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Small Steps, Great Leaps

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Small Steps, Great Leaps
Part One
By Rowena Zahnrei

Eric Wagner had been feeling poorly for the last three miles. What had he been trying to prove, undertaking a hike like this? He was sixty-three years old and he knew he was far from in the best of shape. He had been a fool to let his twenty-four year old wife talk him into this so-called vacation. He was a highly successful accountant, he had a wonderful home in Milan-what did he need to climb the Alps for? Felicita was probably already at the inn by now with their guide, wondering what had become of him.

Eric came to a stop and leaned his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He winced as another shooting pain lanced through his left arm. His chest was aching. He had definitely overexerted himself on this one. What he needed was a long, hot shower and a nice, soft bed.

Eric lifted his head as the pain began to dissipate. Somewhere nearby he could hear the sound of rushing water. Remembering that the inn was next to a river, Eric headed for the sound, rubbing his arm and muttering to himself. He would have some choice words for Felicita and that guide of theirs when he got to the inn. What had they been thinking, going off ahead and leaving him behind like that? How did they know he wasn't lost or injured out there on the mountain? He was the one paying for this trip after all...

The river looked lovely in the moonlight. Even in his exhausted state, Eric could appreciate the beauty of the ice on the water, reflecting the light of the stars and moon like so many mirrors. Deciding he could use a break, Eric sank to his knees by the snowy riverbank and watched the freezing water rush by.

He had just started to feel his energy returning when he became aware of a small, black spot in the water, held stationary against the current by a cluster of ice-encrusted driftwood jutting out from the riverbank. Curious, Eric climbed to his feet—a difficult task in his bulky snowsuit—and made his careful way down to the object.

It was difficult to see in the dark, especially through his goggles. Lifting them to his forehead, Eric bent over and pulled the sodden bundle from the water, trying to make out what it was. As he lifted it, he felt something move inside. Frightened, he nearly dropped it.

"It's probably just some kittens or puppies someone threw into the river to drown," he said out loud, as if to reassure himself. "I'll just take a look."

Kneeling in the deep snow, Eric carefully pulled the damp, ice-encrusted cloth open. He gasped and fell back on his hands. The sight he beheld was shocking. It looked as though someone had tried to drown a baby. Its skin seemed as black as pitch in the moonlight, and it was dressed all in white. Appalled, Eric recovered himself and moved closer, pulling off his gloves to feel for the baby's pulse.

To his surprise, the baby's neck was covered in short, damp fur. Abruptly, Eric began to laugh.

"Why, it's not a baby at all!" he exclaimed, deeply relieved. "It's some kind of monkey. And it's still alive."

Leaving the rapidly freezing cloth the creature had been wrapped in on the snowy ground, Eric lifted the unconscious monkey in his arms and resumed his trek toward the inn. As he carried it, he could feel its tail curling and uncurling underneath all the lace it was draped in.

"I'll bet Felicita will love you," he said, trying to warm the tiny, shivering creature as best he could with his own body heat. "She's always saying how much she wants a pet. I wonder who in the world would want to drown a cute little monkey like you?"

The small tavern was a warm glow brightening the darkness that hung between the tall pines. Eric approached it with a light heart, trying to picture his young wife's face when he showed her the monkey. She would be so proud of him for rescuing it, she might even let him stay inside tomorrow and give him a break from mountain climbing.

A cheery fire was crackling in the huge fireplace when Eric entered the room. The warmth was palpable, seeping into all the little pores of his snowsuit and beginning the process of thawing him out.

"Well," he called out to the man leaning against the counter as he closed the door behind him, "I finally made it. I take it my wife, Felicita Wagner, and our guide have already arrived?"

The innkeeper shot a brief glance at the large book lying open on the counter beside him.

"Yeah, that's right," he said. "They got in several hours ago and went straight up to their rooms."

Eric nodded with a smirk. "They must have been tired after keeping up that pace," he said, striding across the small room and taking a seat at the counter. "I need something to warm me up before I join my wife. I've been hopelessly lost in that godforsaken wilderness of yours out there for nearly six hours now! Do you have any of that hot wine they served at that last place we stayed? I forget what they called it. My wife likes it. It begins with an 'M'."

"Mulled wine?" the innkeeper asked.

Eric snapped his fingers. "That's the stuff."

The innkeeper nodded.

"Yeah, we have that. I'll get you a mug."

"I deeply appreciate it," Eric said, grinning.

While the innkeeper was away, Eric turned his attention to his small charge. Placing the tiny creature gently on the counter, Eric unzipped his snowsuit and pulled his glasses from his jacket pocket.

"I wonder just what kind of monkey you are," he said, starting to untie the lacy white bonnet that covered its head.

"What's that you've got there?" the innkeeper interrupted, placing the steaming mug of wine on the counter beside the accountant.

Eric abandoned the bonnet and took the cup between his grateful hands, burying his stinging face in the warm steam.

"It's a monkey," he explained, taking a small sip. "Oh, this is good," he said. "It's even better than that other inn."

"Thanks," the innkeeper acknowledged, but his attention was still fixed on the strange creature lying on his counter. "Is it dead?" he asked, his voice tinged more with disgust than curiosity.

"What?" Eric exclaimed, putting his mug down and leaning over his charge. "No, it's alive," he said, relieved. "I pulled it out of the river just now. Can you believe it? Someone had tried to drown it."

"Why would they dress it up like this if they were going to drown it?" the innkeeper asked.

"How should I know?" Eric said, taking another sip of wine. "Maybe it was some kind of weird cult ritual or something. Use your imagination."

The innkeeper shrugged and started to turn away, then thought again and said: "Just remember, if that thing gets loose and starts to climb around my place, I'll personally toss it right back where it came from. I don't usually allow pets."

Eric blinked over his mug, surprised at his host's attitude.

"You're not serious."

"I am," the innkeeper said. "Just be sure to keep a close eye on it."

Eric nodded easily, too exhausted to feel concerned.

"No problem," he called to the innkeeper's departing back.

Eric finished his wine, then lifted his charge into his arms and moved closer to the crackling fire.

"This is nice, isn't it little monkey? A huge, roaring fire, a belly full of warm mulled wine… This is a vacation. Not that agonizing hike up this blasted mountain. No matter what Felicita said, that could not have been the easiest trail."

The tiny creature began to stir in his arms, though it did not wake up.

"Yeah, you like this better too, don't you. I notice you're not shivering anymore. The fire's starting to thaw you out, isn't it?"

Eric stroked the creature's dark, fuzzy cheeks with one finger and smiled as he felt it relax in his arms.

"That's right. You sleep. You need to recover after that shock you had. I still can't understand it. Who would have the heart to kill a cute little monkey?"

Turning his gaze back to the flickering flames, Eric yawned hugely.

"I sure am beat," he announced. "Let's take you upstairs to meet Felicita."

Not particularly wanting to call the innkeeper back, Eric peeked into the book himself to find his room number.

"Room 3," he said with a smile. "Let's go."

Room 3 was located next to a very small bathroom at the end of a very short hall. Eric took a minute to consider the best way to present his wife with her new pet, wondering whether she was already asleep or whether she was awake and waiting for him and just starting to wonder why she hadn't been waiting for his return in the lounge downstairs.

Then, his ears picked up the sound of whispers coming from Room 2 across the hall. Turning, Eric felt a chill clamp down on his guts as he recognized his wife's laugh, accompanied by a male laugh that was just as familiar. His brain pounded with denial, his heart racing. No, he thought, he was jumping to conclusions. Felicita would never betray him, especially not with some poor Welsh graduate student who spent his vacations working as a tour guide in the Bavarian Alps. Felicita had very expensive tastes. Eric had always taken pride in the fact that he could support her so easily. Besides, Felicita loved him. She was always telling him so. He had to learn not to be so jealous and to give his young wife the benefit of the doubt.

Having convinced himself that the conversation going on in Room 2 was completely innocent, Eric felt there would be no problem if he forwent knocking and simply walked in.

"Felicita," he announced, pushing the door open and striding into the room, "You will never guess what I found..."

He trailed off when he realized that his wife did not seem happy to see him. In fact, her expression was more like she had just been given an unpleasant shock. The face of her companion was a mirror of her expression. Eric again felt an uncomfortable chill growing in his gut. Had it been his imagination, or had they been sitting much closer when he first walked in the door?

"What's wrong?" he asked, still trying to play innocent if only for appearance's sake.

Felicita shook her golden curls, seeming to snap out of some kind of trance. Yves, the tour guide, rubbed his chin and stood up. His movements were awkward and his eyes uncomfortable.

"Eric," Felicita said, a broad smile growing on her face—a smile which, Eric noted, did not reach her emerald-green eyes. "What took you so long? Yves and I were getting worried." She rose from her chair and crossed the room, wrapping her long, slender arms around her husband's neck. "If you didn't get here soon, we were all ready to send out a search party for you."

"Is that so?" Eric said, his voice flat. His chest was beginning to ache again and he could practically hear the labored beating of his heart.

"In fact," Yves added, latching onto her excuse like a lifeline, "that is what Signora Wagner and I were talking about when you came in."

"Is that so?" Eric repeated in the same tone. "So you thought it was funny that you both left me behind in the wilderness. You found it amusing to think of me struggling to find my way to this godforsaken little shack in the middle of nowhere while you two shared a steaming cup of mulled wine? You laughed to picture me lost in the snow for six hours while you toasted your toes at a roaring fire?"

Yves froze, his normally ruddy face so pale it almost seemed blue. Felicita's smile had frozen in place.

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

"What kind of a guide are you, anyway?" Eric snapped, closing in on the weaker link. "Don't think I am unaware of what was going through your heads. I heard you laughing when I was in the hall just now. I saw you pull apart as I entered. You didn't believe I would be coming back, did you? That's why you weren't down in the lounge waiting for me."

"Honey, remember your heart," Felicita warned him, turning his attention from the cringing student, her voice warm but her eyes cold. "You're getting overexcited and jumping to conclusions."

Eric nodded, his heartbeat thumping in his ears as if it had taken on a life of its own.

"You're right," he said, rubbing his arm, his eyes stinging with tears he refused to let them see. "I am getting overexcited. I should have seen this coming. I should have expected something like this. Well, I guess I know now why you married me. I'm old and rich and you're young and beautiful. I suppose you just got sick of waiting for me to die."

He snorted, shaking his head in disgust.

"It would seem the perfect accident, wouldn't it. Now I know why you chose the more difficult path. You probably thought a man of my age and condition could never make it on his own. He got lost in the dark, you'd say. We sent out a search party but we were too late."

"What's that you're carrying, Eric?" Felicita asked, obviously trying to change the subject.

Eric looked down at the bundle in his arms. He had completely forgotten it.

"You always said you wanted a pet," he said, his voice soft and bitter. "Well, I fished this one out of the river. But forget it. You don't have to pretend anymore, Felicitia. I understand. You can have the house. I'll keep the monkey. I think I'll need the company more than you."

Felicitia's eyes widened and her mouth opened in protest at her husband's thinly veiled insinuation. Eric fixed her with a knowing look, then turned from the stunned faces of his wife and her paramour and headed down the stairs.

By the time he reached the lounge, his chest had begun to hurt in earnest. He found himself gasping for breath in the warm, smoky room. Desperate for air, he made his way past the various tables and chairs that stood in his way and opened the door, stumbling out into the snowy night.

Colors were swirling before his eyes. He was sweating. The pain had become unbearable. It felt as though his chest was about to explode. With one last desperate gasp, Eric collapsed in the deep snow and lay still. His small charge landed several feet away, the shock of the fall and the sudden cold forcing it into wakefulness. As it began to scream with fear and cold, Felicita, Yves, and the innkeeper came bursting out of the tavern. Seeing Eric lying face down in the snow, the innkeeper kept his head and turned to Yves.

"I do not have a telephone," he said. "You will have to go to the nearest aid station and bring help."

Yves turned his frantic eyes to Felicita, who nodded silently, her full lips pursed and her green eyes wide.

"What are you waiting for, boy," the innkeeper snapped, his voice filled with a commanding authority he had not displayed previously. "Get going!"

The sharpness of the man's tone jolted Yves into motion. Felicita watched in silence as his tall form quickly faded into the night.

"Now, for you," the innkeeper said. "I will need your help to get him back inside."

Felicita's head snapped up, her emerald eyes fixing him with a cold stare. Then, she turned on the heel of her designer hiking boot and strode back into the warmth of the lounge. Unable to believe what he had just seen, the outraged innkeeper followed her back inside, slamming the door behind him.

As their argument swelled, a small, slender woman tightly bundled in a pink snowsuit pulled up to the side of small tavern on her purple snowmobile. Turning off the motor, the woman soon became aware of the raised voices emanating from within the lonely inn. Wondering whether it would be worth the risk of walking in on the middle of a fight for a mug of hot cocoa, the woman made her way through a snowdrift to the front of the building.

Just outside the door, a man was lying face down in the snow. A few feet from his head lay a small, dark form writhing inside what seemed to be a ragged bundle of weather-stained lace.

The woman went to the man first, wondering if he had been a victim of the argument raging inside. Turning him over with some difficulty, she took out her flashlight and peered into his face. It was obvious at once that that he was dead. "Heart attack most likely," she muttered sadly to herself. "I'd be willing to bet this is what they're fighting about in there. A man dies at their doorstep and all they can do is argue about whose responsibility it is to deal with it."

She next turned her attention to the mysterious bundle of lace. She approached it cautiously, aware that whatever was inside, it was alive.

"Hello," she whispered, crouching down next to the bundle. "Are you a puppy dog? A kitty perhaps? Who's in there?"

At the sound of her voice, the bundle began to emanate a strange, hoarse, coughing cry. It was the cry of a terrified infant who had been screaming for so long without hope of an answer that it had almost lost its voice. Alarmed, the woman impulsively gathered the infant into her arms and cuddled it, cooing and soothing the child until its own exhaustion lulled it to sleep. Once the squirming baby had relaxed in her arms, the woman once again reached for her flashlight.

"Oh, my dearest God," she whispered, aghast at what the light revealed to her—indigo skin, pointed ears, a long, prehensile tail poking out from among the tattered lace he was wrapped in. "A demon!"

Forcing herself to repress her superstitious inclination to leave the creature there and continue on her way, she tentatively stretched out a long, crimson-nailed finger and touched the infant's fuzzy, blue cheeks. The baby smiled softly in its sleep. The smile lit up his small face, and suddenly the woman could see past his frightening appearance to the lost, helpless, innocent infant he really was.

"No, not a demon," she corrected herself. "You are a mutant child." Her voice was soft with sadness and understanding. She began to rise, then gasped in surprise as the infant's tail coiled around her arm as if of its own accord.

"And you have an incredible tail underneath all this lace!" She stared in amazement, a smile stretching across her face. "If it's strong enough to hold your weight, I'd bet you would make a fantastic acrobat."

She held the baby closer, her face stern but her violet eyes deep with pity as she gave him a more thorough looking over.

"You are so small," she said. "Barely larger than a newborn. I would bet you're not more than a few weeks old. If I had not come here at this moment, would they have left you to die in the snow as they left him?"

She turned back to the still man lying in a rhombus of light from the window. Quickly, being careful not to wake the infant, she searched the body for signs of identification. After a short time, she located the man's wallet in a back pocket of his snowsuit.

"Eric Wagner," she read off his credit card. Gently replacing the wallet where she had found it, she made a similar search of the rags the mutant infant was bundled in. She was about to give up, when out of the corner of her eye she noticed a shadow on the fabric that struck her as a word. Turning her flashlight on the spot, she realized that there was an inscription hand-embroidered into the ragged cloth—an inscription written in German.

"Kurt Wagner," she read. Her eyes widened and she turned back to the body behind her. "Eric and Kurt Wagner. Could it be coincidence? Or, were you father and son? I wonder, what has happened to your mother?"

She focused her violet eyes back on the inscription.

"The rest of it seems to be a prayer… Why, this is a baptismal gown!" she realized in surprise. "How strange! The cloth is icy and wet...could your parents have been planning to expose you? Yet, they were sure to have you baptized first." She shook her head in disgust. "If I live to be a hundred, I will never understand people."

Squinting to see the white-on-white lettering, the woman read, "May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You, For You Are A Child Of God."

"A child of God," she repeated softly, her expression softening with tenderness as she looked down into the infant's peaceful face. "Like all other outcasts and abandoned children before you, you can at least be sure of one protector. You are a child of God indeed, Kurt Wagner, and my being here to come to your rescue proves that someone somewhere must be watching out for you." She smiled.

"And for me as well. If I'm right—and I usually am about these matters—someone like you is just what I need to bring my circus back to life. I will take you home with me, my little demon, and together we will see what happens."

Her dreams of hot cocoa forgotten, the woman carried the infant back to her waiting vehicle. Climbing onto the purple snowmobile and making sure the child was safely bundled and secured, she started the motor and pulled away from the little tavern.

"My stars did predict today that I would meet a dark stranger," she chuckled to herself as she made her way back down the mountain. "Though, I never imagined my stranger would be a fuzzy, blue baby!"

*******

The Szardos Bavarian Circus was a small, run-down affair teetering on the brink of respectability. Its star attraction, a Hungarian trapeze act, had recently left after accepting an offer to join the far larger Dusseldorf Circus, and the remaining performers were feeling the loss. Ticket sales had plummeted over the last few months, causing several of the more talented performers to begin searching for openings elsewhere.

The various performers who remained were gathered in the mess tent for breakfast when they heard the sound of a snowmobile pulling into the center of the small ring of shabby tents and dented trailers. Most of them barely looked up from their eggs and toast, but Bethica Bruckner, a young girl barely out of her teens who served as the costume mistress and resident tailor (despite her inexperience with a needle), found herself nearly dragged from her seat by the two children she had been charged with watching over that night.

"Mommy!" the four-year-old boy exclaimed joyfully as a tightly bundled figure in a bright, pink snowsuit entered the tent. He latched onto her leg as his younger sister toddled up behind him and lifted her arms plaintively.

"I want up!" she announced.

Her mother pulled off her goggles, scarf, hood, and hat to reveal a face that, despite her exhaustion, was quite striking. Her violet eyes were the color of amethyst crystals and her dark, frizzy hair was full and shiny. Though she already held a bundle in one arm, she bent down and scooped her young daughter up with the other, resting the majority of the child's weight on her hip as her daughter wrapped her arms about her neck.

"What's that?" she demanded, pointing at her mother's mysterious bundle.

"I'll tell you in a minute, honey," her mother responded, turning to Bethica. "So, how were they?" she asked.

"They were little angels," the young tailor smiled, ruffling the boy's black hair. Then she laughed, holding out her hand in mock defense as she caught her employer's skeptical glance.

"Honest, Margali," she said. "They ate all their vegetables and went to bed exactly on time."

"Why, this doesn't sound like my Stefan and Jimaine," Margali said, amusement twinkling in her eye. "They must have known that I would be bringing home something very special."

Placing Jimaine back on the floor, Margali Szardos took a step forward and called for the attention of the chewing circus performers.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a very important announcement to make. Well, make that two!" she called out. She waited for the moment it took for all heads to turn towards her—including the hungover ones—and then continued.

"First of all, we got the booking!"

There were a few half-hearted cheers.

"Second, I would like to announce the arrival of a new addition to our little circus family," she said, gently unbundling the infant in her arms. "This," she announced proudly, holding him up for all to see, "is Kurt Wagner. I have a feeling that he will be able to bring back to this circus something it has been sadly lacking of late. An audience!"

Margali had expected a more exuberant response than the one she received. The circus performers seemed taken aback at the sight of Kurt. Far from being pleased at the financial prospects of showing off such a unique and obvious mutant to the public, the performers seemed apprehensive, even a little frightened.

"Why, it looks like something out of one of those horrific paintings from the middle ages," Antonino Rosselli, the leader of the clowns, commented, his droopy eyes narrowed in revulsion.

"It's some kind of demon!" Big Jake, a man just shy of three feet in height who billed himself as the smallest man on earth, exclaimed.

"No, he's not," Margali retorted, emphasizing the 'he' in firm opposition to the use of the dehumanizing pronoun 'it'. "Can't you see? This young mutant boy is our ticket out of the small time circuit and into the major leagues! Don't you see the potential here? First, while he's still too young for training, we can use him in the freak show to help attract customers. Then, once he's old enough, imagine what a great acrobat he could be! Look at this amazing tail!"

She located the curling tail among the tattered lace and held it up for all to see. Kurt curled his tail around her hand, his dexterity deeply impressing Margali and several of the other performers. Kurt looked around himself with his bright yellow eyes, curious about his new surroundings and completely oblivious to the skeptical looks his new acquaintances were shooting at him.

Margali smiled as she noticed several of the performers starting to nod, understanding what she was getting at even though they were still clearly doubtful as to how well her plan would work.

"When he is old enough to perform, we wouldn't have to bill him as a mutant," Frank Holzt, commonly known as 'Woodhead,' added. "We don't want to scare off the customers, after all. For all the audience would know, he'd just be a normal human in a really good costume."

Margali's violet eyes lit up, her smile broadening to a grin.

"That's right! Now you're getting it!" She brought the infant to the level of her face and planted a kiss on his round, blue cheek. "Kurt Wagner will be our ticket to success!"

This time, she got the response she had been hoping for. The small tent erupted with applause. Like the natural born performer that she was, Margali took a sweeping bow, cradling Kurt securely in her arms.

End of Part One

__________

Now, here' s a sneak peak from Part Two of Small Steps, Great Leaps!

EXCERPT:

Crouching down, Kurt kept his yellow eyes focused on the swinging bar before him, marking its rhythm. Just before the bar swung back to him, Kurt made a powerful leap, flying through the air like the monkey Eric Wagner had mistaken him for, until he caught onto the swinging trapeze with his long fingers and pulled himself up onto the bar. Once he was securely balanced, Kurt wrapped his long, dexterous tail around the bar and let go with his legs until he was hanging upside down. Then, he began to swing.

By this time, Chester had noticed his absence. Both he and Stefan were searching around frantically when they heard Yvonne Vogel's piercing scream. Looking up, they saw the cause.

"Oh, dear Lord," Chester gasped, his face drained of all color. "Margali's going to kill me!"

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Chapter Text

Small Steps, Great Leaps
Part Two

The weeks passed slowly for Margali during the off-season. If she'd had the money, she would have moved the circus somewhere warm for the winter, someplace where she didn't have to go through these long weeks of tedium, financial paperwork, and trying in vain to coax new material from her employees. As she looked up from the latest stack of bills the small circus had managed to pile up, she reflected that at least next season they could look forward to a larger audience. If she advertised right, enough people would be attracted to the circus by the strange, blue mutant she had rescued that they might even be able to show a profit next year.

At that thought, she sighed, ashamed at herself for being so cold. Kurt wasn't just a means to an end, he was a sweet, innocent baby. She had no trouble admitting that she was quickly becoming attached to the little fellow. His big yellow eyes and round, blue cheeks were actually quite endearing now that she was used to them. Already, she was beginning to think of him as a second son. And why not? After all, she was the one who had found him. It was only natural that she would feel some kind of attachment, some kind of responsibility for his welfare.

She sighed again. Was she acting with a responsible eye to his welfare by putting him on public display as a "freak of nature"? She dared to ask herself the question: what if Stefan or Jimaine had been born looking as strange, as inhuman as Kurt. Would she have hesitated to do the same to them?

She was deeply shamed, but at the same time disturbingly relieved to realize that the answer was no. Although she still felt like a heartless heel, at least she could take some comfort from the knowledge that she was treating Kurt no differently than she would her own flesh and blood.

*******

By the time spring rolled around, little Kurt had become something of a mascot to the circus performers. Despite his gargoyle-esque appearance, the fuzzy blue infant had managed to steal the hearts of even the gruffest performers—and that included the drunks. Although Margali was universally recognized as his unofficial foster mother, the rest of the camp felt as though they had adopted him too. Once the circus opened for the season, many of them took to ruffling Kurt's curly hair before each performance, ostensibly for good luck, but secretly because they too felt guilty about displaying him as a "freak" and wanted to assure him that they cared about him.

Three seasons came and went. By that time, Margali's fondest hopes for her circus had started to come true. "The Devil's Child" had attracted so many spectators that she had not only been able to replace the tattered tents, but also to attract a new trapeze act, as well as a retired Olympic gymnast. And it seemed things would only get better from here on in.

At three years old, Kurt was an active, curious toddler who was already displaying astonishing agility and coordination. It wasn't long until, to the relief of all those who cared for him, Margali felt fiscally secure enough to take him out of the freak show and start his training as an acrobat. To her surprise, though, Kurt himself protested the change.

"But Kurt, don't you want to be an acrobat?" she questioned him, concerned.

"Yes!" Kurt exclaimed, his speech slightly slurred due to his over-large teeth. "But I like the people who make faces for me. We try to see who can do the best face, but I can beat them because I always win. They're very funny people."

He burst into a gale of giggles, running around her in tight circles and making fake airplane noises as he stuck his tongue in and out of his mouth. Margali's face went cold and her heart clenched with guilt as, for the first time, the hard reality of how despicably she'd been exploiting the boy truly hit home. Always before, she'd been able to rationalize her decision to put Kurt on display, viewing it through the eyes of a struggling businesswoman rather than a mother. Now, however, faced with the unexpected way Kurt's innocent young mind had interpreted the horror, fear, and derision on the faces of the spectators who paid to gawk and mock his mutation, Margali found herself suddenly terrified—terrified of what might happen to her sweet boy if he ever learned what dark emotions lurked behind those "funny faces".

Acting on strong impulse, Margali knelt down and spread her arms wide. Kurt ran into their protective circle, wrapping his tail around her in an unconscious show of affection that melted his foster mother's heart. Her violet eyes began to sting as she held him tight for a moment, then pulled back, looking him in the chubby face.

"Sweetheart," she tried to explain, stroking his soft curls with her fingers. "I know you think those people are funny—"

"Funny faces!" Kurt interrupted brightly, making one himself.

Margali smiled indulgently as she waited for him to stop laughing, then continued.

"But think how much more fun it would be to play on the trapeze!" she said with over-done enthusiasm, trying to catch at his imagination. "You'll get to swing through the air, like you were flying! Wouldn't it be fun to fly, Kurt?"

"Fly!" Kurt repeated, his yellow eyes widening as his excitement began to grow.

"Yes, Kurt, fly!" Margali emphasized. "On the flying trapeze!"

"Flying trapeze!" Kurt giggled, as if the words themselves amused him.

"Yes!" Margali grinned. "You can play with Stefan! Stefan is going to start learning how to fly on the trapeze too, just like you"

At the mention of his foster-brother's name, Kurt's whole face lit up. Margali knew how much he looked up to the older boy. She had always been extremely proud of how her own children got along so well with Kurt—especially Jimaine, who was closer to him in age.

"We will fly!" Kurt beamed, unabashedly displaying a mouth full of gleaming, white fangs. In another face such a sight would have been unnerving, yet in Kurt's those pointed fangs somehow managed to add to his unique charm. Margali couldn't resist another quick hug. Kurt's short, velvety fur felt wonderfully plush against her bare arms.

"Come on, Kurt," she said, breaking away and rising to her feet. "Let's go meet with Stefan."

The small boy reached out a three-fingered hand and Margali took it securely in her own. Together, the pair walked toward the main tent, Kurt singing happily to himself the whole way.

"Stefan and I will fly! Will fly, will fly, will fly..."

*******

"Oh, Margali!" Woodhead smiled as she and Kurt entered the tent. "Hello, Kurt," he added with a friendly wave. The small, blue child waved back, only he used his tail.

"Stefan's already here, Margali," the hunchbacked sword-swallower/spotter continued as he finished tightening the safety net below the trapeze. "And he has some news for you."

"What kind of news, I wonder?" Margali said, walking past Woodhead to the small swing Chester Vogel, the youngest son of the new trapeze act, had already set up in a corner of the tent. Stefan was sitting on a practice high-beam, but the moment he saw his mother and foster brother he jumped down from his perch and rushed over to them with his closed fist held out in front of him.

"Mommy!" the exuberant seven-year-old exclaimed. "Look at this! My tooth came out! It's one of the back ones too, so it's got to be worth more than the last one!"

"I want to see the tooth, Stefan!" Kurt announced, pulling on his foster brother's sleeve.

"Here, look," Stefan said, opening his fist. "But don't touch it!"

Kurt drew back the thick finger he had been stretching towards the small, white tooth as though he'd been burned.

"Now, Stefan," Margali scolded gently. "He's just curious. Let him see it."

"But Mommy!" Stefan protested in a shrill whine. "He'll lose it!"

"Even if he does, you will still get your reward," Margali assured him. "I know the Tooth Fairy personally, and I'll be sure to tell her all about your tooth."

With reluctance plainly etched on his face, Stefan held his tooth out to Kurt.

"There," he said, placing it in his foster brother's small, blue palm. "See? My tooth."

Kurt poked at the small, flat tooth with one finger, his confusion evident.

"That's not a tooth," he declared in the definitive way all small children have. "It's too flat."

"It is so a tooth!" Stefan protested, snatching it back and scowling. "Woodhead said it's supposed to look like that. He said it's called a molar, for grinding stuff up."

"My teeth aren't flat," Kurt announced, bearing his fangs in demonstration. "Why is yours so flat?"

"It's a back tooth," Stefan emphasized, pulling the edge of his mouth back with a finger to provide an example. "See?" he said, releasing his mouth. "Now let's see yours."

Kurt pulled back his own lips.

"Cahh oooo eeee eehhhh?" he asked.

"Yeah, they're there," Stefan observed. "They're a little pointier than mine, but you've definitely got some molars back there."

Kurt considered his foster brother's words carefully, then pushed his fingers deeper into his mouth.

"My molar is stuck!" he exclaimed, suddenly at the point of tears as he pulled his fingers away and wiped them on his shirt. "It won't come out!"

Margali, who had wandered over to inspect Chester's knots, came rushing back at the sound of Kurt's cries.

"What's going on here?" she demanded sternly of Stefan.

Stefan's eyes widened with righteous indignance.

"What? I didn't do anything to him! He's all upset because he can't pull his teeth out."

"What!" Margali exclaimed, turning her attention to the crying Kurt.

"Mama!" he sobbed, burying his face in her flowing skirt. "My molar is stuck in my mouth!"

Margali had the sudden impulse to laugh, but suppressed it as she knelt down to his eye level.

"Of course your molar is stuck, sweetheart," she said, drawing him into a warm embrace. "You're only three years old. When you get to be a big boy, like Stefan, you'll start losing your baby teeth as well."

Kurt looked up at her, his yellow eyes streaming.

"When will that be?" he snuffled plaintively.

"In only three or four years," Margali said comfortingly, "so don't you worry about a thing. OK?"

Kurt nodded, sniffing loudly and wiping his eyes with his tail. Margali reached into her blouse and handed him a handkerchief.

"There," she said. "Blow."

Kurt did as he was told, then blinked up at her as she tucked the damp cloth away in her skirt pocket.

"Feel better now?" she asked.

Kurt nodded again, still sulky.

"Good." Margali stood up and turned to Chester. "They're all yours, Chester," she said, ruffling her son's black hair.

"Mom!" Stefan protested, pushing her hand away.

Margali smiled at him, then turned to go.

"I'll be in my trailer should you need me. Have a good time, boys."

Kurt watched her go, then turned to Chester, who was standing on a soft floor-mat with one hand holding the rope of his swing.

"Good morning, boys," the seventeen-year-old said. "I've been told that you've both already been taught a number of elementary balancing exercises, so I thought it might be fun if we started off our first lesson by learning how to swing. Stefan, since you're the elder, you can go first."

Kurt watched for a few moments as Chester busied himself instructing Stefan on how to best position himself and how he should hold the ropes, but his attention soon wandered. The rest of the Vogel family was already deep into their own morning practice session, flying and spinning high in the air. Kurt watched them, fascinated, as Chester's brother, Tomas, hung upside down from the narrow trapeze and caught his mother, Yvonne, as she flipped through the air as though gravity had lost its hold on her. Kurt clapped his hands, delighted by the show. The two Vogels noticed him and took a playful bow. Then, they returned their attention to their practice session.

"You're next Kurt, so don't go anywhere," Chester said, aware of the child's short attention span.

Kurt glanced over at him, but he stayed where he was, focusing on the stunning skill of the performers before him.

After watching three more catches, Kurt realized it would be much more fun to join them than to simply watch them. Sneaking a glance behind him to make sure Chester wasn't watching, Kurt dashed across the floor on all fours and leaped onto the rope ladder that led to the aerialists' platform. He climbed it nimbly, reaching the platform in well under a minute. The Vogels had just completed another exercise and were taking a short break on the larger platform across the way. Fortunately for Kurt, though, the trapeze they had just vacated were still swaying.

Crouching down, Kurt kept his yellow eyes focused on the swinging bar before him, marking its rhythm. Just before the bar swung back to him, Kurt made a powerful leap, flying through the air like the monkey Eric Wagner had mistaken him for, until he caught onto the swinging trapeze with his long fingers and pulled himself up onto the bar. Once he was securely balanced, Kurt wrapped his long, dexterous tail around the bar and let go with his legs until he was hanging upside down. Then, he began to swing.

By this time, Chester had noticed his absence. Both he and Stefan were searching around frantically when they heard Yvonne Vogel's piercing scream. Looking up, they saw the cause.

"Oh, dear Lord," Chester gasped, his face drained of all color. "Margali's going to kill me!"

"Wow," Stefan exclaimed in awe. "I wish I had a tail!"

Kurt, still swinging from his tail, was completely unaware of the commotion he was causing below him. His focus was solely on the second bar.

His timing was purely instinctive as he launched himself from his trapeze and went flying through the air with his arms outstretched toward the next bar. There was a collective gasp as the small crowd of performers who had gathered below him realized that he wouldn't make it. His arc was already falling and he was still at least a foot short of the swinging trapeze.

Chester turned away, unable to bear the sight of his fall. As a result, he missed one of the most spectacular events in the history of the Szardos Bavarian Circus.

Just as it seemed he wouldn't make it, Kurt flipped in the air and wrapped his spaded tail securely around the bar, swaying back and forth and back with his arms outstretched and a huge upside-down smile plastered across his face.

Margali came bursting into the tent just as the gathered performers raised their voices in an astonished cheer, followed closely by Woodhead, who had alerted her to what was going on.

She froze in place, her violet eyes wide as she watched Kurt launch himself off the final trapeze and land on the main platform. Tomas and Yvonne Vogel lifted him into their arms, ruffling his hair and showering him with praise. Margali, although a large part of her felt like doing the same, was suddenly seized with a sharp anger.

"Chester Vogel!" she shouted, her voice as hard as reinforced concrete.

Chester, not a very tall boy to begin with, seemed to shrink even further as Margali advanced upon him.

"I expected you to be watching him!" she yelled. "What were you thinking! What if he had fallen! He could have missed the net! He could have broken his neck! He could have been killed"

Chester was too flustered to speak.

"I-I-I..." he stuttered.

"Margali," Woodhead said gently, placing a gnarled hand on her shoulder.

Margali spun on him, her violet eyes blazing.

"And where were you while this was going on?" she shouted, her voice sharp. "Some spotter you are! Maybe you should think about sticking to sword-swallowing from now on!"

"Margali," Woodhead repeated in the same gentle tone. "Kurt's fine. In fact, he's better than fine. You saw him up there yourself. He was in complete control the whole time. It was as though he instinctively knew what he was doing."

Margali wasn't ready to give in to the pride she felt for her adopted son quite yet.

"Even so," she started, "he should never-"

She was interrupted by a slightly slurred, childish voice calling elatedly to her from high above.

"Mama!" Kurt called from Yvonne Vogel's arms, his whole face beaming. "Mama, I flewed! I really flewed!"

At the sight of his excited face, the last of Margali's anger faded away and she found herself smiling despite herself.

"Margali," a deep voice sounded behind her and she turned. Sabu Vogel, Chester and Tomas's father, was standing there, his black eyes sparkling with admiration above the large, black mustache that dominated his face. "From what I've just witnessed, I think I can safely say that young Kurt has the potential to grow up to be a truly world-class acrobat. Perhaps, the the greatest acrobat who ever lived. In fact, I would be honored if you would allow me to conduct his training personally."

Stefan watched his mother carefully as she smiled, her pride in Kurt's newly discovered abilities now clearly evident in her face.

"The honor would be mine, Herr Vogel," Margali grinned brightly. "And, of course, Kurt's."

Stefan turned his dark gaze upward to focus on his giggling foster brother far above him. Then, he turned on his heel and walked out of the tent, his hands buried deep within his pockets.

It wasn't that he was resentful of the attention that Kurt was getting or even jealous of his abilities. Not really. What bothered Stefan was that Kurt had climbed the forbidden ladder and swung on the dangerous trapeze without asking permission—in short, he had broken the rules. Yet, Kurt had not gotten in trouble for it. On the contrary, he was being rewarded! Chester had been lax in his duty to watch the boy, yet he, too, had escaped punishment. To Stefan's young mind, this was deeply wrong. Everyone had to pay for their sins. It was a fact of life. His father had taught him that before he'd died, and his teachings had been backed up by the Sunday School where his mother sent him in preparation for his first Holy Communion.

Kurt and Chester could not be allowed to get off without paying any penalty for their wrongdoings. Since it didn't seem likely that Margali was going to do anything about it, Stefan realized it was up to him to carry that penalty out...

*******

Over the next two weeks, a series of strange, unexplained events occurred in the Szardos Circus. First, there was the mystery of the missing bear. Herr Flaumig had been Kurt's favorite toy ever since Bethica Bruckner presented it to him on the anniversary of his first year with the circus, a date they had chosen to use as his birthday since none of them knew the actual day he was born. Herr Flaumig was a handmade, dark blue teddy bear with yellow button eyes, and Kurt had taken to him immediately, often finding it impossible to sleep without his secure presence. Understandably, when the stuffed bear's disappearance was first realized, it caused great commotion in the Szardos family's small trailer...

*******

Kurt had been crying nonstop since he first realized his bear was missing. By now, his voice was hoarse and raw and his cries interspersed with sharp hiccups. Margali and Jimaine had torn the trailer apart in their fruitless search for the bear. Margali was tired and frustrated and Jimaine was tottering on the brink of tears herself. Stefan, however, was nowhere to be found. He had left the trailer for his acrobatics lesson just after Kurt first noticed Herr Flaumig's absence and he hadn't returned since. Margali sighed as she scratched her fingers through her hair, trying to release some of her frustration. She could hardly blame him for wanting to avoid this scene, but she certainly could have used his help in the search.

