Actions

Work Header

Echoes of Love

Chapter Text

Echoes of Love
By Rowena Zahnrei

PART ONE

Amil came bursting in through the front door, his cheeks flushed and his eyes bright with excitement.

"Dad!" he called out, tossing his recorder case and backpack onto the sofa as he raced down the hall. "Daddy, where are you?!"

"I'm in here, Amil," his father's deep, distracted voice called back to him. "What is it, son?"

Amil grabbed hold of the doorframe and swung himself into his father's office. He took up a position in front of the computer desk, hopping up and down on the carpet as he spoke.

"Dad, dad, dad, dad, dad!" he enthused, "you'll never believe what I saw at school today! It was the coolest thing ever!"

Christian looked up from his stack of blueprints and scribbled equations to smile warmly at his son.

"What was it?" he asked. "Did you get to watch a movie?"

"Oh, it was way better than that!" Amil said, his blue eyes shining. "A whole bunch of performers from the circus came and we all got to miss math so we could go see them in the auditorium!"

Christian raised an eyebrow.

"The circus, eh? That must have been fun."

"It was, it was, it was!" Amil beamed. "There was a clown who juggled sticks with ribbons on them while he twirled five rings around his leg! Then there was this pretty lady who turned backflips and cartwheels on this skinny beam two men held on their shoulders. And then—this part was the best—this man came out on stage and he was wearing the coolest looking costume you ever saw! He was all blue and his eyes glowed in the dark! He had this long tail that really worked, too. He used it to wave to us, almost like a hand! His hands were cool too—he had on these fuzzy gloves that made it look like he only had three fingers, and it was the same with his feet. He said they helped him grip things better when we asked him about it during the question and answer session after the show. They told us how all the tricks worked and what it's like to travel around with a circus and stuff. But, Dad, you should have seen what he could do!"

Amil was too swept up in telling his story to notice, but during his description of the performer's costume his father had gone very pale.

"Amil," he said, his voice weak. "Do you remember this man's name? The one with the...with the cool costume?"

Amil nodded.

"Yeah, of course! He's the Nightcrawler! And you've got to hear what he did! There were these two big, metal hoops, and this other guy they said was the Nightcrawler's brother balanced them on his forehead while—"

"No, no, Amil," Christian cut in, "his real name. Did they ever say the Nightcrawler's real name?"

"Maybe...?" Amil shrugged. "I don't think so, though. But listen, Dad—"

"No, tell me," Christian pleaded. "Was it, I don't know, Kurt or something? Could it have been Kurt?"

"I don't remember! I want to tell you what he did!"

Christian sighed deeply and leaned back in his chair.

"OK," he said. "I'm sorry, Liebling. Tell me what he did. I'm listening."

Amil frowned, watching his father carefully to make sure he really was paying attention.

"Well," he said, his enthusiasm returning in a rush, "the Nightcrawler's brother balanced the two hoops on his forehead, one on top of the other, while the Nightcrawler spun through them then climbed all the way up to sit on top. Then, he stood up and grabbed the catwalk that runs over the stage. He did a flip and then hung from the beam using just his tail! Then he climbed back down onto the top hoop and spun around them until he was crouching on his brother's shoulders. And then he did something really amazing! He jumped through the top ring and vanished in a cloud of smoke!"

He clapped his hands together to illustrate.

"BAMF! No one could see where he went until he came walking up the aisle from all the way at the back of the room and flipped up onto the stage. He can jump really high! That one was the only trick they wouldn't explain at the end. They said it was a special circus secret, like magic!"

"It was probably just flash powder," Christian commented, and Amil rolled his eyes at the mundane, grown-up explanation. Christian smiled.

"Well," he said, turning back to his work, "it certainly sounds like you had an exciting day. Now, why don't you go get a start on your homework? Your mother should be home soon and I—"

"Oh, I just remembered something!" Amil exclaimed, digging into his pocket and pulling out a crumpled, colorful slip of thick paper. "The circus performers passed out free tickets at the end of the show! They're only free for kids, though. The grown-ups still have to pay. But there's a show coming up this weekend and I was wondering if you would take me! I want to see the Nightcrawler again!"

Christian froze, his eyes unusually wide.

Amil tilted his head.

"Well, will you?" he prodded. "They're only going to be here for two weeks and then they'll be gone for a whole 'nother year! Come on, Dad. Please!"

"I... I'll think about it, Amil," Christian managed to croak. Taking the crumpled ticket, he shoved it under his stack of papers, then swiveled his chair, fiercely gripping his computer's mouse.

"But, Dad—!"

"I said I'll think about it!" his father snapped, more harshly than he'd intended.

Amil stared at him, a hurt expression crossing his small face.

Christian squeezed his eyes shut, and sighed.

"I'm sorry, Amil," he said softly. "But, that's the best I can do. Now, go do your homework, OK? I'll give you my answer later."

"Yeah, whatever," Amil moped, shooting his father a deeply disappointed look over his shoulder as he shuffled out of the office and back down the hall.

Christian gritted his teeth, then sighed sharply through his nose, digging the crumpled circus ticket out from under the paper pile and staring at its familiar colors and lettering. A bittersweet wave of memory washed over him at the sight, accompanied by a sharp flush of long-buried shame.

It had been twelve years since he had last seen this circus. Twelve years since he had broken his best friend's heart...

