I know you know I've never had much faith in you…or even believed you existed, at times. But when people are at their most desperate they still manage to turn to you, don't they?
I am at my most desperate.
So I beg of you, Lord…if you are up there, and if you have any compassion for those who are truly deserving…please take care of Kurt Wagner..." (1)
By Rowena Zahnrei
Kurt Wagner shot up in bed, sweat trickling down the sides of his scarred face.
Another memory…it had to be…
Kurt squeezed his eyes closed, his hand pressed against his forehead as he clutched his hair between his fingers. The images had been so real, so vivid—!
Five men at a poker game…one had just gotten up to pour himself a cup of coffee… The oldest man was speaking…Kurt could just hear him, his voice tinny as though it was being filtered through a speaker…
"Gentlemen, you picked a bad day to invite me into your game…" the man said, slapping his cards on the table. "Four aces."
He laughed—a cold, arrogant sound. The other players just groaned…
Kurt shook his head fiercely, fighting to keep the images at bay.
"NO!" he cried, his breath coming in quick, panicked gasps. "No, no, stop it! I don't want to see this again! I—I can't—"
But it was no use. The terrible dream was repeating itself in his waking mind—and there was no way to make it stop…
The older man was scooping up his winnings now, a malicious smirk twisting his hard features.
"It's hard to imagine this day getting any better…"
The man's nose wrinkled in disgust.
"What's that stink?"
He looked around—
Florescent lights glinted off Kurt's knife. He saw his face reflected in its long, serrated blade: his golden eyes pale, his pupils like pinpoints…
Somewhere, somewhere deep within his clouded mind, Kurt heard himself screaming, pleading, begging for his fingers to open, for his hand to drop the knife.
But Kurt's was no longer the mind in control…
The man had no chance to react. Kurt's arm moved that quickly. One moment, the guard was sitting there, breathing, alive…
"God…oh, oh…oh, God," Kurt sobbed brokenly into his hands, hot tears seeping into his sheets to form spreading dots of wetness. "Oh, God I—how could I-"
Another memory burst open behind his reddened eyes, bright and raw and painful. Kurt was kneeling on burning asphalt, his trembling arms struggling to keep him from collapsing completely against the stairs. His face was a swollen mess, blood dripped from his nose.
Someone was speaking…a voice Kurt knew all too well.
The voice of William Stryker…
"Are you capable of killing?"
Kurt did a double-take, wiping the blood from his chin with the back of his hand. When he spoke, his voice was slurred, his split lip already swollen to three times its usual size...
"Am I—am I what? I don't understand what you're asking me."
"With your mutant abilities. The teleportation, the agility, and whatever else you can do…are you capable of killing, say, from a long distance away?"
Despite where he was, despite the savage beating he had just endured, his captor's question still managed to startle the young mutant. He stared at Stryker in disgusted disbelief—but Stryker simply stared back, the cold, flat look in his pale eyes chilling Kurt to the core.
"No—what are you talking about?" Kurt frowned as best he could. "That would be against God."
"Against whose God?" Stryker queried. His tone was eerily light, as if he thought he was engaging in a normal, hypothetical debate. "More people kill in the name of God than for any other reason on this godforsaken planet."
Kurt shook his head at the cruel, embittered man.
"The only thing forsaken by God will be those who kill in His name," he said, his golden eyes distant. "My God is capable of nothing but love."
He focused on Stryker then, an incongruous feeling of sadness and compassion chasing the terror from his heart.
"My God even loves people like you..."
Kurt shuddered deeply and leaped off his bed, pacing the room like a madman, his mind spinning out of control. Stryker's smooth voice seemed to be everywhere—filtering through the closet door, echoing from the ceiling, mocking him through the circus posters that papered the bedroom's walls.
"…poor, hideous, God-loving Kurt Wagner…" (2)
"Stop it, stop it, STOP!"
He screamed the words in English and in German, completely oblivious to the sleeping mansion inhabitants.
He had been living with the X-Men for over four months, now, and the nightmares were only getting worse. His memories were sporadic, unpredictable, and the solemn atmosphere that permeated the mansion did nothing to help.
Xavier's X-Men were in mourning. A beloved member of their team had sacrificed her life to save theirs when Stryker's base at Alkali Lake had been destroyed—and Stryker himself along with it. Ever since, life at the mansion had been under a pall.
Scott had withdrawn into himself, becoming churlish and distant from his friends. He had barely spoken two words to Kurt since his arrival, and he had yet to get Kurt's name right.
Logan, too, had been deeply affected. He would disappear for weeks at a time, and when he was around his contemptuous attitude toward the blue German made it very difficult to start a conversation.
The death of her best friend had devastated Ororo, who had consequently become more aloof than ever, throwing herself into her work to such a degree she had little time for anything—or anyone—else.
As for the Professor, like Scott, he blamed himself for the death of his favorite student. He had assured Kurt his door was always open should he need to talk, but nothing about his gloomy attitude made Kurt feel comfortable doing so.
All this pretty much left Kurt alone, the isolated, creepy-looking newcomer, left to deal with his worsening night terrors on his own.
Kurt stopped his pacing and took a deep breath, struggling to clear his racing mind.
He had to get out of this building, that was it. He had to distance himself from this place, from any reminders of Alkali Lake and the world of violence, hatred, and murder that went with it.
Striding to his window, he focused on the mansion's distant gates and teleported. Once in the street, he ran, his lithe indigo form blending with the shadows of the night.
Even near midnight, New York City was a bustling place. Many shows and concerts were only just getting out, and streams of people were flocking to and from a variety of nightclubs.