Mysteriously, after three days of pouting, sulking, crying misery, Herr Flaumig suddenly reappeared on Kurt's cot, just where Margali knew she had left him the day he had vanished. Not one of the circus performers could think who could have kidnapped the bear, or for what purpose. A close inspection of the bear turned up no signs that it had been ripped or re-sewn in any way so Big Jake's theory that it had been used for drug smuggling was abandoned. In the end, the mystery of Herr Flaumig's disappearance was never solved to anyone's satisfaction.

Only two days after peace had been restored to the circus with the return of Kurt's beloved bear, another mystery struck-this one far more disturbing. Chester had been spotting for his brother that day when he realized that one of the knots he had personally tied to hold the safety net in place had been undone and then retied into a much less secure knot that could easily give way under the weight of a falling acrobat. He quickly called to his brother to stop his practice and they both reported the incident to Margali, even showing her the knot. Shocked that such a deliberate act of sabotage had been performed in her circus, Margali and the two Vogel boys diligently questioned every member of the camp, including Margali's own children.

Although Stefan had seemed strangely surprised to learn that Chester had noticed the knot before anything went wrong-which greatly annoyed Chester-he could give no information as to who might have done it. After an entire day of searching and questioning, it was clear to all three of them that no answers, or even reasonable suspects, would be forthcoming. Soon, Chester's knot was included in the same category as Kurt's disappearing bear.

*******

After these two mysterious incidents, life at the Szardos Bavarian Circus returned to normal. Kurt was making astounding progress under the expert tutelage of Sabu Vogel. Margali was even working on advertisements that would list Kurt as an acrobat on the next season's tour. In the meantime, the scheduled date for Stefan's First Communion arrived and the entire circus population was preparing to attend the ceremony at the local church.

"But, Mom, it's too tight!" Stefan protested, struggling against her as she tried to knot his tie.

"I'm a pretty princess!" Jimaine announced, twirling theatrically in her new white dress.

Kurt looked up from his blocks to grin at her.

"A pretty princess," he repeated.

"Mommy," Jimaine asked, skipping over to where her mother was now struggling to hold Stefan's head still as she attempted to tame his wild, black hair.

"What is it, sweetheart?" she asked distractedly, not looking at her daughter.

"Why isn't Kurt getting dressed up too?"

The innocent question asked in a curious, though off-hand manner, caught Margali completely off guard.

"Well," she said, flustered, "it's going to be a long ceremony. I thought he might get bored."

"I want to go to church!" Kurt announced, standing up, his tail inadvertently knocking his small tower of blocks to the floor.

Margali stared at him guiltily, her mind racing to find the words to explain to him why she was reluctant to bring him without hurting him.

"But, sweetheart," she tried, "I don't have a suit for you to wear." She knew it was lame, she knew she was doing wrong, but she couldn't help herself.

"He could wear one of mine," Stefan offered, slightly comforted by the thought of not having to be the only one suffering under the yoke of a tie. "That other one is way too small for me now. I'll bet it would be just right for Kurt."

Margali looked at her children, her eyes desperate with helplessness.

"But—" she started, then she trailed off.

"I know why you don't want to take him," Stefan announced, his voice cold.

Margali turned to him, guilt etched deeply into her striking features.

"You do?" she asked weakly.

Stefan nodded.

"It's because he's got a tail and you don't want to have to cut a hole in my trousers, isn't it?"

Margali stared at him in amazement.

"Uh, er, yes," she said, latching onto the excuse. "That's it exactly."

"But Mom, that's so stupid!" Stefan commented in exasperation. "They're way too small for me anyway."

"Even so, they were very expensive and that's how I feel about it," she said shortly. With that, she turned to Kurt, her deep, violet eyes willing him to understand, to not hate her for what she was doing to him.

"I'm so sorry, baby," she said. "Please know that I want to take you more than anything. It's just that…well…a church is God's house and when you go in you have to be properly dressed. You understand, don't you, sweetheart?"

Kurt's lower lip began to tremble, his yellow eyes brimming with tears.

"But I want to go!" he cried. "I hate my tail! I want to go to church with Stefan!"

Kurt grabbed at his tail and began to bite its end, crying harder as his sharp fangs drew bright red blood.

Shocked at what her cruel words had done, Margali raced to the dark, fuzzy child and scooped him up in her arms, pulling his tail from his mouth.

"Stop that! Stop that Kurt!" she yelled. She was shouting because she was angry at herself, but Kurt thought she was yelling at him. He began to cry even harder. Any words he might have been trying to say were rendered completely unintelligible.

The trailer door opened then, and Woodhead peeked inside.

"I take it the little fellow just found out he's not going to the ceremony," the hunchbacked man observed quietly, his voice barely audible over Kurt's impassioned screams.

"I didn't want it to be this way," Margali said desperately, her eyes full of guilt and pain. "I just—" She noticed her children looking up at her and changed what she was going to say. "You know what could happen, Frank. What else can I do?"

"I'll watch him for you, Margali," Woodhead offered, stepping up into the trailer and reaching out his gnarled arms for the bawling child.

Margali looked down at him, her violet eyes guiltier than ever, yet tinged now with a touch of gratitude.

"Thank you, Frank," she said, handing Kurt over to the stooped man.

"You go to church," Frank said, stroking the child's back in a soothing motion that gradually managed to quiet his sobs. "Have a wonderful time. You needn't worry about us. We'll find a way to occupy ourselves."

Margali nodded, taking a deep breath and turning to her children. "All right, gang, we're going to be late. Everyone into the truck."

As the Szardos family filed out of the trailer, Jimaine paused for a moment to smile at Kurt.

"Don't feel bad," she offered. "I don't really want to go myself."

To Woodhead's surprise, Kurt raised his dejected head, returning his sister's smile through his tears.

"Jimaine!" Margali called from outside, her voice sharp. "Come on! You're making your brother late!"

"Bye, Kurt," Jimaine said, and smiled again. "Bye, Woodhead."

Woodhead turned so Kurt could watch his foster sister climb into the truck and the truck speed away in a cloud of dust. Then he turned his lined, lumpy face to the small, indigo mutant.

"Don't ever let anyone tell you that you aren't allowed in a church," he said.

Kurt looked at him, his yellow eyes still bleary with tears.

"Why?" he sniffled.

"Because we are all God's children, no matter what we look like," the deformed man explained. "And God is pleased to welcome us all into his house, even if we are dressed in rags."

"Why?" Kurt repeated, more curiously this time.

"Because, Kurt," Frank Holzt said, "God's love is unconditional. It knows no bias and is untainted by favoritism."

"Does God love my tail?" Kurt asked, raising his wounded appendage for Frank's inspection.

"Did you do that to yourself, Kurt?" the stooped man asked, shocked.

"Mama said I couldn't go to church because of my tail," Kurt explained, his eyes brimming with tears once again. "Mama said I couldn't have Stefan's trousers because she would have to cut them."

Frank closed his eyes, his heart full.

"She was wrong, Kurt," he said fiercely.

Kurt's eyes widened. He'd never heard anyone say Margali was wrong before.

Frank went on: "God loves you, Kurt. And that includes your tail."

"I want to go to God's house," Kurt said, his voice sulky. "I want to see Stefan's First Communion."

Frank lowered the boy to the ground and took him by the hand.

"Then let's go," he said.

Kurt looked up at the stooped man, an excited grin spreading across his dark face.

"Really? I can go?"

"Yes, Kurt. Come along. My car's this way."

*******

"This is where I come to be alone sometimes," Frank explained to the wide-eyed child seated on his lap. "There was an ancient organ up here once, but they moved it to the local museum about five years ago, when they restored this church. They installed the new one over there on the balcony. In consequence, no one ever comes up here anymore. See?" he said, running one gnarled finger along the edge of the floor and the wall. "You can tell by the dust."

Kurt smiled, delighted. Frank went on, leaning his twisted spine against the dusty wall and peering through the spaces in the railing at the ceremony taking place below them.

"I usually think of this as my private sanctuary," he said softly, "but I'm happy to share it with you, Kurt. As long as we're quiet, we can see everything that happens down there and no one will ever know we're here. That might seem like a lonely thought at first, but to me it's peaceful."

Kurt slipped off Frank's lap and scooted closer to the railing, peering through the spaces in an attempt to pick out Margali, Stefan, and Jimaine from the crowd below.

As he searched, his eyes were drawn to the activities going on at the brightly lit altar. Kurt found himself fascinated by the candles and by the flowers that graced all the statues in the small church, lending them a grace and majesty that made his young imagination soar.

As he watched, captivated, Frank explained the ceremony to him step by step. When Stefan's name was called out and he started up the aisle, Kurt clapped happily. Although Frank was initially alarmed, he sat back with a wide grin as Kurt's small, heartfelt clap was caught and taken up by the rest of the congregation.

"After all," the veteran circus performer reflected as a woman's voice politely requested the gathered families to save their applause until every name had been called, "applause, much like laughter and the common cold, is highly contagious."

As the ceremony came to a close, Frank reached out for Kurt's hand.

"It's time for us to go, Kurt" he said, leading the way down the ancient, cobweb-draped staircase to the back exit of the church. "We've got to get back before Margali sees us, remember."

End of Part Two

Chapter Text

Small Steps, Great Leaps
Part Three

"Kurt!" Margali called from the door of her trailer. "Where are you!"

Margali's ears were met by a chorus of laughter from the direction of the small copse of trees on the outskirts of the camp. As she turned her gaze in that direction, she saw Kurt come bursting out from among the trees on all fours, followed closely by Jimaine and Stefan.

"Come on, Kurt, no fair!" Jimaine whined as she ran. "You know we can't keep up when you run like that!"

The agile eight and a half year old just laughed, calling over his shoulder, "She called for me, Jimaine. Why should I wait up for you?"

"Because if you don't I won't practice with you tomorrow. You'll have to rehearse with Zuzu Goff instead!"

Kurt came to an abrupt halt, straightening up and clapping a theatrical hand over his heart with an exaggeratedly scandalized expression.

"That was below the belt, Jimaine," he scolded. "You know she's the worst acrobat the universe has ever known. The trapeze shudder when she walks by, I've seen it!"

"I know." Jimaine grinned as she passed him, with Stefan following close behind. "That's why I said it!"

Kurt waited a few moments, allowing her a good head start, then started running again, this time remaining upright. Even so, he passed her and her brother once again before reaching the family's trailer.

"Don't feel bad, Jimaine," Kurt teased as his foster sister panted her way to where he stood leaning against the side of the trailer, his tail waving smugly behind his legs. "Don't you know you were racing against the world famous Blue Lightening, the boy with the fastest feet in all of Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France combined?"

The ten-year-old stretched herself to her full height, looking down her nose at him through mischievous blue eyes.

"That might be, Mr. Blue Lightening," she said with a superior smirk. "But I'm still taller than you."

"Ooh, good one, Jimaine," Stefan commented, striding over to casually flick her ponytail over her face. "Just you wait. You'll end up the shortest of the three of us once we've all grown up."

Jimaine stuck her tongue out at him.

"We'll just see about that, know-it-all," she retorted, straightening her hair while shooting him a sharp glare.

Kurt laughed and opened the door to the trailer, leaving his foster siblings to continue their bickering without him.

Margali was sitting at her round, wooden table with her back to the door, but she turned as Kurt entered the trailer, gracing him with a broad smile. The energetic eight-year-old returned it brightly, and pulled up a pile of books so he could sit beside her.

"You wanted to see me?" he said.

"Yes, Kurt," Margali said, her violet eyes sparkling. "I have some good news for you."

Kurt straightened, a crooked smile quirking across his face.

"What is it? Is Zuzu Goff leaving the circus?"

Margali blinked.

"Actually, yes. Her parents have accepted another offer in France."

Kurt's yellow eyes widened and he placed a hand over his open mouth.

"Oh," he said, his cheeks darkening under his fur. He seemed stricken. "I hope it's not because of me."

Margali's sharp eyes narrowed.

"What do you mean?" she said. "Have the Goffs been unkind to you?"

Kurt looked up, surprised.

"Huh? No! It was me! I mean, everyone knows Zuzu's no good on the trapeze, but I didn't have to rub it in her face all the time." He looked up at her, his eyes guilty and defensive. "I didn't think she'd leave, though! I was just teasing!"

Margali shook her head, trying to calm him down.

"No, Kurt," she assured him. "It's not your fault they're leaving. They've gotten a better offer, that's all. It happens all the time."

Kurt nodded, but his face was still troubled.

"I think I should talk to her before they go, anyway," he said.

"If it will make you feel better," Margali said. "But, don't you want to hear my news?"

Kurt immediately brightened.

"Yes! What is it?"

"How would you like to be billed as the star of the Szardos Bavarian Circus?" she asked, trying and failing to keep a straight face as Kurt's dark face lit up with delight.

"Really?" Kurt exclaimed. "The star? Me!"

Margali nodded, her smile almost matching Kurt's in brightness.

"That's right. I was talking with the Vogels this morning. Sabu believes you're ready. But I wanted to run the idea by you before saying anything. What do you say? Do you accept?"

"Of course I do!" Kurt exclaimed, leaping up from his book pile and pulling Margali into a surprisingly powerful embrace for such a small child.

"Wow!" He grinned, breaking away and shaking his head. "This is so great! Do I even get to wear a costume, like the Vogels?"

Margali caught herself before blurting out the first thing that popped into her head-namely that he didn't need a costume. Horrified at the implications of that thought, Margali covered up her hesitation with another smile.

"Of course you can, sweetheart," she said. "I'll tell you what. You can even design it yourself. Go talk with Bethica and she'll get everything squared away for you."

Kurt let out an elated cheer and raced from the trailer, almost bowling over Jimaine and Stefan in his exuberance.

"Guess what!" he called out as he raced towards Bethica's workshop. "I'm the star of the circus!"

Jimaine blinked, impressed.

"Wow," she said, turning back to her brother. "I knew he was good, but I had no idea he was that good."

"No, it's not that," Stefan said.

"What are you talking about?" Jimaine asked.

"You mean you didn't know?" Stefan said, looking down at his younger sister. "This has been Mom's plan all along. It's why she took him in in the first place. Kurt attracts an audience."

Jimaine rolled her eyes.

"Duh," she said. "Of course he does."

"No, I don't mean because he's good." Stefan sighed. "He's a mutant, Jimaine, a very obvious one. People pay to stare at him, they don't much care what he can do. That he's a talented acrobat is just an added bonus. Mom's using him to drag this decrepit old circus out of the gutter, and Kurt's playing right along."

Jimaine stared at him, her expression turning cold.

"You're a jerk, Stefan," she said. "Mom's not like that. She loves Kurt."

"Of course she does," Stefan agreed. "But just because you love someone doesn't mean you can't use them."

"But she's not using him!" Jimaine protested. "Kurt loves the circus. He told me he's never happier than when he's flying on the trapeze. I'm really happy for him. You're just jealous."

Stefan shook his head.

"I'm not," he said, completely serious. "But you can think what you want. See you around, Jimaine."

Jimaine stared after her brother's departing back for a moment, then slammed open the door to the trailer. Margali's head shot up in surprise.

"Mom!" Jimaine cried, standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips. "You're not just using Kurt to attract an audience because he's a mutant, are you? You really think he's a great acrobat, don't you?"

Margali stood up, her eyes wide with shock.

"Jimaine! How could you say such a thing! Who told you that?"

"Stefan," Jimaine said, her lip trembling as her blue eyes filled with tears. "He said you were using him because he looks different so you could drag the circus out of the gutter and that people pay to stare at him and not because they want to see him perform!"

Margali felt a cold chill pass through her. She couldn't deny that much of what her daughter had just said was the truth. However, it was missing a very key ingredient.

"Oh, Jimaine..." Margali sighed. "Come here."

Jimaine picked her way across the cluttered trailer floor, sinking into her mother's arms as she fought against her tears.

"I would never do anything to hurt Kurt, you know that, don't you, sweetheart?"

Jimaine nodded.

"That's what I told Stefan," she sniffled.

"Well, here's something that Mr. Know-It-All Stefan doesn't know," Margali said, raising her daughter's drooping chin until their eyes met. "I've seen the reviews and I've spoken with many of the people who've seen Kurt perform these past few years. Not one of them had any idea that Kurt was a mutant. They all thought, each and every one of them, that he was dressed in an elaborate costume. Now, the Vogels and I decided to make Kurt the star of this circus because of his talent, not because of how he looks. Herr Vogel was telling me just yesterday how Kurt is already as good as Tomas as an acrobat. In a few years, he'll be even better. Do you understand now, Jimaine?"

The girl nodded, even managing a small smile.

"But Mom?"

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"Can you just tell me one more thing?"

"Anything you want to know."

"What's a mutant?"

Margali looked down at her daughter, wondering how best to answer such a delicate question.

"First of all," she said, "it's not very nice to use the word 'mutant'."

"But Stefan did."

"Stefan was wrong to say it."

"But what does it mean?" Jimaine pressed.

Margali sighed.

"It's just a rude term for someone who's a little different from everyone else. These people are very special but even so, most people are scared of them. That's why they use rude words to describe them. Most of them look like everyone else. It's just a very few extra special ones that look different."

"Like Kurt?"

Margali sighed again and stroked her daughter's short, light auburn ponytail.

"Yes, honey. Like Kurt."

*******

Margali lay on her cot, her eyes wide in the near-darkness, completely unable to sleep. She had heard Kurt sneak out of the trailer over an hour ago. She knew where he had gone. It was a rare night that Kurt didn't escape into the darkness of the woods to think by himself. She knew he waited until he thought she was asleep, unwilling to worry her with his wakefulness. But she always aware of him as he crawled out of the trailer. And she always waited for him to return.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the soft creak of the trailer door opening. Her eyes followed the dark, moonlit outline of her foster son as he crept silently to his cot and lay down. Normally, once she saw him safely in bed she went to sleep herself. But tonight she noticed an uncharacteristic slump to his posture as he slipped through the door that worried her.

"Kurt?"

The yellow eyes blinked in the darkness; the rest of the boy's body was functionally invisible.

"What are you doing still awake?" Margali whispered, making her way over to his cot and sitting down beside him.

"Just thinking," Kurt said.

Margali reached into the darkness and stroked the boy's soft, indigo curls.

"You need to get your rest, my little night crawler," she said, smiling gently. "You've got a lot of practicing to do if you want to be ready for Saturday's big show."

"I know," Kurt said. "That's why I was thinking."

"About the show?"

"No." Kurt sighed. "Yes. I don't know."

"Come on, sweetheart. You know you can tell me what's bothering you."

"It's just—" Kurt started. Then he paused and closed his eyes for a moment. Margali was almost ready to think he'd gone to sleep when the bright yellow orbs opened once again.

"Why would God create someone who looks like me?" he asked, his voice tight with a pain Margali had never heard in him before. "I mean, what for?"

Margali felt her heart tighten.

"I'm afraid those are the kind of questions philosophers have been trying to answer for centuries. For now, all I can tell you is that you're the only one who can discover those kinds of answers for yourself."

Kurt sighed and the cot jiggled as he rolled over.

"I know it's not what you want to hear, sweetheart," Margali said, placing her hand on his warm, velvety arm, "but it's the best I can do."

Kurt rolled over again, his yellow eyes vulnerable.

"Mama?" he asked softly.

"Yes, my dear?"

"You're not my real mother, are you."

It was a statement, not a question, but Margali responded anyway.

"No, sweetheart. But I consider you just as much my son as Stefan. And I love you just as deeply. You know that, don't you?"

The yellow orbs bobbed and Margali knew he was nodding.

"Mama?" he whispered.

"Yes?"

"Where did I come from? I mean, I don't think I hatched out of an egg or anything. Who are my real parents? Do you know?"

Now it was Margali's turn to sigh. She felt Kurt take her hand in his own. As he did, she gave his thick fingers a small, affectionate squeeze.

"Well," she said, "I don't know much about them. But I can tell you about the night I found you."

Kurt's gleaming eyes rose from the bed as he propped himself up on his elbow.

"I found you high in the Alps, half frozen from the cold. You were dressed in nothing but a tattered baptismal gown made all of lace. Beside you lay a man. He had died of a heart attack before I got there, but I managed to find some identification in his pocket. His name was Eric Wagner. I assume he was your father, because when I picked you up for the first time I noticed that embroidered in the lace was your name, Kurt Wagner, and a short prayer."

"What did the prayer say?" Kurt asked with deep interest.

"Oh, I don't know, honey. It was so long ago. No-wait. I remember. It was written in German and it said, 'May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You, For You Are A Child Of God'."

"A child of God," Kurt echoed thoughfully. "That's just what Woodhead told me when Stefan had his First Communion. He said that I was a child of God and that God loves all his children equally, no matter what they looked like."

"And he was absolutely right," Margali emphasized, giving the boy's small hand another squeeze.

"Mama?"

"Yes?"

"Will I ever be able to have First Communion?"

Margali raised her eyes to the darkness of the ceiling, as though searching for guidance.

"Oh, my dear Kurt," she sighed. "We'll find a way. If it really matters to you, we'll certainly find a way."

Kurt lowered his head back onto his pillow and released her hand.

"Mama?"

"Yes, Kurt?"

"I love you."

Margali's eyes stung for a moment, then she smiled even though she knew he couldn't see her.

"I love you too."

She stood up and reached over to tuck him in, whispering in his pointed ear, "Now get some sleep, my little night crawler. Remember, you're our star."

*******

As Kurt had grown older, he had become more aware of how different he was from the 'normal' humans around him. Although he knew there was nothing he could do to change his frightening appearance, he wasn't willing to just accept it as a fact of life without question. He believed strongly that everything had a purpose, and now that he was nearly nine he was beginning to wonder what his purpose was. As a result, the young boy began to look for answers beyond the insular life of the circus. He couldn't accept what he had heard so often: that he had been born for the trapeze. Although he was proud of his abilities and loved the trapeze, deep down he felt that there had to be something more, some more substantial meaning to his life than simply providing an audience with a nightly dose of entertainment. After all, he didn't live in the spotlight twenty-four hours a day. When the show was over, he knew that not one of the people who had cheered him so ardently would want anything to do with him. Frustrated, confused, and often desperate for answers, Kurt found himself turning more and more often to his unshakable belief in a loving God for solace.

Margali was his tutor in the basic skills of math, reading, and writing, but what she knew about the Catholic religion could hardly fill a small notepad. Her husband had been a devout Catholic, but Kurt had never seen her practice any form of religion at all.

Stefan, on the other hand, was deeply religious. He made it a point to attend church every Sunday, no matter where the circus moved to, and had made friends with several priests. However, whenever Kurt tried to ask him questions he often acted so self-important that it was difficult for Kurt to pry any meaningful information from him. So, he turned to Woodhead to help him unravel the mysteries of the Catholic faith he had been born into. Having already reached the age of eight and a half, however, Kurt knew that his first step into this strange and mysterious world of faith had to be receiving his first Holy Communion.

Margali had already promised to help him in this matter, but her mind was almost completely consumed with the operation of the circus. At this moment, she was focused on getting everything ready for Kurt's premier show, which was due to open that night.

Kurt's starring role consisted of a complicated solo routine tailored around his unique attributes-namely his tail, his remarkable agility, and his uncanny ability to stick to walls. He had wanted to design a costume with wings, to emphasize the amazing feeling of flight swinging from the trapeze provided him. Unfortunately, the costume budget (as well as Bethica's skill as a tailor) was quite limited and Kurt had to be happy with a pair of golden lightening bolts sewn to the front of a tight, sparkly blue costume, illustrating the stage name he had thought up for himself: Blue Lightening.

"Well, what do you think?" Kurt asked as he modeled his new costume for Margali, Amanda, Bethica, Stefan, Big Jake, Woodhead, and the Vogels in the main tent. All around them, people were rushing back and forth, making sure everything was safe and secure for that night's show.

"Kurt, you look absolutely adorable!" Margali said.

Kurt scowled.

"Adorable!" he exclaimed, hugely disappointed. "I'm supposed to look dashing! Like a superhero! I'm supposed to be the Amazing Blue Lightening!"

"That's what I meant," Margali said. "You look adorably dashing. There won't be a third grade girl in the audience who won't fall for you."

Kurt made another face.

"Oh, you're taking all the fun out of this," he complained, picking absently at the shiny lightening bolts sewn across his chest. "I knew this costume needed wings."

"Cheer up, Kurt," Chester said. "Tonight's your big night. Aren't you excited?"

Kurt turned to Chester and flashed him his toothiest grin.

"You bet I am!"

Sabu Vogel stepped forward and patted him on the head.

"You'll knock 'em dead, kid. Just do your best out there, and you'll make us all proud."

*******

Kurt's first solo, starring role went forward without a single hitch. The audience was amazed at how he used his tail to maneuver from bar to bar, soaring and somersaulting nimbly through the air for just over five minutes without a single pause. When he finally came to a stop on the main platform high above their heads, there was a moment of complete silence (during which Kurt grew very confused and self-conscious as he held his pose) before the tent exploded into a riot of cheers and applause. Amazed and thrilled by the audience's response to his act, Kurt decided that, instead of a bow, he would give them a brief encore. Grabbing onto the nearest trapeze, Kurt performed the most elaborate moves he knew as he made his way to the smaller platform that was nearer to the exit. As the audience exploded once more, Kurt slid down the pole and, pausing just long enough to take a bow, launched into a cartwheel and ended up back flipping his way out of the tent.

"Show-off," Jimaine muttered to herself as she prepared for her own modest routine, partnered, as usual, with her brother. Still, despite her annoyed tone, Jimaine's blue eyes shown with amusement and affection at her young foster brother's palpable and contagious enthusiasm.

Then, she heard her own cue and rushed off to the platform, followed closely by Stefan.

End of Part Three

Chapter Text

Small Steps, Great Leaps
Part Four

The months were passing quickly now that the popularity and renown of the Szardos Bavarian Circus was beginning to grow. Just as Margali had predicted, their young Wunderkind was drawing crowds the size of which the gradually expanding circus was barely able to handle. Talk of the Blue Lightning's amazing feats was slowly but surely spreading its way throughout the small towns of central Europe, and Margali was finding herself utterly swamped by her new responsibilities. For the first time in her life, she had to deal with the bureaucratic and administrative consequences of genuine success and, although she complained at length about how paperwork and advertising schemes were eating into the time she could spend with her children, it was clear to those who knew her that deep down she was enjoying every minute of it.

Kurt, himself, was very proud of the role he was playing in bringing his foster mother's circus such widespread acclaim. Yet, despite the cheers his nightly performances received from the audience—his audience, if he was to be perfectly honest, since most of them came for the express purpose of seeing him perform—his heart remained troubled. His ninth birthday was rapidly approaching, yet so far neither he, nor Margali, nor even Woodhead had been able think of a way for him receive the Eucharist without his "unique" appearance causing the rest of the congregation to panic.

To the rest of the circus, Kurt's melancholy attitude was incomprehensible…and even a little annoying. He was the star! His name had top billing, even above the Vogels! He had no right to mope around the circus, spending his days sulking in the treetops. That was certainly Margali's opinion, and most of the other performers shared it—including Chester and Jimaine.

Surprisingly, it was Stefan who seemed the most sympathetic to Kurt's mounting frustration. While the others put his sullen mood and occasional outbursts of temper down to some kind of "phase" he was going through, or even a swollen head from his sudden rise to fame, Kurt's older brother understood the confusion and pain that was truly at the heart of the matter. Kurt was feeling trapped, restricted, imprisoned by his own skin; his young mind locked in a cycle of fear, anger, and bitter frustration that Stefan knew only too well…but for a completely different reason.

Finally, after months of hesitation and debating with himself, Stefan approached his brother with an offer, an offer he hoped would ultimately solve both their problems. All he had to do was meet him in the forest one night after the circus had gone to bed.

"You mean, like a camping trip?" Kurt had asked excitedly, smiling for the first time in days. "Yeah! We could bring sausages and marshmallows and tell ghost stories! Chester told me a really creepy one last week, about a girl whose head—"

"What I plan to tell you is far more shocking than any ghost story," Stefan had interrupted darkly, a mysterious look in his eyes. "And unlike the tales Chester tells, this one is true."

*******

The night air was cool on their backs as the two brothers stared at the crackling flames of the small campfire they'd built. It was very late—later than even Kurt was used to being out—but neither boy felt tired. Kurt poked at the fire with a stick, trying valiantly not to look as impatient as he felt. He'd been burning with curiosity for a week now, desperate to know why Stefan had asked him out here. His brother was such a quiet, reserved boy, so different from Kurt with his boundless energy and showman's spirit. He possessed a strange, solemn gravity that made him seem far older than his thirteen years and evoked a kind of awe in Kurt. He had always idolized his older brother, and the thought that Stefan wanted to entrust him with something important, something he couldn't tell anyone else, left him nearly dizzy with a pride he could not suppress.

Stefan leaned back against the mossy trunk of a nearby tree, staring at his foster brother through the popping flames as he contemplated how to phrase what he wanted to say. It had taken Stefan a long time to realize that what he saw when he looked at Kurt was quite different from what everyone else saw. To everyone else, Kurt seemed a dark figure—cute, perhaps, for as long as his fuzzy features retained their childish roundness, but unsettling just the same. His malformed hands and feet, his glowing eyes, and especially his spaded tail gave him the appearance of something demonic, dangerous…something born out of the ghostly superstitions mankind had invented to fill the creeping shadows of the night. And if he worked very hard, squinting his eyes until they were barely slits, Stefan could see that too. But, when he opened his eyes, the image he saw was very different.

Stefan Szardos had been born with what his Gypsy forebears called "The Sight." In practice, it was sort of like the ultimate X-Ray Vision: the ability to see through the shell of a person's outward appearance to the truth that resided within. Essentially, Stefan could literally see people's souls, shining like a spectral aura around and through the dull "stocking" of their physical forms.

Although his mother had all but abandoned her culture when her family had disowned her for marrying an "outsider," she had been unable to prevent the ancient magic that ran through her veins from being passed on to her children. She, herself, had once been a great sorceress, her place secure on the mystical path known as the Winding Way. But that had been many, many years ago, and as far as her employees were concerned, she was as normal a human as they were. As for her children…unless they began to show outward signs of magical ability, Margali was determined to raise them as though magic was nothing more than the clever tricks Big Jake performed as a prelude to Kurt's show.

Even so, ignoring Stefan's gift did not mean it wasn't there, and it did nothing to change the fact that he understood more about his family's true nature than Margali herself—especially when it came to the nature of his own soul. It was for that reason, that he had invited Kurt to join him in the forest that night.

"Kurt," he said softly, breaking the long silence that had grown up between them and the flickering flames.

"Yeah, Stefan?" the boy asked, perhaps speaking a little too quickly in his eagerness.

Stefan straightened, one hand slipping behind his back to touch the object he had taken from his mother's storage box. Standing up, he closed the distance between him and Kurt, sinking back down to a cross-legged position directly in front of him.

Kurt regarded him curiously, mimicking his position so their knees were almost touching. Stefan watched him as he moved, seeing not the boy's blue fur and glowing eyes, but a brilliant form of vibrant brightness contained in a shadowy sheath of skin, muscles, organs, and bones. Closing his hand tightly around the object, Stefan steeled himself, knowing he would soon be seeing a great deal more.

He looked around, keeping his voice carefully light as he said, "You used to play Cowboys and Indians out here, didn't you. With that Christian Gunther boy."

Kurt blinked as his back stiffened, his tail twitching reflexively behind him. Christian had been Kurt's best and only friend outside his circus family until one afternoon, when Kurt was six, he had told the boy that because he had blue skin, they could no longer be friends. His cruel words had broken Kurt's heart and alerted him for the first time to how very different he actually was from everyone around him. Christian had run off after that, and Kurt hadn't seen or heard from him since. But even after almost three years, it still hurt to hear his name.(1)

"Um, yeah," he nodded, his voice so soft it was barely audible. "Yeah, we used to come out here all the time." He looked up then, firmly blinking away the stinging in his eyes. He wasn't about to cry in front of his big brother. "Why?"

Stefan lowered his head, pursing his lips as he forced himself to articulate the idea that had been swirling through his thoughts for so long.

"I—" he started, then paused and tried again. "Kurt, how would you like to be my brother for real? My brother by blood?"

Kurt tilted his head, not quite understanding.

"You mean, like blood brothers?"

Stefan snapped his fingers with a relieved nod.

"Yes! Yes, that's exactly the term I was looking for. Blood brothers. How about it?"

Kurt stared at the older boy, utterly floored. He never would have expected this, especially from Stefan! He looked down at his three-fingered hands, at the thick digits and blue fur that set him apart from everyone else he knew, then back at Stefan.

"You would really want to do that?" he said softly. "You're not…you know….scared?"

Stefan shook his head, a twinge of compassion causing his eyes to soften somewhat at the look on Kurt's young face, and for the first time he felt guilt over what he was about to do. This plan was going to cause his innocent brother a lifetime of anguish, but there was no doubt in Stefan's mind that it had to be done. He had seen the strength behind Kurt's golden eyes, and he had seen the love in his soul. He would be able to handle this. He had to…

"Kurt," he said firmly, leaning forward to look his brother in the eye. "I could never be afraid of you. But I do fear the dark side of my soul."

Kurt was confused.

"What do you mean?"

Stefan didn't answer. Instead, he reached behind him and placed the object he'd been concealing on his lap. The orange flames of the campfire flickered along its gleaming blade, causing the ancient Romani inscriptions to stand in sharp relief. At the sight of the elegant and deadly dagger, Kurt gaped in open wonder.

"Wow," he gasped. "That's so awesome! Can I touch it? Please, Stefan? Oh…"

Kurt's excitement trailed off sharply as Stefan pushed up his sleeve and slowly dragged the point of the dagger across the inside of his wrist. Bright red blood instantly stained the boy's tanned skin, trickling slowly down his arm. Kurt's eyes widened in sudden trepidation as Stefan turned the dagger to him, his features hard with purpose.

"Hold out your arm," he said, and after only a moment's hesitation, Kurt did. Stefan flicked the dagger so skillfully, Kurt barely even felt a pinch. As his own red blood began to well up, Stefan quickly and firmly pressed their wrists together. Kurt could feel his brother's pulse beat against his as he watched their blood mingle, torn between revulsion and pride.

Kurt was just about to ask when he could put his arm down—now that the initial shock had worn off, the wound was beginning to throb and sting—when Stefan suddenly reached out with his other hand to place his palm against Kurt's fuzzy cheek. A peculiar tingle ran all the way down and through him, and then, without warning, he could see…

It was as though the future and past had collided with the present, lighting up the world in a stunning display of colors. Kurt saw Margali walk by, talking with the clowns after a show. Yet somehow, she wasn't the Margali he knew. Hidden just beneath her curling hair and violet eyes was a figure of green, with thick horns that curled about her ears like those of a ram. Raw power radiated from her in pulses, sometimes white, sometimes shadowed, as wild and unpredictable as nature herself.

And then, there was Jimaine, chatting with Chester by the tent that housed the kitchen. She had a golden aura, drawn from a power as strong as Margali's, but not quite as wild. Behind her childish features and laughing eyes stood a regal figure all in white, as imposing and dangerous as she was beautiful. Kurt lost his breath at the sight of her…

Until Chester became the focus of attention, standing with Kurt at one of the game booths as they competed to see who could fire an arrow closest to the bullseye. Kurt experienced an odd mental jolt as he realized he was seeing one of his own memories from a completely different angle. But that disturbing thought fell to the wayside as he looked at Chester. He, too, had an aura, bright but indistinct. A gentle soul hovered behind his eyes, but it was a mere outline compared to the forceful power within Margali and Jimaine.

The scene shifted once more, this time to the inside of the Szardos family's trailer. He seemed to be alone in the cluttered space, until he turned to face Margali's dusty mirror…

And came face to face not with his own reflection, but with Stefan's. But it wasn't the Stefan he knew. Peering beyond the reflection's glittering eyes, he saw a dark figure—tall, broad, and strong—as regally imposing as Jimaine, yet his was a power laced with cruelty. The sense of danger was even stronger here, a dark potential derived from an inner tendency towards malice and a need to seek revenge. This was not a forgiving creature; there was no love behind its eyes. And yet, it yearned for love. It yearned for a goodness it could not quite grasp; a salvation it could not reach…

Kurt came back to himself with a sharp gasp. Stefan was kneeling beside him, carefully bandaging his fuzzy wrist. When he looked up, Kurt was stunned to see there were tears in his brother's eyes.

"You have a beautiful soul, Kurt," he told him, his voice tight with envy and sadness. "Thank you for sharing it with me, if only for a short time."

"Wha…what?" Kurt asked, bewildered. "What just happened?"

Stefan sat back, unable to meet Kurt's eyes as he picked at his own bandage.

"I had to show you," he said softly. "You're the only person who would understand, the only one with enough…with enough compassion not to run from me once you knew the truth."

"The truth…?" Kurt repeated, his eyes widening as understanding began to dawn. "You mean that…whatever I just saw? That was real?"

Stefan nodded.

"You've been taken in by a family of Gypsy sorcerers, Kurt. Mom's done a good job of hiding it, but if you ask me, it's past time you knew the truth."

Kurt tilted his head, fascinated.

"Gosh. So, what you just did? That was magic?"

Stefan almost smiled.

"Yeah. I'll never be a great sorcerer, but I do have the ability to see into people's souls. Including my own."

He looked up then, meeting Kurt's eyes with a look bordering on desperation.

"You saw that soul just now, Kurt. You know how dangerous I could be if I ever…if I ever let myself go. That's why I asked you out here tonight. You and no one else. I need you to promise me something, something that could mean the difference…" he swallowed, forcing himself to get the words out, "…the difference between a life of evil, and a chance at salvation."

Kurt shook his head, confused.

"But you're not evil, Stefan," he asserted. "That creature in the mirror wasn't you."

"But it could be, Kurt," Stefan said, and there was no doubt in his voice. "I've been fighting it all my life, and I will continue to fight. But despite all my efforts, there's a good chance I will lose in the future. And when that happens, I will have lost my humanity."

He turned on Kurt then, taking his bandaged hand in his and squeezing tightly. Kurt winced, but didn't cry out. He didn't fully understand what Stefan was trying to tell him, but he did know he had never seen his brother so frightened, or so sincere. He straightened, squeezing back with as much pressure as his nearly nine-year-old muscles could muster.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked, his golden eyes wide and his expression serious.

"I want you to swear to me, Kurt," Stefan said. "I want you to swear an oath that if I ever turn evil…if I ever take an innocent life…," he leaned forward, his eyes piercing into Kurt's, "…that you will kill me."(2)

Kurt sat back in shock, an uncertain laugh bursting from his throat.

"You…you want me to what?"

"Just swear it, Kurt!" Stefan pleaded, no longer able to hide his desperation. "Please, brother. Do this for me."