Chapter Text

PART TWO

The forest had been beautiful that fateful day so many years ago; the air warm and rich with the spicy scent of pines at the end of summer. Christian remembered... Kurt had waited nearly an hour for him to show up. It had never crossed his mind that Christian might not come...

Kurt had always been a cheerful, trusting boy, endlessly hopeful with boundless energy. Perhaps that was why Christian had liked him so much, despite their age difference. Kurt was wild and free, as warm as the sunlight and untamable as the wind. No cloud of fear hung over him. He had no understanding of hate.

The time the boys had spent together had been magical, as though the forest was an enchanted place and Kurt was the faerie spirit who kept it green and pure, like in the stories Christian's mother had told him when he was very young...when she had still been alive to protect him from his father's drunken rages. Only in Kurt's presence could Christian could forget about his father, forget his pain and terror, and just play like any other kid. His friendship with the six-year-old Gypsy boy had been his special secret, a treasure that gave him strength and kept him sane when he was forced to return to his own harsh reality.

Until the day his fairy tale had come to a crashing end.

He never learned just how his father had found out about Kurt, but his reaction had been swift and brutal. He'd burst into the house with his belt already in his hand, grabbed Christian by the shirt, and proceeded to pummel him into unconsciousness—all without uttering a single word.

Many hours later, when Christian had opened his eyes, he'd seen his father looming over him with red, bloodshot eyes, a stained, dog-eared Bible clutched in his hands...

"You've been consorting with the Devil, boy," he growled, "out in those cursed woods of yours. Them Gypsy witches went and conjured him, and I'll kill you myself before I let them come for our souls with their Gypsy evil. Put your hand on this Bible, boy."

Christian's thoughts were muzzy, his vision blurred. His right eye had already swollen shut, and his left was barely more than a discolored slit in his battered face. He'd reached for the Bible, unable to suppress a wince at the sharp stab of pain in his side. His father had probably fractured another one of his ribs...

His father didn't have the patience to wait for him to find the Bible on his own, so he slapped the book against the boy's hand, pressing his palm to the cover so hard Christian worried his fingers might snap.

"I want you to swear to me, boy," he grunted, his unshaven face only inches from Christian, his sour breath making him gag. "Swear to me on the Bible that you will never go near that Gypsy freak again."

"He's...he's not..." Christian tried, but his father only pressed his hand harder, jolting his arm and jarring his ribs again.

Christian gasped, and sobbed with pain.

"Swear it, boy," his father snarled, clamping his heavy hand around Christian's thin neck. "Swear it, or by God I'll snap you dead right here and now. No son of mine is going to be messing around with vagrant scum like that. Them Gypsies are nothing but bad news, them and their black magic. Swear to me now that you will never go near them and their blue devil again!"

...And Christian had sworn...

Satisfied, his father had tossed the Bible onto the dresser and left the house as abruptly as he had come in.

All Christian could do was sob...

Christian had taken a sacred oath on the Bible that he would never go back to his enchanted forest or speak with his best friend again. He knew there would be horrible consequences if he broke such an oath, and it wasn't just the risk of another beating.

In his twelve-year-old heart, he had truly believed he might lose his soul...

Christian had spent the entire morning and most of the afternoon of the following day trying to think what to do. He had planned to meet with Kurt after school, but his father had made him stay home to hide his injuries.

As the appointed time crawled nearer, all Christian could see was Kurt waiting for him with that eager smile of his...his confusion and hurt when his friend didn't show...

Christian had just about decided a clean break was best, when a terrible thought occurred to him.

What if Kurt got worried and came looking for him? What if his friend got lost searching for his isolated house, or worse—ran into his father on his way home from work!

That horrific image decided him. No matter the risk, Christian had to meet with Kurt one last time. He had to explain. Kurt wouldn't understand, he knew. But he had to at least try. To make sure Kurt kept away...

And so, he had returned to the forest by the Gypsy encampment, sneaking past their colorful circus tents and trailers and fascinating practice equipment until he found the huge tree growing at the point where the dirt path forked. Kurt had been there waiting for him, just as he had pictured. He'd been hanging upside-down from the branches, his happy grin a crescent moon brightening his fuzzy, blue face...

"Christian!" the little boy shouted in open delight, waving to his friend with a three-fingered hand. "I thought you'd never get here! What took you so long?!"

Christian ducked his head, overwhelmed by shame and fear. He didn't want Kurt to see his battered face, and his sacred oath kept pounding in his ears, over and over.

...I swear it, Dad... I swear it...

"I was thinking..." he rasped, his gut clenching as he brazenly broke his oath. His voice was barely audible, but Kurt's pointed, elf-like ears picked up every word.

"Ach, waddaya wanna do that for?" he teased, and laughed a boyish laugh. "C'mon, I found the best tree about a mile from here - even better than this one for climbing! But we have to hurry. I have to be back at the circus by sunset or—"

He paused, his golden eyes narrowing as, for the first time, he seemed to sense that something wasn't quite right with his friend.

"Hey," he said, "why are you hiding in the shadows?"

Christian swallowed, his throat painfully tight.

"Kurt..." he said, "listen—"

"Hah! I get it!"

Kurt flipped down to the ground and charged toward him on all fours, his unkempt curls bouncing and his stubby, spaded tail swaying playfully behind him.

