Kitty," Stevie promised. "And this time I'm going to kick your butt on that dreidel game." She paused and glanced at Kitty a moment. "You planning on anything big for New Year's Eve?"

Kitty didn't answer as she collected her thoughts. Finally she said, "Not really. Maybe go to Hells' Belles and get drunk on Tinkov's or something."

Her old friend could hear the weariness in Kitty's voice, and regarded her with a knowing eye. "You still miss him," she said gently. A statement, not a question.

Kitty nodded her head as she turned away from Stevie, not wanting to risk displaying the tears she knew were coming.

Stevie stood beside Kitty and placed a gentle finger on the side of the younger woman's cheek, slowly turning her head to face her. "Kitty," she said, "I'm canceling next week's session. Just for the one week."

Kitty blinked in surprise at the announcement. "You going on vacation, Stevie?"

"No," she answered, smiling. "But you are. You should see him again." She didn't say his name, nor did she need to.

Kitty lowered her head sadly, leaning heavily on her cane. "I promised myself that I wouldn't burden him, not until I'm stronger."

Stevie chuckled slightly. "Trust me, Kitty, you're strong enough. Your legs are healing fine. Right now, you need to heal your heart. Go back to him for awhile. If Peter's still the same guy I remember, you won't be a burden."

And to be clear, Katya, you are not crowding me...nearly enough.

Kitty shook her head as Peter's words once again echoed through her mind. "He's not in Salem right now," she admitted to Stevie. "I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from Scott; he's temporarily split up the team. Peter's in Russia with Kurt and Logan."

"Yeah, Hank told me the same thing when I called him last week." She picked up an envelop off of a nearby table, handed it to Kitty and said, "Happy Hanukkah. Hope you're passport's updated."

Kitty felt her heart thudding in her chest as she opened the envelop and scanned the contents. Ten seconds later she leaped into Stevie's arms, her stiffness forgotten as she hugged her friend. "Thank you, Stevie, thank you!" she breathed, both laughing and crying.

"You're welcome, kiddo," Stevie laughed as she returned the embrace. "But save some of that for Peter!"

"Hey, Peter," the familiarly light voice, faintly laced with a Germanic accent, called out from behind him. "Are you sure that you're going to be okay?"

The Russian mutant known to the world as Colossus turned his head heavily and nodded to his companion. "I shall be fine, Kurt. I simply wish to be alone for a few minutes."

Kurt nodded and watched silently as Peter Rasputin walked away, his footprints heavily imprinted in the fresh blanket of snow.

Peter inhaled deeply, savoring the familiar chill of December on the abandoned farm where he was born. A mild winter so far by Siberian standards, but a harbinger of harsher weather to come. He scanned the horizon ahead of him, the line of trees standing sentinel at the edge of the forest, areas of glass-clear blue sky overcoming the receding clouds. A magnificent view, worthy of his canvas and paints.

It had been six months since he even touched a paintbrush. He tried to throw himself into his art after Kitty's sudden departure, but his inspiration seemed to leave him as she did. His muse. His inspiration. His Katya.

And then, just a few months ago, the final blow. The terrible ordeal against the so-called Purifiers, in a desperate bid to protect the first mutant child born in over a year, since the event known as The Decimation. Bishop's betrayal. Professor Xavier's near-death. Scott's decision to break up the X-Men once and for all.

As long as he still had the X-Men to fall back on, there was structure in Peter's life. Even without Kitty, he could still have purpose as an X-Man. But even that avenue has been closed off, at least for the time being if not forever. So he accepted the company of his two closest friends, Kurt and Logan, and the three traveled across Europe, finally arriving at his birthplace, the Ust-Ordinsky collective farm near Lake Baikal, Siberia.

One final insult to his injured soul was an unpleasant encounter with the former Soviet agent-turned-human-weapon, Omega Red. An encounter engineered by the Russian government. Not for the first time Peter was struck with the terrible realization that, however much he loved his native country, that affection was, in so far as the government was concerned, unrequited.

Thus, even though he still recalled the warm familiarity of his birthplace, he couldn't think of it as home. He wondered if he even had a home anymore. New Year's Eve was just a few days away, but he didn't think about it. He avoided any thought of the future. Because he couldn't imagine having a future. Not without her...without...

With these sad thoughts, he turned his eyes away from the grandeur before him, and made his way back to the dacha where he, Kurt and Logan had been staying for the last week, recovering from their battle with Omega Red.

He didn't recognize the red convertible parked in front of the dacha, but clearly recognized Kurt and Logan. Kurt was animatedly embracing a stranger whose face was obscured by the fur-lined hood of a winter parka. A few seconds later the stranger turned to Logan and received a generous bear hug from the normally stoic Canadian. As he cleared the final few feet to the dacha, he was about to ask Logan what was going on, when the stranger turned to Peter, lowering the hood of her parka.

Her brown hair spilled out of the hood, and a few strands of hair began to wave softly in the breeze. Hazel eyes regarded him with amused affection, and her lips slowly stretched into a warm and welcoming smile. "Piotr," she sighed, gingerly making her way off the porch, leaning on the black carved cane in her hand as she cleared the step. "How you doing, Big Guy?"

Peter stood in open-mouthed wonder, scarcely daring to speak or blink, or do anything to break the spell. "Katya?" he whispered, fearing that this vision would disappear from his sight if he so much as moved an inch. Logan arched an eyebrow, growling, "What are you waitin' for, Bub? Kiss her already!"

The spell broken, Peter rushed forward, scooping Kitty Pryde into his arms and lifting her three feet off the ground. She barely managed to keep hold of her cane as he held her tightly, but she soon managed to recover enough to return his embrace, hugging him fiercely. The tears flowed freely and their lips joined passionately as the two lovers were reunited.

After a few moments, Peter reluctantly lowered Kitty to the ground, but still held fast to her. Kitty loosened her grip and gazed wonderingly into his deep blue eyes. "Peter," she started, her voice catching suddenly, "before we go any further, there's something I need to know?"

"What is it, Katya?" Peter asked anxiously.

Kitty opened the front of her parka halfway, reached into an inside pocket and removed a folded newspaper. She displayed the tabloid to Peter, showing a paparazzi photo of a surprised Peter, his arm linked with a figure that bore a striking resemblance to a certain tall, willowy actress. The headline screamed in 48 point type: ANGELINA AND THE X-MAN: HAS ANGIE DUMPED BRAD?

"I found this at the magazine rack at O'Hare airport," Kitty explained, her voice taking on an amused tone. "Is there something you wish to tell me? I'm a big girl, Peter, I can take it."

A muffled 'BAMF' of imploding air drew Peter and Kitty's attention, and they turned toward Logan, who was standing beside a dissipating black cloud that smelled of brimstone. Logan just shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of mock innocence. Kitty struggled mightily for a few seconds before surrendering to a fit of mirthful laughter at Peter's expense.

Peter's shout echoed across Lake Baikal for miles; "KURT WAGNER!"