Kurt stared at his brother for a long moment, a chill running down his spine and causing his tail to twitch uncomfortably. Stefan held his eyes, a single tear trickling down his cheek as he waited, breathless, for an answer. Finally, Kurt spoke.

"OK," he said, his voice quiet, but strangely firm. "OK, I swear it."

"On you honor," Stefan pressed. "On your immortal soul?"

Kurt hesitated a moment longer, then nodded.

"Yes. I swear it, Stefan."

Stefan seemed to implode then, closing his eyes and taking in a shaky breath as he let go of Kurt's hand and collapsed back onto his elbows.

"Thank you," he breathed, struggling to regain control over his roiling emotions. "Thank you, Kurt. I…it had to be done. And now it's up to me to make sure you're never called to keep that oath."

"Huh? Stefan, I still don't get—"

Stefan cut him off with a shake of his head, sitting back up with the slight, sad smile of a true seer.

"You will know so much pain in your life, my brother," he said with distant eyes. "…see so much death. Yet you will never lose your capacity for love, or your ability to forgive. It's your compassion that makes you beautiful, Kurt. Your quiet nobility. The priest at St. Peter's will see that. Ask Mom to take you there. Tell her to enroll you in Sunday school with Father Gregory in preparation for your First Communion." He stood up then with a wink. "If I'm right, he'll confirm you too. When the time comes. Good night, brother."

And with that, Stefan was gone, vanished into the blackness of the night.

*******

(1) For more on Christian, see Excalibur #77: Lowest Common Denominator and/or the story I wrote inspired by that issue entitled "Echoes of Love."

(2) These two lines were paraphrased from King-Size Annual X-Men #4: Nightcrawler's Inferno, Part the Second.

*******

It had been three weeks since Kurt had sworn his oath to Stefan in the woods. Three weeks since he had asked Margali to take him to St. Peter's. Yet the problem of his appearance still remained. Stefan insisted it wasn't as big a deal as Margali was making it out to be, but Margali was unwilling to take the chance. Now that her circus was finally making money, she couldn't bring herself to face the consequences if her star attraction was outted as a mutant.

Finally, Kurt couldn't take the frustration any longer. He had accepted one stall too many. Ultimately, he lashed out at Margali, shouting, "You're supposed to be some kind of sorceress, aren't you? Why can't you just work some magic or something? Because it seems to me that magic is the only thing that's going to get me into that church!"

Although he felt as though his angry words had been nothing more than a cry in the wilderness, they had struck a deep chord in Margali. Despite the fact she had pushed aside her mystical heritage when she had married, she was stunned to realize that she had never even considered her skills as a sorceress when contemplating Kurt's situation. Now, for the first time in years, she blew away the dust that had collected on the ancient texts that had once belonged to her ancient, Gypsy grandmothers, searching for a spell that would help her angry, bitterly frustrated foster son regain his former brightness. She soon became so engrossed in her reading that she even forgot to be angry at Stefan for revealing her long-buried secret to Kurt.

Some six hours later, she found Kurt high in the thick oak tree that grew in the center of the clearing where the circus had set up shop for the season. He was hanging upside down by his tail from one of the enormous tree's highest branches, his red T-shirt the only part of his dark form that she could clearly discern among the shadows of the leaves.

"Kurt?" she called up to him, her violet eyes darting around to make sure they were alone. "I took your advice. I looked in those old books my grandmother left me."

Kurt didn't move. She wondered if he had even heard her.

"I found something in those books, Kurt," she called again, louder than before. "I think it's the answer we've been looking for. But I need you to take a look at it. I need to know what you think!"

This time, she caught a flash of motion. Kurt had turned his face to her; she could just make out his yellow eyes gleaming in the dimness.

"Please come down from there, Kurt," she called up. "Come see what I have to show you!"

Margali watched with more than a little motherly concern as Kurt nimbly descended from the tall tree at a lightening pace. Within seconds, the boy was standing beside her, his shoulders drooping and his brilliant, yellow eyes cast down.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you, Mama," he said, his voice soft with remorse. "I didn't mean to. It just sort of happened. I've been so short tempered lately, and I don't like myself when I get this way."

"No, Kurt, don't apologize," Margali said, lifting his chin until their eyes met. "Your feelings are perfectly understandable. And I'm sorry I haven't been able to be more helpful to you. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to deal with the fears and prejudices of ignorant people. But, as you're only just starting to find out, this world of ours is far from perfect. And it isn't fair."

Kurt snorted, his eyes sharp.

"You can say that again," he muttered, kicking at a stone that was resting by his feet.

"But cheer up," Margali said with a gentle smile. "You can see now that I'm not mad at you for shouting at me. Actually, I'm grateful. If you hadn't snapped me into action I don't think I ever would have found that spell I was telling you about. I can't think why I never even considered my magic as a way to help you. I must be getting old."

Kurt grinned up at her, his yellow eyes shining.

"Never," he said.

Returning his smile, Margali took his three-fingered hand as, together, they walked back to the trailer.

*******

"See," Margali said, gesturing to the ancient book of parchment lying open before her on the recently cleared table. "This is the only spell I could find that looked like it might be able to help you. But I need to know what you think of it first."

Kurt leaned over her shoulder and looked at the carefully hand-written passage she was pointing to. The richly colored ink was surprisingly vibrant for such an obviously ancient text.

The appreciation he felt for the manuscript was replaced with alarm when he looked past the intricately colored letters to read the words they spelled out.

"Spell of Illusion," he read aloud. He turned to Margali, his vibrant, yellow eyes narrowed. "What sort of illusion?"

"Well," Margali said, feeling very awkward. "If it works as it should, this spell should temporarily make you seem like an average little boy to anyone who sees you."

Kurt shook his dark head, sinking into the chair beside Margali.

"I don't know if I like that idea," he said. "If God loves me the way I am, why should I have to look different when I go to His house?"

"You shouldn't have to," Margali told him. "But, Kurt, it's not God who would judge you, sweetheart. It's just...it's just..."

As Margali struggled to shape her thoughts into words, Kurt supplied them for her.

"I know," he said with a stinging bitterness Margali had never heard in him before and never wanted to hear again. "It's everyone else. No matter what Stefan said, I'll bet even the priest won't want anything to do with me. He'd probably think I'm some kind of demon, anyway."

The boy rose to his feet and slammed his fist down on the table, his eyes shining with unshed tears.

"Why is it that no one out there can look past what they see on the surface?" he exclaimed. "I've been to towns all over Europe, but I've only left the circus once, and that was in secret! I don't want to have to hide in order to go out there. I don't like this spell. If I'm going to receive this sacrament, I want to do it as myself, not in some dumb costume!"

Margali straightened in her chair, her violet eyes widening in sudden inspiration. Something in what Kurt just said had given her an idea.

"That's it, Kurt! A costume!"

Kurt was confused.

"What?"

"We've been coming at this the wrong way, don't you see?" Margali exclaimed. "We're assuming that everyone knows you aren't wearing a costume!"

Kurt was still confused.

"But, I'm not wearing a costume. Only when I'm performing."

Margali waved the comment away.

"No, no, no, I mean the audience that comes to see you. They all think that your skin and your tail and your eyes, that they're all part of some costume you're wearing. They don't know they're real."

Kurt's eyes widened in flabbergasted amazement.

"They don't?"

"Think about it Kurt. When new acts first join up with us, what happens when you go to meet them?"

Kurt shrugged.

"Their eyes get all big and sometimes they scream. Sometimes they pretend to go all nice, but most of the time they're scared. That one lady, the one with the beard, she actually fainted when I tried to shake her hand." Kurt smiled slightly at the memory, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "True, I was using my tail..."

"No, I mean before all that that," Margali pressed.

Kurt thought hard, trying to figure out what his foster mother was getting at.

"Well, when Zuzu first started to practice with me she asked me how I managed to make my tail move." Suddenly, his eyes widened. "Wait a minute," he said. "I get it now. She must have thought I was wearing a costume! All the new acts think I'm in costume until I go to meet them and they realize I'm not!"

Kurt sank back into his chair, overcome by his sudden insight.

"I had no idea," he said softly. "I can't believe I never realized this before! No wonder they said I was a monster."

Margali's violet eyes flashed.

"Who said that?"

Kurt looked up, surprised at her reaction.

"Everyone," he said. "Well, except for you and Bethica and Woodhead and people. Not the people who knew me since I was a baby. Just the new acts."

"They said that to your face?"

"No, it was more after they thought I had left the tent. But tents are pretty thin, you know?"

Margali nodded slowly, her expression fuming.

"I'll have to have a talk with those smug, self-satisfied—"

"Mama," Kurt interrupted, upset that his words had made her so angry. "What was it you were going to say before, about people thinking I was in costume?"

Margali blinked, turning her attention back to Kurt.

"What? Oh! I was saying that you wouldn't have to go to church in disguise at all. We could say how difficult it is to get you into your 'costume' every morning and that we'll have to leave it on during the ceremony to make sure you'd be ready for the show. You could walk right in, just as you are now, and all that would cross anyone's mind is that you are the wonderfully talented acrobat they saw at the circus."

Kurt raised an eyebrow, starting to cheer up.

"Wonderfully talented?" he asked.

"Superbly talented," Margali added.

"The greatest acrobat the world has ever seen!"

"The amazing boy who manages to have such energy even though he only sleeps for three hours a night?"

Kurt laughed at her implied scolding.

"Right! That's me, the Incredible Night-Crawler!"

Margali pulled him into her arms, relieved to see him back to his old, cheerful self.

"That you certainly are, my sweet Kurt." Releasing him, she smiled warmly. "Come on. I'll take you to that church. We're going to have a little chat with the local priest about getting you your first Holy Communion."

*******

"But do you really believe that what you are suggesting will be conducive to the dignity of this sacrament?"

"Look, Father," Margali said, leaning forward over the priest's wooden desk. "It's not like I'm one of those parents who has to drag their kid, kicking and screaming into the church to go through this ceremony. This is all coming from him. Kurt wants to receive this sacrament. What does it matter how he's dressed?"

The priest considered the small, indigo boy seated on the chair before him.

"Son, it's clear to me that your mother has no sense of propriety," he commented. Margali glared at him. The priest didn't seem to notice, his attention focused on Kurt. "So I'll ask you," he said, "since this was apparently your idea. Can you see the inappropriateness of wearing a demon costume to receive one of the most sacred sacraments of the Catholic faith?"

"I'll wear a suit," Kurt said softly, beginning to feel like coming here hadn't been such a good idea after all. He sank deeper into his chair as the priest directed a stinging glare in his direction.

"Somehow, I get the impression that you are both missing the point."

Margali rose to her feet.

"No, Father. With all due respect, I think it's you who is missing the point. Can't you understand how much this means to Kurt?"

"If it really meant as much as you say, he would be willing to forego the costume and put his faith in God before his activities at the circus. He would be willing to go one performance out of costume—or even to miss one—rather than to insult the dignity of this sacred institution by mocking its holy sacraments. Even if he weren't dressed as a demon, of all things, the Church does not look kindly on the type of irreverence you have shown in this office today, Frau Szardos."

Every word the priest spoke was like a knife stabbing through Kurt's heart. The pain went too deep for tears. Words like "mocking" and "irreverence" were spinning around his head. Did the priest actually view his appearance as "insulting" to the Church? Did a boy with the body of a demon have any right to request a holy sacrament at all? Was it possible that, if this priest found his appearance offensive, God might as well? Could it be that he actually was a demon? If so, could he ever even hope to know God?

Kurt could feel his foundations crumbling all around him. Somewhere far above he was distantly aware of Margali and the priest continuing their argument. But, Kurt wasn't listening anymore. He was lost and frightened, he was falling and there was nothing left for him to hold on to…

Slowly, out of the dark fog that had enshrouded his mind, Kurt became aware of a gruff voice. It was a memory, someone speaking to him, comforting him, saying something... Kurt struggled to catch the memory, to recall the words the man had spoken. Perhaps if he could remember who the man was...?

His eyes snapped open.

"Woodhead," he said aloud.

Margali and the priest turned to him.

"What did you say, Kurt?" Margali asked, still to angry to smooth the edge in her voice.

"I was remembering," Kurt said softly. "Something Woodhead said to me when Stefan was receiving his own First Communion."

"And who, may I ask, is this 'Woodhead'?" the priest sneered.

Margali silenced him with a glare.

"I wasn't allowed to go," Kurt said, his voice growing louder as the strong emotions flooded his mind, overcoming his embarrassment and self-consciousness. "I was only three and I couldn't understand why I couldn't go. Mama said it was because she didn't want to cut Stefan's trousers to make room for my tail. She said that you had to dress up when you visit God at His house, to show God the proper respect. And I know that that's a very good thing. People should try to show their respect for God, especially when they go to worship Him." He frowned. "But, if they can't dress up the way everyone else does, they shouldn't be told that they can't go! Mama said that since I couldn't wear Stefan's trousers, I couldn't go. But, Woodhead, he said Mama was wrong!"

Kurt turned his blazing yellow eyes to the priest, his back straightening with the strength of his convictions.

"Just like you're wrong now. God loves us for who we are on the inside! His love is unconditional. He even keeps on loving us even when we sin against Him, allowing us to confess our sins and get absolution. He doesn't care what we look like or how we're dressed. Woodhead told me that in the old days the poorest people, the outcasts from society, the people who looked different from everyone else, were thought of as children of God. That just proves that it's your faith that's important, not how you look. If you love God and you always try to do what's right, that's all that matters!"

He sniffed sharply, pointing at the priest with a thick, blue finger.

"If you won't let me receive Holy Communion here because of how I look, I'll go to another church. And if they say no too, I'll keep on looking, even if I have to go to the Pope!"

His tears were flowing freely now and his nose was running into his fur, but Kurt didn't care. He jumped up onto his chair and shouted at the top of his lungs, too overcome with emotion to care who heard him. He was shouting to convince himself more than anyone, to assuage his own terrors.

"I am not a demon!" he shrieked, his face flushing until it was almost purple. "I am not mocking or insulting anything! I don't want to insult God, I just want to do what's right!"

Margali and the priest both stood completely still, stunned by the power of Kurt's unexpected outburst. Then, slowly, the priest blinked.

"He—he's not actually wearing a costume, is he?" he asked, his previously smooth and authoritative voice shaky and uncertain.

Kurt glared at him through his tears, a dangerous expression on his face.

"Do you want to know something?" he asked, his voice hoarse from his screams. "This whole thing happened because I didn't want to have to wear a costume when I received my first Holy Communion."

The priest was still staring at him, his face pale except for two slowly spreading spots of red on his cheeks. Bringing a hand to his mouth, he sank into his chair.

"God forgive me," he whispered.

"Come on, Kurt," Margali said, reaching out a hand to help him down from the chair. "Let's get out of here."

"No, wait!" the priest called from his desk. "Please, don't go. I didn't understand. Kurt!" he called, his arm outstretched toward the boy. "I'm sorry."

Kurt turned to face him, but did not speak. The priest went on.

"You were right," he said. "What you said about God."

The priest paused to take a shaky breath.

"You're a remarkable boy, Kurt Wagner," he said, his voice sincere.

Kurt took a step forward, caught off-guard by the priest's sudden shift in temperament.

"Your refusal to disguise yourself before God, your open faith...Never, in all my years as a priest, have I met a boy who had more reason to hate God than you. But rather than resenting Him, rather than resenting yourself, you stood there on my chair and proclaimed your faith in Him to the world. It must be very difficult for you, having to live among people like me."

Kurt favored the contrite priest with a small smile.

"It's not that bad," he said, a trace of humor in his voice.

The priest returned the smile.

"Kurt, I would be honored if you would agree to take my Sunday school classes in preparation for your first Holy Communion. I'm sure the other children would learn a lot from you."

Kurt didn't even have to consider the invitation. With a loud whoop of joy, he leapt high and somersaulted in the air, landing right on the center of the priest's desk. Folding the startled priest into a powerful embrace, Kurt favored him with his brightest grin.

"Thank you, Father!" he exclaimed.

Margali signed Kurt up for Sunday school on the spot, though she made it clear to both of them that Kurt's true mutant nature should not be revealed to the other children for fear of how their parents would react. They both readily accepted her terms. Kurt left the ancient, stone church with his very own copy of the Bible, filled with an elation that knew no bounds.

As the priest watched Margali and Kurt climb into their circus van and drive away, he was struck by the irony of what he had just experienced. Despite his own discomfort and fear when he had realized that the boy was a mutant, the priest couldn't help admiring him. He had just met a demon with the soul of a saint. Moving back to his desk he made a vow to never judge a person based on appearance ever again. It was a vow that, although it was at times very difficult, Father Gregory ultimately kept for the rest of his life.

*******

"When's the ceremony again?" Margali asked, hurriedly attempting to pin her unruly hair up in a tight bun, a style which made her sharp features seem even more regal and striking than when she let it fly loose.

"Four thirty," Stefan supplied, combing his black hair straight back.

"Stefan, I wish you would comb it to the side," Margali sighed. "You look so much more handsome that way."

Stefan shot his mother a brief glance, then silently set about parting and combing his hair to the side. Margali finished pinning up her own hair and spun around to check on Jimaine's progress.

"You almost ready, Jimaine?" Margali called to the curtain her daughter had hung from the ceiling of the small trailer to create a make-shift dressing room.

"Have you seen my nylons anywhere?" Jimaine's slightly muffled voice came from behind the curtain. "They don't seem to be back here."

Margali turned to her son.

"Stefan, help your sister find her nylons. I've got to go see if Bethica's finished adjusting Kurt's suit. Twenty minutes before we leave, you two, don't forget!"

Kurt's suit was actually a hand-me-down of Stefan's that Bethica had been frantically adjusting for the past four hours. As Margali burst into the trailer, Kurt was trying on the dove gray jacket, stretching his arms out to check the length.

"Yeah, that's much better," he said, and grinned. "You can see, they're the same length now."

Bethica nodded, pulling the trousers loose from the sewing machine.

"Good," she said. "Now try these—Oh, hi, Margali!" she greeted her employer cheerfully. "We're just finishing up here. Kurt just has to try on these trousers so we can figure out where to cut the hole for his tail."

"'The hole must be high enough to ensure decency yet low enough to allow maximum maneuverability'," Kurt quoted, mimicking Bethica's voice. It was what she always muttered to herself when making the measurements for Kurt's costumes.

"Just put on the trousers and don't be smart," Bethica said, tossing the gray pants at him with a wink.

"Erg," Kurt grunted in discomfort as he forced his tail down his trouser leg. "These things are so constricting!"

"Allow me," Margali said, picking up Bethica's scissors from her worktable and moving in behind Kurt. In less than a minute, the hole was cut and Kurt was able to free his tail once more.

"Yeah!" He grinned, flexing and curling it to get the kinks out. "That's much better." Then, looking to his foster mother, he rushed over to her and wrapped her in a warm embrace. Though simple, both Kurt and Margali knew that what she had just done was a symbolic gesture, a symbol of deep apology and forgiveness. It was a gesture Kurt would never forget.

"Thank you, Mama," he said.

"Oh, honey, I'm so proud of you!" Margali smiled, looking into her foster son's dark, shadowy face. "You knew what you wanted to do and you went for it, in spite of everything that stood in your way. You impressed that priest so much! This is your day, sweetheart. You're the one who made it happen."

Kurt grinned, but he averted his eyes, suddenly shy in the face of such heartfelt praise. Margali turned slightly and reached into her purse, pulling out a carefully wrapped present.

"I got this for you," she said, holding the small, rectangular package out to him. "I was going to give it to you afterwards, but I can't imagine a better moment than right now."

Curious, Kurt took the package in his three-fingered hands and unwrapped it. It was a copy of "Captain Blood," by Rafael Sabatini.

"I think you'll like it," Margali said, smiling slightly at the confused expression on Kurt's face as he contemplated the book's title. "It shouldn't be too hard for you. After all, if you can read the Bible, you can read anything."

Kurt smiled, then went back to his inspection of the book.

"What's it about?"

"It's about pirates," Margali explained. "It's action packed, and it has lots of climbing up ropes and sword fights and things in it."

"But Captain 'Blood'?" Kurt asked, his eyes narrowed. "What kind of a name is that?"

"Read the book and you'll find out," Margali said simply, turning to the door. "We leave in five minutes, you two," she called as a parting shot as she left the trailer. "Bethica, you have just enough time to get that tail-hole squared away. We wouldn't want it to rip during the ceremony, now would we?"

As Bethica reached for her needle and thread, Kurt opened the book and started to flip through its pages. By the time he and Bethica had piled into the van along with the rest of the circus performers, he was already deep into the first chapter and his imagination was soaring.

*******

The small church was decorated just as it had been for Stefan's first Holy Communion. This time, though, Kurt wouldn't be hiding in a disused balcony. This time, he had a special seat at the front of the church among his fellow Sunday school students. Because they were seated according to alphabetical order, Kurt was last. But that didn't bother him. It didn't seem that anything could mar this special day—until Oskar Uhrmacher, the boy he was seated next to, leaned over to him.

"I can't believe they're letting you wear your costume!" he whispered in amazement. "My mom wouldn't even let me wear my favorite shirt under this jacket, even though no one would be able to see it. Well, hardly."

Kurt just shrugged, unsure how to answer. His neighbor went on.

"But seriously, don't you ever take that stuff off? Don't you think it's weird when everyone keeps staring at you?"

"Yes," Kurt replied.

Oskar nodded, then looked confused.

"Wait a minute, was that a yes to my first question, or to the second one?"

Kurt just nodded, pulling a Bible out from the small shelf on the back of the pew before him and pretending to read it.

"It must be so cool to live at a circus," Oskar muttered, pulling uncomfortably at his tie. "You get to wear whatever you want to and you don't care what people think."

"I'm wearing a suit," Kurt pointed out in an attempt to show he did care.

Oskar snickered.

"Yeah. You look kind of funny with that tail of yours sticking out of the trousers. Hey, how does that thing work, anyway?"

"Very well, thank you," Kurt replied shortly. Trying not to let his hurt at Oskar's comments show on his face, Kurt turned back to his Bible, attempting to make it clear through body language that he didn't want to talk anymore. He was saved in any case by the start of the ceremony. Kurt slid his Bible back into the shelf and both boys straightened as the priest began to speak.

The ceremony was long, but Kurt found himself fascinated. When it came his turn to walk down the aisle—firmly ignoring the ripple of comment that followed his progress—he felt a deep emotion he could not name swelling in his chest. It was more joyful than pride and more contented than satisfaction. Reaching the altar, he spoke the words he'd been taught and cupped his hands the proper way, holding them out to the priest. Father Gregory favored him with a wink as he placed a sacred wafer in the boy's blue palm. Kurt grinned broadly in response.

As he returned to his seat, the special wafer melting slowly in his mouth, Margali, Stefan, Jimaine, Chester, Sabu, Bethica, and Woodhead rose to their feet, clapping their hands with pride. The applause was contagious. Kurt took his seat to a standing ovation, his glowing eyes filling with tears. He had never been happier in his life.

End of Part Four

Chapter Text

Small Steps, Great Leaps
Part Five

Margali was frantic. The show was scheduled to start in fifteen minutes and still there was no sign of their star.

"Jimaine!" she called out, spotting her daughter heading towards the main tent. The costumed girl was hard to miss, bedecked as she was in a high, feathery headdress and a skin-tight costume scaled all over with fluorescent pink sequins.

"It's Amanda, Mom," the sparkly girl corrected, the annoyance in her expression obvious even through her heavy make-up. "My name is Amanda. I've told you a million times that—"

"Amanda then," Margali interrupted brusquely, too preoccupied to argue semantics with a sixteen-year-old. "Have you seen Kurt anywhere?"

Amanda blinked her glittered eye-lids.

"You mean he hasn't come back yet?"

"Come back from where?" Margali demanded.

"From where else?" Amanda snorted. "The old movie house had a triple feature tonight. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Tyrone Power, and Errol Flynn. Do you honestly think he'd miss something like that? Those corny old guys are like his heroes or something."

Margali turned her violet eyes to the heavens.

"Give me strength!" she cried, clenching her fists so tightly her long nails made painful dents in her palms. "I should never have given him that stupid 'Captain Blood' book. He's become completely obsessed!" She turned her sharp gaze back to her daughter. "When are the shows supposed to end?" she asked, suddenly feeling very tired.

"How should I know?" Amanda shrugged. "I wouldn't be caught dead at one of those dumb swashbuckler flicks."

Margali pursed her lips, drumming her fingers against her hip in a distinctly edgy manner.

"Fine," she said. "Fine! If he doesn't turn up in five minutes we'll just have to do the show without him. Stefan can take his place."

Amanda stared at her mother, aghast.

"You're joking, right?" she said. "There's no way Stefan can fill in for Kurt."

"Don't talk like that, Jimaine," Margali snapped. "Your brother's very talented."

"It's Amanda. And no, he's not. He hates acrobatics. He only does it because you make him."

"What are you talking about?"

"It's true, Mom. He told me so. He was saying just yesterday how as soon as he's finished with high school he's going to blow this crummy circus and join some monastery or something." She made a face. "Don't ask me. You know how weird he can get sometimes."

"Great," Margali said, running her crimson-painted nails through her frizzy hair. "What a perfect time to tell me all this. Why is it that the mother is always the last to know what's going on in her kids' lives? Tell me that."

"Hey, I'm just the messenger here," Amanda said, holding up her hands in mock defense. "Go yell at Stefan if you want to vent."

That was the last straw. Margali whirled on her daughter, her violet eyes blazing.

"You know, I've had it up to here with your sass, young lady," she snapped. "Lately you've been showing me no respect, no-"

She was interrupted in mid-tirade by the distinctive clanking of Woodhead's beat-up old rust bucket of a car pulling up just outside the circle of trailers. As the two of them turned to watch, Kurt leapt out through the open passenger side window. Grinning from ear to pointed ear, the skinny fourteen-year-old grabbed an errant stick from the ground and began wielding it like a sword.

"So," he confronted his invisible foe, his reedy, adolescent voice crackling slightly in his enthusiasm. "You dare to challenge me, Kurt Wagner, the most daring pirate to ever sail the seven seas? Take that, and that!"

Amanda took that moment to make her escape, rushing into the main tent in a flurry of brilliant, pink feathers. But Margali had already forgotten about her daughter. She was now advancing her elated foster son, storm clouds gathering in her violet eyes.

"Margali!"

Woodhead slammed his door shut, distracting her from her intended prey just long enough for him to cut into her path. Despite his lumbering gait, the aging hunchback could move with surprising swiftness. Shooting his employer a toothy grin that only intensified the warning in his eyes, he announced, "Well, here we are! And in the nick of time, too. Wouldn't you say, Margali?"

"The dashing Kurt Wagner is never late for his commitments!" Kurt proclaimed, tossing his stick away with a flourish and taking a deep bow.

"Good evening, dear lady," he beamed at his foster mother. "A beautiful lady like yourself should not walk unescorted at night. Please," he offered, his posture as straight and poised as a French aristocrat at a royal masque. "Allow me to walk you to the tent."

Margali had fully intended to scold him for making her worry so, but at the sight of his exuberant grin, she found she just didn't have the heart. The moment she looked down into his bright eyes, she felt her fury fading to exasperation mingled with a special brand of parental tolerance. But even so, she couldn't just let him go without a word.

"You sure you're ready for tonight?" she asked, shooting him a pointed look. "I noticed you missed rehearsal again."

"My dearest Margali, never fear. I invented all my moves myself. Besides, it was Errol Flynn! What is a mere rehearsal when compared to the opportunity to bask in the aura of such cinematic greatness!"

Margali rolled her eyes, but she found she was smiling despite herself.

"All right Kurt," she said with a sigh. "You'd better get into your costume. There's only ten minutes left until showtime."

"Your wish is my command, fair lady," Kurt pronounced grandly, gently kissing her hand. As he bounded off towards the main tent, Margali called after him, "And Kurt! Check with me first the next time you get the urge to run off to the movies before a show!"

"As you wish!" Kurt called back, ducking into the tent and out of her view.

Margali shook her head.

"He's such a happy boy," she commented, not looking at Woodhead but knowing the gnarled old man was there. "It truly amazes me sometimes. When I think how hard it must be for him, even here at the circus… How does he do it, Frank? Where does he find the strength?"

"Love."

The word was spoken lightly, but there was nothing simple about Woodhead's answer.

Margali turned to him, a question in her violet eyes.

"It is hard for him," Woodhead elaborated. "Very hard. I've often heard the boy praying among the trees when he thinks everyone is asleep. The words he speaks are searching; desperate and, often, angry. Yet, rather than give in to despair and allow his resentment to consume him, he has chosen to fight."

He looked up, catching her eyes with his as he went on.

"It is this place that keeps him going," he stated. "The knowledge that here, with you and Amanda and Stefan and me and all the rest, he is accepted for who he truly is. It is the love you've shown him, Margali, and the unconditional love of God that allows him to weather the coldness of the world so well. Our Kurt is a very special boy. And I don't just mean in the physical sense."

And with that, the bent, grizzled man turned away, hobbling off into the night.

Margali watched him go, thoughtful and subdued, until a sudden burst of applause from the tent snapped her out of her reverie. Pulling herself together as quickly as she could, Margali rushed inside, already barking orders and encouragements to the performers within.

*******

The performance was in full swing. Kurt, still energized from his movie binge, was having the time of his life as he swung and leapt from place to place before an astonished audience.

Behind the scenes, though, Stefan and Amanda were engaged in another of their increasingly frequent fights. Normally, when one of these fights broke out, Kurt was able to stop it with a few careful words or a well timed joke before it got too serious. This time, he was unavailable, and the friction between the two siblings was growing hot enough to form sparks.

"Look, Stefan, what I do with Marcus is my own business. You're not my father. You have no right to judge me."

"Jimaine, you cannot allow this sinful relationship to continue. You are young. You can still redeem yourself if you change your path now."

Amanda rolled her eyes.

"You sound like some dumb nut out of a bad horror movie. Give it a rest, Stefan. I love Marcus and he loves me."

"He's using you, Jimaine. He's nineteen, you're sixteen. If anything should happen, it is you who would be left to bear your shame alone. He will never do the right thing by you. He is just leading you deeper into a life of sin. You must realize the error of this path you are choosing!"

Amanda opened her mouth in outrage.

"I can't believe you, Stefan! I mean, you've always been weird, but seriously! I live in the real world, Stefan, not the made up little universe you seem to inhabit. And in the real world, when people love each other there's nothing wrong with, you know, showing it."

"You're my sister, Jimaine, not some cheap slut from off the street!" Stefan's dark eyes were livid, his pale face twisted with fury. "If you fall, you will be condemning more than just yourself."

"It's Amanda!" Amanda shrieked, completely losing her temper. "You don't even know what you're talking about! You've never even had a girlfriend! If Kurt were here, he'd tell you where to get off. He knows an awful lot more about all that religion stuff than you, and he never talks to me like this! You're a pompous, frustrated know-it-all and I hate you!"

Stefan frowned, drawing himself up to his full, impressive height.

"Kurt is blind to your sins," he stated. "But you are even blinder than he is." He shook his head, a strange quality…almost like regret…entering his deep voice as he went on. "Because you refuse to repent, you will be forced to face your penalty—if not in this world, than in the world to come."

Amanda gawped at her brother, her eyes wide.

"Wow," she said. "You really are crazy, aren't you?" She curled her lip at him in disgust, then peered behind the curtain to check on Kurt's progress. "Our cue's almost up," she said. "After tonight, though, I'm telling Mom that I don't want to be partnered with you anymore. You're a freak."

Stefan's eyes flashed a black so deep that, for a moment, they stopped reflecting the light. His pale face contorted as he opened his mouth, but before he could make a reply Kurt burst into their enclosure, an elated grin fixed on his glowing face.

"You're up, you two!"

Noticing Stefan's scowl, he misinterpreted it to mean the older boy was upset about having to perform that night. It was common knowledge that Stefan disliked acrobatics.

"Don't worry, Stefan!" Kurt grinned, placing a comforting hand on his foster brother's shoulder. "I left them in such a great mood they'd clap if you just sat on the trapeze and swung the whole time. Honestly, though, you'll do great!"

He turned to Amanda, but she had already rushed out into the center ring. Forcing a smile to replace his dark scowl, Stefan followed her, turning a brief nod to his young blood-brother as he passed by his beaming smile.

But even as he trailed Amanda up the ladder to the platform high above the audience's heads, a vengeful plan was already forming in his mind…

*******

Kurt smiled to himself from behind the backstage curtain as he watched his foster sister remove her feathery headdress and cloak with a theatrical flourish and let them fall to the ground-demonstrating to the crowd how very high up she was. Amanda and Stefan's routine was made up of three separate parts, each more challenging than the last. They started out with basic catches and flips and progressed slowly up to the grand finale: a death defying triple somersault performed without a safety net. Amanda and Chester had actually come up with the idea, but Margali had refused to allow it unless Stefan acted as his sister's catcher. Her argument had been that if Jimaine insisted on risking her life, it would at least be in the hands of a family member. Amanda, Chester, and Stefan had argued strongly against the pairing, but as in all things when it came to her circus and her family, Margali's rule was law.

As the crowd cheered Stefan's first catch, Kurt peered around the backstage area, making sure he was alone. He always watched Amanda's performances from a secret spot, high up among the shadows of the enormous tent's canvas roof. Watching her on the trapeze was his guilty pleasure, a secret he couldn't let anyone else know. If the truth about the feelings he harbored for his foster sister ever came out, Kurt was terrified that Margali would not only ban him from the trapeze, but cast him out of her family all together. Raising a fuzzy, blue mutant as a foster son was one thing. The idea of him dating her daughter was something entirely different. Not that Amanda had ever shown any signs that she saw him as anything other than a goofy little brother….

Kurt sighed deeply and shook his head, only to gasp in surprised pain as a searing pang shot through his temples, just behind his eyes. Pressing his palms to his head, he winced, breathing hard as the tent around him began to spin.

"Oh, God no," he gasped, doubling up as the shooting pain intensified, causing his stomach to give a nauseous leap. "Please, not again. Not now!"

Too dizzy to stand, Kurt collapsed to the ground, squeezing his knees with his tail as he curled up into himself. The dim light filtering in from the other side of the curtain was suddenly blinding, the brightness searing his tearing eyes. Burying his face in his arms, Kurt tried to concentrate on taking in slow, steady breaths, hoping to calm his lurching stomach before the popcorn he had enjoyed so much at the movies made a sudden reappearance all over the floor.

It was already the third time that month he had been hit with a migraine so intense, and the occurrences were getting more and more frequent. So far, he had managed to keep his headaches a secret-he was too frightened of what might be causing them to tell Margali-but this was a very public place. In a few minutes, Chester and Tomas Vogel and their partners Alexi and Lukas would come in to wait for the cue to start their balancing act, and Stefan and Amanda would be soon to follow. If they found him like this….

"Oh my God, is that-? Kurt!"

The sound of Chester's alarmed voice caused Kurt to groan. He'd been spotted.

In a flash, Chester was beside him, his words tumbling over themselves in his worry.

"Oh God, Kurt are you hurt? What happened? I almost didn't see you there, it's so dark! What's the matter?"

Kurt groaned again, squinting out at his friend through a haze of brightness and pain.

"Nothing happened," he gasped out. "It's just a headache, that's all. It'll pass soon…."

"Just a headache!" Tomas exclaimed, his deep frown an uncanny match for his father Sabu's. "That doesn't look like a simple headache to me. We should get Margali over here-"

"No, please!" Kurt cried, jerking himself upright, then instantly regretting it as his stomach gave another rebellious lurch. "I've had these before! It'll go away in a few minutes, honest!"

Chester furrowed his brow, his concern now tinged with anger.

"What do you mean you've had these before," he demanded. "And you didn't tell anyone? What kind of an idiot are you, Kurt? This could be serious!"

Kurt shook his head, relieved to find the sharp spikes behind his eyes were beginning to dull. The tent, too, had slowed its nauseating spinning. Taking a few deep breaths, he waited for his heart to stop pounding, then slowly rose to his feet.

"There, you see," he said, fixing all four men with his most stubborn stare. "I'm fine. It was probably nothing more than a mild case of heatstroke or something. Those spotlights are hot, after all, and I am wearing a fur coat."

Lukas and Alexi chuckled at that, but Chester remained concerned.

"That's still dangerous," he said. "If one of these headaches should hit you while you're performing-"

"They won't," Kurt insisted firmly, his tail lashing in agitation.

"You can't know that," Chester retorted, just as firmly. "After the show, I'm going to tell Margali about this. If those lights are too hot for you, I'm sure something can be worked out."

Kurt rolled his eyes to the ceiling and puffed out his cheeks, but finally gave in.

"OK," he said. "But I want to be the one to tell her. After all, I'm the only one who knows which lights are causing the problem."

Chester looked wary for a moment, but ultimately nodded. Before he could say anything else, however, Kurt beat him to it.

"Great!" he said with a broad smile. Then, in a demonstration of his perfect health, the teenager dashed from the crowded space behind the curtain and into the main tent, keeping close to the shadows as he scurried up the nearest support pole to his secret spot. Now that he was feeling better, he didn't want to miss Amanda's grand finale.

*******

Stefan and Amanda's act was going well. They had already gone through the first two stages of the performance without a hitch and were now preparing for the big finish.

Amanda hooked her trapeze to the side of the ladder so it wouldn't swing away, then glanced over her shoulder at her brother to be sure he was in position. Stefan was still sitting on his own trapeze with his back to her, pumping his legs to build up momentum. Amanda rolled her eyes as she hefted up the bar she needed for her last stunt and secured it in place over the ladder. She knew he was moving so slowly just to annoy her. Normally, he was ready to go before the announcer's call for silence.

The bar secure, Amanda climbed into position and grabbed her waiting trapeze securely in her chalk-dusted hands. Raising her arm to signal she was ready-a signal which doubled as a wave to the cheering crowd-she took a deep breath and waited for her cue to jump.

Far below, Woodhead and his team of safety men dropped the net to the ground, sparking a wave of gasps and applause from the audience. A moment later, Sabu's tinny voice rang out from the antique speaker system.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," he said. "The lovely Amanda Szardos is about to attempt the Infamous Triple: one of the most challenging and dangerous feats an acrobat can perform. Due to the extreme danger of this feat and the intense concentration she and her brother require, we ask that you all please maintain strict silence. Once again, due to the extreme danger of our next stunt, we ask that you all maintain perfect silence."

Instantly, all noise from the crowd ceased. Amanda swallowed, fighting down the butterflies that always rose up when Sabu made that announcement. As if the sudden silence wasn't unnerving enough, she didn't need to be reminded of how dangerous the triple was!