"You don't have to hide from me kemosabe!" he said, affecting a phony American accent. "Your secret is safe with Tonto!"

Christian felt himself trembling, and he turned away.

"Kurt—stop. Listen to me, will you? I—"

He blinked back a stinging tear with some difficulty, struggling to control his ragged breathing.

"I'm sorry, but...I can't be friends with you anymore."

Kurt stared blankly, then shook his head.

"Don't be dumb," he said, waving the confession away. "I'm not mad that you got here late—we still have time to reach that tree!"

The little, blue boy grabbed his arm, tugging Christian insistently toward the path.

"Now, let's make trails, kemosabe," he said in that same American accent. "Tonto will scout ahead for you."

He paused, waiting for Christian's expected response. When it didn't come, he gave an exasperated sigh and pulled his arm even harder.

"You're supposed to say 'Hiyo Sil—'"

"I'm not playing around, Kurt!" Christian exploded, frustrated and angered by his friend's inability to understand what he was trying to tell him. He balled his fist and tore his arm violently from Kurt's grasp, hating the shocked look on his blue face almost as much as he hated himself for causing it.

"In fact," he went on, drumming his point home, "we won't be able to play around together ever again."

Kurt shook his head, clearly confused and even a little frightened.

"But Christian..." he said, "I don't understand..." He stared up at him, his large, golden eyes burning right into Christian's heart. "You're my best friend!"

Christian winced and lowered his gaze. Kurt still thought this was a game. He really had no idea... No idea at all...

Christian's expression darkened, and he cursed his father for forcing him to do this to Kurt. But the boy had to understand. He had to know it was really over, so he would never come looking for him...and find his father instead. That meant Christian had to step into the light. He'd have to force the boy to look into the face of the reality he had always known, to show him what hate and fear truly meant...

"Now come out of the shadows and stop this silly—oh! What happened..."

And there it was. The shock; the sweet, innocent concern...

But, there was no turning back. Kurt had to know, and Christian had to be the one to tell him.

"My Dad..." he said, his adolescent voice cracking. "He says you're a devil...a freak. He says you wear your Gypsy evil on your face. He beat me for ever coming near you, Kurt. If he catches me talking to you again—"

He lowered his head.

"He'll kill me before he'll let you take my soul."

Kurt was shaking now, his eyes wide with fear and denial, his tail wrapped tightly around his leg.

"M-me?" he stammered, his young voice nearly a squeak. "The Devil? But—"

"I'm sorry, Kurt!" Christian cried, unable to bear that look on his friend's round face. "But what'm I supposed to do?"

He sniffled loudly, causing every bruise and cut on his face to ache sharply as his hot tears began to flow.

It wasn't fair! It wasn't fair that Kurt—a blue monster with pointed ears and a devil's tail—could be so happy and carefree while Christian was beaten and abused. It wasn't fair that Kurt could learn the trapeze and climb trees all day while Christian had to go to school to get picked on and ridiculed for having a drunk for a father. This whole situation was Kurt's fault anyway, just for being whatever it is he was!

"You're the one who's in the circus!" he cried out. "You're the one who's a Gypsy! You're the one who's blue! Blast it," he sobbed, "this is all your fault! You freak!"

Kurt stepped back as though he'd been slapped, tears trickling silent trails through the soft, fine fuzz on his cheeks.

Christian turned his back on him, running away from the scene of his crime as fast as his aching ribs would let him. He didn't think he had ever sounded more like his father in his life.

"Christian!" Kurt's little voice called out to him, desperate and pleading. "Wait! Come back..."

But Christian didn't turn back. He barely even heard Kurt's last, heart-broken plea before vanishing into the shadows under the trees.

Yet, that one, plaintive word had seared itself into his heart.

"...Please?"

*******

Amil was watching television when Christian found him, his half-finished homework shoved to one side of the polished coffee table.

"I'm going to finish it!" Amil exclaimed defensively when he saw his father enter the room. "But this is my favorite show and—"

Christian smiled, affection warming his heart as he crouched down to his son's eye level.

"I didn't come about homework, Liebling," he said. "I know you'll finish it in your own time. You're a very good boy, Amil, and I'm very proud of you."

Amil looked wary for a moment, then he brightened.

"Dad, does that mean..."

"You bet."

Christian grinned, pulling his little son into a hug.

"This Saturday, you and I are going to the circus."

Amil bellowed his joy right in his father's ear, squeezing him so tightly around the neck that he nearly choked. Christian laughingly swept the boy up into his arms and settled him on his hip.

"And who knows," he said, kissing his son's head. "Maybe I'll even take you backstage so you can meet the Nightcrawler in person. If he is who I think he is, we used to be very close friends."

"Really?" Amil gasped, awed by the thought that his father knew a real, live acrobat.

"And truly," Christian confirmed. "But that was many, many, many years ago. Twice as many years as you've been alive, in fact. He probably doesn't even remember me now. But, I would still like you to meet him."

"Wow," Amil exclaimed. "This is so awesome! I hope he gives autographs. Do you think he gives autographs, Daddy?"

Christian chuckled, although his smile didn't quite reach his eyes.

"He probably does. But he might be too busy to see us."

...And if he is indeed Kurt Wagner, he might not want to see me, Christian thought to himself, but didn't add. ...I don't know what I would say to him if I did see him, or if he'd want my apology. But, even if he still hates me after all this time...