But Amanda was a professional, and her nervousness was soon replaced with confidence. Shooting a quick smile at the breathless audience, she tracked her brother's movements as he swung upside-down with his knees locked securely around the trapeze wire and his arms spread and ready for the catch. Stefan's black eyes were dark with purpose, his expression intense with concentration as he stared up at her, waiting for her to make the leap. Something about his face sparked a queer twinge of trepidation in the pit of her stomach-but she didn't have time for doubts. Her life literally depended on her focus during the next few seconds. Clearing her mind of all but the task ahead, Amanda waited until she was certain of the timing…and made her jump.

The metallic creaking of the swinging trapeze was almost deafening in the cavernous tent as Amanda kicked up her legs and swung back, reveling in the exhilaration of the wind rushing in her ears and the perfect control she felt over her actions.

Kurt grinned down at her from his invisible perch at the top of the slanted support beam, living the thrill along with her as she let go of the bar at the height of her next swing, grabbing onto her thighs and spinning around in mid-air. Once…twice…three times she spun, reaching out at the last moment to grab her brother's wrists-

The crowd shot to its collective feet, clapping and shouting as the two siblings made an apparently solid contact in a puff of chalk dust. Amanda smiled up at Stefan, her blue eyes bright and sparkling-

But Stefan wasn't smiling back. Amanda furrowed her brow in confusion, then gasped as barely an instant later their trapeze gave a sudden, sickening lurch. Apparently caught by surprise, Stefan lost his grip on her right hand, causing the crowd to gasp in alarm as they sank nervously back into their seats, as though afraid their outburst had caused the situation. Amanda stared up at Stefan in disbelief, grabbing for his hand only to miss by a margin so slight, it had to be deliberate. She glared at him, too furious to register fear as the trapeze's motion grew ever more unstable. Her arm was starting to ache, her fingers slipping down her brother's taped wrist-

"Don't you dare," she managed to strain through clenched teeth, alarmed by the complete lack of emotion in her brother's dark eyes. "Don't you let me go."

"I-" Stefan gasped, and for just a moment, Amanda saw a flash of terror contort his features. Her heart stopped, her own rapidly rising panic too overwhelming to process as her fingers slipped even further. Stefan closed his eyes, his pale face reddening as he roared out, "I can't…!"

Time seemed to slow as Amanda's fingertips slid from her brother's hand. Her mouth opened in shock, a horrified scream tearing from her throat as she began to fall.

Kurt stared in utter shock, unable to understand what he had just seen. Stefan had caught her! He had seen it! What could have happened? How could he have just…let her go! Kurt gasped, the terrible realization finally crystallizing in his mind as Amanda's shrieks merged with the screaming of his heart.

"Oh God, please…please no! Not Jimaine!"

Acting purely on instinct spawned by horror, Kurt focused all his concentration on Amanda's falling form. Suddenly, he felt something-an odd pulling sensation at the back of his mind, as though he were flexing a muscle he didn't even know he had. Fixing his eyes on the rapidly diminishing space between his foster sister and the ground below, Kurt felt an odd, cold sensation pass through him. It chilled him to the marrow, leaving him weak and nauseous and very, very frightened. But before he had time to panic, Kurt inexplicably found himself falling through the air with the screaming Amanda only a few inches above him. There was a peculiar smell in the air…almost like rotten eggs…but there wasn't time to think about that. With split-second reflexes, Kurt reached out his arms, catching her in a secure hold and wrapping his tail around her waist for added support. Then, focusing on the platform above their heads, Kurt flexed the same mental 'muscle' as before, shivering slightly at the peculiar residual tingle it left in his brain.

This time, the sick, nauseous feeling was even worse. It was like he was fighting his way up a steep hill against a powerful, icy wind. Kurt closed his eyes, squeezing Amanda tightly to him and forcing all his concentration into picturing the safety of the platform. Less than a moment later, the wind stopped and the dragging force disappeared. Opening his eyes, he saw that both he and Amanda were standing on the platform, still locked in their desperate, clinging embrace.

Exhausted and drained in a way he had never thought possible, Kurt collapsed to his knees, taking his foster sister with him. Grabbing onto the nearest rung of the ladder, Kurt leaned his forehead against his arm, drawing in deep, gasping breaths as he fought to make the overpowering nausea leave him. This experience had been even worse than the migraine of only minutes before, and from the looks of things, Amanda felt little better than he did. Even so, her blue eyes were wide with amazement and fear as she focused on the exhausted mutant before her.

"K-Kurt!" she stuttered, her voice trembling with trepidation. "Wh-what just happened? How did we get up here?"

Kurt shook his head, his yellow eyes just as wide and fearful as her blue ones.

"I don't know!" he panted, his adolescent voice cracking with emotion. "I have no idea, Amanda! All I know is that Stefan… He-he dropped you and I—I couldn't just sit there. I couldn't let you die!"

He shuddered deeply, fixing her with a terrified glance.

"I know I did something, Amanda," he said. "I know I did it on purpose, that it came from me. But I have no idea what it was!"

Amanda stared at him, clearly not sure what to think, but before she could say anything, a bright spotlight was suddenly shining in their faces. Shielding their eyes, Amanda and Kurt climbed to their feet, gradually recalling that they still had an audience. Far below them, Sabu Vogel was saying something to the cheering crowd. Stefan was standing beside him, his expression inscrutable. Then, Sabu turned his long, curling mustache up to face them.

"Go on and take a bow, you two!" he called with a broad smile, though his dark eyes were red-rimmed with the aftereffects of his own terror.

Confused and greatly disoriented, the two teenagers bowed in the direction of a cheering audience they could not see. Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the bright spotlight was gone, leaving Kurt and Amanda dazzled and half-blind.

"Come on, Amanda," Kurt said as his eyes slowly regained their sight. "Let's get out of here. I'll walk you to the trailer."

Amanda nodded confidently enough, but Kurt could see her hands were still shaking. Deeply concerned, he started down the rope ladder first to make sure he'd be in a position to catch her in case she fell. Fortunately, they reached the ground without incident, and from there it was a simple matter to slip unnoticed from the tent. The clowns had already begun their juggling routine and Chester and his group were gathering up their large, interlocking metal hoops in preparation for their balancing act. After all, it was the circus and, no matter the trauma, the show had to go on.

Margali, Bethica, and Woodhead were already there to meet them when Kurt and Amanda arrived at the Szardos family's trailer. As soon as she set eyes on her daughter, Margali rushed over to her, wrapping her in a tight embrace. For once, Amanda did not pull away.

"Oh, Jimaine, thank God you're safe!" she whispered, too overcome to speak any louder. "When I saw you falling, I could see-I thought for sure-"

"Mom, don't," Amanda said gently, stroking her mother's back. "I'm OK."

Margali raised her tear-filled eyes from her daughter's shoulder to look at Kurt.

"Kurt, what did you do?" she asked, her voice filled with wonder and confusion. "That was the most amazing thing I have ever seen! You appeared from out of nowhere to catch her in midair! It was a true miracle!"

Kurt took a step back, his edges melting into the shadows, his yellow eyes troubled and fearful.

"I honestly don't know," he confessed, his voice trembling slightly. "It was like nothing I have ever felt before."

Margali crinkled her brow, confused and a little worried.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

Kurt grabbed his lashing tail, twisting the spade in his hands as he tried to explain how he'd felt.

"I was so scared when Stefan lost his grip on her," he said softly. "I prayed to God with all my strength that I might be able to save her. Then, suddenly, I was there beside her, falling! So I caught her and made the same kind of wish again. And somehow, there we were, standing on the platform with the spotlight shining in our eyes."

Margali nodded, but it was obvious she still didn't understand. The others shared uncomfortable glances.

Kurt squeezed his tail harder, his own unease growing.

"Look," he said, "that's what happened! I looked down at the place where Amanda was and, suddenly, I was there! But…" he started, his eyes suddenly stinging with frightened tears. "But it wasn't a good feeling, like a gift that might have come from God. It was cold and awful and it made my whole head tingle, like there were all these little bugs running over my brain. And I was so tired, Mama. I felt so sick and dizzy, like all the energy had been drained from my body. It was the most horrible experience I have ever had!"

Margali, Amanda, Woodhead, and Bethica stared at him, clearly unsure of what to say. Kurt could feel his shoulders shaking; his chest was constricting with fear.

"And…and that's not all," he admitted with difficulty. "When it was over…" His breath hitched and he quickly scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. "When it was over, I am certain I smelled sulfur."

He looked up then, his golden eyes wide and desperate.

"What if I am not a mutant after all?" he asked, his trembling voice cracking. "What if I am not human! What if everyone else is right and I really am a—a demon? Where else could this awful power have come from? Please, tell me that!"

Margali shook her head, her violet eyes focused on the shadowy outline of her nearly invisible foster son.

"I can't believe that, Kurt," she said, her voice firm. "I can not believe that you are a demon. You are a good, kind boy, once of the kindest, most giving people I have ever known. If you discovered this new power of yours in response to a prayer, I cannot believe that it came from an evil source."

Kurt opened his mouth, but Margali pressed on before he could speak.

"And even if it did," she said, "as long as you use this ability only for good, as you did when you saved my daughter's life, evil will never be able to get a hold on you."

Woodhead nodded his agreement. Kurt shook his head.

"But, you weren't there!" he protested. "You didn't feel it!"

"I," Bethica started. Then, she broke off and looked at her feet.

"What is it, Bethica?" Margali asked, her voice stern.

The costume mistress looked up, her expression uncertain.

"Well," she said, "when I was younger I knew this boy: Karl. Karl Mowatt, I think his name was. We had known each other since we were ten years old and he'd always seemed perfectly normal. Only, one day, when we were both thirteen, he didn't come to school. He didn't come back for an entire week. The rumor was that he had been playing ball near a well when he fell in. Somehow, he had charged the water with electricity. It caused a massive explosion. He wasn't hurt very badly, but after that people began to avoid him. Soon, he was asked to leave the school. My parents told me he was a mutant, but he'd never shown any signs of any powers at all before that day. So, I was thinking, maybe you have to be a teenager before your mutant powers appear."

Kurt's yellow eyes widened as he listened to Bethica's story. When she finished, he took a small step forward.

"Do you really think that's what it could be?" he asked nervously. "Do you really think I could have 'mutant powers'?"

Bethica shrugged helplessly.

"I don't know anything about mutants or powers," she said. "I'm just telling you what I heard. Besides, it's a more likely explanation than any of the others, I think."

"No matter what it is, Kurt," Margali said, "you did a wonderful thing tonight. If you hadn't been there to do whatever it is you did, Amanda wouldn't be here with us right now."

Amanda turned to her mother, her eyes wide with surprise.

"Mom!" she exclaimed. "You called me Amanda!"

"Margali Szardos?" an unfamiliar voice called from the darkness near the trailer before Margali could reply to her daughter.

The small group turned to face the stranger as he strode up to them.

"Are you Margali Szardos, the owner of this circus?" the tall, unabashedly fat man inquired.

Margali nodded, her bracelets jingling as she held out her hand.

"Yes, sir. I am. How may I help you?"

The man grasped her hand and pumped it enthusiastically.

"How may you help me?" he asked with a boisterous laugh. "No, no, no, my dear lady, the question is how may I help you!"

Margali smiled, though her sharp eyes were narrowed in confusion.

"What do you mean?"

"That spectacular show you put on tonight!" the man explained, gesticulating expansively with his arms as he spoke. "When that boy dropped that girl I thought for sure there was going to be a catastrophe. But then, that demon boy appeared out of thin air and caught her! It was the most amazing, heart-stopping trick I have ever seen, and I don't even want to know how you managed it; I don't want to ruin it. I came here tonight as a talent scout. I'm looking for acts to perform in the Munich Circus, and I think yours is the winner!"

Amanda gasped, bringing a hand to her mouth.

"Oh my God, Mom, that's the big time! It's what we've always been waiting for!"

Margali was not so quick to show her excitement, however.

"What about my circus?" she asked. "What will happen here if I allow my star attraction to leave for Munich?"

The man shook his head with a broad grin.

"No, no, no, you misunderstand me, dear lady! I'm asking if you would like to join your circus to ours. You would still run it, only we'd choose where you perform and you would adopt our name-in essence becoming a subsidiary of the Munich Circus, one branch among dozens. Think of the places you could see: Rome, Paris, London, Lisbon, Berlin, Prague, Barcelona! And so many more. What do you say?"

Amanda was practically jumping up and down, her blue eyes shining.

Kurt remained silently invisible in the shadow of the trailer, still too shaky and uncertain about his newfound abilities to contribute to the conversation.

Bethica and Woodhead waited patiently for Margali to come to a decision.

"Well," she said after a moment. "I'd need to think about it for a while, maybe speak with a few more people from your circus, but as for right now I think I can give you a conditional yes."

Amanda squealed with delight, embracing Bethica and dancing in place.

"I can't believe it!" she exclaimed. "We've actually made it! At last, we're moving to the big time!"

The man grinned at her, then turned back to Margali.

"Here's my card," he said, handing her a small, rectangular piece of stiff paper. "My name is Rudolph Klein, no joke intended," he said with a smile, referring to his size. Though his name meant 'small,' Rudolph Klein was well over six feet with a waistline to match.

"Call me tomorrow and we'll see if we can work out a contract," he said. "And tell that demon kid, that Blue Lightening, his act was one of the best I've ever seen, but he needs to change his name. With a costume like that, he needs something darker, more sinister. Just a little friendly advice. Believe me, it'll attract a bigger crowd if he does."

With that he turned from the small group, calling over his shoulder as he headed for the small clearing where the spectators parked their cars, "Don't forget to call me!"

Once he was gone, Margali finally allowed herself to show her excitement.

"I can hardly believe he was real!" she laughed reading and re-reading the card he'd given her. "But his credentials are all right here! Kurt!"

Margali looked around, unable to locate her foster son.

"Kurt, where did you go?"

Amanda peered around the trailer, then came back to her mother.

"I bet he's in a tree somewhere," she said. "He always climbs a tree when he's upset."

"But, Amanda, what has he got to be upset about?" Margali asked, still too excited to consider the motivations of a troubled teenager. "He's going to be the star of the Munich Circus! Because of him, we're all headed for the big time! We'll travel to all the great cities of Europe!"

"I know, Mom," Amanda said. "But think what got us this gig. Kurt's already upset about his new powers and almost at once, everyone's depending on him to use them in public! Not only that, but he's got to change his stage name. 'Something sinister,' that man said, to go with his appearance. How do you think that made him feel? Especially after what he's been through tonight?"

Margali's face fell as understanding dawned. She sighed softly, nodding.

"You're right," she said. "I'll go find him. Bethica, you oversee the clean-up tonight, OK?"

Bethica nodded.

Amanda stepped forward.

"Mom, I want to go too. I still haven't thanked him for saving my life."

Margali looked into her daughter's sincere face, then nodded.

"All right, Amanda. Let's go find Kurt."

*******

Amanda had been right. They found Kurt hanging upside down by his tail high in one of the tallest pine trees Margali had ever seen. It was located some distance from the camp, right near a seldom used dirt road. It took a strong flashlight and almost twenty-five minutes of calling to locate him.

"I'm up here," he called down, his voice frustrated and annoyed. Amanda shone her flashlight up into the branches of the tall tree until the light reflected off his yellow eyes.

"Mom!" she called, "I found him!"

Margali ran over to her daughter, then looked up at her foster son.

"Kurt, we need to talk. Why don't you come down from there?"

"I wanted to be alone for a while," he responded. "I've got a lot of things to think about."

"I know, sweetheart," Margali called up. "That's what we have to talk about."

There was silence for a moment, then Kurt spoke again.

"I don't even know if I can make another jaunt like that again," he said, his voice breaking slightly. "I don't even know if I want to. It was so awful!"

"Maybe you won't have to, honey," Margali said.

"But I will!" Kurt retorted. "That's why that Klein guy wants us to join up with the Munich Circus. He thought it was part of the act! If he knew the truth, that it really was all a horrible accident, he'd take his offer back in a flash! He wouldn't even have to think about it!"

Margali shook her head in frustration.

"Kurt, did you ever think that maybe your new power is a blessing? That maybe, if you practice at it, the bad feelings will go away? Maybe it's like exercising a new muscle. It hurts at first, but then it only gets stronger."

Kurt didn't reply. For a long time, the only sounds were the chirping of the crickets and the rustle of the wind through the pines.

"Kurt?" Amanda called up at last, uncharacteristically hesitant. "I didn't really tell you before. I guess I was too, well, scared. But, I wanted to thank you for saving my life. Even though that weird jaunt thing you did made me nauseous, it wasn't as bad as you say. I think your power really is a blessing. After all, if you hadn't used it tonight, I would probably be dead right now."

From somewhere high above them, there came a faint, sniffing sound.

"I could never let anything happen to you, Amanda," Kurt's voice came down, soft and sincere. "I...I love you."

Amanda smiled up into the darkness where her foster brother was hanging.

"I love you too, Kurt. You're my favorite brother, honestly."

Although her sincere words were meant to be kind, they went through Kurt's heart like a dagger.

"We both love you," Margali called up, also misunderstanding his meaning. "You're an important part of our family, Kurt."

Kurt nodded invisibly among the pine branches. When Margali spoke again, her voice was soft and compassionate.

"Come on down, my little night crawler," she said. "No matter what happens, even if you decide not to accept Herr Klein's offer, I'll understand and I won't force you to. No one will hold it against you if you don't want to use your powers, I promise. If it's going to make you this miserable, perhaps it's better to stay as we are."

"No," Kurt said, his answer a surprise not only to Amanda and Margali but also to himself. "No," he repeated, more confident this time. "I want to join the Munich Circus. It's what we've always worked for. It's like you said before, if I only use my power for good, evil can never get a hold on me. I'll work on controlling it, Mama, and maybe it will get easier with practice. Watch this."

There was a strange sound of imploding air high above them. Less than a moment later, the sound reoccurred, much louder this time. It was accompanied by a swirling cloud of sulfurous smoke which smelled the same as if someone had just struck all the matches in a matchbook at once. Kurt now stood next to them, panting slightly with the effort of teleporting.

"There," he said, a hint of pride in his voice. "I did it! And it was a little easier. But, maybe that's because I was jaunting down this time. Before, when I was jaunting up to the platform, I felt this force pushing against me. Maybe it was gravity?"

Margali and Amanda smiled at him, relieved to see his mood improving.

"Then, you really do want us to take Herr Klein up on his offer, Kurt?" Margali asked gently.

Kurt nodded, then realized they couldn't see him well enough to register the gesture.

"Yeah," he said. "I'll even change my stage name like he said. Now that I can jaunt around, I should have a new name."

"Like what?" Amanda asked, interested.

"Well," he said thoughtfully. "Herr Klein suggested that it should be something sinister, to bring in the spectators. But, I don't really want a sinister name. Just because I look like a demon doesn't mean I want to have a name like one."

Margali looked up at him, her violet eyes bright with sudden inspiration.

"I know the perfect name," she said, the smile evident in her voice. Kurt and Amanda turned to her. Once she was sure she had their attention, she made her grand suggestion, waving her arm in front of her as though she was reading out a name that was already in lights.

"How about The Incredible Nightcrawler?"

Amanda was aghast.

"What, you mean like a worm? Gross!"

"No, Amanda," Kurt said, shaking his head. "Not like that at all." He smiled, his pointed teeth gleaming in the beam of the flashlight. "I love it, Mama," he said.

In a flash, his entire demeanor brightened and he took up one of his favorite hero poses from the movies: his back straight, his chin raised, and his hands on his hips.

"From now on," he announced grandly, "I shall be known to my public as the Incredible Nightcrawler!"

Amanda shook her head.

"Hey, suit yourself," she said. "But I still don't get it."

"You don't have to, honey," Margali said with a smile. "It's something special between me and Kurt."

Kurt grinned, but he took a step closer to Amanda.

"I don't mind telling her, Mom," he said, turning to his foster sister.

"You know how sometimes I go out at night and I don't come back for a few hours?"

Amanda shrugged.

"Yeah, I guess. I'm usually asleep, but I've heard Mom complaining about it."

"Well, that's where the name came from; because always I crawl back to bed in the dead of night. No matter how quietly I sneak in, she always knows." His grin broadened. "But now that I can jaunt around, maybe things will be different."

Margali grinned back.

"They certainly will. Because now that your jaunting powers have gotten us into the big time, you, Amanda, and Stefan will all be able to have your own trailers!"

The teenagers' eyes widened.

"Wow! Our own trailers!" Kurt gasped.

"I've always wanted my own room!" Amanda grinned.

Kurt's grin dimmed slightly as he caught an undercurrent to her comment that completely slipped by Margali. Once she had her own trailer, she'd have a place to bring her boyfriends. Kurt squeezed his eyes shut at the awful thought, trying to push his pain aside. Unfortunately, Amanda noticed his discomfort.

"Are you OK, Kurt?" she asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. He could feel his face growing hot in response to her gentle touch and suddenly felt immensely grateful that his dark coloring made his blushing face all but invisible.

"Yeah," he said. "I'm fine. Come on, let's get back to camp. I only had popcorn for dinner, you know. I need some real food, and then I really need to get to bed. I don't know when I've ever felt so tired." He grinned as he turned to Margali. "At least you can be sure that I won't be doing any crawling around tonight!"

Margali smiled ironically, looking back to the pine tree.

"Well, at least not any more than you've already done," she pointed out.

Kurt laughed.

"Yeah. That's right!" Suddenly, his grin vanished. "Wait a minute, what about Stefan?" he asked.

The others paused, their smiles vanishing as well.

"He must be feeling so awful," Margali said, bringing her hand to her mouth.

"We've got to talk to him," Kurt said, picking up his pace. "If he blames himself for the accident...well, you know how he gets about sins and stuff. He might try to hurt himself!"

"Oh, my God," Margali exclaimed, jogging to keep up with her foster son. "You don't really think he'd try anything rash, do you?"

Kurt shook his head.

"No, he won't kill himself. Suicide is the only sin you can't be forgiven for. But Stefan can get pretty intense, you know? He likes the more old-fashioned view of religion and punishment. He would have made a great monk in the Middle Ages."

As her mother and foster brother hurried towards the camp, Amanda found herself lagging behind. She had a disturbing suspicion that Stefan had not dropped her by accident. He had caught her perfectly, she'd felt it. But then, he'd let go of her arm. Once he did that, he'd been unable to hold on to her with only one hand. That was how he'd made it look like such a convincing accident. She could almost have believed it herself if it hadn't been for something he'd said during their argument before the show. He'd said she'd have to pay for her sins in the next life. Amanda couldn't shake the disturbing feeling that Stefan had been trying to speed that payment along.

She knew she could never confess her suspicions to her mother, or even to Kurt. They loved Stefan too deeply. She would have to keep her secret to herself, and watch her brother very carefully from now on until she could gather enough proof of his disturbed mind to convince even Margali that he was dangerous and that he needed help.

*******

Margali burst into the family trailer, the force of her entry rattling the shelves and causing several books to fall to the floor. Groping for the nearest lamp, she flicked it, only to gasp at what the light revealed.

The place looked as though it had been ransacked. The colorful sheet that had divided Amanda and Margali's sleeping area from Stefan and Kurt's had been torn, and the eclectic contents of several overturned trunks were scattered all over the floor.

"Look at this," Kurt said, squeezing around his stunned foster mother to pick up a small piece of paper from Stefan's cot. "Stefan left a note."

"What's it say?" Amanda asked from the stairs, too uncomfortable to enter the trailer herself.

"Um, it's kind of hard to read…" Kurt frowned, squinting at the hastily scribbled handwriting. "I think it says: I'm sorry. I can't stay here any longer. Tonight was the finish? …oh, the final proof. I'm on my way to the monetary—sorry—monastery at Neuherzel to start a new life. Tell…oh—tell Kurt I will strive to keep up my end of the bargain. As long as he promises to remember his."

He looked up, his golden eyes troubled.

"And that's it."

Margali frowned.

"What did he mean, 'bargain'?" she demanded, clearly distraught. "What is all this nonsense?"

Kurt lowered his eyes, unable to answer. Noting his discomfort, Amanda spoke for him.

"It's like I told you, Mom," she said. "He wants to become a monk." She sighed, placing a comforting hand on her mother's shoulder. "Some people just aren't cut out for the circus. It's probably better this way."

Kurt looked around, a strange, empty feeling filling his heart. Even though he'd known this day was coming for a long time, it was still hard to believe. Stefan, his brother, was gone. Turning back to Margali, he was surprised and deeply concerned to see tears glittering in her violet eyes.

"We could still go after him…" he started, but Margali shook her head, blinking her eyes dry with a deep, calming breath.

"No," she said. "No, let him go. Let him be. If he doesn't want to stay, I will not keep him here. Rather, I shall follow his example. It's time we all packed up and left our old lives behind."

"Mom?" Amanda said, confused.

Margali smiled at her, squeezing her shoulder as she strode from the trailer.

"If you'll both excuse me," she said, "I must find Rudolph Klein to tell him we accept his offer. From this day forward, we are all members of the Munich Circus!"

End of Part Five

Chapter Text

Small Steps, Great Leaps
Part Six

Margali ripped open the bulging envelope with a flick of her sharp, red nail and pulled out the neatly folded papers within. Her sharp features pinched in a dark scowl when her eyes fell on the stylized logo at the head of the cover letter. Jardine Enterprises.

Clenching her fists with a jangle of silver bracelets, the middle-aged woman ground her teeth in silent fury, her violet eyes burning as she read on.

So, he had done it. That ignorant, swaggering blunderbuss of a Texan had actually paid off the-

"Hey, Mom!"

Margali jumped, startled out of her dark thoughts as her foster son strode into the empty cafeteria and came up behind her, planting a kiss on top of the vibrant, purple kerchief she had tied over her slowly graying hair. Hastily, she folded up the letter and pressed it down flat before looking up at him with as genuine a smile as she could muster.

"Good morning, Kurt," she said lightly. "You're up early. They haven't even started cooking breakfast yet!"

"Yeah, well…" The nineteen-year-old averted his golden eyes, a deep purple flush rising in his fuzzy cheeks. Despite her smile, Kurt couldn't help the disturbing feeling that his foster mother could see right through him, deep into his most secret heart. But that was only his nerves talking. Intellectually, he knew Margali could no more read his mind than she could read the future. Just as in her fortune-telling act, the inscrutable look behind her eyes meant only as much as he read into it.

"Amanda's coming home from the University today," he spoke up suddenly, straightening his back as though this announcement had absolutely nothing to do with his earlier discomfort. "I wanted to meet her at the station."

Margali frowned.

"The train station?"

"That is where trains stop," Kurt pointed out.

His mother shot him a look.

Kurt just raised his eyebrows, letting his eyes do the pleading.

After a long moment, Margali looked away, shaking her head with a deep sigh.

"No," she said. "I'm sorry, Kurt, but I can't let you go."

Kurt's jaw dropped in protest.

"But, Mama, it's only five blocks away-"

"I need you here," she insisted. "Natasha is still having some trouble with her equestrian act and I was hoping you could give her a few pointers."

"Oh no," Kurt shook his head. "You're not going to suck me in with that old trick. Natasha and her horses are all just fine. I should know. I spent all day yesterday helping her with her flips!"

Margali grimaced.

"Then maybe it was Chester who wanted you. Let's go find him and ask if-"

"No, Mama," Kurt stated bluntly. "I'm going to the train station."

"Kurt, you don't know what you're asking. That station is sure to be packed with people-"

"I know how to handle a crowd," he interrupted. But Margali just went on as if she hadn't heard, rising to her feet as in an attempt to drive her point home.

"-people who won't know who or what you are! You have never seen what frightened people are truly capable of. I've protected you from that. But Kurt, if you leave here…anything could happen! I don't want to see you get hurt!"

Kurt's expression darkened, his tail lashing behind his ankles as he looked down into his foster mother's determined eyes.

"So…what then?" he snapped. "I'm supposed to stay cloistered up in this arena for fear of how a few ignorant people might react if they see me away from the circus? For how long, Mama? How long do you expect me to live like this?"

Margali sighed.

"Kurt, honey, you're angry now. I understand. But if you take the time to think-"

"No, you don't understand!" Kurt exploded, his frustration lighting his golden eyes from within. "You must really think I'm stupid if you don't believe I've considered what might happen if I step out those doors into the street. I think about it all the time! My appearance frightens people. OK! I know that better than anyone else! But that doesn't mean I want to hide from the world for the rest of my life!"

Margali pursed her lips.

"I'm not suggesting you hide from the world-" she started, but her foster son's look of wide-eyed incredulity made her close her mouth in shame.

"We've been traveling around Europe from city to city for five years now," Kurt stated bitterly, his rising exasperation lending a fierce heat to his words as he went on. "Five years! And in all that time I've only ever left the circus as part of a parade or for a publicity stunt in some public square or school auditorium. I've never been to a museum or a monument. I've never seen a play. I've never been allowed to go boating or swim at the beach or order a coffee at a café! And now you're telling me I can't even walk the five blocks to meet my sister at the train station!"

He glared, anger and hurt welling up behind his gleaming eyes.

"This is Hamburg, Mom, not some isolated little backwater town!" he shouted. "This is Germany! It's home! If I can't walk around here, where can I?"

Margali shook her head slowly, her expression distant as she reached up to touch her taller son's muscular shoulder.

"You are still so young," she said softly. "So naïve. You can't simply change how people think-"

"Don't tell me I'm naïve!" Kurt snapped, shrugging her off and taking a step back. "Stop trying to protect me! I'm nineteen years old, verdammt, and I know how to take care of myself!"

Margali head shot up at that, her violet eyes sharp with sudden vision.

"No, Kurt. I don't want you fighting!"

Kurt wrinkled up his face, thrown off by her seemingly random comment.

"Fighting? What are you talking about!"

Margali frowned slightly, suddenly looking uncertain.

"I…I'm not sure," she said, raising a hesitant hand to her temple. "I just got this image in my mind when you said that. It was so vivid… You were standing in a large, metal room beside a frightening little man with knives in his hands and a young woman with long, white hair…."

She shook her head, an odd shiver running up her spine.

"Never mind."

Kurt narrowed his eyes in confusion.

"Well, that's not what I meant," he said. "I don't even know how to fight! But I do know how to hide in plain sight, Mama. I've been doing it all my life. That's why I plan to wear my costume when I go to meet Amanda."

Margali frowned.

"Wouldn't that make you more conspicuous rather than less," she asked.

"Naturally," Kurt acknowledged. "Which is why it'll be so much easier for people to believe my…exotic good looks," he grinned, making a sweeping gesture with his tail, "are all a part of the show. If I tried to hide my face, on the other hand, and some nosy citizen happened to notice…well that would trample all over their limited expectations, now wouldn't it? And they'd be understandably suspicious of why I was hiding, possibly even to the point of violence. I think my way is much more fun."

Margali still looked uncertain, but Kurt could tell she was starting to soften. All she needed was one more push…

"Besides," he added with a coaxing smile. "It'll be free publicity! I'll take a few fliers along, so if anyone does start asking questions, I can just tell them I'm an acrobat with the circus and invite them to come see the show. It's the truth, after all. "

"You've given this a lot of thought haven't you," Margali said, the sharpness in her eyes melting into fondness mingled with a concern she knew would never truly fade.

Kurt nodded, fighting back another deep flush as he considered how long he'd been waiting for Amanda's return. He had imagined the scenario so many times he could watch it play out like a movie in his mind: himself waiting to greet her as she stepped off the train, her sweet surprise when she saw him there… Sometimes, she even kissed him.

"You could say that," he said with an uncomfortable shrug.

Margali smiled, making him duck his head slightly so she could kiss him on the forehead.

"Then go, my son," she said, catching his eyes with hers. "And be careful."

Kurt stared at her for a moment, his head cocked slightly as if to make sure he'd heard right. Then, he pulled her into a joyful embrace, an enormous grin erupting across his narrow features.

"I will, Mama!" he exclaimed happily. "Thank you! Thank you so much!"

"You can thank me by returning to me safe and whole," she said, breaking free of his tail and giving him a pat to start him off in the direction of the door. "Now get out of here and go meet your sister. You only have half an hour before her train is due to arrive."

"Never fear," Kurt proclaimed, gracing his foster mother with a distinctly cinematic bow. "And if, perchance, the worst does happen-although I am certain it will not-I can always make a quick escape with a subtle demonstration of Gypsy magic!"

Making a theatrical "throwing" gesture with his hand, as though he were tossing a handful of flash powder to the floor, Kurt winked at his foster mother and vanished from the room with a loud BAMF of swirling smoke.

Margali watched the dark smoke dissipate, her expression thoughtful as she sank slowly back into her chair and re-opened the letter. Kurt's parting words had given her an idea...

According to the note, Amos Jardine, the Texas oil baron who had just closed the deal adding the Munich Circus to his eclectic collection of franchises, was scheduled to make a tour of her circus later that week. It was his plan to take a more active role in determining what types of acts his subsidiaries would be allowed to perform-a plan Margali resented with every fiber of her being. Who was he to determine what was 'moral' and 'decent'? What gave him the right to even consider changing or censoring her acts?

Stuffing the foreboding letter back into its envelope, Margali rose to her feet and strode into the narrow hallway, heading for her temporary office. Perhaps a demonstration of Gypsy magic would be just what she needed convince that arrogant millionaire to keep his bloated paws off her circus. She only prayed she had the strength to carry out the plan forming in her mind…

*******

Kurt Wagner strode down the broad, city sidewalk with his back straight, his head held high, and his insides secretly trembling. The morning rush had yet to begin, but there were still a good number of cars and pedestrians traveling the streets.

He had to admit, despite all the assurances he had given Margali - and himself - the actual experience of walking in the open among a crowd on his own was nerve wracking, to say the least. Kurt wasn't a very tall young man-after his last growth spurt he'd measured just under 5'9"and it wasn't likely that he'd get much taller - and, although his lifetime of acrobatic training had rewarded him with a lean, well-toned body, his slender, wiry frame was hardly imposing. He had never felt more vulnerable, more exposed, in his life, and the gasps, belittling whispers, and startled double-takes his appearance drew from the people he passed by were steadily eating away at what little remained of his confidence.

To his relief, though, once he reached the station he managed to make it past the gate and onto the right train platform without any trouble. The platform numbers and train arrival times were all very clearly labeled, and there didn't seem to be any guards or attendants anywhere. This early in the morning, all the ticket booths were closed and locked. Commuters were purchasing their passes from an automatic dispenser.

The sun was rising on the other side of the large building, so the whole expanse of concrete, glass, and steel was bathed in cool shadow. Keeping his eyes fixed on the floor and away from the small clusters of people milling around between the wrought iron poles, Kurt made an instinctive bee-line for the dark space behind the dimmest corner bench. Once there, his pounding heart started to slow, the tension gradually draining from his shoulders as he let out a long sigh, sliding his back down the smooth, painted bricks to end in a crouch. It was only then that he realized - to his startled chagrin - that all this time he had been clutching his circus fliers to his chest like a protective shield.

"Ach, Kurt Wagner, you really are an idiot," he muttered to himself in disgust. "A year and a half of plans and pretty words, and when the day finally arrives you end up hiding in the shadows like a skulking alley cat. A man who lets his fears keep him from standing in the sunlight doesn't deserve the affections of a woman like Amanda...even if she does only think of you as a brother."

He scowled, his shame causing his voice to sound bitter and harsh.

"Just look at yourself," he scolded, "crouching in the dark! And for what reason? You have as much right to be standing on this platform as anyone else. Ask yourself…how would Errol Flynn handle a situation like this?"

The question brought the light back to Kurt's golden eyes, sparking a small, sly smile as he straightened back to his full height, scanning the slowly filling platform. Now that he was thinking outside himself, beyond the barrier of his skin, his mind began to flood with possibilities. His little smile broadened to a grin as he felt his performer's confidence returning in a rush. The sweet little scene he had kept in his heart for so long was possible. He could make it possible. When Amanda stepped off the train, she was going to be stunned to realize that Kurt Wagner was no longer the shy boy she had left behind when she went away to school. Instead, she would see a man - a man with a spirit strong enough to prove that looks didn't matter.

Squaring the pointed shoulders of his sleek red and black costume, the Incredible Nightcrawler strode out into the center of the train platform. If anyone tried to question his presence there, he'd be ready with a flier and a smile.

*******

Amanda Szardos lugged her wheeled pink carry-on suitcase down the steep stairs to the concrete platform, then turned back to look for her friend Elsie, who was supposed to be right behind her.

"Hey, Elsie, what's the hold up?" she called into the train. "Come on, they've already started unpacking the luggage car!"

"I'm right here," Elsie called back, struggling to squeeze her own small suitcase past the final row of seats. "You don't need to shout."

With a final yank, the spectacled brunette stumbled into the cramped stairwell, then paused for a moment to take a look around.

"Hey," she said, "what do you suppose is going on over there?"

"Over where?" Amanda asked, standing on her tiptoes to follow her friend's green gaze.

"Right there," Elsie pointed from above, a pink flush starting in her cheeks. "Who is that guy? He's amazing!"

"What guy?"

Amanda frowned, starting to get frustrated. But Elsie was no longer listening. She was too preoccupied with the view.

"Oh God, look at those shoulders!" She giggled, bashfully pulling at her springy, shoulder-length curls. "And those abs… He has such a nice profile, too. I bet he's absolutely gorgeous under all that blue make-up!"

"Blue make-up…?"

Suddenly suspicious, Amanda knocked her hard, pink suitcase to the ground and stepped up onto it, nearly laughing when she recognized the young man her friend had been referring to. A tight circle of people had ringed around him, which was why he'd been so hard to see at first. As she watched, he flipped back to stand on one hand, his spaded tail curling around to wave at the enthusiastic crowd like a puppet on a string.

"Oh, that's just Kurt," she said, and smirked. "Making a spectacle of himself as usual."

"Kurt? You mean you know him?" Elsie squeaked excitedly, her green eyes wide behind her black-rimmed glasses.

"Of course I know him!" Amanda rolled her eyes at her former roommate's enthusiasm. "He's my kid brother!"

"Your kid brother!" Elsie repeated incredulously. "He doesn't look like a kid to me." She giggled again and fanned herself with her hand-her way of indicating a 'hottie.' Then she sprinted down the stairs to Amanda's side, blinking up at her with bright, pleading eyes.

"Do you think you could introduce us?" she asked. "Pleeeze, Amanda? I'll love you forever, promise!"

Amanda winced.

"Erm, I don't know…" she hedged, not wanting to imagine what might happen if Elsie were to realize Kurt's blue coloring wasn't due to make-up. "He only acts like that in public. Really, he's very shy."

"That's so cute!" Elsie squealed, clasping her hands together over her heart.