"It'd be worth a shot, wouldn't it?" Amil asked anxiously.

Christian looked down at him, his small, startled smile growing into a broad grin—which Amil eagerly returned.

"You bet, kemosabe!"

Chapter Text

PART THREE

Christian knew intellectually that the years would have changed Kurt, just as they had him, but he hadn't been prepared for how much. In some irrational place in his mind, he'd still half-expected to see the same scrawny little boy with the stick legs and the big smile come running out of the sidelines into the center ring.

The lithe, muscular eighteen-year-old who appeared at the top of the trapeze platform, intense yellow eyes glowing through a cloud of purple-black smoke, came as something of a mental jolt.

The young acrobat was still slight and slender, but there was a power to his form now; a confident, natural grace born of years of discipline and intensive training. His formerly round face had grown long and lean, his fuzzy blue fur had deepened in color to a dusky midnight shade only a touch lighter than his indigo curls, and his pointed ears and long, sinewy tail only added to his unsettlingly sinister appearance.

This dark, shadowy Nightcrawler was nothing like the bright, elfish boy he had known. His stage presence was so commanding, Christian felt intimidated to be so near to him. He had, without question, earned his place as the star of the show...

"Didn't I tell you, Dad," Amil exclaimed, clinging tightly to his father's hand as they maneuvered their way through the departing crowd. "Didn't I say he was awesome? Aren't you glad you took me now?"

"It was nothing short of spectacular," Christian said, smiling down at him. "Thank you for making me come."

"I'll remember you said that," Amil said with a cheeky grin. "Now come on! You said we could go see the Nightcrawler backstage! Let's go find him!"

Christian stopped short, an attack of nerves freezing his insides.

"Erm, maybe not quite yet, Liebling," he said, and forced a smile. "Wouldn't you like to play some of these games first? We could win your mother one of those pretty wooden dolls over there."

"But I want to go meet him!" Amil protested, letting go of his father's hand and crossing his arms imperiously over his chest. "You're just stalling."

Christian raised a half-amused eyebrow.

"You're right," he admitted. "But I really do think we should give him some time to relax before we go bursting in on him, wherever he is. You saw all those incredible stunts he was doing during the show. He's got to be tired after all that. How's about we play just one game before seeking him out."

Amil tilted his head, considering his father's argument, when they were both distracted by a crowd of young, teenaged girls squealing and running after a slight figure bundled in a long trenchcoat and a hat.

"That's him!" they squealed. "That's the Incredible Nightcrawler! Come on, he's getting away!"

"I wonder what he looks like under all that blue make-up."

"I bet he's cute!"

"Tall, dark, and handsome, right?"

"I've always liked curly hair."

"Do you think those ears get itchy?"

"How do you think he makes that tail work?"

"I could help if he ever had trouble."

"Eew, Jutta, you're awful! I can't believe you just said that!"

"There he goes! Nightcrawler, come back!"

Amil stared after the thundering stampede of teenaged groupies in befuddled astonishment.

"What was all that about?" he asked.

Christian's face contorted comically as he struggled not to laugh.

"That, my son," he said, "is what is known as a ploy. Kurt used to pull a very similar stunt on me back when we played Cowboys and Indians in the forest. He was the Indian and I was the cowboy, and he would lead me on a crazy chase before somehow managing to double back the way we'd come and sneak up behind me—capturing me instead! I think he used the trees to swing over my head, though I never did catch him at it."

"But there aren't any trees here," Amil pointed out. "How do you think he'll get away from them?"

"Well, Liebling," he said, a wry twist to his lips, "that depends entirely on whether or not he really does want to get away."

BAMF!

"Hey, Dad!" Amil said, tugging on his hand. "Did you hear that? It sounded like that stuff you said they used in the show...flash powder."

He wrinkled his nose.

"Smells like it too. Bleack!"

Christian nodded, turning back to the main tent just in time to see the same trenchcoated figure the girls had been chasing disappear into the shadows behind the game booths.

"Look, there he is!" Amil exclaimed, pointing. "How in the world did he do that?"

"Good question," Christian said, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. "I say we go find out."

"Me too!" Amil agreed, running forward to see where the trenchcoated figure had slunk off to. "He's heading for those trailers back there!"

Christian rushed to join his son, grinning despite himself when he saw the shadowy figure crouch down and start running on all fours as swiftly and gracefully as a cat, his spaded tail stretched out behind him in that familiar way...

"Well, I see they don't call him the Night Crawler for nothing, yes?" he commented. "Come on, let's go after him."

"Yeah!" Amil crowed, taking the lead as he and his father followed the Nightcrawler's trail.

*******

The light was lit and someone inside was humming cheerily by the time Christian and Amil made it to the trailer.

Amil looked up at his father, both hands pressed over his mouth as he struggled not to laugh in delight.

Christian had to force himself to smile back. Now that the chase was over, all his nerves were returning in a rush.

He bent down and scooped Amil into his arms, holding him close as he perched him on his hip. Only then did he poke his head inside the trailer.

Kurt Wagner crouched on a chair in front of a small mirror, busily wiping off the dark make-up he'd used to smooth down his fur and accentuate his high cheekbones and golden eyes. From his humming, it was clear that he felt rather pleased with himself—probably for escaping the raging hoard of hyper-hormonal females so successfully—and that he had no idea that he was being watched.