Amanda stared at her.

"I can't believe you're acting like this over Kurt!" she said as she hopped down from her suitcase, feeling oddly defensive all of a sudden. "Come on, Els, let's get out of here before he sees us. I don't know about you, but I have two other bags I need to pick up. Oh, and we'll have to catch a taxi if you want me to come with you to your parents' house-"

"Too late, Amanda!" Elsie grinned cheekily, patting at her wild curls in a futile attempt to tame the flyaway wisps. "I think he's spotted us."

It was true. Amanda turned back to the crowd just in time to see her foster brother disappear in a theatrical puff of smoke. The applause was still going strong when he reappeared beside her with a loud BAMF!

Elsie gave an alarmed shout that was cut off by a brief spate of coughing as she choked on the rapidly dissipating smoke.

"Phew," she said, embarrassed by her reaction. "What a stink!" Then she looked up at him, her green eyes wide with awe. "How did you do that?"

But Kurt didn't answer. He didn't even seem to have heard her. His attention was focused on Amanda, his indigo face still flushed and beaming from the exhilaration of performing before a receptive audience.

"Amanda!" he exclaimed breathlessly, unable to stop smiling as he stared into her startled blue eyes. "I was waiting for you."

"I could see that," she said dryly, shooting a questioning look at his skin-tight body suit.

"What are you doing in costume?" she demanded. "And why are you out here on your own? Surely Mother didn't allow-"

"It's free publicity, 'Manda," he told her. "And this way no one stares! Well, I mean, people stare but…you know what I mean!"

He laughed, but it sounded a bit self-conscious.

"I suppose so."

She frowned, starting to feel uncomfortable with the odd way he was looking at her. His face was leaner than she remembered, his voice lower, and he was certainly taller...a little taller than her, in fact... But, she was sure she'd never seen him smile that way before. And the way he kept staring…

"I missed you, Amanda," he said, taking a small step closer to the suitcase, his deep voice soft and intense with sincerity. "The circus is such a lonely place when you're gone. I've been waiting for this day for such a long time, I can't even tell you…"

He reached out to take her hands, but when she showed no signs of responding he let his trembling arms drop, along with his eyes. Under his short fur, his face was burning a dark purple, his tail twining itself tightly around his ankles...

This wasn't working out the way he'd planned. She was supposed to smile at him, to be as excited to see him as he was to see her! From the look on her face, though, it seemed almost like she wanted to run away. The confusion in her eyes spoke more clearly than any words. She had no idea of his feelings for her, and was unlikely to reciprocate even if she did. It had been foolish of him to come here. All he was doing was endangering the friendship they did have.

Kurt grimaced, swallowing hard as his heart fell crashing to the ground. All these years of loving her in secret…only to find that his hopes had been nothing more than the pathetic, immature fancies of a sad, lonely freak…

He started to back away, sheepish and humiliated, but before he could take a full step he felt Amanda's finger under his chin, lifting his eyes to meet hers.

"It's OK, Kurt," she said gently, thinking that she finally understood his odd behavior. "I missed you too. I know it's got to be hard for you, always having to be the one who stays behind. I'm glad you managed to get away this morning to come meet me."

Kurt blinked.

"Really?" he asked, unable to stop a sudden swell of tears from filling his eyes. He had no idea where they came from, but at that moment, he was too touched by her words to care. "You're not…" He hesitated for a moment, then let it out. "You're not upset that I came?"

"Of course not, silly!"

Now, she was smiling at him, her hand on his arm, pulling him closer as she reached up to ruffle his curls the way she'd done when he was small. "I'm always glad to see you."

"Oh, Amanda," he sobbed, enfolding her in a sudden, fervent embrace. A tidal wave of roiling emotions flooded his heart, fogging his mind as he buried his face in her hair, her spicy perfume surrounding him like an intoxicating cloud...

For the rest of his life, Kurt would never be able to remember just how it had happened. But the next thing he knew, his lips were on Amanda's - and she wasn't pulling away. He was kissing her and she was returning it with equal passion, her eyes closed and her long fingers sliding up the back of his neck to bury themselves in his curls. For a timeless moment, Kurt felt a deep thrill of pure joy. It ran all the way up and through him, leaving him dizzy and lightheaded. It was an experience unlike anything he had ever felt before and for that one, brief moment, the rest of the world faded away, leaving only him and his beautiful Amanda—

But then, the reality of what was happening crashed down on his suspended disbelief and he broke the kiss and backed away, his eyes wide and his breaths coming in short, panicked gasps.

"I-I…" he stammered, suddenly awkward as he stumbled straight into her suitcase. Only his years of training kept him from falling on his tail. Eyes were everywhere, staring at him. Some were laughing, some were startled, others were laced with disgust. But only one pair of eyes mattered to him at that moment, and they were filled with shocked incomprehension, mingled with something that looked disturbingly like fear.

"Oh, God," he gasped, his fuzzy skin burning with mortification. "I-Amanda, I am so sorry…!"

He had to get away from there. He couldn't stand to see that frozen look on Amanda's face a moment longer. Casting his gaze around wildly in search of an escape, Kurt chose a rooftop and jaunted away, his insides trembling in horrified disbelief at the very thought of what he had done.

"Oh, gross!" Elsie exclaimed once she'd recovered from her own shock enough to speak. "Gross! That was wrong on so many levels. God, Amanda, I thought you said he was your brother!"

"Huh?" Amanda murmured absently, sounding - and looking - as though she were miles away.

"That guy is sick, Amanda! Really sick."

But Amanda didn't react. She was still standing frozen beside her suitcase, her eyes distant and unblinking, her fingertips just touching her lips.

Elsie sighed.

"Come on, Amanda," she said, pulling on her friend's hand as the train gave a loud whistle and started moving away. "I know where we can get some good, strong mouthwash. You just come with me and-"

"Where'd he go?"

Elsie frowned.

"What?"

"Kurt!" Amanda called out, her blue eyes suddenly wild as she spun in place, scanning the crowd for any sign of her foster brother. When she didn't spot him, she turned back to her friend, completely frantic. "Elsie, did you see him leave?"

"No, he did that smelly flash powder trick and skulked away somewhere. What do you want to find him for, anyway? He's clearly perverted. I mean, I can't even think about it! Imagine, kissing your own sister like that, and in public too!"

"I'm not his sister," Amanda said brusquely, now looking up at the rooftops of the buildings surrounding the station platform.

Elsie scrunched up her face in utter confusion.

"But you said-"

"He's adopted!" she explained in exasperation, her eyes now fixed on the tall spire of a church at the end of the street. "We're not related."

Elsie's eyes widened behind her glasses.

"OH!" she exclaimed, pressing a hand over her heart in deep relief. "Oh, OK. Wow, Amanda, for a while there I was really-"

"I'll see you later, Elsie, OK?" Amanda cut her off, already pushing her way through the crowd waiting for the next train as she headed in the general direction of the church.

"But I thought you were going to come meet my parents!" her friend called after her. "And- Hey, Amanda, you forgot your bags!"

"Leave them!" Amanda shouted back, not even pausing to look over her shoulder as she squeezed past a limo driver carrying a placard marked JARDINE. "I'll pick them up later!"

And before Elsie could say another word, Amanda was gone, vanished into the depths of the milling crowd.

*******

The church was cool and surprisingly dark after the brightness of the morning sun. Amanda waited a moment for her eyes to adjust, then started slowly down the center aisle, scanning the pews for any shadow that seemed out of place.

"Kurt?" she called out softly as she went, her voice echoing off the walls of ancient stone and stained glass.

There! A flash of movement over by the small table of flickering candles…

"Don't move!" she exclaimed, cutting across the pews in her hurry to reach him. "If you jaunt away I promise I'll never speak to you again!"

The shadow froze, then turned slowly to face her, golden eyes burning like embers in the dimness.

Amanda stopped her progress, feeling suddenly awkward.

"Are you all right?"(1) she asked, clasping her hands behind her back as she waited anxiously for his response. After a long moment, it came.

"I-yes…" He sighed. "I'm fine, Amanda. Just embarrassed, is all. How did you know I'd be here?"

His voice was soft and hesitant, but it carried just the slightest hint of self-depreciating humor. Amanda smiled and took a few steps closer, watching as the shifting light caused his short fur to brighten from the deepest midnight to its more familiar indigo.

"Old theaters, old movies, or the nearest Church. You're sort of predictable, that way."

Kurt shrugged, looking back at the candles.

"I suppose I am," he said. "I'll have to be more impulsive in the future."

"No! Please…" Amanda shook her head, coming up beside him with a fond smile. "I've had enough of your spontaneity for one day," she teased. But Kurt clearly was not in a teasing mood.

"I'm so sorry, Amanda," he groaned, burying his face in his hands to hide his tears from view. "I don't know what got into me-"

"I do," she said softly, gently reaching out to take his hands in hers. "You made it very clear."(2)

Kurt looked up at her, his eyes surprisingly vulnerable. Amanda felt her heart go out to him, her concern mingling with a growing sense of guilt.

"How long have you felt this way?" she asked hesitantly, pulling him down to sit beside her on a nearby pew.

Kurt moaned out a pained laugh, pressing a hand to his forehead as he shook his head.

"How long is forever?" he said bitterly. "My whole life! I never wanted you to know." He sniffed sharply, his voice hoarse with emotion as he fought to hold in his mortified tears. "I don't know why…why it came out then…in front of all those people!"

"No, Kurt, it's all right!" she assured him, bringing her hand over his shoulder so she could smooth the curls at the back of his head. "Please don't feel so bad. It's just…you always seemed to think of me as a sister. I never even thought-"

She shook her head with a sigh, dropping her hand back down to her lap.

"No, that's not true," she admitted. "I think I did know, deep down. But I suppose I just-"

"Didn't want to believe it?" Kurt finished for her, the uncharacteristic bitterness still present in his tone. "I don't blame you, you know. Why would a woman as beautiful as you even look at a monster like me when she can have her pick of any guy she wants?"

"Kurt, that isn't fair!" Amanda protested, although in her heart she felt the stinging truth in his words, and it shamed her. "Besides," she added with conviction. "You're not a monster!"

"Oh yeah?" he shot back, raising an eyebrow. "Then what's this?" He lifted his tail from the pew, waving the spade in front of her face. "You know many other guys with one of these? And in such a unique shade?"

Amanda pursed her lips.

"Oh no," she said. "Don't even start with that. I know you too well to believe for one moment that you truly resent your appearance. You might feel angry about how other people react to you, but that's not the same thing."

Kurt crossed his arms over his chest, but didn't answer.

Amanda tilted her head, trying to catch his eye.

"Do you know what I think?" she asked.

"What?" he scowled grumpily, refusing to look up.

Amanda's lips twitched into a sly smile.

"I think you enjoy being different," she said, giving him a poke in the side. "I think you revel in it. I think that if you ever lost your mutant attributes and became a normal human, you'd mope around and sulk and pout like nobody's business. And do you know why?"(3)

Kurt glanced over at her from the corner of his eye, his mouth twitching upwards against his will.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because," Amanda told him, leaning in close until their noses tingled with their proximity. "You are beautiful in blue."

Closing what little distance was left between them, she kissed him lightly on the lips, startling him.

"A-Amanda!" he exclaimed, confused and unsure and suddenly hugely conscious of where they were. "We're in a church!"

"So?" Amanda retorted, scooting closer to the completely befuddled mutant. The wide-eyed, almost terrified expression on his face nearly made her laugh. She'd never seen him look more adorable than at that moment, and her eyes softened as she continued. "People kiss in here all the time, I'm sure. Weddings, christenings…"

"But that's different—" Kurt started, but his protest was only half-hearted as Amanda leaned in to meet his lips once more, smiling when he hesitantly began to respond. His arms tightened around her as if of their own accord, his tail curling about her waist with such gentleness, Amanda felt tears starting in her eyes. Never before had she felt a connection as powerful as this, or found her feelings returned so deeply. Their kisses were light…almost chaste, but the emotion behind them was overwhelming.

"Amanda," Kurt said with a soft chuff of incredulous laughter, his eyes glowing with a joyful warmth as they finally parted. "I-I just can't believe this is actually happening. This is just too good to be true…"

Amanda smiled, taking advantage of their proximity to admire the sharp point of his ear, the strong line of his fuzzy jaw. Looking closer, she noticed for the first time that there were thicker bristles of indigo beard the same color as his curly hair interspersed among the short, velvety fur on his cheek. The observation jolted her, somehow making the situation seem more real than before. Suddenly, she realized that some part of her had still been viewing Kurt as a little boy - a little boy with a harmless crush. Now, that image was shattered. There was no denying that the person sitting next to her was a man, a man who was quite obviously deeply in love.

This was very serious, and completely out of Amanda's admittedly broad realm of experience. She felt she should be scared, or at least nervous to be confronted with the implications of such strong emotions so abruptly. Yet, for some reason, she wasn't. Sitting here, safe in Kurt's lean, muscular arms…it just felt right. Comfortable, as though they had been a loving couple for years rather than just minutes. And in that moment, she knew. She knew that she would never again want to be with any man other than Kurt. The realization made her feel oddly nauseous and exhilarated at the same time, like she was riding a roller coaster without a safety harness, being carried along at warp speed toward a destination that had been determined for her long ago...

"It's so strange," she said softly, struggling to put her unfamiliar feelings into words. "This feels so natural, yet I know that it shouldn't. I mean, I've always loved you Kurt, but I never thought—"

She cut herself off, rattled when she realized what she was about to say.

Kurt shifted beside her, his brow furrowed over his curious golden eyes.

"What?" he inquired softly, his voice holding only the faintest hint of concern.

Amanda sat up, her expression tight and serious. But one look at his face gave her the courage to admit the truth she felt in her heart.

"That I would fall in love with you," she said quietly, her eyes downcast as she waited nervously for his reaction. When none seemed to come, she glanced up, only to gasp in alarm when she saw he was crying. Silent tears cut damp streams through his fuzz-like fur. He sniffed hard when he noticed she was looking, quickly rubbing his cheeks dry before taking her hands in his, looking into her eyes with a strangely cautious smile.

"Do…do you mean that?" he asked hoarsely, clearing his throat. "Are…are you really…really serious?"

"Kurt," Amanda said, blinking hard against her own stinging tears. "I have never meant anything more in my whole life."

Kurt sniffed again, the wariness fading from his smile to be replaced with something far more tender.

"I love you, Amanda," he told her sincerely, releasing one of her hands to gently wipe a warm tear from her cheek with his callused thumb.

Amanda stared at him, her heart pounding as she slid closer, reaching up to run her fingers down the side of his lean face, fascinated by the contrasting texture of soft fur and only slightly rougher bristles.

"Someday," she whispered with a smile, "you're going to have to grow a beard for me."

"What-?" Kurt started in confusion, but before he could complete the question Amanda was kissing him and all coherent thought was blissfully banished from his brain. In fact, they were soon so involved with each other that they didn't even notice when the sun streaming in through the stained glass windows was cut off by a sudden inexplicable influx of dark clouds. The only thing that did catch their attention was a booming clap of thunder so powerful it actually rattled the smaller statues in their places.

Amanda blinked in disoriented confusion, only to sit up straight when a second roar of thunder topped the first.

Kurt looked at her, her expression giving him a strange, anxious feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"What is it, Schatz?" he asked her, his fingers tightening gently around her arm.

Amanda shook her head slowly, her eyes distant.

"It's Mother," she said, her voice was sharp with alarm. "Kurt, she's in trouble."

"In trouble?" Kurt repeated. "But how do you know—"

"It doesn't matter how I know, I just do!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet and pulling him with her. "You have to jaunt us home, quickly! Something is very wrong."

Realizing that she was, indeed, serious, Kurt didn't waste any time. Quickly, the two of them hurried up the aisle and out the door to where Kurt could get a clear glimpse of the convention center's roof. Pulling her close, he activated his power, not caring how many pedestrians saw them as they vanished from the sidewalk with a BAMF!

End of Part Six

Chapter Text

Small Steps, Great Leaps
Part Seven

Kurt and Amanda burst out of the stairwell and into the main corridor only to be met by a scene of chaos. The circus performers and staff were dashing in and out of the arena, all of them apparently talking at once. A thick, oily smoke lingered in the hall, reeking of sulfur. Kurt and Amanda coughed, covering their noses and mouths with their sleeves as they scanned the crowd for any sign of Margali.

"Kurt! Kurt, thank God!"

It was Chester's voice. The slender, dark-haired man was pushing through the crowd with his arm raised, beckoning them towards the relatively empty corner beside the ticket booth.

"Chester," Kurt said once the three of them were close enough to hear each other without shouting. "What's going on here?"

Chester glanced back down the hallway, his lean face drawn and pale.

"There was some kind of explosion," he told them. "Something blew up in Margali's office. We don't know exactly what happened yet, but the fire department is here with a few bomb experts and they're investigating right now. I'm just glad you're safe! We were looking for you everywhere!"

"I wasn't here," Kurt said, his voice tight with worry. "I went to meet Amanda at the train station."

Chester blinked, noticing Amanda for the first time.

"Oh, Amanda I'm sorry. I didn't even see you there! This isn't exactly the homecoming you-"

"Never mind that, Chester," Amanda cut him off. "Where is Mother?"

"Is she all right?" Kurt asked anxiously, his nervous tail reaching out unconsciously to squeeze Amanda's ankle.

Chester's lean face tightened even further.

"I'm not really sure," he said, clearly worried. "I saw them take her out on a stretcher. I don't think she was hurt, but I heard they were checking her out for smoke inhalation."

Amanda looked grim.

"Smoke inhalation... Right."

She shook her head, glaring down the smoky corridor with a scowl.

"What the hell did she think she was doing?" she muttered angrily under her breath.

Chester tilted his head.

"What?" he asked, gesturing apologetically to the throng of people swarming around them. "Sorry, I couldn't hear you."

Amanda sighed, grabbing Kurt's hand and shouting back over her shoulder to Chester.

"I have to speak with Mother! Thank you, Chester!"

"Amanda," Kurt said, casting his bewildered friend an apologetic shrug as his girlfriend dragged him through the crowd. "What's going on here? Do you know what happened?"

"I have an idea," she said, definitely more angry than concerned. "What I want to know is why she would do something so stupid!"

She stopped short, glaring around the crowded corridor in frustration.

"All right, how do you get out of this place?"

Kurt smiled despite himself, readjusting her grip on his hand so he could lead her through the maze of back hallways to the front entrance of the building. The ambulance was parked directly outside, behind two fire trucks and in front of three police cars.

Kurt and Amanda dashed over to the open doors at the back of the ambulance, only to be stopped by a stern looking police detective. To Kurt's deep relief, Margali was sitting up on her cot inside the ambulance, her oxygen mask hanging around her neck as she talked with the detective's partner and a paramedic.

"Stay right there, you two." The detective frowned, looking Kurt up and down. "I take it you're with this circus?"

"That's our mother right there," Amanda snapped back, meeting the detective's frown with a glare of her own. "We need to talk with her. Now."

"Sorry, little lady, but I'm afraid we can't allow that. Your mother's currently under suspicion of attempted arson. We believe she was attempting to build a bomb in that cauldron of hers before it blew up in her face."

Kurt scrunched up his face in disbelief.

"What?" he exclaimed. "You can't be serious! Why would she do something like that?"

"Maybe because she'd rather see her circus destroyed than hand the rights over to Amos Jardine?" the detective suggested with a caustic sarcasm.

"Amos Jardine?" Kurt frowned. "Who is that? What are you talking about?"

The detective raised a thin eyebrow.

"You mean you don't know?" he asked, pulling out a pad and pen from one of his many pockets and jotting down a few notes. "What's your name, boy?"

Amanda ground her teeth in frustration, pushing her way between Kurt and the detective.

"You've got this all wrong, sir," she told him. "Mother wasn't trying to make a bomb."

"How did that cauldron come to explode, then?" the detective demanded.

Amanda rolled her eyes in exasperation.

"Obviously she was trying to make a fresh batch of flash powder for the show tonight!" she said. "I knew it at once, as soon as I smelled that smoke in the hallway. She always makes it in that cauldron. We have our own formula, unlike anything else, but it's pretty tricky to get right. That's why we usually make it outside. It's completely harmless, I assure you." She looked to Kurt, her eyes wide with unspoken suggestion as she said, "Go on, show him!"

Kurt blinked in alarm, suddenly realizing what she wanted him to do.

"What, now? Here?"

Amanda just shot him another pleading, prompting look. Finally he nodded, shooting the cop a nervous smile as he made a theatrical throwing gesture with his hand and jaunted away, only to reappear directly behind the man's back.

The detective coughed and wrinkled his nose in response to the resulting purple-black smoke.

"Erg..." He frowned in distaste. "Yeah, that's the same smell all right. What is that, sulfur?"

Kurt shrugged.

"I'm not really sure," he admitted.

The cop nodded.

"Well, I'm going to need a sample of that stuff so the lab folks can compare it to what we found in that cauldron."

Kurt winced.

"I'm very sorry, sir," he said. "But I'm afraid that was my last packet."

"That's why Mother was making a new batch," Amanda said, coming to the rescue of the enormously uncomfortable Kurt.

The detective frowned.

"I'm going to have to corroborate your story," he told them sharply, "but if it checks out your mother will probably end up with a fine. If it doesn't, I might just bring you two in for aiding and abetting."

Kurt paled, but Amanda just nodded; cool, collected, and confident.

"It will, you'll see," she told him with a secretive smile.

And, much to Kurt's surprise and relief, several days later it did. Somehow, despite the fact that none of the ingredients for flash powder were found in Margali's office and no residuals were found in the cauldron, the case was dropped and, like magic, Amanda's tale became the official story of what had happened. Margali paid her fine and returned to the circus—

Only to find that Amos Jardine had already moved in. And he was none too happy with what he saw.

*******

The change in administration was immediately felt at every level of the circus. Amos Jardine was a large, loud, opinionated man who had ruthlessly manipulated his way out of poverty to become the cutthroat head of the multinational business conglomeration that bore his name. And, it was his goal to radically modernize Margali's circus, transforming it practically overnight from a quaint, family run community to a flashy spectacular employing the very latest in stage effects technology.

Jardine had barely set foot in the convention center's main arena before he began making changes. Taking a look around at the gathered performers, the heavy-set, middle-aged man immediately set the tone of his new management by proclaiming in his heavily accented English, "Heck, they done told me this was a hick circus, but I wasn't expecting Ripley's Believe it or Not! You!"

He pointed to Woodhead, his eyes narrowed in open disgust as he took in the old man's humped back and craggy face. "What is it you do here?"

"I am the head of safety, mein Herr," Woodhead replied calmly. "I supervise-"

"Not anymore, you don't," Jardine interrupted with a frown. "You're a freak; you're in the freak show."

"But Monsieur Jardine," said Nicolette, a former Olympic gymnast who had joined the circus three years before. "We do not 'ave a freak show."

"Then it's about time I started one up, ain't it," Jardine snapped. "Next-you!" He pointed to Big Jake, who was holding hands with Bethica. The two of them had gotten married only eight months earlier, and they were now glaring at Jardine with matching looks of defiant hatred. "The little feller. What's yer name?"

Bethica stepped forward before her incensed husband could come out with a biting retort.

"Bitte, mein Herr, my husband is a talented magician," she said. "He has achieved great popularity throughout Europe-"

"You're fired," Jardine announced bluntly, causing the jaw of everyone present to drop as one. "The both of you. I don't need the likes of him to draw a crowd. From now on, this circus is going to run on talent, not curiosities. Nowadays the public wants flash, glamour! They want Vegas and Hollywood exploding from the center ring night after night. If they want to gawp at freaks, they'll have to buy an extra ticket for the freak show. And I think I spy another freak just now…"

He frowned, his steely eyes fixing on the broad, befuddled features of the affectionately nicknamed Haus - a favorite among the clowns.

"Hey you, the marshmallow at the back!" he called. "If you think I'm going to pay for you to stuff your face fifteen to twenty times a day, you've got another think coming, you hear me?"

Outraged and highly offended by Jardine's grating intolerance, the performers rallied together to take their complaints to Margali, vowing to stand behind her if she should challenge Jardine's orders. But Margali had been acting peculiar ever since her return from the police station. She seemed distant…preoccupied...

Frustrated by her disaffected attitude, the performers next turned to Amanda and Kurt for help. As the circus's top headliner and most proficient acrobat, Kurt found - much to his surprise - that he actually had some pull with Jardine and his new team of managers. He knew he was playing a dangerous game, though, using his fame to manipulate the shrewd businessman into re-hiring Bethica and Jake and reinstating Woodhead in his position. Sooner or later, Jardine was going to discover that the Incredible Nightcrawler's trademark 'costume' consisted of nothing more a set of red and black spandex pajamas with pointed shoulders.

Unfortunately, that moment came sooner than anyone expected…

*******

"I don't get it," Kurt said, flopping down on the TV lounge couch. He and Amanda were stealing a much-needed break from their grueling new rehearsal schedule. Jardine's extensively advertised 'Spectacular' opened that Saturday, and Kurt and Amanda's challenging new routine was the headlining act. "Why doesn't Mama do something? Because seriously, if that man insults Woodhead one more time, I swear I'm not going to be responsible for my actions."

"It's not Woodhead I'm worried about," Amanda said flatly, shuffling over and pushing his legs aside so she could flop down next to him. "He's too tough and too smart to let a small-minded bigot like Jardine get to him.

"I know, but that's not the point," Kurt growled, tearing an angry hand through his hair. "Everything's falling apart! Nicolette, Alexi, and Lukas have all left and Mama didn't even say good-bye! She's hardly even left her room since she got back from the police station. You're the only person she's really talked to."

He sighed, turning his frustrated, golden gaze to his girlfriend.

"What happened that day, 'Manda?" he asked. "What really caused that explosion?"

Amanda pursed her lips, her expression conflicted. After a moment, she took Kurt's hand, brushing her thumb absently over the thin scar hidden just under the fine fuzz on his wrist.

"Do you remember what Stefan told you about us, Kurt?" she asked quietly, keeping her eyes fixed on his wrist. "That night he took you camping?"

Kurt furrowed his brow, disturbed by the memory. He could still see his brother's intense black eyes, boring into him as he begged him to promise…

"Of course I do," he said, forcing the image away with a slight shudder. "And I guessed Mama was probably trying some magic spell or other. But that still doesn't explain why-"

"It wasn't just 'some magic spell,' Kurt," Amanda interrupted, her blue eyes intense as she raised them to his face. "That explosion was a sign. Mother has made a bargain to reclaim her place on the Winding Way. And when she goes, she won't be alone. By virtue of blood, Stefan and I will be forced to follow that path as well, whether we want to or not."

Kurt's expression turned very serious.

"What kind of bargain?" he demanded, concern warring with fear in his eyes.

Amanda bit her lip and averted her gaze - a very bad sign, Kurt knew.

"To reclaim one's place on the mystical Path requires a powerful sacrifice, Kurt," she said softly, twisting her fingers together in her lap. "A blood sacrifice. And in all the books I've seen, that usually means someone has to die."

Kurt felt his heart stop as his mind processed Amanda's darkly spoken words.

"You don't think-" he started, only to break off and start again in a horrified whisper. "Surely Mama isn't planning to kill Jardine? The man is a monster, but still… Just thinking about it is— She couldn't—!"

But Amanda was shaking her head.

"It's not that straightforward, Kurt," she told him. "The magic chooses its own victim. It might take months or even decades before the victim is known. But the person who initiated the spell has no control over that choice."

Kurt felt a horrible chill shimmer up his spine, causing his tail to twitch reflexively. Taking both of Amanda's hands in his, he leaned forward, searching her eyes as he asked his next question.

"Amanda," he said, "is there any way we could—"

The door to the TV lounge slammed wide open, causing the two of them to jump in place, their heads turning as one to face the intruder. To their dismay, the man blocking the doorway was none other than Amos Jardine. His broad, jowley face was smug but his eyes were cold and hard with barely contained contempt as he strode forward, allowing the door to bang shut behind him.

"I knew you two was havin' a fling," he sneered in his deep, Texas twang. "And now I've caught you red handed. Git over here, boy."

Grabbing Kurt by the arm, he hauled the young man to his feet, straightening his back so he could look him straight in the eye.

"You kiss your girlfriend with that face?" he demanded, his voice as sharp as a drill sergeant's.

Kurt frowned, not at all intimidated by Jardine's disgusted scowl. Keeping his voice calm, he said, "Herr Jardine, Amanda and I were only-"

"I didn't ask what you were only," Jardine snapped. "I've been watchin' you, boy. Watchin' you for a good long time. And you know somethin'? I ain't never seen you outta costume. Not once. Sure you change yer clothes, but that blue get-up always stays the same. So I got to thinkin'….maybe that there face of yours ain't a costume after all."

Amanda paled, shooting up from the couch in alarm, but Kurt just stood there, his features composed and his mouth set as he met Jardine's glare with defiant silence.

The shrewd businessman raised an eyebrow.

"Nothin' to say, eh?" he sneered. "Well that's all right. 'Cause you see, I done figured it out. You're one of them danged mutant freaks, ain'tcha? This crazy bunch of rubes adopted you as a sort of mascot until now you've got pretty much a free run of the place. But I tell you what, all that's about to stop. Right here and right now."

"Herr Jardine, I'm afraid you have it wrong," Amanda broke in, coming forward to stand by Kurt's shoulder. "Kurt is a true member of our family-"

"You stay out of this, little missy," Jardine rumbled threateningly. "This is between me and your freak boyfriend. So you just stand back and be quiet, unless you want this here ultimatum to apply to you too."

"What ultimatum?" Kurt demanded.

Jardine shot him a look of pure loathing so powerful the teenager took an involuntary step back.

"You're a sham, kid," the Texan stated bluntly. "A great big walkin' lie. You play a fixed game, and in my book that just ain't right."

Kurt and Amanda wore matching looks of confusion.

"What are you talking about?" Kurt demanded.

"The public pays to see human talent!" Jardine explained angrily. "Ordinary humans doing extraordinary things-things they can marvel at and admire. But bring mutie powers into the act, and the public feels cheated. Take your jauntin' trick fer example," he said, his bushy eyebrows colliding as he narrowed his eyes. "Ask any Joe in the street, and he'll tell ya more than half its appeal is tryin' to figure out how it's done. But if he ever found out you was just some mutie freak showin' off his powers, your act would flop faster than you could say BAMF! What once seemed incredible would just be plain borin'! And why? Because it don't take no human effort!"

Kurt nearly broke his teeth he was clenching his jaw so hard. But although his glowing eyes were blazing almost white with outrage, he managed to keep his tone even and steady as he said, "I am no sham, Herr Jardine. You yourself can testify to how many hours I put in to training. I've worked damn hard to get where I am today, and I deserve-"

Jardine cut him off with a harsh laugh.

"Deserve?" he scoffed. "This may come as news to you, mutie boy, but the world just don't work that way. You've had a pretty cushy life up till now, what with havin' such close ties to the previous owner and all…" He shot a crudely suggestive leer at Amanda, who would have charged him head-on if Kurt hadn't held her back with his tail. "…But the truth of the matter is, unlike the reclusive Ms. Margali I don't need you to make my circus work. If anythin', you're in my way."

He took a step closer, getting right up in Kurt's face. Kurt wrinkled his nose as the stink of stale cigar smoke that clung to the slightly shorter man's clothes rolled over him.

Jardine's glare darkened.

"So now we come to the ultimatum," he growled. "Either you pack up yer gear and leave - tonight - or I'm movin' you to the freak show where you belong. And if you give me any of your lip, I'm gonna call every paper in the city and let them know what you really are. You'll be outted, my fuzzy friend. And Lord only knows what the public will do to you once they realize they've been had by some upstart mutie fraud."

Kurt stiffened, his eyes wide and fixed with a fury too great to express. Like a crystal balloon, the young man's swelling outrage shattered, leaving behind something far more frightening. He felt it like a stab to the gut, writhing cold and solid - the realization that not only was he capable of killing Jardine…he wanted to!

Kurt's muscular arms shuddered with the raw need to take the loathsome man by the throat and slam him into the wall, pounding and bashing until all traces of his poisonous influence were gone. The murderous impulse was almost too powerful to control, but Kurt compelled himself to resist, horrified and sickened that he could possess such brutally savage desires. With a huge effort of will, he forced himself completely still, squeezing his hands into fists so tight the skin of his knuckles turned a bluish white under his fur. No longer able to move, he just stood there, detached and trembling, his muscles tense and his golden eyes staring as he struggled to regain his control...

Completely unaware of how close he had come to death, Jardine wrinkled his nose at the frozen Kurt in a contemptuous scowl.

Suddenly afraid of what might happen if Jardine spoke again, Amanda blurted out, "At least let him have a week's notice!"

"But the show opens on Friday," the businessman snarled. "And the last thing I want is for some mutie freak to be stealin' the spotlight from the legitimate acts!"

With a nervous little laugh, Amanda quickly darted around Kurt to stand between him and Jardine.

"But Herr Jardine," she said, "the public doesn't know about Kurt's powers, they just admire his talent as an acrobat. The Incredible Nightcrawler is pretty much a household name in these parts. You can't just boot him out like this—"

"The hell I can't," Jardine retorted, shooting the unmoving Kurt a suspicious look. But Amanda wasn't ready to give up just yet.

"Then let him have a farewell performance," she pressed, close to desperation. But just then, she was hit with a sudden thought. Taking a new tack, she shot Jardine a crafty smile, saying, "Just think of the publicity a show like that would bring! Kurt's popularity is far greater than you seem to realize. I promise you people will be lined up for miles to see his final act."

It was a last ditch effort, but to her surprise, Jardine actually seemed to be considering it. There was a long, tense moment, but in the end the businessman nodded.

"All right, he can have one last show," he rumbled. "But the moment the lights drop, I want him gone. He's to be packed and on his way before the night is through. And after that, I don't want to see his freak face around here again. You hear me?"

"Loud and clear," Amanda replied. Jardine fired her a sharp look, then with a last disgusted glance at Kurt, the stocky businessman turned on his polished heel and strode from the lounge.

The instant the door clicked shut behind him, Amanda turned her full attention to Kurt, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking hard.

"Kurt! Kurt come on, snap out of it! He's gone!"

Kurt blinked blearily, then suddenly came to with a deep shudder.

"Oh my God, Amanda!" he gasped, still profoundly shaken by what he had just experienced. "Oh my God I almost— Oh sweet God, I was just so-so angry…!"

"Hush, Kurt," Amanda soothed, pulling him into a gentle hug, which he hesitantly returned. "I know, and it's all right. You didn't do anything wrong."

"But you don't know, Amanda," he half-sobbed, feeling suddenly weak all over. "I wanted to - I wanted—"

"But you didn't," she interrupted firmly, pulling back just far enough to look him sternly in the eye. "And it was the bravest thing I have ever seen."

Kurt blinked, startled and even a little soothed by the firm sincerity of her words.

"Really?" he asked, tilting his head slightly.

Amanda nodded, touching his cheek with gentle fingers.

"It took the strength of a true hero," she told him, "and I doubt I could do the same."

Kurt stared, amazed that she would see it that way, but then he sighed, pulling away so he could pace across the room.

"But it still doesn't change things," he said. "He wants me out by Friday! And where am I supposed to go? The trapeze are my life! They're all I've ever known, all I've ever wanted to do!"

He scowled, his tail lashing behind him as he spun around and started pacing back.

"He can't do this," he stated. "He can't make me leave. This is my home! Everything I care about, everyone I love…"

He trailed off, turning slowly to look deep into Amanda's eyes.

"I don't want to leave you, Amanda," he said, his voice choked. "But I tell you now, there is no way I'm joining that man's freak show!"

"Of course you won't!" Amanda stated firmly. "You're a great acrobat, Kurt. The best in Europe, if not the world. Once they find out you're leaving this dump, circuses around the globe will be fighting each other to sign you on."

"Not if Jardine calls the papers," Kurt said, tearing a hand through his hair. Then he frowned, his brow furrowing thoughtfully. "Unless…"

He looked up, his golden eyes alight with sudden inspiration.

"That's it!" he exclaimed.

Amanda tilted her head, not following.

"What's it?" she asked.

Kurt smiled, taking her hands in his and giving them a quick squeeze.

"Amanda," he said, "how would you like to see America?"

"America?" Amanda blinked in bewilderment, which only increased when Kurt dropped to one knee. "Kurt, what are you—"

"Come with me, Amanda," he said, looking up into her eyes. "Let's leave this place together. We can start our own circus, far away from Jardine. What do you say?"

Amanda stared down into his flushed, anxious features for a long, long moment, fully aware of what he was asking. Then slowly, ever so slowly, a smile spread across her face.

"Yes," she said, taking his hand and pulling him back up to his feet. "Yes, of course I'll come. It's perfect! Between us, we know everything there is to know about running a world-class circus. Chester, Bethica and the others will be sure to join us. Besides," she added, her eyes glinting with excitement, "I've always wanted to see America!"

Kurt grinned in delighted relief, bringing the knuckles of her hands to his lips and kissing them over and over until the two of them fell back onto the sofa in a gale of silly giggles. But, after a moment, Kurt's expression darkened.

"What about Mama, though," he said worriedly. "Isn't there any way we can get her to undo this bargain of hers?"

Amanda shrugged, but her expression was tight with anger towards her mother.

"Actually, no," she stated bluntly. "She's already sealed the demon pact with her own blood."

…just as Stefan did with me…

The thought passed by like a whisper, but it chilled him nonetheless. Amanda didn't seem to notice.

"It doesn't matter anyway," she said, scowling. "She knew what she was doing. But that's her problem. It doesn't have to affect us."

Kurt frowned in confusion.

"How can you say that?" he said. "Especially when you'll have to follow the Winding Way with her?"

"I just won't do it," Amanda said simply, although her careless tone seemed forced. "If Mother could leave the Way after a lifetime, surely I'll be able to get out too. I've never gone in for all that mystical rubbish anyway. Now," she said, straightening in her seat. "Let's change the subject. We've got a lot of planning to do if we're going to make it out of here by Friday night!"

Kurt nodded, but his nagging worries refused to fade. The thought of the blood sacrifice kept flickering through his mind, bringing back disturbing flashes of the consuming rage he had experience only minutes before. These terrifying feelings prompted him to wonder…what if the murderous demon Margali's pact had unloosed actually resided within him? Could that be why Stefan had come to him all those years ago, forcing him to make that promise?

What was it his brother had seen when he'd looked into Kurt's soul?

*******

For the rest of the week, Kurt and Amanda were wholly consumed with bringing the Incredible Nightcrawler's final show to vibrant life. The loyalty of the performers, staff, costumers, set-builders, and administrators to the Szardos family made certain that the planning and production for Kurt's show took precedence over the rewrites for Jardine's Spectacular. Jardine fumed about it, but without the support of his employees his displays of temper had little effect.