That is, until Christian cleared his throat.

"Yes," the performer asked, not looking up from his mirror. "Who is it?"

His voice was deep, but soft; quite different from the high pitched, precocious tones Christian had so looked forward to hearing every afternoon after school. It was also quite different from the voice he had expected to hear from the intimidating Nightcrawler he had seen portrayed in the show. There was a warmth to it, a gentleness that seemed rather at odds with the young man's demonic appearance.

This was a voice he could recognize as belonging to the Kurt Wagner he had known.

Christian smiled, finding that he no longer felt as nervous had he had before.

"The Lone Ranger," he identified himself, stepping all the way into the trailer.

Kurt furrowed his brow.

"Who...?" he asked, turning to face his guests. He stared for a moment, clearly not recognizing either of them. Then, his eyes widened. He gasped and dropped the cleansing pad he'd been using to remove his make-up, his tail lashing behind him as though of its own accord.

"Christian?" he breathed, slowly bringing a trembling hand to rest over his heart.

"Hello, Kurt," Christian said, shifting Amil to a more comfortable position on his hip. He risked a tentative smile, lowering his head slightly as he went on.

"Is there room in this trailer for a young man, who years ago when he was younger still, said some very foolish things?"

Kurt rose from his chair, his golden eyes gleaming as he stepped toward them on his bare, two-toed feet.

"I'll quit the circus if there isn't!" he exclaimed, a broad grin stretching over his dark, fuzzy features as he pressed Christian's free hand warmly between his rough, callused palms.

Christian blinked despite himself at the sight of Kurt's rather frightening fangs. The six-year-old he had known had sported some sharp canines, but those baby teeth were nothing compared to this adult set. Still, even those fangs couldn't detract from the open delight in Kurt's bright smile. Christian found himself returning it just as brightly, sweet relief filling him as he watched his old friend turn his attention to his son.

"But who's this with you?" Kurt asked, crouching down a little with a friendly wave.

Amil beamed so hard Christian worried he might strain his face.

"My son, Amil," he introduced proudly. "Amil, meet one of the finest people I know: my friend Kurt Wagner..."

He smiled a little, meeting Kurt's golden eyes with his brown ones.

"...My best friend."

Kurt smiled back, blinking a little as his eyes started to well up with unshed tears.

Amil reached out to him, and he looked to Christian, who nodded. His smile softening, Kurt leaned forward and took the six-year-old boy in his arms.

Amil was completely awed.

"Hi," he whispered, looking closely at Kurt's fuzzy face with obvious wonder. "You're blue."

Kurt laughed, a single tear escaping as he tilted his head back.

"Yes...well, no..." He chuckled again, holding Amil close as he smiled at his old friend. "I'm happy."

"No, I mean you really are blue!" Amil observed, reaching out to touch his cheek with one small hand. "It's not a costume like my teacher said."

He looked down at the fuzzy, three-fingered hands holding him gently, but securely in place.

"Those aren't gloves, either."

Kurt raised his eyebrows at Christian, lowering himself into his chair so he could set the boy on his lap, his tail curling absently around one of the chair's legs. Although his smile never completely faded, Christian could tell that Amil's words had concerned him.

For a moment, he didn't understand. Then, he realized...

If Amil—no matter how inadvertently—were to make his school friends or worse, his teacher, suspect that the Incredible Nightcrawler was not just a talented young man in a demon suit, the crowds that adored him now would be sure to turn against him, or even turn violent. Fear and misunderstanding did strange things to otherwise rational people, a disturbing fact Christian had learned through harsh experience.

He had to diffuse this potential powder keg, and now.

"What do you think, Kurt," he said with a pointed look. "Do you think we should tell him?"

Kurt glanced up at him rather warily, not quite understanding his intentions.

"Tell me what?" Amil asked curiously.

"Oh, I don't know if I can say. It's a big secret only a few very special people are allowed to know..."

"Tell me anyway!" Amil begged, looking from Christian to Kurt, then back again. "Please! I'm good at keeping secrets!"

At that, the light went on behind Kurt's eyes. Shooting his friend a grateful wink, he proceeded to play along.

"Is that true, Christian?" he asked, pretending to consider Amil's trustworthiness.

Christian nodded, cupping his chin in a deeply contemplative manner.

"I think he's old enough now to keep this secret," he said seriously.

Amil nodded eagerly.

"See!" he exclaimed. "Even Daddy says so. What's the secret?"

"Yeah, Christian," Kurt said, clearly just as curious as the boy. "Tell him the secret."

Christian crossed over to them and leaned in close, speaking very softly.

"The secret is—and you have to promise not to tell anyone!"

"I promise, I promise!" Amil assured him. "Just tell me!"

"OK," he said somberly. "The secret is...our friend Kurt, here, is an elf. And that's why he doesn't wear a costume."

Kurt quirked his lips, looking delightedly bemused.

"Well, aside from the red and black spandex jumpsuit with the pointy shoulders, of course," he added with a chuckle, gesturing to the outfit dangling by a wooden hangar from a peg on the wall.

Amil's blue eyes went very wide.

"Wow," he breathed. "A real, live elf!"

"Yep," Christian said. "He's a great big fuzzy blue elf, just like in the stories your mother and I read to you at night."

Kurt looked up at that, tilting his head slightly.

"Is your wife here?" he asked curiously. "I would very much like to meet her." He grinned. "She must be quite an amazing woman if she's chosen to put up with you every day."

"Mommy had to work on her thesis," Amil cut in before Christian could respond. "She's studying to be an engineer like Daddy, and they're both going to work at the same company next year."

Kurt's eyebrows shot up.

"Wow," he said, echoing Amil's respectful wonder. "That is truly impressive, my friend. You never told me you were so good at math."

"Which subject did you like best in school?" Amil asked, looking up at Kurt.

Kurt grimaced, sharing a look with Christian.

"Well, you see, Amil," Kurt explained, "I didn't actually get to go to school when I was younger, even though I really wanted to. I read as many books as I could and I learned a lot from my mentors and coaches here at the circus, but I know it wasn't the same. You'll never know how much I envied your father when he used to tell me all about the interesting facts he was learning."

He chuckled.

"I even envied him his homework, if you can believe that."

"I'll bet you could go to my school," Amil said. "My teacher, Mrs. Pfennig, is really nice. She'd be happy to have you in our class. I would be too!"

Christian smiled.

"I think Kurt's a little too old for first grade, Liebling."

Kurt had to bite his lip to keep from snickering at the thought of himself trying to squeeze into one of those tiny desks he had seen during his visit to the elementary school. Instead, he showed his amusement by affectionately ruffling Amil's light-brown hair.

"Thank you for your sweet offer, Liebling," he said, "but most people aren't very comfortable letting elves like me go to school. Some of them think I'm scary looking, and if I was in their class they'd be too petrified to learn anything."

He stiffened in his chair, mimicking a petrified person.

Amil giggled, tapping him on the shoulder until he slowly melted, then abruptly returned to normal with a laugh of his own.

"And that's the reason it's so important for you to keep Kurt's secret, Amil," Christian added, with a glance to Kurt. "If people knew he was a real elf instead of someone wearing a costume, they might get scared of him or even try to hurt him."

Amil frowned.

"But that's dumb! He's not scary at all. Only that one time during the show when he grabbed the blonde girl and disappeared with the smelly flash powder. But that was just the show. I know it wasn't real. Besides, she was rescued at the end."

"She's my sister," Kurt said. "Amanda. She's the only one who doesn't get really nauseous when we jaunt."

His expression sobered.

"But what do you mean about the flash powder? We don't use any flash powder in the show."

Christian blinked, then frowned.

"Then, how do you cause that flash of smoke when you do your disappearing act?" he asked.

Kurt's eyes widened uncomfortably.

"Oh, that's right," he said, blushing almost imperceptibly behind his indigo fur. "You don't know about that, do you..."

He stood up, setting Amil down on the floor with a smile then moving over to Christian.

"Can I speak with you for a moment outside, my friend?" he asked, his tail twitching awkwardly around his ankles.

"Of course, Kurt," Christian said, following him out the trailer door and into the chilly night. "Amil, you stay there and don't mess with Kurt's stuff, OK?"

"OK, Dad," Amil called back, although he was already snooping around the narrow trailer...

Christian closed the door and turned his attention to Kurt, unable to stop his heart from breaking just a little at what he saw.

The fearless fuzzy elf who used to play so freely in the sunlight had taken up a defensive position among the shadows beside the trailer, his midnight fur blending with the concealing darkness so well that all Christian could really see of him were his wary, golden eyes as they darted here and there, making sure there was no one else around. Christian could tell this young man was no stranger to fear, or to the pain that hatred so often caused. And it almost killed him to know that he was the one who had introduced his innocent friend to the wicked underbelly of human nature.

"So, Kurt," he said gently, trying to keep the dark shame from his voice. "What's the problem?"

"There isn't a problem," Kurt said, his eyes glowing eerily in the darkness. "Well, not really. I just... I just didn't want to risk scaring you or startling you or whatever in front of your son."

"What are you talking about?" Christian asked, starting to grow concerned.

Kurt sighed, becoming completely invisible for a moment as he closed his eyes.

"You know I'm not really an elf, right? Or a...a demon... I mean, you know what I really am."

"You're a human being who happens to have been born with an active X-gene," Christian said softly. "A physical mutant. I've known that for years, ever since high school when I read about the mutant phenomenon in an old scientific journal. Xavier and Lehnsherr described your condition practically to the letter."

Kurt nodded, a slow bobbing of his glowing eyes.

"Did they also happen to mention...special abilities that some mutants possess? Special powers?"

"They did," Christian acknowledged, "but I didn't really concentrate on that part. They said most people born with physical mutations don't generally go on to develop other powers when they reach puberty. They just keep the ones they were born with, like super agility and acute senses, or even healing abilities."

"Really?" Kurt frowned. "Well, I guess that makes me the odd one out again, because I have a mutant power. Besides the wall-climbing thing, I mean."

"That disappearing trick?" Christian asked, fascinated.

Kurt nodded.

"Teleportation. I can jaunt from one place to another instantaneously. I first found out I had the ability when I was fourteen, although I'd been feeling strange for almost a year before that so I could have had it earlier without knowing."

He sighed deeply, leaning back against the side of his trailer with a quiet, metallic thump.

"You can't imagine how terrified I was when I jaunted for the first time. It was so exhausting, and the smoke stank of brimstone."

He shivered, his shadowy outline limned by the silvery light of the half-moon and the bustling circus in the distance.