At last, after four straight days and nights of hurried phone calls, frantic fittings, and last-minute rehearsals, the big night arrived. As Amanda had forseen, the people of Hamburg were queued around the corner and down the street, willingly braving the chilly evening to witness the Nightcrawler's last performance. A small, local toy manufacturer had even decided to take advantage of the hype and come out with a limited edition plush doll of the Nightcrawler, complete with his spaded tail and his distinctive red and black costume. When Kurt first saw them, clutched in the arms of the children filing into the stands, he didn't know whether to laugh or die of embarrassment. Especially when Amanda came up beside him and tapped one against his cheek in a mock kiss.

"Do you like him?" she asked, her eyes twinkling merrily. "We're calling them 'Bamfs'. Isn't he just adorable?"

Kurt scrunched up his face in a pained grimace, taking the pint-sized toy and inspecting it at arms length.

"Well…" he allowed reluctantly, "I suppose it is kind of cute."

"Cute!" Amanda snatched the doll back, cuddling it protectively in her arms. "Is that all you can say? After all the trouble Chester and I went through to get these ready in time?"

Kurt looked stricken.

"You did?" he said. "I—I didn't realize…"

Seeing the expression on his face, Amanda couldn't keep up her act of indignance.

"No, we didn't," she admitted with a laugh. "We hardly had anything to do with it, actually. The toy guy called up to ask if it would be all right if he made about a thousand of these little fellows for the show, and we couldn't refuse. I mean, just look at that face," she said, holding the little Bamf barely an inch from Kurt's nose. "Could you say no to a face like that?"

Kurt was still embarrassed, but he couldn't help but crack a smile.

"No, I guess not," he said. "Can I—"

"Oh no you don't!" Amanda frowned, slapping his hand away. "This is my Bamf. If you want one, you have to buy your own. Now," she said, drawing herself up and cutting off Kurt's protest. "If we're going to start this show on time, I need to get dressed. But before I go, I do have something to give you."

"Don't tell me they've made a stuffed doll of you as well," Kurt joked.(1)

Amanda smiled, then leaned in close and kissed him sweetly on the lips.

"That's for luck," she said, stepping back and shooting him a playfully coquettish look over her shoulder as she turned for the door. "You'll knock 'em dead tonight, Kurt. We'll give Hamburg a show they'll talk about for decades to come! Jardine's Spectacular will never live it down!"

Amanda's prediction was right. Their last show in Germany would go down in Hamburg history—but not as a triumph. Amos Jardine had invested far too much money into his new Spectacular to allow his work to be upstaged by a mutant freak and his Gypsy girlfriend. Furious at the way the two had effectively usurped his power, the cunning businessman fell back on a method of revenge he had perfected while clawing his way to the top of his profession: the subtle art of sabotage...

*******

(1) According to comic canon, in later years when Kurt was an X-Man and Amanda was a flight attendant, Amanda would take a Bamf doll with her whenever she went away, leaving Kurt a little witch doll to keep him company until her return.

*******

Everything was packed and ready; the suitcases were piled by the backstage exit and a taxi was parked by the door, the fare for two to the airport already having been paid with free tickets to the show for the driver and his family. In a little less than four hours, Kurt Wagner would be warming a window seat in coach, holding Amanda's hand as, together, they watched Germany shrink away to tiny specks of light far, far below. They would sleep on the plane while it made a brief stop at Heathrow, and when they awoke, they would be in Canada. A whole new country, a whole new world lay mere hours away.

It was real. Kurt was quitting the Munich Circus for good, headed for adventure with his lady love by his side. Nothing could be more exciting….

Then why did he feel like he was going to throw up?

"Hey, Kurt! Five minutes to showtime! Quit powdering your nose, kid, and get out there!"

"Already gone, Karl. Thanks."

Kurt stood as the slender stage manager continued on his way down the hall, leaning forward to give himself a long, hard look in the mirror. This was it. After tonight, he would no longer belong here. The home he had known since childhood was already gone, along with the protection it had afforded him. All that remained was this one show—and Kurt was resolved to make it the best performance the Munich Circus had ever produced.

Nodding once at his determined reflection, Kurt took a deep, decisive breath and BAMFed out of the room, leaving his fears for his future behind.

*******

Amos Jardine squeezed his bulky frame down the narrow aisle, earning several dirty looks from the patrons he shoved past on the way to his preferred seat in the second row. To his satisfaction, he saw his agent Brunetto was already there, waiting for him.

"Signore Jardine," the shifty-eyed Italian smiled, rising briefly as the older man sat down.

"All is as you wished, sir," he said, rubbing his bony hands together in wicked anticipation. "When the Nightcrawler's finale comes, you will see—"

"Don't tell me," Jardine snapped coldly, keeping his eyes focused on the darkened arena ahead. "I don't need to know what you did, just that it's done. Now get lost. The show's about to start."

Brunetto stood with a slight bow of his head.

"As you say, Signore," he said, sliding past the businessman to the aisle. "But don't forget, I shall be returning to claim my payment, and I expect you to still be here when I do."

Jardine turned his head, looking at the taller man for the first time.

"Just where the hell do you think I'm goin'?" he growled. "This here's my circus, ain't it?"

But Brunetto just smiled and walked away, vanishing into the shadows as the spotlights flashed on and the band began to play.

Jardine snorted and settled back in his seat to watch the show, smug in the knowledge that when his trap was sprung, he would have the protection of full deniability...

*****

The show was going extremely well. Because they had been so short on time, Kurt and Amanda had asked the other performers to think up clever ways for the Nightcrawler to pop up in every act. That device had turned out to be a real success. The Nightcrawler's mischievous antics had the audience in stitches. Margali smiled slightly as she watched Big Jake seemingly conjure the Nightcrawler out of a bouquet of blue carnations—apparently catching the startled acrobat in the middle of brushing his teeth. She knew that last touch had to have been Kurt's.

Margali lowered her head with a sigh, but kept her gaze on the scrying pool before her. The sorceress hadn't been out of her room since the incident with the police. She had been far too preoccupied to think of such earthly things as eating, sleeping…and love. And yet, it was love that had gotten her into this predicament in the first place. Out of concern for her children, out of worry for her friends, she had forced her way back onto the mystical path she had abandoned so long ago. She had turned her back on the human persona she had assumed when she had left her people and embraced her true form once again. Thick, curling horns, like those of a ram, now sprouted from beneath her frizzy, black hair. Her tanned skin had turned an olive green, and her long nails were now yellow. The transformation had allowed her to reclaim her full power, drawing it to her from the air and the ground and the very life-force of the people around her. And with that power, she had summoned a demon—a demon who, in return for a blood sacrifice, could rid her of Amos Jardine once and for all.

Since making the demon pact, Margali had been working day and night casting protection spells over the people of her circus. She knew the ways of demons, she understood their treachery. She had promised Belasco a life in return for his services, but she would die herself before allowing him to prey on her children, or her friends.

At that moment, a chilling breeze swept through the darkened room, causing the candlelight to flicker and dance. Margali slowly raised her head, listening for the three sharp raps on the door that would indicate the demon was near. Sure enough, as a distant burst of laughter rose from the arena, the knocks came.

The sorceress scowled.

"Where have you been," she scolded, lowering her levitating form to a chair. "You promised to take action tonight."

"So I did," the demon's sly, serpentine voice replied from the flickering shadows. "And so I shall. But you know I do nothing without payment. Once I collect my fee, I shall do as you requested. Jardine will leave Hamburg, never to return, and you shall have your chance to take back what was taken from you. But you must be patient a little longer."

"Everything I have built is falling apart," Margali hissed angrily. "Even my children are planning to leave me. I cannot wait any longer. You must act now!"

"I shall act when I deem the time right," the demon replied, his smooth voice seething with menace. "You have been too long among humans, Margali. I will not suffer your petulance."

"Don't forget I summoned you," Margali snapped. "That means you work for me until the task is done. I must be rid of Jardine tonight! It is the only way to save what I have lost."

The demon snorted.

"You are a fool," he said. "But if you return what you have stolen from me, I shall do as you say."

"I will not return the Soulsword," Margali stated. "It is a part of me now, and you will never touch it. You will do as I say because that is our pact. Now leave me, and don't come back until the deed is done!"

"If you truly understood what you ask, you would not be so hasty to see it done," Belasco said, darkly. "But very well. I have chosen my sacrifice. No matter the obstacle, I will return to claim what is mine. Until then, fool, farewell."

Margali shivered despite herself as the chill draft fluttered the candles once again, heralding the demon's departure. Putting his threats out of her mind, she leaned back over her scrying pool, anxious to see the conclusion of the show.

For the grand finale, Kurt and Amanda had planned to partner up on the trapeze, where they would perform without a net. Margali had been unable to talk her daughter out of such a risky move when she had come to visit her, and she was still angry at this open defiance of her wishes. But even so, she knew she had to watch. This was their show, Amanda and Kurt's, and despite everything, she was very proud of all they had accomplished in such a short time. She owed it to them to watch, even if it was from her room.

*******

Kurt was already in position on the platform when the lights lowered, the spotlight snapped on, and the announcer's deep voice announced the Incredible Nightcrawler's final act. He waved to the crowd, then turned his eyes to the door, grinning broadly as he waited for Amanda to make her entrance.

To his surprise, it was Chester Vogel who ran out from the sidelines. The jaunty, dark-haired man jogged over to the announcer and whispered something in his ear. Then he grinned up at Kurt and winked.

Utterly confused, Kurt watched his friend run backstage, then turned a questioning look to the announcer, as curious as the audience to find out what was going on.

"Ladies and Gentlemen!" the announcer cried, beckoning Amanda to come over to him with a theatrical flourish of his cape. Kurt was startled to see she was dressed in her regular clothes, as if she had expected something like this. Jardine also seemed surprised, even a bit angry as he sat forward in his chair. But he kept his mouth shut, choosing to wait and see what would happen as the announcer continued.

"There has been a change in the program! The lovely Amanda Szardos has graciously decided to step aside from this performance, but only so she could introduce you all to a man who is a legend among acrobats. Amanda, they're all yours."

"Thank you," Amanda said, and smiled, taking the microphone and shooting Kurt a half amused/half apologetic glance. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a real treat for you tonight. We weren't sure if he was going to be able to make it at such short notice, but when we told him that this was going to be the Nightcrawler's final performance with the Munich Circus, nothing could keep him away. So tonight, it is with enormous pleasure and pride that I introduce to you the man who taught the Nightcrawler everything he knows. Please welcome, all the way from his native Hungary, the amazing, the astonishing, the legendary Sabu Vogel!"

As the crowd burst into riotous applause, Kurt gasped, his face breaking into a delighted grin as his old mentor strode out from the sidelines and began climbing up the rope ladder, his gray-streaked mustache still as imposing as ever.

"Sabu!" he exclaimed, reaching out a hand to help the older man up onto the platform with him. "I can't believe it! How—why— What are you doing here?"

Sabu laughed, pulling Kurt into a powerful embrace.

"You think I would let you leave for the Americas without coming to wish you well?" he asked in his familiar accent, stepping back to look his former pupil affectionately in the eyes. "You look good, Kurt. You have grown up quite a lot since Yvonne and I left the circus life. Truly, I could not be prouder if you were my own son."

Kurt lowered his head, suddenly bashful in the face of Sabu's frank remarks.

The older man laughed again and slapped Kurt on the back.

"Come on, kiddo," he said. "Let's see what you've got. So far I have seen you act the clown. Now, it's time to see how well you have been keeping up with your art!"

"Oh, I've been keeping up!" Kurt grinned back. "And I've come up with a few new moves too."

"So I have heard," Sabu said. "Amanda has filled me in on a great deal. In fact, I will be taking her part tonight. Together, we will give these people out there something to remember, yes?"

"You bet!"

Kurt beamed, leaning over the side to shoot Amanda a grateful glance as Sabu climbed into place on the ladder. Grabbing the trapeze that was hooked nearby, the veteran acrobat took a deep breath, then jumped. He swung in a wide arc, every muscle in his body under his complete control as he swung back, then used his momentum to launch into a perfect double, reaching out at the last moment to grab the second, stationary trapeze and pull himself up onto the bar.

As the audience erupted into cheers, Kurt caught the swinging trapeze and turned his attention to climbing into position himself. However, at that moment, Kurt felt a peculiar uneasiness creep through him. Looking over his shoulder at Sabu, he was just in time to see his mentor's trapeze give a tense, sickening jolt. At first, he thought it was a trick of the light…maybe his eyes were playing tricks. Trapeze just didn't jerk around like that, and they certainly didn't grow longer. But then, the sabotaged wires gave way all together and Sabu was falling—!

Kurt didn't have time to question, only to react. Activating his power, he jaunted off the ladder, already reaching for his mentor through of the rapidly dissipating smoke. But he was too late. That moment of hesitation on the ladder had cost him. Sabu hit the ground with a sickening sound, his body twitching once…twice…then growing still. Kurt landed hard on his feet, dropping into to a desperate crouch by his mentor's side. Somewhere far away, the panicked crowd was screaming, the horrified announcer calling futily for calm. But for Kurt, all this was muted by his own shocked denial.

This had not just happened. There was no way it could be real. Nothing so terrible could happen in real life—it just couldn't! It couldn't!

"Oh…oh God! Oh no, please God no!"

It was Amanda's voice, hoarse with tears, but the words refused to register. Kurt could only stare blankly at Sabu's still body, at the thin trickle of blood oozing from his nose, the side of his mouth.

It just didn't make sense. None of it made any sense! Sabu couldn't—he just couldn't be…

...Dead…

Over in the stands, Jardine was bellowing his outrage into the ears of anyone who had not already fled the terrible scene. As the rows emptied, he caught sight of his agent Brunetto, hovering like a ghoul in the shadows behind the circle of performers that had gathered around Sabu. Fuming, the beet-faced businessman marched over and grabbed his arm, spinning the tall Italian around to face him.

"You moron!" he shouted, too furious to watch his words or care who heard them. "What the hell am I paying you for? You were supposed to take out the girl!"

Brunetto glared down at Jardine through dark eyes, his thin face pinched with annoyance.

"The change in cast was unexpected," he snarled. "This man was not supposed to die tonight."

"No shit, Sherlock!" Jardine roared, getting right up in the Italian's pale face. "This ruins everything! I told you I want the blue freak for my sideshow! All you had to do was—"

"Silence!" Brunetto snapped, his sharp eyes flashing a sudden gold in his fury.

Jardine took a startled step back, not quite sure what he'd just seen.

The Italian continued, clearly speaking more to himself than to Jardine.

"She has thwarted me," he hissed, his thin nostrils flaring as his glowing eyes narrowed into slits. "Denied me my proper sacrifice! But I shall make her pay."

He growled, a chilling, dangerous sound.

"The girl may have been spared, but there is still another. I will have my payment yet!"

"What is all this crazy talk?" Jardine demanded, struggling to hide the tremble in his voice with his usual display of bluster. "What do you mean by 'sacrifice'? I told you I was gonna pay in cas-"

"Enough, human!" Brunetto glared. "Your money is worthless to me. Go attend to that mess." He gestured to Sabu. "I have business elsewhere."

With that, the disguised demon left Jardine to fume, vanishing in a flash of sulfurous smoke that was eerily akin to Kurt's.(2)

*******

(2) Brunetto/Belasco's backstory is detailed in my story "Belasco's Beatrice."

*******

Far to the south, in the isolated mountain village of Winzeldorf, Stefan Szardos shot up in bed. His thin blanket pooled to the rough, stone floor of his bare cell as he hugged his knees to his chest, rocking slightly in silent fear.

Something was different. Something had changed. He could feel it, deep, deep inside. A power was awakening within him, bringing with it a coldness unlike anything he had ever felt before.

Fighting an uncontrollable shudder, the young monk knelt in the center of his cot, clasping his hands together in desperate prayer. Beads of sweat ran down the sides of his face as he trembled there in the dark, whispering the familiar words over and over. But even as the dark sensations began to fade, he knew they'd return before long.

The moment he had dreaded since childhood had come at last. The battle for his soul had begun.

End of Part Seven

Chapter Text

Part Eight
Scene One

The heavy pounding of the doorknocker echoed down the stone corridors of the ancient monastery, louder even than the thunder that rumbled across the nighttime sky.

Brother Gottfried shivered under his cloak, braving the puddles and the chilling draft to unlock the heavy iron door. Heaving it open with a powerful tug, the gaunt-faced monk gasped as his eyes fell upon the pitiful sight of the sopping figure shivering in the heavy rain.

"Oh my," he exclaimed, hurrying out into the downpour to offer the exhausted man some support. "My son, you must be frozen! Come now, I'll take you straight to the kitchens."

Wrapping his arm around the trembling stranger's slender shoulders, he guided him through the seeping stone corridor to the welcome warmth and dryness of the main building.

"Brother Radulfus has been preparing his special sausage stew—it's just the thing to warm you up!"

"Th—thank you," the man stammered through chattering teeth, reaching up with a gloved hand to pull his dripping hood down lower over his shadowed face. "I-I've been walking for thr-three days, and—"

"Three days?" Brother Gottfried exclaimed. "Why, whatever happened? Were you in an accident?"

"You could say that," the man said, hunching his shoulders even further. "I came most of the way by train, but I—"

"Never mind, never mind," the monk said, hurrying his sopping charge down the curving stairs and past a wide, open space filled with long, wooden tables to an even larger room that had to be the monastery's kitchen. "You can tell me all the details later. Right now, though, we've got to get you out of those wet things before you catch your death of pneumonia. Brother Radulfus, come help me—"

"No!" the stranger exclaimed with such alarmed urgency he startled even himself. "I-I mean, no, please…"

He cringed a little, clutching his dripping hood with both hands.

"If you don't mind, I would like to keep my hood on. The wetness doesn't bother me, really!"

"But your clothes are completely drenched!" Brother Gottfried protested. "Let me just hang your jacket over the stove—"

"Oh, leave him be, Gottfried." A tall, heavy-set monk with a coarse, gray-streaked beard strode over to them, his rumbling voice tinged with an intrinsic good humor. "The secrets our visitors bring are their own to keep. It's not our business to pry, just to offer aid where we can."

Brother Gottfried shot the taller man a look.

"Would it be considered prying then, Radulfus, if we were to ask our guest his name?"

"Well, that's up to our guest, isn't it?"

The large cook turned his warm, expectant brown eyes to the stranger.

The dripping man seemed to hesitate for a moment, then he spoke.

"It's Kurt," he told them. "Kurt Wagner. I came here because I was hoping you might be able to help me."

"Help you how, lad?" Brother Radulfus asked, gesturing for Kurt to take a seat at the small, square table that was pressed up against the uneven stone wall. Kurt sat down willingly, never taking his hand from his hood.

"I'm looking for my brother," he explained. "Stefan Szardos. He left home about five years ago to join a monastery and I was hoping you might be able to tell me where I could find him."

The two monks shared a startled look.

"So, it's young Szardos you're looking for?" Gottfried winced slightly. "I'm afraid that could be a little difficult."

Kurt tilted his head warily.

"Why's that?" he asked.

"Well you see, lad," Brother Radulfus explained, "Brother Stefan has not left his cell in over a week, and he has accepted only the plainest foods. I'm afraid the poor boy is deeply troubled, both in spirit and in mind."

"It's said he has night terrors," Brother Gottfried added in a hushed voice. "They haunt him so badly even prayer will not calm his mind. We've all heard him screaming in the night—howling that a demon is fighting to take over his soul!"

"That's enough, Gottfried!" Radulfus frowned. "Don't frighten the boy with your superstitious nonsense. The abbot assured us it's a fever, nothing more. If you ask me, a visit from his brother would surely go a long way to speeding his recovery."

Kurt looked from one to the other, worried and uncertain.

"Does that mean I can see him?" he asked.

"We'll have to ask the abbot," Radulfus said kindly, "but I'm sure he'll agree. Here now, you look like you're ready to collapse, lad. How's about I get you some nice, filling soup? You too, Gottfried. You look pretty drenched yourself."

"Well, it's horrible hound weather out there," the monk scowled, squeezing a small stream of water from the flowing, brown sleeves of his cowl. "Don't worry, Kurt. As soon as we've both dried off a bit, I'll take you to see Abbot Martin."

"Thank you," Kurt said, gratefully accepting the steaming bowl of sausage stew Radulfus handed to him and inhaling the rich, spicy fragrance. "Ahh," he sighed, taking the spoon awkwardly in his gloved hand. "Thank you! I haven't eaten in so long…"

Gottfried frowned curiously, taking a plate of homebaked brown bread and fresh churned butter from the counter and setting it within Kurt's easy reach.

"You say you've been walking for three days?" he prompted. "Didn't you pass through any towns?"

"Actually, I was trying to avoid them," Kurt replied automatically through a large mouthful of soup. Then, realizing how peculiar such a statement would sound to the two monks, he swallowed hard, covering up his discomfort with a brief spate of coughing. "Erm," he said, "sorry, but did Stefan ever tell you where he was from? You know, what he did before he came here?"

"Oh yes," Radulfus said and grinned, his brown eyes twinkling. "He was with Margali's circus. I used to go every season, before they joined up with the Munich Circus and left the rural circuit behind."

Kurt blinked.

"Did you really?"

The large monk nodded, fixing his guest with a broad smile.

"There was one act in particular that stood out above the rest," he said. "It starred this boy they'd dress up all in blue—the Blue Lightening, I believe he was called. He was the most talented acrobat I've ever seen, and funny to boot."

Kurt squirmed under his wet jacket, discomfited by the monk's knowing gaze.

"Yeah, well…"

"The reason I bring him up," Radulfus continued, "is this boy was a good friend of my cousin, Gregory. You see, my cousin serves as a priest in the village, and once he told me of this boy he'd met. A very special boy, with the body of a demon and the heart of a saint. Having seen the Blue Lightening myself, I knew he could only be referring to him."

The monk winked, leaning in to catch Kurt's startled golden eyes with his own.

Gottfried straightened in surprise.

"Wait - you can't mean this young man is the famous Blue Lightening! All grown up!" he exclaimed, an excited smile spreading over his thin face.

"Well, he must be if he's Stefan's brother," Radulfus said, his eyes still fixed on Kurt. "So you see, lad, there's no need to hide behind that wet coat now. We don't need two brothers catching fever, now do we?"

Kurt hesitated, frightened and unsure.

"Wait," he said, "I don't know if I—"

"Listen to me, my boy," Radulfus said. "We may look like sheltered hermits to you, but we do keep up with current events. Your circus has been all over the newspapers this past week."

"Oh, God," Kurt groaned, pressing a hand against his forehead. "Then…then you know—"

"Yes, we know about the tragedy," Gottfried said. "But we also know it was an accident, no matter what those cheap tabloids might say."

Radulfus nodded his agreement.

"Kurt, if you need our help you only have to say so," he said. "You have friends here, and if anyone gives you any trouble you have me to vouch for you."

Kurt stared into the faces of the two monks for a long time. Then, slowly, he reached up and pulled back his hood, unfurling his long tail from around his waist as he blinked up at them through the wiggly straggles of his damp, indigo hair.

"My God," Gottfried breathed, his pale eyes wide. "The Nightcrawler indeed…"

Kurt averted his face, staring blankly down into his soup. Radulfus frowned at Gottfried, then slowly sat down next to Kurt on the rough bench, placing a large hand on his shoulder.

"Do you know the difference between angels and demons, my son?" he asked gently.

Kurt shrugged.

Radulfus gave his clammy shoulder a brief squeeze.

"Intent," he said. "Both serve as messengers, both can appear fair or misshapen. It is not looks that make a demon, son. Looks only serve to mask the truth."

Gottfried nodded thoughtfully. Kurt looked up, his golden eyes shadowed with the pain and stress of the past few weeks. Radulfus smiled.

"I know you, Kurt Wagner," he said. "I know who you are. And I promise, as long as you stay here you will have nothing to fear from us. Now, finish your soup, get yourself cleaned up, and then we'll see about getting you in to visit your brother."

Gottfried grinned warmly.

"Welcome to Winzeldorf, Kurt Wagner," he said, taking Kurt's dripping coat at last. "I'll go hang this up for you."

*******

Stefan was kneeling at the edge of his bed when the door to his cell squeaked open, his breathing shallow and his eyes closed tight.

"Brother Stefan," Abbot Martin said softly, walking across the darkened room to touch the young monk on the shoulder. "Brother Stefan, you have a visitor."

Stefan jumped, scrambling across the narrow bed to distance himself from the abbot's gentle touch.

"Stay away," he warned, his dark eyes wide and wild. "Please, you don't know…you don't know how hard it is—"

The abbot frowned.

"Brother Stefan," he said. "I told you before. If you would just take your medicine—"

"No, no, no pills!" Stefan shook his head. "I don't want to sleep. When I sleep, I can't control him. I can't relax, not for a moment. He's always watching, waiting…waiting…waiting…"

Abbot Martin sighed, then turned back to the shadowy figure standing awkwardly by the doorway.

"As you can see, your brother is still feverish and suffering from delirium," he explained sadly. "I'm so sorry, Herr Wagner."

"…Herr Wagner…"

Stefan's head snapped up and he stood, bobbing gently up and down in the center of the bed.

"Kurt!" he cried. "Kurt, I see you there! I see your tail! As ordained, you've come to be my salvation!"

The abbot winced, closing the door slightly and taking Kurt aside.

"I've called for a psychiatrist to examine him," he whispered. "Stefan is the right age...if this erratic behavior is an indication of the onset of manic depression or schizophrenia, Dr. Warner would be able to tell. But he won't be able to make the trip for another two days. The local doctors say Stefan is suffering from acute insomnia, but he refuses to take the sleeping pills they've prescribed. He's known, even when we've mixed them with his food. I'm hoping you will be able to get through to him, Herr Wagner. If you can get him to relax enough to sleep even for an hour, you will be doing him a world of good."

"I understand, Father Abbot," Kurt said, glancing over the smaller man's wispy, white hair to take a good look at his brother.

Stefan was thinner than he remembered, and much paler. His narrow jaw was dark with bristles, and there were deep purple shadows under his eyes.

Kurt swallowed a hard lump in his throat. His brother, the boy he had idolized all through his childhood, looked like a wraith, a haunted shadow of his former self. As shocking as it was to see him like that, it was even more disconcerting to realize this was another example of how all the things he had taken for granted in his life, everything he had believed solid and real and safe, were crumbling all around him. His home, his family, his career, his friends—everything was gone. All he had left was Stefan, and even he was fading away…

Nodding his thanks to the abbot, Kurt stepped into his brother's dim cell and closed the door. Stefan was still standing on the bed, still bobbing to his own surreal rhythm. Kurt attempted a smile.

"Hey, Stefan."

Stefan frowned, his eyes darkening at once.

"Who are you?" he demanded, bending down until his arms were pressed against his knees. "You're not Kurt."

"Of course I'm Kurt," Kurt said, somewhat baffled. "Looking like this, who else would I be?"

Stefan shook his head, still standing in that oddly contorted position.

"No, no, you're too tall," he declared. "Too tall. The Kurt I know was small, you're tall."

"Stefan, it's been five years," Kurt said, starting to feel eerily uncomfortable. "I grew up."

"It's a trick!" Stefan shouted. "Kurt is fourteen! You can't fool me! I won't be fooled so easily!"

"Oh, God…" Kurt stared up at his brother with helpless eyes. "Stefan, Kurt is nineteen. I'm nineteen, OK? I'm going to be twenty in a few months. Here, look, take my hand. Take my hand and you'll see it's really me!"

Stefan tilted his head, then slowly straightened up, reaching out to take Kurt's hand in his own. Kurt waited patiently while his brother carefully examined each thick finger, tentatively petting the soft fur. Then, turning his hand over, Stefan traced the lines of his callused palm, following them down to his wrist. There, he stopped, closing his eyes as he slowly ran his fingers across the thin scar he found there.

Kurt giggled despite himself at the touch.

Stefan's eyes shot open.

"I'm sorry," Kurt gasped, startled. "It's just, it tickled and I—"

"…Kurt?"

"Yeah, Stefan?"

Without letting go of Kurt's hand, Stefan jumped down from the bed and turned his unblinking stare straight into Kurt's eyes. Kurt tried to take a step back, but Stefan squeezed his hand tighter, drawing him in.

"I see it now," he whispered. "Not so bright…you're not so pure… Love and hate and pain and fear, but still you're there…you're always there…."

"Stefan, please… I don't understand what you're saying—" Kurt winced, his tail lashing as Stefan's nails began to dig into his palm. "Please let go, Stefan— Ach, you're hurting me…"

Stefan blinked, his glazed, wild eyes beginning to clear. Suddenly, he stepped back, releasing Kurt's hand as if it had burnt him.

"Huh," he snorted, walking over to his narrow window. "That was odd."

"Odd!" Kurt frowned, incredulous, staring down at the four small, crescent-shaped cuts on his palm. "Stefan, you cut me!"

"So, that's what did it."

"Did what?" Kurt demanded, thoroughly frustrated. "What are you talking about?"

Stefan smiled, turning to face him once again.

"It's been a long time, hasn't it, Kurt."

"Oh, so now you recognize me?" Kurt frowned. "What's going on with you, Stefan? That can't have been an act just now…"

"No, it wasn't," Stefan said distantly. "Tell me, Kurt, how is Mother? And my dear sister, how is she?"

Kurt sucked in his cheeks, his golden eyes blazing with pain at the memory of the last time he had seen Amanda. She had come to him in the night, fully dressed, her make-up impeccable. At first he had thought she meant to leave with him after all, to try their luck in Canada. But then she had kissed him, and he'd known… She was leaving, all right, but not with him. She was going to accompany Margali on the Winding Way. The demon the sorceress had released was still on the loose, and Amanda meant to help her mother capture him. Intellectually, Kurt knew that she had most likely made the right choice, but that didn't help the pain in his heart—or his anger toward Margali for making that demon pact in the first place.

"I can't tell you," he said at last, his voice tight and hard. "Because I don't know. All I know is that they're gone, both of them. And I can't follow."

"The Winding Way is a harsh road to travel," Stefan observed, his lips tilted in a strange little smile. "If one is to advance, the person ahead must perish. It's survival of the fittest seen in its truest form: raw and wild, and completely merciless."

"Quit with the riddles, Stefan," Kurt growled. "I'm not in the mood, OK."

"You love her, she left you." Stefan shrugged. "It's a story so old you don't even have to tell me the details. Power usually wins over love."

"Don't," Kurt snapped, his eyes flashing. "Don't talk about Amanda that way! She had to leave. Margali was right, there was no way she could have controlled her powers without training. They would have devoured her, body and soul. In the end…she didn't have a choice."

"Perhaps," Stefan allowed. "But my sister knew the price. Sabu is dead. Jimaine's life was spared. Another soon will perish in her stead."

Kurt looked up, a chill creeping down his spine and causing his tail to twitch uncomfortably. Stefan just turned his back to the window, his expression oddly serene.

"I'm going to shave," he announced, striding across the room to his sink. "And then I'm going for a walk in the garden. Want to come, Kurt?"

Kurt blinked, startled.

"Wait, Stefan," he said, "are you sure you're up to a walk? What about your fever?"

"I'm feeling much better now, thank you," he said, smiling through his shaving cream as he lifted the razor to his face. "Now that you've come, I believe I will finally be able to sleep."

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

Part Eight
Scene Two

The hammering rain had softened to a light drizzle by the time the two brothers stepped out into the monastery garden. The hazy drops shimmered white and silver in the light from the lamp that hung over the wide oak door.

Stefan stood in the center of the neatly tended garden and tilted his face up, spreading his arms to the sky.

"This air looms with the forthcoming," he stated. "But the night's peace has been layered thickly within these garden walls."

Lowering his arms, he glanced around, his darting eyes sharp and thoughtful.

"Yes," he said slowly, "this is where they can be kept. This place shall serve for their protection, particularly now that you have come, my brother."

Kurt shot his brother a dubious look, his tail twitching and his hands fisted in his pockets. Stefan had always had a habit of saying strange or unexpected things, but he had always made sense before. Now, it was as though he was speaking in some bizarre code, and Kurt had no idea how to crack it.

"Erm, that's great, Stefan," he said awkwardly. "You know, it's kind of cold out here…do you want to go back in and—"

"Come to me, Kurt," the tall monk interrupted sharply. "Let us walk together. I know you have much to say."

"Not really..." Kurt grimaced, but he obligingly skirted the muddy puddles to fall into step by his brother's side. "But I have to admit, Stefan, I'm worried about you. You're not acting like yourself."

"In war there are always sacrifices," Stefan told him somberly. "I am prepared to risk my sanity if it means the chance to win my freedom."

"Freedom?" Kurt frowned. "Do you mean from the monks? But, Stefan, from what I've seen, they're just trying to help—"

"No, no, no, not from the monks. They are my family—as you are," Stefan said. "They think they are protecting me, but in reality it is only my constant vigilance that keeps them safe."

Kurt sighed, shaking his head a bit helplessly.

"Stefan," he said, "you're going to have to be clearer. I know you're trying to tell me something, but I really have no idea what you're talking about."

"That is precisely why I put my trust in you," the monk said, his dark eyes intense with the solemn sadness of a Seer. "Remember your promise, Kurt. The time will soon come when you may be called upon to keep it."

*******

Two weeks had passed since Stefan had offered Kurt his confusing, unsettling prophecy. And it was a prophecy. Kurt had realized that shortly after he had left Stefan to sleep and made his way to the neighboring cell the monks had been kind enough to offer him for the duration of his stay.

The problem was, Kurt wasn't sure how he was meant to interpret it, and Stefan refused to say any more on the subject. In fact, ever since that night in the garden, Stefan had been acting eerily normal. At least, that's how Kurt viewed the radical change that had come over his brother. The monks, on the other hand, saw it as a great blessing, crediting Kurt's presence as the healing influence that had guided their young brother back to health. Their relief at his "miraculous" cure was so great, even the distressing news that had started filtering in from the nearby town wasn't enough to dampen their spirits.

At least—not at first…

"Another child found murdered," Brother Gottfried read somberly, shaking his head as he folded up the newspaper and placed it on the kitchen table. "That makes two, now."

"I just can't believe it," Radulfus spoke up from the stove, where he was busily stirring three steaming pots and a sizzling pan. "How can something like this be happening? Winzeldorf is such an isolated little town—who could possibly commit such a crime?"

"Nobody knows," Gottfried said, tapping the paper. "It says here that the police are baffled."

Radulfus scowled into his soup.

"Well, that's certainly reassuring," he grunted, angrily grinding some pepper into the pot. He was about to say more, but at that moment, the steam sent some pepper dust wafting back to his nose and he let loose with an explosive sneeze.

"Ach," Gottfried made a face. "Not in the soup…!"

"Was it another orphan?" Kurt spoke up, his voice subdued.

"Sorry son, what was that?" Gottfried said, ripping his disgusted gaze away from the sniffling Radulfus.

"The second victim," Kurt said softly. "Was it another orphan?"

Gottfried nodded with a sigh.

"I believe it was," he said sadly. "Do you think that could be important?"

"I don't know," Kurt shook his head. "But it's probably a clue."

"You've got a point, lad," Radulfus said, half-turning from his soup pots. "Why would the killer be targeting these poor orphans? You know, the Winzeldorf Orphanage is operated by the nuns of St. Hildegard's. Perhaps we should call them and—"

"And tell them what?" Gottfried scoffed. "Let the police handle this, Radulfus. It's their job to get involved. If you want to be of help, I suggest you pray for the speedy capture of this depraved monster."

Radulfus turned back to the stove with a pout.

"Praying is all well and good, and it certainly has its place," he said. "But I still think there are more active routes we could take. For example, some of us could volunteer to help out at the orphanage for a while—you know, bolster the ranks as it were."

"Brother Gottfried is right," Stefan's deep voice sounded from the doorway, startling them. "If the innocent are to be protected, we must pray for the safety of their souls. When evil walks the streets, all must be on their guard."

"But don't you see, lad, that's exactly my point!" Radulfus exclaimed.

"No," Stefan said. "You seek to intervene against forces you don't understand. Do as Brother Gottfried suggests and, when the time comes, your prayers will be heard. This, I promise you."

Aiming a significant glance at Kurt, Stefan ducked his head slightly and left the kitchen as silently as he had entered.

Gottfried let out a long, slow breath, his eyes theatrically wide.

"Well, that was peculiar, I must say," he commented. "Kurt, you don't think he could be having another attack of that strange illness, do you?"

Kurt shook his head, his golden eyes troubled.

"No. He was completely serious."

He stood, his long tail flicking the air in agitation.

"Please excuse me," he said, already heading for the door with quick strides.

Gottfried and Radulfus shared a look as they watched him go.

"When we pray for the children, I think we should add a few words for those two as well," Gottfried commented.

"I already do, my friend," Radulfus said, turning back to his cooking. "Every night."

*******

Kurt lay on his narrow cot, his golden eyes fixed on the arched ceiling of his stone cell. Two children murdered within as many weeks, and not a single lead as to the identity of the criminal responsible. Kurt shivered, the springs under the thin mattress squeaking as he drew his knees up to his chest.

The whole concept was too horrible to contemplate, but the former acrobat couldn't get it out of his head. His imagination kept running in morbid circles, flashing black-and-white images from the newspaper like a scene out of "M"—an old Fritz Lang horror film he had seen with Woodhead once, long ago. Starring Peter Lorre, the plot had revolved around the hunt for a serial pedophile and child-murderer. Never had a movie disturbed him more, or left such a lasting impression of terror.

Now, it seemed that horrific film was being played out in living color less than two miles from his monastic haven.

Kurt groaned and rolled off the cot, striding over to his cell's single, small window. From this vantage point, he could just barely see the lights from the town below. It was a peaceful, picturesque sight made eerie by the knowledge that somewhere among those pale, twinkling lights, a dangerous killer was on the loose.

The creak of a door echoed through the darkened corridor outside his room. Kurt jumped, wide-eyed and alert…but then he heard the voices: just a couple of tired monks wishing each other good night.

Kurt shook his head, struggling to slow his pounding heart. He didn't know why he was so edgy. It wasn't as though the murderer would target him, after all. But he couldn't shake the disturbing feeling that, somehow, he and the murderer were linked.

His mind flashed back to that moment in Hamburg, when he had felt a rage so deep and so strong it had left him teetering on the brink of murderous violence. If it hadn't been for Amanda's timely interference, Kurt feared that rage would truly have led him to bash Jardine's head to pulp against the nearest wall.

Could Margali's demon have possessed him that night? Could it have possibly followed him to Winzeldorf?