"Even now, I still wake up sometimes with nightmares about that experience. I was so convinced I was turning into a demon."

"Oh, God, Kurt," Christian said with deep sympathy, placing a supportive hand on his shoulder.

Kurt looked at the hand with some surprise, then shot Christian a brief, grateful smile.

"Don't worry about it, my friend," he said. "Really. I'm so used to it now I hardly even think about it anymore. It's just another skill I work on for the show. My concern is Amil's reaction. Do you think we should tell him about this, or should we stick with your flash powder story? The last thing I want to do is frighten him."

Christian shook his head.

"I don't think this would scare him. He already thinks you're an elf, right? And, from what I've read, most elves do tend to have magic powers."

Kurt smiled, a white grin that floated in the blackness like the Cheshire Cat's.

"That was a good save," he said. "I rather like being thought of as an elf."

His smile vanished, his eyes turning to face the distant crowds laughing and playing among the colorful tents.

"It's much better than being feared as a demon, anyway."

"Elves are magical creatures, Kurt," Christian said, his low voice reverent with the memory of the enchanted time they'd shared together beneath the trees of the ancient forest. "They use their gifts to enrich the lives of others, whether it's by granting them wishes or just helping young things to grow. That's what you do here at the circus. You fire peoples' imaginations and help them remember how to dream."

He smiled.

"Besides, Amil already adores you. You don't have to worry about upsetting him."

Kurt chuckled quietly, touched to the point of tears by Christian's warm words.

"He is a very sweet boy, your son," he said at last, giving his friend a playful nudge. "And you have grown to be quite wise over the years. Amil is lucky to have you as a father."

Christian returned the nudge with a smile, then sighed, averting his eyes.

"I was forced to learn some very hard lessons in my life," he said, a hint of darkness to his tone. "My biggest regret, though, is that I forced you to learn them as well..."

He lowered his head, unable to contain his burning shame any longer. When spoke again, his voice was little more than a choked whisper.

"I taught you about hatred just as cruelly as the man who taught me."

"You flatter yourself, my friend."

Christian looked up at this unexpected response, wiping his stinging eyes with the back of his hand.

"What?"

Kurt shook his head sadly, turning his glowing gaze to the silent moon.

"I'm not going to deny that what you said to me was pretty traumatizing at the time," he said without a hint of bitterness, accusation, or anger. "But I have seen a lot of things since then, and I've been called far worse names than simply 'freak'."

"But, I—"

"Christian," he interrupted, turning to face him directly. "I've been beaten myself. I've suffered broken bones and black eyes. So, I can understand something of the hell your father put you through as a child."

Christian shook his head firmly.

"No, Kurt," he protested, "it can't have been the same. My father was just some frustrated, moronic drunk, while the people that hurt you, myself included—"

"Look, Christian, stop right there," Kurt cut in, taking a step closer. "You were a frightened, abused young boy. It must have hurt you to say those things at least as much as it hurt me to hear them. But Christian, ignorant, superstitious people have been using us Gypsies as scapegoats for their troubles for thousands of years. I was just a particularly easy target because of my appearance. None of it was your fault, and I've never put you in the same category as them. Do you understand that?"

He turned away again, this time facing the nearby forest.

"If anything," he said quietly, "you did me a favor."

"Oh, some favor," Christian snapped angrily, his eyes burning with long-buried pain. "Look at yourself, Kurt! You used to be so open about your appearance, walking up to strangers without a thought. And now you're hiding in the shadows of this trailer just as you hide in the spotlight at the circus. We, all of us, whether we intended to or not, have made you afraid. Afraid of us, and afraid of who you are. What kind of favor is that?"

He sighed, bringing a hand to his forehead as he squeezed his eyes closed.

"I'm sorry for what happened to you, Kurt," he said. "You never deserved it. Any of it. And I've never been able to forgive myself for the horrible things I said to you back then."

Kurt regarded his friend, the anger sparked by his previous words fading as his expression softened.

"But I've forgiven you, Christian."

Christian looked up, startled to feel Kurt's strong hand on his shoulder, to see his warm, golden eyes looking at him with such understanding.

"I forgave you a long time ago."

"But..." Christian stammered, caught off balance by the sincerity in Kurt's tone, "but, why? How?"

"That favor I spoke of...it wasn't what you think. After you left, I was devastated. I hated you and I hated myself for making you hate me. I cried for nearly an hour before Margali found me praying in the bushes, begging God to please not let me be a demon like you'd said."

Christian grimaced, shaking his head.

"Kurt, this is—"

"No, let me finish," Kurt said. "Margali told me something then. Something I've never forgotten. She told me that love always lasts longer than hate; that hate makes a big noise, but that love is an echo that can bounce back when you least expect it. And that helped me to understand what had happened, and to introduce me to the most important and difficult lesson I've ever had to learn."

"What lesson was that?" Christian asked, sniffling as subtly as he could.

"How to understand things from another person's perspective," Kurt said simply. "And even more importantly, how to forgive."

He smiled gently, looking his friend in the eyes.

"Christian, I know you didn't truly mean what you said that day. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here now...with your son. And I'm truly happy to see you're doing so well, despite everything that happened to you as a child. You have a wonderful son, a wonderful life! You have nothing to be ashamed of."

He grinned, his golden eyes twinkling in the moonlight.