A deep shudder wracked his frame and he shook his head, fighting to shake that thought off as ridiculous. But it faded only to be replaced with other memories, even more terrible. As though experiencing a waking nightmare, he saw Sabu falling from the trapeze, he saw that look of knowing horror darkening his eyes as they both realized Kurt wouldn't be able to reach him in time… He saw himself huddled by Sabu's side, his beloved mentor lying dead in a spreading pool of his own blood…

All this death, all this horror, all at once—it had to be more than a coincidence.

Kurt closed his eyes and sighed, wishing he was nine years old again and that Stefan was still the wise older brother he had once idolized. He ached to discuss his growing fears with someone, but the monks wouldn't understand, and Stefan's responses lately were more cryptic than clarifying. If only Amanda hadn't left-!

Another sound from the corridor interrupted his thoughts, and he crossed the room, his pointed ears pricked and straining to hear through the heavy silence of night.

Footfalls—they were almost too light to make out, but Kurt recognized them at once. Stefan was walking down the hall in soft shoes, his gait slow and careful, as though he didn't want to be heard.

Kurt wasn't sure why he decided to do what he did next. Stefan was probably just on his way to the bathroom, or to the kitchen to grab a midnight snack. Yet, despite the protests of his rational mind, Kurt felt strangely compelled to open his door and sneak out after him. He didn't really like the idea of trailing his brother like this, but as he followed him out of the monastery and into the dark, hazy night, he managed to convince himself he was just looking out for Stefan's welfare. After all, if by some chance he was having another attack, it was Kurt's duty as a brother to bring him safely back to bed.

*******

Two golden eyes peered over the dense hedge, glowing dark and malicious as they watched the young monk make his way down the narrow mountain path toward the sleeping town. Belasco grinned and rubbed his taloned hands together in satisfaction—only to freeze when he spotted another, smaller figure slinking through the shadows some ten feet behind the monk.

"What is he doing here?" the russet-skinned demon hissed, pushing several stiff branches aside so he could get a better look. "He could not have been sent by Margali…"

"No, Belasco," a deep, somber voice sounded from behind him. The demon snarled and spun around, his long tail lashing like a whip. "Young Wagner is here at my will."

"So, it's you," Belasco sneered, his lean face twisted with contempt as he looked the cloaked newcomer up and down. "You don't seriously think you can scare me off with that boy, do you? Don't forget the demon blood also runs through his veins."

"I have not forgotten." The imposing man frowned beneath his black hair, his dark eyes glinting dangerously in the dim light of the crescent moon. "As I have not forgotten the blood pact that brought it there."

Belasco glared.

"The Szardos brat is mine by right, Strange," he snarled. "His soul was promised to me!"

Dr. Strange shook his head.

"The Sorceress's pact was a life for a life," he pointed out. "How is it, then, that Sabu is dead while Jardine still lives?"

"A simple miscalculation," the demon growled. "The change in cast was unexpected. It was the girl who was supposed to die. As for Jardine, his soul is no prize. It will be mine in due time, and with no assistance on my part."

The powerful sorcerer crossed his arms, making his tall figure seem even more imposing as he stared down the wiry demon.

"I have come with a warning, Belasco," he stated grimly. "Leave Szardos alone."

The demon narrowed his glowing eyes to sly slits.

"And why should I?" He smirked. "What is your interest in the monk?"

Dr. Strange frowned, the dark gem on his chest glinting.

"I said let him be. If you continue on this path, you will have to deal with me."

Belasco snorted.

"He is half ours already, Sorcerer," he scorned. "And as the burgeoning power within him grows stronger, so will my influence. You are backing a losing battle, Strange. Why don't you just accept the inevitable and leave the boy to me?"

"I will remain as long as Stefan himself continues to fight," Strange proclaimed, his long cape billowing in the wind. "The Winding Way embraces both the dark and the light. Like Nature herself, it plays no favorites. I, however, have taken a personal interest in the children of Margali Szardos, and I will use every resource in my power to protect them. Consider yourself warned."

Spreading his arms, the great sorcerer wrapped his cape around himself with a theatrical flourish, vanishing from the roadside without a sound.

Belasco glowered at the spot where he had stood for a long, thoughtful moment. Then, slowly, his thin lips stretched into a smirk, his golden eyes glowing with defiant challenge. Turning on his booted heel, the cloaked demon peered down the steep path to where Stefan and Kurt were now little more than dark dots fading in the distance.

When they reached the town, he would be waiting—Strange or no Strange.

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

Part Eight
Scene Three

Kurt knew better than to risk following his brother through the streets to the town center. A small number of bars and restaurants were still open, as well as the area's only cinema. So, to avoid being seen he kept to the rooftops, scuttling and jaunting from shadow to shadow with an eye constantly fixed on Stefan.

Stefan, for his part, walked swiftly and with purpose, his hood up and his head down. He cut across the cobblestone square, past the fountain, only to stop under the cinema's brightly lit marquee sign.

Kurt frowned down at him in surprise, crouched on the sloped roof of the quiet, darkened building across the street, one hand pressed against the chimney.

It was far too late to catch a movie—the last show couldn't have more than half an hour left to run. Besides, Kurt knew Stefan had never had much patience for or interest in movies. The one time he had accompanied Kurt and Woodhead to see "Scaramouche" (starring Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer), he had fallen asleep within the first fifteen minutes and snored all through the climactic dueling sequence. Kurt couldn't imagine what had brought him here—until he saw the young monk stride up to the bored-looking girl behind the ticket counter.

The girl brightened at once and waved him closer with a grin. Kurt goggled when he saw the normally stoic Stefan pull down his hood and actually return her grin in kind. The two of them talked for a long time. Kurt couldn't catch any of their words from his rooftop perch, but he could hear their laughter. He stared, confused and more than a little uncomfortable with this peculiar turn of events.

The girl took Stefan's hand, sandwiching it gently between her own. Her expression was sincere as she looked up into his eyes…

Kurt's frown deepened and he leaned forward, his tail lashing behind him. There was no way he could be seeing what he thought he was seeing. Stefan had taken vows—couldn't that girl tell she was talking to a monk? Yet there they were, grinning at each other across the counter.

Kurt had never seen Stefan like this before, and to tell the truth it was really starting to creep him out. He was debating whether he should teleport down there and demand to know what was going on, when the door beside the counter opened and a small crowd, consisting mainly of teenagers and a few adults, came filing out. The girl gave Stefan's hand a friendly pat, then broke away to disappear inside the building. She returned a few moments later, leading a string of six young children by the hand.

These children also seemed familiar with Stefan, and they crowded around him with excited smiles, chattering a mile a minute. And Stefan, rather than shying away with a frown as Kurt had always known him to do, seemed perfectly at home in the happy little group, ruffling the children's hair and gently wiping traces of chocolate from the corners of their mouths.

Kurt sat back in bewilderment, clutching a hand to his curls as if trying to keep his head from spinning.

What was going on? Who were these children? Could it be that Stefan was leading some secret life beyond the walls of the monastery? From the way everyone was acting, it was clear this was a pretty common scene. But then, why had Stefan left his cell so furtively?

Kurt was so preoccupied with his musings that he almost missed it when Stefan and the children waved their good-byes to the ticket-girl and headed off down the street. Kurt scrambled to follow, leaping gracefully from rooftop to rooftop as silently as a cat.

He needed to know where they were going. Stefan had proved himself unstable at the monastery, and this odd, friendly act wasn't making Kurt feel any better. Seeing him alone, in the midst of so many children...

Kurt shook that awful thought away, but quickened his pace, never letting the group out of his sight.

*******

Stefan led the string of children down the sloping streets to a tall, rambling old brick building beside a narrow, rushing stream. Only one window was lit, on the ground floor near the imposing front door. Carved into the wall just over the stained, metal awning, badly weathered letters spelled out "St. Hildegard's Orphanage."

Slowing his pace, Stefan raised a finger to his lips. The children silenced their chatter at once and followed stealthily as Stefan crept around the back.

Kurt trailed them, clinging to the shadows like a ghost. He watched from behind a tree as Stefan stopped at a smooth, metal door with no outer latch or knob, startled to see it had been propped open by a child's small, black sneaker.

Stefan bent down to retreive the shoe, held the door wide as the children slipped inside, then followed them. The brown door swung closed behind him with a heavy sound.

Kurt jaunted to the door at once, his mind and emotions in a conflicting whirl, but the metal door was flush with its frame. There was no way to pry it open from the outside, and Kurt couldn't jaunt through without knowing the layout inside.

He sighed and leaned his back against the rough brick wall, turning his eyes to the stars.

What could Stefan possibly be doing in there? And why did he have those kids sneaking around the back way instead of going in through the front door?

Hundreds of possible answers swirled through Kurt's head, but all of them seemed terribly out of character for the normally straight-laced, somber Stefan. He would just have to wait and listen, and confront Stefan when he finally emerged...

Kurt had sunk into a crouch and was idly braiding together a clump of long grasses when the snap of a twig made him jump. Surging to his feet, he peered through the shadows under the trees, but he saw nothing. Figuring it was just a squirrel, Kurt turned around—only to gasp out a strangled cry when he found himself staring straight into a pair of glowing yellow eyes.

"That's right, boy," the owner of those cruel eyes hissed, his sharp fangs clenched in a dangerous scowl. "Back away. Slink back to your cloistered cell and stay there. This is not your affair."

Kurt blinked and swallowed, too terrified to respond to the demon's words. And it was a demon standing before him, he had no doubt in his mind. The creature's lean face was leather-red and set in an expression of cold malice. His ears were sharply pointed, poking up through short, russet hair only a shade lighter than the cloak that swirled from his shoulders down to his calf-high boots. Most disturbing of all, a long, spaded tail lashed behind him in a manner that mirrored Kurt's own.

"Wh-who are you?" Kurt managed to stammer, reaching blindly behind him for the solidity and support of the wall.

The demon grinned, causing Kurt to shudder.

"So, you really don't know?" Belasco said, stepping even closer. "We've met before, you know. But then, you were somewhat…distracted at the time."

"What are you talking about?" Kurt demanded, pressed fully against the wall by now. "I've never seen you before in my life."

"But I've seen you," the demon snarled. "I've been watching you, Kurt Wagner. I've had my eye on you ever since that night in Hamburg…when your hesitation cost the life of your beloved mentor, Sabu."

Beneath his fur, Kurt's indigo skin paled to an ashy blue.

"Oh, God," he breathed. "But-but that can't be why you're here! It was an accident—you have to believe it was an accident! I didn't mean for him to die!"

"Yet the fact remains that he is dead," Belasco stated coldly. "And at your hand."

"No…" Kurt choked. "I'm no murderer!"

The demon's smirk broadened.

"How does it feel, Kurt Wagner? The knowledge that you caused the death of another man?"

"But I didn't!" Kurt exclaimed desperately. "The trapeze was faulty; the investigation proved a wire snapped! There was nothing I could have done to save him! So—so, go back to wherever it is you came from, because I won't go with you. I don't care what you do—I...I'll fight!"

Belasco laughed, throwing his head back in a long, malevolent cackle.

Kurt cringed, still frightened but starting to get angry too.

"Little fool," the demon spat. "You're far too easy. You protest your innocence, but admit it, boy. You feel the guilt for that Hungarian's death so strongly, you truly would accept the blame if I pushed you but a little further."

Belasco sneered, bringing his lips so close to Kurt's ear the young man couldn't repress a deep, wracking shudder of revulsion.

"You disgust me," Belasco hissed, low and deep. "You think I came here for you? Your arrogance is amazing. Your puny spirit holds no interest for me."

"Then why are you here?" Kurt demanded, unable to keep a slight quaver from his voice. "Why talk to me, if I'm so uninteresting?"

"I've come to warn you, Kurt Wagner," the demon growled. "You suffer now under the guilt of an imagined killing. If you don't want the burden of an actual murder on your soul, go back to your monastery and stay there. Cloister yourself behind its walls. If you discount this warning, I promise you: the next time you venture beyond those grounds, you will find the killer the town seeks is you."

Kurt tried to edge away, but the demon grabbed his arm, his thick talons digging painfully into Kurt's sleeve.

"It was I who caused your mentor's death," he snarled. "I sabotaged the trapeze wires at the request of your foster mother, the Sorceress Margali. –Listen now, don't pull away! I did this for a reason. Your dear mother has stolen something from me—something very precious and powerful. In return, she has promised me recompense in blood. And I intend to collect."

"So, you were the demon she summoned," Kurt realized. "And now you're after that blood sacrifice?"

Kurt glared, his dark face beginning to flush as his anger swelled.

"If you tell me you've had anything to do with those child murders—"

Belasco laughed again, even harder than before.

"Is that supposed to be a threat, little freak? Your so-called 'family' truly has kept you in the dark, haven't they? But then, who could blame them."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm done wasting words on you," Belasco snarled. "It is clear you comprehend nothing. Return to your home and stay out of my affairs. And remember my warning to you, boy. If you dare try to interfere with me, I will personally introduce you to agonies your sheltered little mind could not conceive in even your most terrible nightmares."

With a final glare, the demon took a step back and vanished in a BAMF of sulfurous smoke.

Kurt started at the sight and swallowed hard, tentatively reaching out to bat the rapidly dispersing smoke with his fingers.

...Could that be what it looks like when I jaunt...?

"Kurt! Kurt, what are you doing here?"

"S...Stefan?"

Kurt snapped his head around in alarm, his eyes wide.

Stefan slowed, then stopped, his brow creased with concern.

"Kurt, what is it? You look like you've just seen a—"

He trailed off, taking a good, long look at Kurt's face. His eyes darkened, and his expression settled into a familiar frown.

"A demon," he finished with strangely calm assurance. Placing a hand on his brother's shoulder, he said, "Come on, Kurt. There's something I want to tell you."

*******

"So, you have been acting as the orphans' escort in the town?"

Stefan shrugged.

"Since the murders, Mother Christina has forbidden the orphans to leave the grounds for any purpose," he said. "But Sister Catherine feared that such a severe restriction would lead several of the more rowdy children to run off on their own, so she decided to contact the monastery for advice. As it happened, I was the one who answered her call. Together, we worked out this little arrangement. The orphans get a few hours of freedom, and we make sure they're safe."

"I have to admit I'm surprised," Kurt said, his shoulders hunched against the chilly wind as they hiked their way back up to the monastery. "Breaking the rules like this? It really doesn't sound like you."

"No," Stefan acknowledged.

"Then why did you agree?"

"Because of you."

Stefan shot his brother a small smile.

"I remembered how much you loved going to the movies as a child, despite all the warnings and the danger of being seen. You hated feeling cooped up, the same as those children. So, rather than risk them sneaking out on their own, where they could be snatched by demons, I agreed to Sister Catherine's proposal."

"Demons?" Kurt looked startled. "Wait, do you mean that demon I met…is he after those children? Tell me the truth, Stefan!"

"Belasco?" Stefan shook his head with a wry look. "No, not him. He's after larger game."

"Then what demons do you mean? Just how many of them are there?"

Stefan smirked.

"Believe me, little brother, you don't want to know. The demons travel the underside of the Winding Way and draw their strength from the dark places. There are many, many kinds of all degrees of power. The demons I'm after are quite small. They feed off fear and hopelessness; emotions those orphans and abandoned children feel all too often. The demons drain them dry, and then take over their minds and their souls."

Stefan straightened his shoulders, staring up at the cold, nighttime sky.

"Since I came here, I have taken it upon myself to protect them. It was my unexpected…illness…brought on by Mother's selfish decision to return us to the Winding Way, that gave those demons the opening they needed to attack. Unfortunately, this time it ended in death."

The monk hung his head, his expression tightening into an angry scowl.

"All this evil stems from that Amos Jardine," he said coldly. "Mother would never have forced us onto the Way had he not bought out her precious circus. And now…"

He sighed, and looked to Kurt.

"Belasco showed himself to you tonight, little brother," he said. "That is a bad sign. It means he feels he is in a position of strength, and that does not bode well…not for you, not for the children, and not for me. We're both going to have to be exceedingly vigilant from here on in, Kurt. You and I are the only ones who know the truth."

He stopped and took Kurt by the shoulders, staring at the young mutant with eyes so black they seemed to absorb the pale starlight.

"With Belasco prowling the town, the real danger has just begun."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Part Eight
Scene Four

Stefan Szardos stood by his window, his dark eyes fixed on the pattern of shadows that marked the face of the moon.

The night air was cold and his robes thin, yet the young monk was sweating. He could feel the pull, the draw of the dark power that called to him, whispered to him, caressed his mind and caused his skin to tingle. It was dizzying, the intoxicating promise of the Way. So much power—he could feel it coursing through him, his hands trembling as he fought to hold it all in.

It would be such an easy thing to let it take hold, to relax his grip and allow the power to consume him. He had done it before—twice now he had succumbed to the whispers. To temptation...

But not again. Not again. He had promised Kurt so long ago… He had said it was up to him to make sure his brother was never called upon to keep his blood oath, and he had meant it with every fiber of his being.

But he was tired…so very tired… And the voices were growing ever stronger…

Clasping his shaking hands, Stefan closed his eyes, squeezing them tightly shut as he struggled to calm his breathing and his mind.

"Memorare, o piisima Virgo Maria, non esse auditum a saeculo, quemquam ad tua currentem praesidia, tua implorantem auxilia, tua petentem suffragia esse derelicta. Nos tali animati confidentia ad te, Virgo Virginum, Mater, currimus; ad te venimus; coram te gementes peccatores assistimus. Noli, Mater Verbi, verba nostra despicere, sed audi propitia et exaudi..."(1)

The plea was heartfelt and sincere, the words of the prayer as familiar as they were soothing. The Latin words fell from his tongue without conscious thought, as though they were a part of him. As he spoke, he could feel his shoulders falling, feel his face relaxing…

"Brother Stefan?"

And suddenly, it was back, the tension surging into his muscles as he spun to face the intruder.

"What do you want?"

The words were strained, hoarse, but at the moment he didn't care. Brother Radulfus looked startled, but that only lasted a moment.

"I came to see if you were well, Brother," the large monk said, leaning a hand against the doorframe. "I noticed you didn't come down for your meals today. We're concerned that—"

"Your concern is unnecessary," Stefan snapped. "I told Kurt, I told Father Abbot, I'm telling you: I'm fine. Now go. Leave me alone!"

But the stubborn Radulfus only adjusted his stance, blocking even more of the doorway.

"I'd say you've been left on your own rather too often, Brother," he said. "We all know how you suffer in your mind. But Stefan, son, whatever is tormenting you, you needn't lock yourself away. We're supposed to be a community here. Perhaps if you talked to us, allowed us to share some of your burden, or at least understand it—"

Stefan barked a scoffing laugh.

"I did that once," he said, his voice thick with pain. "Long ago, I shared my terrors with one I trust above all others. And now I fear the both of us will pay the price for my weakness. Soon, so very, very soon… The time grows ever nearer… And I—I…"

He gasped, clutching his head with both hands, his fingers tangling in his hair.

"I can't stop it… I can't— It's in my head, Radulfus…such power! I can see everything…so clearly. I can see 'them'. They're out tonight. They're roaming the streets. The demons. You can't see them. No one can see them. That's why it's up to me. I have to stop them. I have to stop them before they take more children!"

"Stefan!" Radulfus rushed over to the trembling young man, taking him firmly by the shoulders. "Stefan, stop this! Stop this nonsense and listen to me!"

The older monk leaned back until he could look his delirious friend straight in the eye. What he saw there filled his heart with pity.

"Oh…you poor boy," he sighed, shaking his head. "It's no wonder you're off your head. You've kept yourself cooped up in this bleak old cell all day with no food and no drink and only your thoughts for company. What you need, my boy, is a good night's sleep to clear your head. In the morning, I'll fix you a hearty breakfast. Things always seem brighter with food in your belly. Now, come lie down—"

Radulfus started to guide the young man to his cot, but Stefan twisted away from his grasp with a fierce snarl.

"You fool!" he growled, his eyes dark and dangerous. "Do you think you can stop me?"

"Stefan, you're not well," Radulfus stated, reaching out to him again. "Look, you stay here, all right? I'll fetch you something to help you sleep."

"No!"

Black eyes blazing, Stefan pushed the older man's arm away, ramming his shoulder into his chest with surprising force. The startled monk stumbled back, helpless to stop himself as he crashed against the wall, the back of his head colliding with the stones with a dull thwack. Stefan watched in satisfaction as Radulfus slumped to the floor, unconscious, his head lolling to one side.

"That will show you," he muttered, a mad little smile stretching across his pale face. "You can't stop me. No one can stop me now…"

Leaving the unconscious Radulfus in an ungainly heap against the wall, Stefan threw on a cloak and dashed for the door, a low cackle starting deep in his throat.

"At last it is time. Time to complete my work… At last, at last…at last…"

*******

(1) Here's the translation of the prayer Stefan was saying in his room—Memorare: To Remember.

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, we fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins and Mother; to thee do we come; before thee do we stand, sinful and sorrowful; O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not our petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer us…

*******

"Kurt! Kurt, wake up!"

Kurt moaned sleepily, his tail twitching under his blanket.

"Wha?" he slurred through a yawn. "Wha-what is it?"

Opening his eyes, he saw the dark shape of Brother Radulfus leaning over him, his broad face twisted with pain and guilt.

"Kurt, I'm so sorry," the monk said, swaying slightly as he pressed a hand to the back of his head with a pained wince.

Kurt was up at once, reaching out to offer his friend a steadying hand.

"Oh my—are you all right?" he asked in alarm, noting with no small concern that the monk was having trouble focusing on him. "What happened? You look like you have a concussion!"

"No, no, don't worry about me," Radulfus insisted, trying to push the worried Kurt away. "It's your brother, Kurt. Stefan. He's run away."

Kurt's heart froze in his chest.

"What? When?"

"I don't know. Hours ago now," Radulfus moaned. "It's my fault. I thought I could talk to him, but he was having another one of his episodes, ranting about demons... I tried, but I couldn't stop him. And now he's out there, on his own…"

Kurt swore under his breath, his sharp teeth clenched.

"Kurt, I'm sorry. I thought I could help…"

"No, it isn't your fault," Kurt assured the dizzy monk, wrapping his arm around the man's broad shoulders. "Here, lean on me," he said. "I'm taking you to the infirmary."

"But what about your brother?" Radulfus protested, his voice getting steadily weaker. "In the state he's in—"

"Don't worry," Kurt interrupted, struggling not to show how much it was straining him to support the larger man. "I'll find him. But first I'm going to find you some help. Come on. One step at a time."

*******

…tap tap…tap tap…

"Did you hear that?"

…tap tap…tap tap…

"Radulfus? Radulfus, are you still with me?"

The woozy monk raised his head with a soft moan.

"It's…something's tapping..." he rasped. "'S probably the pipes…so old…keep me up half the night…"

"No..." Kurt frowned, stopping their progress down the ancient stone corridor so he could listen. "It's getting closer. I think someone's coming."

…tap tap…tap tap…

A sudden draft rustled Kurt's hair, and he shivered, cautiously backing Radulfus into a shadowed alcove behind a nearby pillar. Silently, the pair watched as a bent, wispy form materialized from out of the darkness, a worn, knobby staff clutched in his wasted hand. The stranger was swathed in dark robes, like the brothers, his face hidden by his cowl. Yet, around his neck hung a strange, red amulet, a glinting, glowing stone no monk would wear. The sight sent a shudder running down Kurt's spine, some unfamiliar instinct warning him this man was not what he appeared to be.

…tap tap…tap tap…

"Who is that," Radulfus hissed in Kurt's ear, his large form trembling as the specter came steadily closer. "What's going on?" But before Kurt could answer, the tapping came to a stop, leaving the stranger standing in a patch of moonlight. Spreading his arms, the shriveled man raised his face to the light, revealing his white, milky eyes.

"Kurt Wagner," he intoned, his thin voice resonating off the stones. "The mutant child with the noble heart. You intend to follow your brother tonight. But you'll not find him. Not now, not here. The son of Szardos has fallen, but his soul is not lost yet."

Kurt swallowed, sharing a look with Radulfus before stepping out into the corridor.

"Who are you?" he demanded, though he was unable to keep a slight tremble from his voice.

The old man shook his head.

"Still so innocent," he said. "But I can feel your strength...the caring soul of a guardian spirit. I pray you'll not be broken by the pain that is to come."

"Pain?" Kurt frowned. "What pain? Where's Stefan? Tell me where he's gone!"

"The demon's trap is set," the blind man pronounced. "His quarry has taken the bait. Belasco will collect his blood sacrifice before the night is through. And so it must be—unless you intercede. I fear young Stefan will be in dire need of your presence this night."

"Why?" Kurt demanded, his tail lashing agitatedly behind him. "What's going to happen tonight?"

But the old man did not answer. Instead, he lowered his head, fixing Kurt with his unseeing eyes.

"Remember your promise, Kurt Wagner," he said. "You swore a blood oath on your own soul."

Kurt gasped, stumbling back as though he'd been punched.

"What…what are you— How do you know that?"

The old man closed his blind eyes, his jaw set with a resolute sadness.

"My time is limited," he said. "I'm so sorry, Kurt. So sorry…"

"Wait—don't leave!" Kurt pleaded, reaching out before the old man could turn away. "Please…you still haven't told me who you are!"

But the man had vanished, silently and without a trace. For a long moment, Kurt stared at the place he had been, frozen with disbelief. It was Radulfus who finally broke the silence.

"You must go, Kurt," the injured monk said softly, shuffling into the open with his hand pressed to his head. "I can make it to the infirmary on my own. But your brother needs you. He needs you to bring him back home."

Kurt was about to protest, but Radulfus locked eyes with him in a silent struggle until, at last, Kurt nodded. Turning away, the young mutant pounded down the corridor on all fours, charging toward the narrow, winding staircase.

Radulfus watched him go with a sigh, then staggered back against the wall, the world fading out around him as he collapsed heavily to the floor.

To Be Continued...

Reviews welcome!

Chapter Text

Scene Eight
Part Five

The moon loomed high over the churchyard, its pale rays highlighting the shadows cast by the uneven memorial statues and stones. In the far corner, a man was digging, the dull, steady rhythm shattering the stillness of the night. He worked without pause, grunting with the effort of tearing up the earth and sod, piercing deep into the cold, hard ground.

Beside him lay three bundles. They were small, each wrapped loosely in frayed, faded blankets. Two were already streaked with dirt and dry grass, but the third was relatively clean. The man had laid them out in a neat row, a threadbare plush rabbit propped against the smallest.

Belasco laughed low in his throat, reveling in the scene from his treetop perch. There was a shimmer of red-gold light, and suddenly the old, blind man stood at the base of the tree, his milky eyes turned to the stars.

"The ancient powers are gathering," he commented, as if speaking to himself. "Can you feel it?"

Belasco glared down at him in annoyance.

"You're too late, fool," he snapped. "The son of Margali is already mine. His fate is inevitable. You know that as well as I do."

"I know no such thing," the old man responded lightly, keeping his eyes fixed on the sky. "Inevitable is simplistic word, an excuse used by those with only a limited understanding of time. The shape of the future isn't fixed. If it were, neither of us would be here, would we."

"Empty words," the demon growled, his spiteful eyes burning like cinders through the darkness.

"Perhaps," the man allowed. "Perhaps not. Look there."

Belasco turned his head in time to see a slender shape detach itself from the shadows, slinking across the open space between the trees until it reached the cemetery's wrought-iron gate.

"No…!" the demon hissed, causing the old man's smile to sharpen.

"The boy has come to fulfill his childhood oath," he said. "You may just have to leave empty handed tonight, Belasco."

With a furious snarl, the demon leapt off his branch, his clawed hands reaching for the blind man's throat. But the old man was too quick. He jumped back, fingering the red amulet that hung at his chest. There was another shimmer, and his bent, wasted body straightened, broadened, unfolding into the formidable, cloaked form of Dr. Strange.

Belasco rose slowly from his crouched landing, angrily brushing the twigs and dried leaves from his blood-red cape.

Strange glared at the shorter demon, his dark eyes hard.

"This is your final warning, Belasco," the sorcerer stated. "Leave now, and Stefan can still be saved. Stay, and I shall do all in my power to prevent you from taking him."

Belasco's eyes flickered, and he scowled.

"You still haven't told me, Strange," he said. "Why this vested interest in Margali's son? He would be no asset to you. His powers are as unstable as his mind."

"Just like a demon to consider a human soul in terms of 'assets,'" the sorcerer scoffed. "What course do you choose?"

Belasco snarled, baring his pointed teeth.

"Stubborn fool," he growled. "The Szardos brat is mine. I'll not back down from my claim, not for you or anyone."

"Then have it your way."

Strange raised his arms, raw energy crackling up from the earth and across his body, sizzling between his fingertips and filling his eyes with power.

"Our duel begins now!"

*******

Kurt approached the cemetery gate with a cold sense of foreboding. He wasn't sure why he'd come looking here, of all places. He'd initially expected to find Stefan wandering the monastery garden, or perhaps stalking the streets of the town, angry over what he had done to Radulfus and unable to sleep.

For some reason, though, his feet had led him to this place: the small churchyard that surrounded the old ruins of what had once been the monastery chapel. Many of the graves here dated back to the Thirty Years War and even earlier—to the middle ages, when the monastery was initially founded. It was a quiet, solitary place, well kept but rarely visited save by the occasional university scholar.

That was why Kurt was so surprised to hear the sounds of shoveling coming from within the wrought-iron fence.

Keeping close to the shadows, he passed through the gate, his sharp golden eyes sweeping the desolate space as he searched for the source of the rhythmic scraping sounds. There seemed to be a strange energy in the air, making the air in the churchyard seem oddly warm. It pulsed inside his ears, like the thrumming bass of a distant engine, causing the fur on his arms to stand on end. He shivered, disconcerted and frightened—until he spotted something that made all his nebulous uncertainties coalesce in one sharp stab of freezing horror.

A dark shape crouched between the standing stones: a man in long robes, his attention completely taken by something on the ground. A mound…a mound of upturned earth—Kurt could just see it when the tall man leaned across to pat down a handful of dirt. Silent as a cat, Kurt slinked nearer, keeping close to the low, uneven headstones—only to gasp out loud when he realized just what that mound was.

It was a grave—a fresh grave, without a marker. And beside it, in the grass, lay a threadbare plush bunny…the beloved plaything of a child.

"…oh God…" he breathed, crossing himself quickly as he sank to his knees at the foot of a nearby tombstone, his legs suddenly weak and his pulse thudding loudly in his ears.

It was the murderer. It had to be. He had to get away from here, get back to the monastery, call the police! He'd have to sneak out on foot, though. He was too close to teleport, couldn't risk the noise scaring the monster off…

With long, feline movements, Kurt slowly backed away, his eyes wide and fixed on the cloaked man. He'd nearly made it to the gate, when a sudden burst of lightening struck a nearby tree, momentarily illuminating the churchyard with its blinding flash. Startled, both Kurt and the murderer looked up, their eyes meeting in the instant before the flash faded. The shock of recognition froze them both in place.

"Stefan…"

Kurt's voice was a hesitant croak, barely audible, but it was enough. Stefan slowly rose from where he was crouching in the dark, the ragged bristles on his pale, unshaven face catching the moonlight. For a moment, his expression was lost in terror. Then, slowly, recognition crept into his wild eyes.

"Kurt!" he exclaimed, stepping forward and holding his hands out in grateful welcome. "Brother, is that you?"

Kurt did not respond, he just stood, still and straight, his glowing eyes fixed on the small mound of fresh earth next to the disheveled monk.

"What are you doing here?" Stefan continued after an awkward pause, his voice shaky.

Kurt raised his head, his yellow eyes direct and hard as they met Stefan's blood-shot black ones.

Stefan recoiled slightly at the unnerving sight, pulling his arms protectively into his heavy cloak.

"How could you do it, Stefan," Kurt spoke at last, his voice rough and tight with emotion. "What could those children possibly have done?"

"What? What children?" Stefan seemed genuinely confused as he followed Kurt's burning gaze to the mound of earth at his feet. Then he brightened, even smiling at his brother's look of horror.

"Oh! Oh, no no. These creatures, the ones I put here in the dirt, these aren't children. Not anymore. They look like children, yes. But that's their trick—their trap. They look like children, but they're empty inside. Empty, empty, empty and cold."

Kurt shook his head, unable to comprehend that what he was hearing was real.

"Empty…" he repeated. "Oh no, oh-oh God, Stefan," he said, his voice thick with dismay. "Don't you see? They're empty because you killed them. You killed them, Stefan! Those children are dead!"

"They were not children," Stefan retorted, starting to get angry. "I thought you would understand. This is my work, Kurt. My purpose. This is why I'm here!"

Kurt closed his eyes, taking in several shaky breaths as he buried his face in his hands. He didn't know what to say, how to handle this. It was obvious now that his brother wasn't merely ill. He was completely insane. Insane, and dangerous.

Amanda had seen the signs. Years ago, before Stefan had left the circus, she'd tried to warn them. But Kurt hadn't listened. Like Margali, he hadn't wanted to believe the boy he had so looked up to in his youth could be capable of such wanton cruelty.

And now, it was too late. The terrible evidence of his brother's fall was staring him in the face. Innocent children had been murdered because of his blindness. The clues had always been there, but Kurt had refused to see them.

Not anymore.

"Stefan," he said coldly. "I want you to come here. Take my hand. We're going back to the monastery."

"No, no, no we can't go back yet!" Stefan told him, shaking his head like a dog with a flea. "No, there are still demons out there. The demons I told you about, the fiends that draw their power from the dark places. Darkness is all around us, brother. And now you've come, you can assist me with my work. You can help me save the orphans!"

Kurt glared at his brother in furious incredulity.

"Listen to me, Stefan. This work of yours—it isn't good! You can't save the orphans by killing them! What kind of sick logic is that?"

"Not orphans!" Stefan insisted. "Not children! Demons, in the form of children. They feed off their fears so they can inhabit their bodies and consume their souls. Make them do bad things. I have to protect them from that! And you, brother, you must help me," he said eagerly. "Together, we can kill them all!"

Kurt felt like crying. He wanted to curl up into himself and sob. The last of his childhood illusions was shattered. The brother he had loved was gone, may never even have existed. All that was left was this stranger who now stood in his brother's place, a deranged murderer, lost in a world of delusion, leaving Kurt alone. Cast adrift in a cold, suspicious world, without an anchor, without a family…without hope...

...Remember your oath, Kurt. You swore on your immortal soul...

...I know... Kurt snapped back at the words that came, unbidden, to his mind. ...I'll bring him home. I'll call the police. I'll get him help...

...He is beyond human aid. The help he needs must come from you, Kurt. His brother in so much more than name. Only you can set him free...

Kurt shivered, shaken by his own thoughts. It was like there was another voice in his head, pushing him forward. Forcing him to reach out, to take Stefan by the hand. To pull him closer, enfold him in a fierce embrace, his face pressed against his shoulder.

"Hold on tight," he warned, glancing up at the looming monastery as he initiated a teleport.

Stefan seemed to realize what Kurt had in mind an instant before the 'port took effect. Even as the teleport smoke plumed out, the larger man began to struggle. Calling on all his power, both physical and mystical, the deranged monk somehow forced his way out of Kurt's grasp. With a wrenching BAMF, the pair reappeared on the grassy hill just outside the monastery walls, drained and panting. Stefan was the first to recover, shoving Kurt away and making a frantic dash for the path that led down to the village.

"No!" Kurt cried after him. His entire body ached from the strain of the aborted teleport, but he forced himself to jaunt again—this time reappearing crouched on his brother's broad shoulders.

Stefan stumbled under his sudden, unexpected weight, forcing Kurt into a roll as he fell to his knees on the hard-packed dirt. As Kurt leapt to his feet to come at him again, Stefan reached into his cloak and pulled out a dagger.

Kurt's eyes widened. He knew that weapon. It was the same dagger Stefan had used years before, when he had forced him…forced him to swear…

...Swear to me Kurt—if I ever turn evil…if I ever take an innocent life…that you will kill me…

"NO!" Kurt screamed again, pressing his hands to his ears to keep the memories at bay. "Please, Stefan, put the knife away," he begged. "Don't make me fight you! Just let me take you inside. We'll walk inside together. Give me your hand—"

"Get back!" Stefan exclaimed, swiping the air between them with his blade. "I trusted you, Kurt," he said. "I confided my secrets to you. I thought you were pure, but now I understand your deception. You want to stop me, like all the others. Like that fool, Radulfus! You want to give me pills, make me sleep, give the demons their chance to take over. Possess the children and rule the world! Well, it won't work. I won't stop. Step aside or face my blade, Devil! I know who you are!"

Kurt's eyes flashed, and his expression hardened.

"Right," he glared, his long tail lashing like a whip. "So you think I'm the devil, now? Why? Because I won't let you loose down there, in the village? Because I won't let you murder more innocent children! Give it up, Stefan! Drop the knife!"

Stefan tilted his head, his dark eyes wide and vacuous. For a moment it looked like he might be considering Kurt's words. But then, he lunged, his blade glinting in the moonlight.

Acting fast, Kurt pushed Stefan's arm aside and aimed a punch at his jaw. His fist connected with a solid smack that set the taller man reeling. Unwilling to give him time to recover, Kurt hopped onto his back, wrapping his tail around his broad chest while Stefan spun in place, flailing with his arms as he tried to bat Kurt away.

But Kurt would not let go. Instead, he squeezed tighter, using his legs and tail to press the air from the madman's body, forcing him to gasp for breath.

But, his efforts weren't enough. Stefan wasn't weakening. And Kurt's tail couldn't keep up the pressure for much longer…

*******

Lightening flashed down from the clear, starry sky, enveloping two figures in its crackling energy. The demon and the sorcerer stood at the ready, defensive and fierce, and completely, eerily still. This was a battle of minds, of wills, of esoteric power brought to violent and furious life. The power channeled through them, but it manifested elsewhere.

In the dreams of a dying man…

In the nightmares of a screaming child…

In the infirmary, Brother Radulfus opened his eyes. Brother Gottfried was there to take his hand.

"Kurt," the fading monk whispered, his eyes unfocused and his head swimming. "Kurt, hold on. I'm coming."

"Oh no, Radulfus," Gottfried said, forcing him still on the bed. "You're not going anywhere, not with the concussion you've got. The doctor said there might be bleeding…"

"I have to go…I have to help…" Radulfus insisted, rising up as if in a trance. "Brother Stefan needs me."

"If you step out that door, I won't be held responsible!" Gottfried snapped, still struggling to hold the much larger man back. "Radulfus! Radulfus, listen to me!"

But Radulfus was past hearing. He was responding to a different call, imbued with a power far beyond his knowledge. He was an agent of good, an angel of death, and no one could get in his way.