"So quit beating yourself up about something that happened twelve years ago, got it kemosabe?"

He shook Christian's shoulder gently, causing the older man to chuckle slightly. Giving into a sudden impulse, Christian pulled his slightly shorter friend into a fierce embrace, thumping him on the back before finally letting him go.

"God, I've missed you, my friend," he said with a sniff. "What's that they say...what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger? Well, I guess we're living proof, huh."

Kurt smiled, then glanced at his trailer.

"I suppose we should be getting back inside now," he said. "Amil's going to be wondering what's become of us."

"Oh, dear," Christian said raising his hand to stifle a sudden snort. "I hope he didn't make too much of a mess in there..."

Christian turned the latch to the trailer door and stepped inside, his jaw dropping in aghast amusement at the sight that met his eyes.

"Hey, Dad!"

Amil grinned, his hands and face slathered with the dark blue make-up Kurt used for his performances.

"Look at me! I'm the Incredible Nightcrawler!"

Christian stood frozen for a moment, both mortified and amused and unsure how to react.

Kurt solved his dilemma for him by tilting his head back and letting loose with a loud, delighted guffaw.

"Ach, Liebling, aren't you a sight!" he said, striding over to him and swooping him into his arms so he could look at them both in the mirror. "Why, I'd say you're a spitting image," he said, turning to Christian. "Wouldn't you?"

Christian looked the pair over, his heart warming when he saw that Kurt's enormous smile was almost a match for Amil's.

"Definitely," he agreed with a grin of his own. "But Kurt," he added quietly, speaking out of the corner of his mouth. "How does that stuff come off?"

"With just a little soap and water," Kurt whispered back. "But I could give you some cold cream and a few of my cleansing pads as well."

"But I don't want to take it off!" Amil whined. "I want to go to school like this! I want Mommy to see!"

"Well, you can keep it on until we get home," Christian allowed. "But after your mother sees you it's got to come off. You can't go to sleep like that."

"Why not?" Amil sniffled, stifling a yawn. "I want to be an elf too!"

"Not all elves are blue, Liebling," Kurt pointed out, winking over the boy's head at Christian. "You can be an elf even without the make-up if you want to be. But only if you're a good boy and do what your father says without making a fuss, OK?"

"But I like being a blue elf," Amil said drowsily, the warmth and security of Kurt's arms reminding his body just how far past his bedtime it really was. "Like you!"

Kurt smiled gently.

"I appreciate that, Amil." he said. "But sleepy little elves with blue eyes and brown hair are special too."

Amil nodded, too tired to argue any longer.

"Can we come back tomorrow?" he mumbled as Kurt gently transferred him into his father's arms.

"Well, that depends..." Christian said, looking questioningly at Kurt.

"I think that would be wonderful," Kurt said, smoothing the sleepy boy's hair. "If you come back tomorrow morning I can show you how to play all the games without any of the crowds getting in the way. And we can watch the acrobats practice their routines, yeah? Wouldn't that be fun?"

Amil nodded, forcing his eyes open as he smiled back at Kurt.

"I'd like that," he said softly. "G'night, Kurt."

"Good night, Amil," Kurt whispered as the boy's heavy eyes closed at last. "Sweet dreams."

"Well, I guess we'll be heading out, then," Christian said softly as Kurt walked with them to the door. Then he paused, looking deeply into Kurt's eyes. "Thank you."

Kurt smiled.

"I'll see you tomorrow, my friend," he said. "Both of you. And tell your wife she's more than welcome if she wants to come along as well."

"I'll tell her," Christian said, cradling his sleeping son close.

"Until next time, kemosabe."

Christian grinned, his eyes twinkling with friendly humor.

"Hiyo Silver," he said with a parting wave. "Away!"

*******

Kurt was outside standing by his trailer when Margali passed by a few hours later, heading for bed after another long night. Normally, she would have walked by with just an acknowledging wave or smile...but there was something different about her foster son this night that caught her attention. A contented aura of peace surrounded him, something the fortune-teller had not sensed in her youngest child for a long, long while.

Curious, the imposing Gypsy woman strode closer, her long skirts swishing around her ankles.

"You seem happy this night, my son," she said softly, her violet eyes warm. "An ancient wound has finally healed within you."

Kurt chuckled slightly, looking down to meet her eyes.

"Mama," he said, "do you remember the day you found me crying in the bushes by the trail? The day my best friend said he couldn't play with me any more?"

"Your Lone Ranger..." She nodded. "Yes, I remember him."

"Well, he came to see me tonight," he said. "With his son."

Kurt sat down on one of the large rocks beside his trailer, gesturing for his foster mother to join him. Once she'd arranged her full, colorful skirts, Kurt leaned his curly head against her shoulder, filling her with a warmth she hadn't felt since her three children were small.

"Mama," he said, his deep voice soft and thoughtful. "Do you remember what you told me that day?"

Margali nodded, reaching up to pat his head with one long-fingernailed hand.

"I do."

Kurt gently caught her hand and held it, looking down at their contrasting skin-tones as he continued to speak.

"You said that love is an echo," he said quietly. "If you send a little of it out, it bounces around for a long time, so a lot of people can hear it. And sometimes, when you least expect it, it bounces back home and surprises you."

He sat up then, catching Margali's eyes with the love shining in his own.

"Well, you were right, Mama," he said with a happy smile. "You were right."

The End