But while Radulfus was responding to a call to aid, the villagers of Winzeldorf found themselves assaulted by summons of a different kind.

It began with a single child. Nighttime horrors invaded his dreams and he screamed like one possessed, his eyes wide but unseeing. Woken from their sleep, the neighbors flocked around the house, their fears rising as they shivered in the cold, crying out in alarm as flashes of lightening streaked impossibly across the cloudless sky.

It was a night of foreboding, of prophesy. Rumors ran thick through the streets, warning of killers, of demons. More children were screaming now, more parents at their wits' end, unable to wake them. They were frightened, helpless and angry, all pretense of adult rationality rapidly fading as the night wore on.

And then, in the distance, the sound of sirens. By the river, the sky was glowing red. The orphanage was ablaze. The nuns of St. Hildegard's flocked up the street, their small, sobbing charges in tow.

But it wasn't the fire that had the nuns in tears. One of their children was missing. A little girl, Zofia, barely five years old. They'd tucked her into bed, but during the evacuation she and her favorite stuffed rabbit had been nowhere to be found.

A third child gone after a rash of murders, the orphanage engulfed in flames. The village children lost in nightmares, unable to wake up.

This was not a human's doing, the villagers were certain. This was the work of the supernatural. Something unholy was afoot in the town.

And the lightening was concentrating by the monastery…

*******

The villagers of Winzeldorf were on the march. Their torches—both electric and flame—glimmered through the darkness: a tight mass of fireflies swarming up the steep mountain path.

They were on the hunt, any lingering individual hesitations dampened by the swelling rush of fevered vengeance that swept over the group. The flashing lightening only spurred them on, illuminating their twisted features and lighting their fevered eyes. The fear in their hearts had curdled into fury, questions were unimportant, answers were no longer needed. The mob was the answer, their aggression the solution to the terrors that plagued their town. Shouting and chanting, they marched into the unknown, shielded by a fog of numbers, the illusion of invincibility…

*******

Outside the monastery walls, Kurt's strength was beginning to fade. Feeling the pressure of Kurt's tail around his ribcage was lessening, Stefan clutched his brother's legs to his chest and roared, running at the high brick wall with the intent of ramming Kurt into its side. But, Kurt was armed with an acrobat's agility. Kicking free of Stefan's grip, he flipped off his shoulders with seconds to spare, landing lightly in the grass while the madman's inertia left him unable to stop.

Stefan sank to the ground, dazed by the impact, but Kurt hauled him to his feet, yanking the dagger from his hand and tossing it into the bushes that lined the path. Infuriated, Stefan dove after it, but Kurt tackled him to the ground, the pair of them rolling and rolling down the slope of the hill. Their teeth were clenched, the veins on their necks bulging with the effort of keeping the others' hands at bay. They came to a stop at a dip in the ground, bruised and torn and bleeding but still battling for the upper hand. Neither seemed able to pin the other. Stefan was tall and strong, but Kurt was lithe and quick.

And then Stefan grabbed his brother by the neck with both hands and hauled him to his feet, spinning him around so he could lock him in a half nelson. Kurt's eyes bulged as Stefan's vice-like grip cut off his air supply, his arms and tail flailing in desperation.

Through the haze of asphyxiation, Kurt suddenly recalled a stage-combat move Chester had once taught him and he bent forward, spreading his legs for balance. His execution was clumsy, however, and he wrenched his neck painfully as he flipped the larger man over his back and fell with him to the ground. Stefan was forced to release his hold, but he was soon on his feet again, rushing at Kurt with a bloodcurdling yell. Gasping and disoriented and with no time to think, Kurt instinctively teleported out of the way. Stefan's arms grasped nothing but smoke as he overbalanced and fell, sprawling, onto the rocky ground. Kurt jumped at once onto his chest, his knees pressed against the taller man's arms. Stefan struggled like a wild thing, forcing Kurt to roll back as he sat up, but Kurt kicked him hard in the chest. Stefan's head whiplashed back—

—straight into a half-buried rock, three times the size of an ostrich egg.

It was a dull sound, the impact of bone and rock, but it resonated in the darkness. The reverberation echoed in Kurt's ears long after it had faded from the air, sending a cold shudder coursing down his spine, settling heavily in his stomach.

Stefan's eyes flew wide open, and his body spasmed under Kurt's. The young mutant barely had time to register what had happened before a pair of thick, strong hands closed around his shoulders and pulled him away from his brother with a firmness that was also gentle.

Kurt's breaths were coming short and quick, his mind numb and nauseous with horror, confusion, and adrenaline. It therefore took him several moments to fully register the image of the large figure kneeling by his brother's side.

Eyes wide, he rose unsteadily to his feet, his hands trembling as he took a stumbling step forward.

"R-Radulfus…?"

The large monk turned his head, and Kurt was stunned to see his eyes were glowing white. Soundlessly, Radulfus pressed a finger to his lips, then turned back to Stefan's unmoving form. The glowing monk fanned his hands across the young man's chest and pressed down once, a slow, steady pressure, and then again...

Kurt found himself knocked back by some unseen force, sprawled on the grass and engulfed in a harsh, blinding blackness that burned his eyes like smoke.

The next thing he knew, he was staring at the stars. The air was clear and cold and terribly, terribly still.

Propping himself up on his elbows, Kurt looked around, aching and disoriented.

And then he saw them.

Two bodies, Stefan and Radulfus, lying side by side…perpendicular, like a T.

Seized with foreboding, Kurt crawled at once to their side, tears leaking from his golden eyes as he felt for any sort of pulse, shaking them by the shoulders, first whispering, then shouting for them to get up, to look at him, to please say something, anything…

But no amount of pleading would bring the spark back to their eyes. Their voices had been silenced…forever.

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

Part Eight
Scene Six

Dr. Stephen Strange had known the sorceress Margali since she was very small. From a distance, he had watched her. Watched her as she learned, as she grew…watched her fall in love…

Ever stubborn, the young Margali had defied her father's will and secretly engaged herself to one of the Gadje, an outsider staying in the nearby French village with no claim to Gypsy blood or heritage. When he'd discovered what she'd done, her father had become enraged. He hadn't beaten her. He wasn't that kind of man. His weapon was silence. Intense and unrelenting. He'd simply ignored her, his eyes passing through her as if she wasn't even there. By firm, unspoken decree he made it clear that as long as she wore her lover's ring, his daughter did not exist. She was dead to him, to the entire family, as insubstantial as a ghost.

Margali's father had believed the pain of family rejection would sway her. Make her accept his terms and leave her outsider for good. But Margali's will was stronger than even he knew, and his efforts to force her back only pushed her further away. If her family refused to accept her, she figured, she had no reason to stay. Her loyalty was to herself…and to the dark-eyed young German who had won her heart…

Strange had appeared to her at midnight. Margali had been packing. Her fiancé was waiting for her at the edge of the forest, waiting to take her away to Paris, and from there to his native Germany. They were to be married in the morning, as soon as the Paris courthouse opened...

"Don't go," he said.

Margali didn't start. She barely even blinked. She just turned on her heel, fixing her strange intruder with an angry, piercing stare.

"You have the wrong trailer," she snapped. "Get out."

"Don't go, Margali," Strange repeated, taking a step forward. "Do not abandon your place on the Path."

Margali rolled her violet eyes.

"I know what I'm doing," she stated flatly. "I'm not naïve, and I'm not a fool."

"I know," Strange told her. "Which is why I know you'll hear me out. Rationally, forgoing the defensive petulance of youth."

Margali raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Who are you?" she demanded. "You seem familiar, somehow."

Strange twitched his lips.

"You have a gift, Margali. Deep inside, you know this is true."

Reaching out, he smoothed a hand over her dark hair, twirling a curly lock between his fingers.

"You have more power locked away in a single strand of your hair than the rest of your family can wield combined."

Margali pulled her head away, turning to shove her remaining books into her battered leather bag.

"I don't care," she said, her eyes fixed on her work. "I never wanted it."

"You want to be normal," Strange said gently. "You want to know love. Human love. But Margali…" He stepped up close behind her, his lips nearly brushing her ear as he whispered, "...you are not human. Not really."

"What am I, then?" Margali snorted, forcing him to lean back as she slung the bag over her shoulder.

"A prodigy," Strange responded, the sudden intensity of his black eyes startling her into stillness. "Come with me, Margali. I can offer you so much more than this mundane human life you seek. You have the potential to achieve true greatness, to wield a power that rivals my own. Don't let it go to waste. Allow me to be your guide and I promise you…"

"You promise me what?"

Her voice was barely a whisper, but a trace of defiance still remained.

"Everything," Strange said. And this time, he did smile.

Margali stared at him for a long time, oddly entranced by this strange man. By those black eyes, so ancient and deep, gleaming with secrets yet, somehow, completely open. He was telling her the truth, his offer was genuine. She had no doubt now that she was in the presence of a powerful sorcerer…perhaps even a Sorcerer Supreme.

And yet…

Margali blinked, shattering the tension of the moment with a deep, shaky breath.

"I appreciate the offer," she told him at last. "I really do. But…"

She shook her head, raising her chin to look him directly in the eye.

"I don't want everything. I have Darick Szardos. He is all I need."

Strange clenched his jaw, his expression darkening.

"This is your final decision."

"It is my only decision," Margali stated firmly. "I made it long ago…when I first realized how much he loves me. He truly loves me."

"And you?" Strange asked. "Do you love him?"

Margali considered for a long moment, looking deep within herself. When she finally answered, there was a touch of wonder in her voice.

"I do. Completely."

"Hm."

Strange pursed his lips, his dark eyes hard.

"I cannot promise you will be happy," he said. "Your time together will be intense, but fleeting. Are you still willing to make this choice?"

"I am," Margali said. "I know I can live without Darick. I know he could make a life without me. But we would always be less than what we could be. What we should be."

She straightened.

"The future is never certain. As circumstances shift, so do predictions. Even the predictions of a sorcerer." She shot him a knowing look. "I believe in Darick. I trust him."

"Enough to sacrifice your core?" he asked her. "To deny who you truly are?"

"I know who I am," Margali retorted coldly. "I don't need ancient magicks and dusty runes to define me."

"And what of your children?" Strange said, startling her.

"Children?"

"They will be of your blood, Margali," he told her, a warning clear in his voice. "If they should manifest, the power they would wield could shake the very balance of the universe. Would you leave them untrained, Margali? Ignorant of their potential? Deny them their place on the Winding Way?"

"You're just trying to shake me," she said. "Scare me into changing my mind, into choosing you over him. Well, it's not going to happen. Your hypothetical musings don't frighten me. So…so just get out of my way!"

Margali pushed past Strange to the door, her cheeks flushing as she fumbled the latch.

Strange watched her with a sort of sadness, his solemn eyes welling with dark reflections of the future she had just caused to manifest…of the children she would one day rear…

"One last thing, Margali," he said as she finally managed to thrust open the door.

She paused, her back to him.

"My name," he said. "In case you change your mind."

"I won't."

And then, she was gone, racing off into the night as though a thousand ghosts were grasping for her heels.

"Stubborn child," Strange spoke softly, as he slowly turned away. "I only hope your choice has not condemned us all…"

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

Part Eight
Scene Seven

Stefan Szardos was floating…no, drifting, hovering above the world like a cloud at the mercy of the nighttime breeze. He saw without eyes, heard without ears, moved without the aid of arms and legs. The experience was very strange and somewhat chilly, like a dream but more real, as though he'd fallen asleep on a swimming pool float and wasn't quite awake enough yet to realize where he was.

Blinking was impossible without eyelids, so he just stared out at the shadowed ground so impossibly far below...

A graveyard, a sloping dip in the hillside, three small figures sprawled and unmoving in the grass. One, a slender man with a tail, glowed faintly—alive then, his mind alerted him, but unconscious. The other two were ominously dark.

Who were they? Their shapes were so familiar, but he couldn't place them...

Far in the distance, a trail of twinkling lights was snaking up the path like a sparkling stream, but he spared them only the most cursory of glances. A far closer brightness had already caught his curiously hazy attention.

A fight. No... It was more than that. A duel, a contest of power and sheer strength of will.

Stefan stared, thoroughly engrossed by the crackling energy that surged around and between the two combatants, channeled from the sky and the earth, from the trees and the grasses and the insects and animals, even from the dead buried in their graves. He could see it all, feel it all, it was familiar and it was terrible.

The power pulled him, called to him, forcing him closer to the violent display. The chilly air crackled with electricity, prickling, vibrating. Lightening flashed purple and blue, white and green and bright, bright blood red, illuminating the trees with their colors. As he drew nearer, the energy stung him, piercing him, and he cried out—!

It was sound without voice, formed without lungs or lips or tongue or teeth. But it brought the duel to a sudden, deafening stop.

BAMF!

A clawed hand gripped him, holding him fast and helpless; the brick-red arm of a demon.

Stefan struggled against the demon's firm grasp, but without a body there was little he could do.

The demon cackled, triumphant, his harsh laughter echoing through the darkness over the rustle of the leaves of his tree-top perch.

"And so it ends!" the demon crowed, tightening his grip on his insubstantial hostage. "The son of Margali is mine. I've won!"

Dr. Strange said nothing. Lifting his arms, he rose silently into in the air until he stood with his feet planted firmly some fifteen feet above the ground. His long cloak swirled about his ankles and the amulet at his chest gleamed an imposing red.

To Stefan's fear-blurred mind, this seemed far from the posture of a man defeated, but the demon no longer cared. Belasco held his prize in his hands, and he wasn't about to let him go.

"You're finished, Strange!" he cackled, his long, red tail lashing like a whip. "You and that treacherous Margali! Her precious son is mine. All that untapped power—all mine! Mine to command, to control! Payment received at last!"

But the sorcerer wasn't listening to Belasco's gloats. His sharp eyes were fixed elsewhere, piercing through to the very core of Stefan's foggy essence. And Stefan, with his eyeless sight, stared straight back.

"Child of Power," Strange intoned, holding out his hand. "Eldest son of the Sorceress Margali. Tell me your name."

Stefan wanted to tell him. He wanted to take his hand. But the demon held him too tightly, his sharp talons digging painfully into his being.

"Say nothing, boy," Belasco hissed. "You're mine now. My property. You'll do only as I will and answer only to the name I give you. Defy me, and you will suffer torments unimaginable by the human mind."

"No, it does not have to be so," Strange retorted. "You still have a choice, son, even now. Tell me your name."

"Do it and you speak the name of a murderer," Belasco snarled. "A slayer of children, a killer of men!"

...No...

Stefan's mind was bleary, his memories fogged. The demon's words were wrong—had to be wrong...

Yet, the images were there, crowding his unblinking vision. Images of children, screaming in the night. Orphans crying, lost in their fears. Fear of him…

"I… No…" he whispered his denial, another voiceless sound. "No, not children… They weren't children…"

"You're a killer, boy, don't try to deny it," the demon snarled. "Just look below. That is a scene of your creation, the nightmare reality of a twisted mind. Look at it, boy, then say you don't belong to me."

Stefan looked, and his soul filled with horror. The fresh grave…the sad, dirt-streaked bunny, fallen upon its side… And there, to the left, the three prone figures...

He knew them now, his memories trickling back through the haze. The monk, Radulfus, his warm, brown eyes now dark and empty. His own pale face, twisted, frozen in a rictus-like grimace. And Kurt…

His little brother lay so still, his bright eyes closed. Was he breathing?

Stefan tried to move, to go to his brother's side, but the demon's grip was too strong.

"No, let me go!" he cried. "Kurt's down there, I have to—"

"You are to keep still, slave," the demon snarled. "Ridiculous fool. You still don't understand. You forfeited your soul to me the moment you wrapped your hands around the throat of your first tiny, trusting victim. Killers like you don't get a choice, boy. You are destined to walk the Path with me. Now come! I've waited too long for this moment, I'll not stand for any more delays!"

Something lurched...something deep and angry... Stefan glared at the demon and felt it roiling within him, that familiar darkness, the cruel shadow that had lurked deep in his mind for so long...

He had allowed Kurt to see it once, made the boy look into the eyes of his brother's secret terror. Kurt knew of the monster crouching in his brother's soul, yet still he had risked his life to save him.

Now, Kurt lay injured in the cold, destined to awake to a gruesome sight and a hideous guilt that was not his to bear.

Stefan had tried so hard to protect him, so hard… But he had failed. Failed at everything. And now, only now, did he begin to understand why...

"You," he growled at his captor, allowing the seething fury within him to form the words he felt so keenly. "This is your doing. You set me up, sent those demons to attack the orphans. It was a trap—"

"And you fell right into it," Belasco snarked back. "You killed those hybrid creatures of your own free will. I did nothing to force your hand."

"I didn't!" Stefan yelled. "I did everything I could to prevent this—"

"Yes, you took quite a few precautions, didn't you?" Belasco smirked. "Forcing your innocent little brother to sully his soul with your bloody death pact, then locking yourself away from the world in that monastery. But all this time, you were merely hiding from your symptoms, boy. You did nothing to seek out the cause—to learn how to control the dark forces within you. You just let them grow. And look at you now."

The demon cackled, his cruel eyes glinting with wicked humor.

"You've gone and gotten yourself killed, leaving your hapless little brother to carry the blame for your crimes! It would be beautiful, if it weren't so sloppy!"

The fog that was Stefan thickened with every word the demon spoke, darkening with fury. Black smoke billowed from his center, greasy and coiling and harsh.

Belasco stopped his cackling.

"What is this?" he snarled, slapping at the smoky tendrils that wrapped around his legs, his torso. "What's happening? Get off me!"

Stefan ignored his demands. It was his turn to laugh now.

"That's enough!" Strange shouted, holding his hand out to the pulsating, smoking thing Stefan had become. "Don't do this. Don't forfeit your last chance—"

"This demon is the reason I'm here," Stefan snapped, too angry to care about anything beyond the growing look of fear on Belasco's lean face. "He provoked me to kill, and now I will kill him!"

"No, you can't!" Strange stated, a touch of desperation creeping into his voice. "Don't give in to the darkness. I can help you, I promise, but you must remember who you are. Speak your name once, and I can set you free!"

Stefan roared and Belasco cringed, already more than half engulfed in the thickening tendrils of Stefan's hate.

But, Strange's hand was still outstretched, his dark eyes bright with compassion...

"Son of Margali, hear me," the sorcerer said, his soft voice somehow penetrating Stefan's consuming anger. "This is the moment. This is your choice. You can take my hand now, or you can kill Belasco and take his place in Limbo. This is how destinies are made, son. This is how the wheel of fate turns. Decide."

It would be so easy, so easy to smother the demon, to engulf him in his coils and squeeze the life from his twisted body. The urge to do it was so strong, holding back made him tremble. Belasco was an evil, loathsome thing, if he let him go he would only go on to hurt more people. And yet…

Kurt was beginning to stir now, far far below. Stefan could see him with his impossible panoramic vision.

The young mutant sat up, looking around, diving forward to grasp the hand of Stefan's lifeless body. Stefan heard his brother's cries, every heart-wrenching plea. For him to wake up, to open his eyes, to tell him he forgave him.

"Please, please, no," Kurt sobbed. "Stefan, I'm so sorry. I love you!"

"Kurt…"

He couldn't look any longer, couldn't face himself, what he had become, was becoming...

Slowly, reluctantly, Stefan uncoiled himself from the half-suffocated Belasco, leaving the demon to fall through the branches and land, unconscious, on the grassy ground.

Strange raised an eyebrow at that, but made no comment.

"I know who I am," he told the sorcerer. "I'm Stefan Szardos. I'm a monster. I've killed…demon or human or hybrid, it doesn't matter. I knew I was doing it and I knew it was wrong, but I didn't stop. I've hurt my brother, my family, so much. I don't deserve your pity, or your help."

"You're right," Strange agreed, startling him. "You have done horrible things. The hate you carry within you is extremely powerful. You could, indeed, be great if you followed Belasco on the Winding Way. Great and terrible. You would rise quickly, wield incredible power."

"Is that why you're here, then?" Stefan asked. "You've come to finish me off before I can become that terrible power?"

"If that's what you want, I could oblige," Strange told him. "But no, that's not why I'm here. I've come to offer you an opportunity. The same opportunity I offered your mother, many many years ago."

"Oh?" Stefan asked, curious. "What's that?"

"To follow me," he said, and Stefan stared, uncertain he had heard him properly. Even from this brief acquaintance, Stefan was certain Strange could be nothing less than a Sorcerer Supreme. And he was offering him a place directly behind him on the Winding Way? It was a position of incredible trust and influence—if Stefan accepted, he would be just one step away from unimaginable power. He'd only have to kill Strange, and all the sorcerer's powers and privileges would fall to him.

"Yes, I am quite aware of that, Stefan," Strange said, as though he'd heard his thoughts. "But I'm willing to take the risk."

"Why?"

Strange almost smiled.

"You are a prodigy," he explained. "Like your mother. Like your sister. But without proper guidance, your powers will consume you, as they very nearly did tonight. I offer you that guidance, Stefan—if you are willing to accept it."

"What if I refuse?" Stefan asked.

"Then you are on your own," the sorcerer replied. "You can join Belasco or, if you wish, you could use your power to return to your own body. But you will never be free. Always, your powers will have the upper hand. In time, they will overtake you fully. And, there will be no redemption after that."

Stefan nodded, and glanced down at Kurt again, sobbing and broken among the dead. The twinkling torches were getting closer, Stefan could almost make out the individual shapes of the townspeople. If Kurt didn't leave soon, he would be in terrible danger.

"If I agree to follow you," Stefan said quickly, "can I help Kurt? Can I talk with him?"

Strange gave a slow, sad shake of his head.

"I'm afraid not."

"But—"

"Kurt must follow his own path now," the sorcerer said. "Just as you must follow yours. He, too, will soon face a vital decision, and we must not interfere."

"But I can't just leave him," Stefan protested. "Not like that. Let me at least say good-bye."

"He would not hear you even if you did," Strange told him somberly. "It is all a matter of perception, of transcending states. In his mind, you are dead. And the dead do not speak."

"But—but that mob—"

"That is for Kurt to handle," Strange said. "On his own. Now come." He held out his hand. "It is time for you to leave your brother, and your old life, behind. Kurt is intelligent and strong. He will survive this and far worse dangers before his life is through."

Stefan hesitated a moment longer, unable to rip his gaze away from the oncoming mob. But, finally, he nodded, and reached out to take the sorcerer by the hand.

By the time Belasco awoke, aching, angry, and defeated, Strange and Stefan were long, long gone. And so was Kurt Wagner…

To Be Concluded...

Chapter Text

Part Eight
Scene Eight

The tiny town of Winzeldorf had always been sheltered. Nestled deep in the Bavarian Alps, the townspeople there had lived peacefully for centuries, catching only the passing breezes off the changing winds of time.

Under normal circumstances, Winzeldorf was an idyllic spot, quaint and picturesque and steeped in tradition.

But this night had been anything but normal.

The town was wild with terror. The screams of children trapped in nightmares reverberated through the chilly air. Men and women ran through the streets in a frenzy, the news having reached them from the mountain that the demon had been found, the monster responsible for all the recent horrors that had struck their tiny town.

The mob had cornered it, the runners said, caught it in the act of killing again. Two monks had fallen victim this time, and the outrage among the townspeople was reaching fever pitch—a pitch so high with fury that no one noticed the sleek, black airplane circle twice overhead, or come to a swift, impossibly silent landing in the narrow valley just below the town.

*******

"He is here," the bald co-pilot said to his young companion, skillfully maneuvering his electric wheelchair through the narrow plane and down the ramp. "His emotions are wild, confused, his mind clouded with fear and guilt. We must hurry."

"But what's going on?" his companion asked, following him through the grass with long, ground-covering strides. "That mob up there—it's like something out of Frankenstein. What's happened here?"

The older man paused, his eyes closing with concentration.

"Death has visited this town," he said. "So much anger…it's difficult to focus. The townspeople…they are convinced they're hunting a demon."

"Hmph. A demon, eh?" the young man scorned, shooting a disgusted glare at the town above through the peculiar, red visor that shielded his eyes. "Well, sounds like our guy."

He quickened his pace, heading for the sloping path.

"Come on! We've got a rescue to do."

*******

The mob came upon Kurt with the suddenness of a crashing wave, flooding the hillside with flickering flames and the sounds of hate.

At first, he'd been unable to process what was happening. He'd barely even been able to see the mob through his tears. Only when the first rock hit him did he begun to realize who they were, and why they were there. And even then, it had taken his grief-numbed brain another minute to figure out the meaning of the words they were shouting...

"Murderer!"

"Monster!"

"He's attacking those monks!"

"Are they dead?"

"It's a demon! A demon!"

"Those men are dead! The demon's killed those monks!"

"No!" Kurt exclaimed, his legs shaking with grief and exhaustion as he struggled to stand, his empty hands outstretched and desperate. "No, please, you don't understand!"

"It talks!"

"It's him, it's the killer! That monster murdered those children!"

"Kill him!"

"Kill the demon!"

"No, I'm not— Don't, please— Stop!" Kurt cried, raising his arms in a futile attempt to ward off the rocks and bottles and sticks the furious, terrified townspeople hurled at him. "Stop it! Please, will you just listen—"

The mob was beyond listening. They were beyond hearing. But, they could see, and the scene before them was gruesome, horrific...

Two holy men, destroyed by a creature - a monster, straight out of medieval lore. Caught in the act, its clothing blood-streaked and torn, its victims still at its feet. The monster moved with eerie grace, its slender form melded with the shadows, its spaded tail lashing, its eyes like yellow flames...

Surely, this was a creature of evil, an evil that had to be destroyed, purged, to save themselves, their children, their town—!

Kurt did not want to leave his brother. He didn't want to abandon Radulfus. But the hail of projectiles was growing fiercer, sharper, shards of stone and broken glass slicing into his face and arms, the mob's cries chilling his soul. The flickering torchlight contorted their screaming faces into horrific silhouettes, the flames reflecting the hate in their eyes.

This was a scene from his worst nightmares, surreal to the point of disbelief. The unreality of the moment overwhelmed him, like something out of a movie. Only there was no screen between him and them, no imaginary wall to separate the fact from the fantasy. The mob's fury was real, a harsh, venomous display in full, living color. And they'd focused it all on him: the man they saw as the personification of their own living nightmare.

It was no good trying to explain, nothing he shouted could be heard over their harsh cries. All Kurt could do was teleport, and then run, run down the mountainside shielded only by the dark, running for his life with the yelling mob close behind...

He reached the streets of Winzeldorf, where the screams of the sleeping children tore through the darkness, the sounds of their night terrors echoing in the gaps and shadows. Kurt climbed up to the nearest rooftop, crouched low beside the chimney. There, he saw the fading flames of St. Hildegard's Orphanage reflected in the river, and he was seized with a sadness that had nothing to do with himself.

The mob had flooded the main streets now, their numbers growing as the frantic parents who had stayed behind streamed from their houses to hunt the cursed creature causing their children such pain.

A crack of gunfire - the brick beside his ear exploding into dust...

Kurt dove for the next roof, then the next, swinging on streetlamps to avoid the bullets and pitchforks, scythes and stones. But the horrors of the night had taken their toll, and Kurt was beginning to tire.

The mob had broken into three groups now, seeking to head him off as though he were a fox or a deer.

Desperate to get his bearings, Kurt jaunted to higher ground, the spire of the town's medieval church, only to discover there was nowhere he could go from there. He was trapped. The mob had been herding him to the church all along, and now they had him cornered.

"We've got him!" a man shouted, his voice hoarse with triumph. "Come down, monster! Come down—or we'll burn you down!"

Kurt heaved a wracking sob, desperate to explain, to get through to them, even though he knew it was useless...

"Listen to me!" he cried. "Listen to me all of you! It wasn't me! I was trying to save the children!"

"Burn him down!" the mob shouted. "Smoke him out! Send this monster back to the flames, where he belongs!"

Even in his frantic state, Kurt was surprised to hear those words, and even more stunned to catch the smell of smoke rising on the breeze...

"I can't believe it," he gasped to himself, climbing higher up the sharply sloping spire. "They're utterly mad! Their threat was serious! They'll destroy their entire village, actually burn down their church, just to make certain they destroy me!"

The smoke was getting thicker, the harsh yells more triumphant...

Something inside Kurt Wagner snapped. Something deep and fundamental. This scene, this reality, it was the end of another life. His life. It was over. Everything that mattered to him was gone. His mother, his brother, his beloved Amanda, they had all left him. His circus was in the hands of a monster. And now, looking down at the twisted faces of the mob, he saw that even his humanity had been taken from him.

This was the world, that mass of fear and hate below. This was the truth Margali had sheltered him from. Kurt was the monster they sought to destroy, in form if not in deed. He would never be a man to them, only a creature, a misfit, a freak. There was no place he could go, no shelter that remained for one such as him. Even the church was burning…

"This is what they want," he said at last. "If my death will make up for Stefan…for Radulfus…for those children…"

Straightening to his full height, Kurt strode to the edge of the smooth, slate roof and looked down at the mob so far below. He took in a deep, calming breath, then glanced at the stars through the curling smoke, feeling his own anger and frustrations, terror and guilt bubbling deep inside him.

"Then so be it."

Letting loose with a sudden, horrible roar, Kurt launched himself from the roof. Catching handholds as he fell, he turned the dive into a show: his final performance before the screaming crowd tore him to pieces…

He grabbed a streetlamp, straightened his body, letting his momentum flip him up and around the bar once, twice, again and again. Howling wildly, Kurt Wagner plunged into the thick of the mob, allowing the sheer weight of its numbers to carry him down...

"We have him!" they shouted, already half-mad with the adrenaline of the hunt and the fire. "We have him! Quickly, bring the stake!"

"Now, monster, we will be rid of you!"

Kurt waited, his eyes closed, his body prepared for the fists, the kicks, the final, violent stab through the chest. He had expected screams, curses, spit.

But, the only response the cornered misfit received was one he had hardly expected…

A single voice, rising above the noise of the mob. Just one voice shouting:

"STOP!"

And, remarkably, they did…

"What?"

Kurt cautiously opened his eyes and looked around, unable to understand the sudden silence.

"Th-they're not moving! What has happened to them?"

"I happened to them, Kurt Wagner."

A strong hand took his and lifted him to his feet; a tall, broad man in a strange sort of uniform. He wore a peculiar visor over his eyes which, to Kurt's muddled mind, made him look like the robot Gort from one of his favorite old movies, "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

But, Gort wasn't the man who had spoken.

Kurt glanced around in confusion, then looked down.

A very well-dressed man in an elaborate electric wheelchair stared back at him through impossibly deep eyes, and Kurt took a startled step back.

Who were these people? With machines like that fancy chair, could they actually have come from outer space? Or was Kurt going mad?

"You did…this to them?" he managed to stammer, staring in disbelief at all the frozen faces. "But how—? Why—?"

"My name is Charles Xavier," the bald man said, and smiled.

It was a kind smile. Genuine. And, Kurt found himself responding.

"Hello," he said with a cautious nod. "My name is Kurt Wagner. I—"

"Oh, I know who you are, Kurt," Xavier said. "I came here tonight to find you."

Kurt blinked, his tail lashing nervously.

"Me? But—but why?"

"I am a teacher," the bald man explained, and Kurt rubbed his pointed ear. He'd thought the man was speaking German but, now, he knew he'd been hearing English. American English.

"I run a school for gifted youngsters such as you. A school for mutants."

"Mutant?" Kurt repeated, switching to English himself. "Yes…yeah, I've heard that word."

"You are a mutant, Kurt," Xavier said. "And so am I. And so is Scott, here." He nodded to Gort, who gave a slight smile. "We've come here tonight to ask you to join us."

"Join you?" Kurt frowned suspiciously. "As what?"

"As a member of our team," Scott spoke up for the first time.

Kurt's frown deepened. This visored man seemed a little too military for his liking.

"And what would I be expected to do?" he asked.

Xavier smiled, holding up a reassuring hand.

"Don't worry," he said. "We are not a military organization. I founded my school as a place for mutants to learn about themselves and others and, ultimately, to find ways to use their special abilities to benefit all of mankind."

Kurt still felt suspicious, but there was something about the man in the wheelchair that he trusted. An open, unguarded sincerity.

Stepping away from Gort—no, Scott—Kurt knelt before the bald man's chair, the anguish in his heart glowing in his golden eyes.

"I want to get away from here," he said. "I want to feel whole again! Can you make me that, teacher? Can you help me? Because if you can, I will go with you."

Xavier looked at him for a very long moment, seriously considering his words. Then, he held out his hand.

Hesitantly, Kurt took it, closely watching Xavier's face as their palms pressed together, his thick, fuzzy fingers against Xavier's slender, smooth ones.

Kurt saw no shudder there, no flinch of disgust or even fascination. Only warmth and understanding…and acceptance.

"Yes," Xavier said. "Yes, Kurt Wagner. I can help you. Come on, let's leave this place. It's time to go home."

THE END

Chapter Text

End Notes and Comic Book Tie-Ins:

Following the events of this story…

Xavier unfroze the townspeople, the orphanage was rebuilt, and the town and its children eventually settled back to normal. Radulfus and Stefan's bodies were found and taken care of by the monks. They initially assumed Radulfus had been trying to restrain Stefan, believing that, in the violence of the struggle, they had both been killed. They learned the truth only after Kurt, who they guessed had been chased away by the mob, sent the monks a letter from New York explaining what had happened that night. Margali would eventually learn the story from them.

Xavier had recruited Nightcrawler, along with Thunderbird, Sunfire, Banshee, Colossus, Storm, and Wolverine, to save Xavier's original X-Men team from the living island Krakoa (see Giant Size X-Men #1: Second Genesis). Kurt soon became close friends with Wolverine, and fell in love with a young flight attendant named Amanda Sefton.

On his (twentieth) birthday, Kurt received a surprise birthday present apparently sent by his foster sister Jimaine. The present, a small statue, exploded in his face, trapping his soul in a very real illusion resembling Dante's Inferno. To save their friend, the X-Men called on Dr. Strange (who may or may not have been Kurt's brother Stefan at that point) to help guide them through the complicated adventure. Together, they encountered and fought against Belasco and Nightcrawler's own demons—namely, his guilt over Stefan's death (See King Size Annual X-Men #4: Nightcrawler's Inferno).

The illusion had been created by Margali. She had blamed Kurt for her son's death and wanted him to suffer. What she discovered, though, was the depth of Kurt's love for Stefan, and the pain his brother's madness had caused. Margali forgave Kurt, but Kurt would remain wary of her and her powers. His biggest birthday surprise came after their return from the Inferno, however, when Amanda Sefton revealed herself to be Amanda Szardos. She had disguised herself as part of her own attempt to find out what had really happened to Stefan, and to keep an eye on Kurt.

Amanda and Kurt remained together, on and off, for several years until they finally broke up in Uncanny X-Men #204, shortly before Kurt became the founder of the British super-hero team Excalibur in the one-shot issue Excalibur: Sword is Drawn.

Kurt served as leader of that team for about ten years. During that time, he once again became entangled with Margali, Amanda, and the Winding Way. Competing sorcerers were after the mysterious and powerful Soulsword, hoping to climb higher on the Winding Way. Nightcrawler and Amanda tried to recover the sword, but Margali took it. She claimed it was for safe keeping, but she took the power for herself.

Amanda joined Excalibur for a short time under the codename Daytripper, only to leave Kurt once again without an explanation. Some time later, he found her at their old circus, where she told him Margali had been imprisoned in Limbo by Belasco (see Excalibur: Soul Sword Trilogy). But Amanda and Margali had swapped souls, and it was really Amanda who was trapped. They defeated Belasco, but the real Amanda decided to stay behind as ruler of Limbo, abandoning any shot at a life with Kurt for good. Kurt felt used and betrayed after that, but he and Jimaine remained friends and, even years later, Kurt still consulted her concerning mystical matters (see the 12 part Nightcrawler mini-series.)

Shortly after Amanda left him for Limbo, Kurt's teammates Captain Britain and Meggan got married. Excalibur dissolved and Kurt, along with fellow Excalibur members Kitty Pryde and Colossus, rejoined the X-Men in New York. For a time, Kurt sort of drifted, particularly after Colossus's death. It seemed like he was struggling to find a niche for himself, now he was no longer the leader of his own team. He tried his hand at the priesthood, but found out the whole experience had been the weird mind-control plot of some deranged nun who wanted to discredit the Church or something, so that didn't work out. In fact, and no offense, but in my opinion that whole awful story arc was so insultingly dumb, I'm not even going to credit the issues where it happened.

Unfortunately, apart from a few hopeful moments, things wouldn't get much better...

Kurt had previously discovered the truth about Mystique being his mother in X-Men Unlimited #4: Theories of Relativity and, in the six-part serial Uncanny X-Men: The Draco, he was told his father was a powerful, ancient, red-skinned, demon-looking mutant named Azazel who had long ago been banished to an alternate dimension by creatures that looked like angels. Meh... In Universe X, it was put forward that Belasco was actually a brainwashed and physically altered Kurt Wagner, who had been kidnapped by the demon Mephisto after losing his team in a fight against the Gray Gargoyle. This, coupled with the whole Azazel thing, upset me, because the whole point of Nightcrawler has always been that he is NOT a demon. I wrote out my response to that whole convoluted mess in the form of a story: "Belasco's Beatrice." It's rather dark and very strange—Kurt vs. Belasco, with the battleground being Kurt's own mind. If you're interested, I'll be posting a revised version of that story here pretty soon.

After the whole Draco thing, Kurt joined Storm's XSE team in New York and got semi-romantic-ish with Storm, then Rachel, then a girl named Christine Palmer in the 12 part Nightcrawler mini-series, but there was nothing really serious. My silly story "Eros's Arrows" was something of a response to Kurt and Christine's rather flat parting scene.

And then, they killed him and brought him back in a surprisingly derivative, uncreative way that just left me tired and sad...

Nightcrawler and Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation have been my role models since I was tiny. Seriously: reading Nightcrawler's stories taught this very confused aspie kid what empathy meant, how to notice, recognize, and consider other people's feelings and to value, not resent, our differences. Plus, there aren't too many other characters who truly share my obsession with old movies, swashbuckler stories, and fencing! Since moving to Scotland to work on my degree, I haven't seen many new comics, but I've been told Nightcrawler remains tragically underused, and that's a real shame. His episodes in "Wolverine and the X-Men" were pretty awesome, though: X-Calibre and Hunting Grounds in particular! :) I just hope his playful awesomeness will be remembered, and that they'll never let the Fuzzy Elf fade away.

I hope these end notes were a helpful follow-up. Thanks everyone for reading my story!

~Rowena Zahnrei