Kurt crouched on the roof of St. Patrick's Cathedral, his chin propped on his fist. The air up here was cool, but not cold. The breeze soothed his heart as watching all the people walking and talking and laughing so far below soothed his suffering mind.
Kurt had just turned his wandering gaze to Rockefeller Center when the peace of the night was shattered by a sudden burst of flame rising up from the building's roof. The flame formed itself into four enormous horses, which rose up on their hind legs with a horrific roar.
At first, Kurt was at a loss to explain this outlandish sight, but he soon realized those flames had to be under the control of Pyro, one of Xavier's former students who had run off to join Magneto's Brotherhood.
During his time at the mansion, Kurt had gathered that Xavier and Magneto had once been colleagues, even friends, before their differing life philosophies had split them apart. They were now bitter enemies, although, as Kurt saw it, both basically acted as vigilantes, fighting in support of mutant rights without the official backing of the law. Magneto's approach leaned more toward outright terrorism, while the X-Men's main job seemed to be stopping him.
But, the hostility between the X-Men and the Brotherhood didn't really concern Kurt just then. He was more worried about all those people down on the street, unwittingly caught in the middle of somebody else's war. He had to offer them whatever help he could.
The crowd had begun to scatter and scream as soon as the deadly horses reared their flaming heads, but Kurt could see a small group had gotten themselves trapped against the wall, in danger of being trampled to death by the terrified mob. Focusing solely on them, Kurt teleported at once to their side.
There were three of them-a family dressed in their best clothes. Kurt gasped in surprise as he realized he recognized them as Senator Kelly, his wife and their teenaged daughter. The Kellys, in turn, gasped in alarm at Kurt's sudden and unexpected appearance.
"You!" Kelly exclaimed angrily. "Get away from here! Just what are you trying to do?"
"You seem to be in trouble, Senator," Kurt said as politely as he could, given their precarious situation. "I will take you and your family to safety."
"Oh my God!" Mrs. Kelly gasped in horror. "It's that monster from the news! The one who attacked the President!"
Kurt set his jaw.
"I promise I will not hurt you," he said, ignoring her disgusted shriek as he twined his long tail around her waist and grabbed both Senator Kelly and his daughter by the shoulder. "But I must get you away from this place."
His view of the cathedral was obscured by the rush of screaming, shoving people, but Kurt could picture the inside of the spire in his mind. Drawing on all his energy, he teleported them there, far from harm's way.
"Oh, oh God!" Mrs. Kelly cried as soon as she saw where they were. "Oh, God we've been kidnapped! Oh, God we're hostages!"
"Nein!" Kurt exclaimed. "Nein, I did not kidnap you!"
"Then why did you bring us here?" the Kellys' trembling daughter asked, her eyes wide with fear. "What are you going to do?"
Kurt stared at her for a long moment, then turned on his heel and stalked to the window, slamming his palms against the sill.
"I have had enough!" he cried. "I am sick of being misinterpreted! I am fed up with the constant violence and hatred between mutants and humans and mutants and mutants! I just rescued you from one of the most dangerous of that Magneto person's Brotherhood, and all you can do is sit there shivering and accuse me of kidnapping. Well, I am done. No more. If you want to go back out there and face Pyro, the door is just there, ja? As for me, I will be on the roof. If you will excuse me, bitte."
Kurt frowned over his shoulder at the Senator.
"Was?" he demanded, his tail lashing in agitation.
"Honey, don't go over there," the Senator's wife whispered urgently—loud enough for Kurt's pointed ears to pick up. "He's a mutant! He's dangerous!"
"Yeah, Dad," their daughter said. "I mean, just look at him! He's covered in scars! Only a real sicko would cut himself all over like that."
"That's enough," the Senator snapped. "If he's telling the truth, we owe this man our lives. And if he's not, we might be able to distract him until the police get here. Now, both of you just keep quiet and let me handle this, OK?"
As he listened to this exchange, Kurt's expression hardened and he shook his head. It seemed that ever since being kidnapped from his circus home by Stryker's thugs, he had been surrounded by nothing but self-interest and two-faced duplicity. He had no interest in hearing what the Senator had to say. So, instead of waiting, he climbed out the window and up onto the roof.
Pyro's dynamic fire display was still raging, but Kurt turned his back in disgust. Pyro's antics weren't his concern. Besides, if he did try to stop him, the media would probably make it sound as if he had been working with the little pyromaniac. That's certainly what the Kellys seemed to think!
A crescendoing chorus of wailing sirens told him the police and fire department had made it to the scene. Kurt knew the X-Men wouldn't be far behind.
Hunching his shoulders, Kurt gave himself over to a wave of homesickness. He wondered what his circus family was doing, how his sudden disappearance had affected them. The Incredible Nightcrawler was their star attraction, after all. Without him, the small circus really didn't have much to set it apart.
But, could he dare go back after all that had happened to him? He'd been subjected to mind control, forced to attack the US President... Even now, he remained essentially a fugitive under Xavier's protection, his reputation in ruins... The last thing he wanted was for his situation to put his family in danger.
"Erm, excuse me? Mr. Wagner? It is Mr. Wagner, isn't it?"
Kurt sighed. It was the Senator again, calling to him.
"Ja, that is right."
Kurt turned his head—only to blink in surprise when he realized the Senator had somehow managed to climb up onto the roof himself!
"Mein Gott!" Kurt exclaimed, shooting to his feet in alarmed concern. "You should not be up here, mein Herr! Bitte, let me jaunt you back—"
"No, don't bother," the Senator interrupted, his smile kind but his eyes unnervingly sharp. "I don't have a problem with heights. My interest lies with you."
Kurt looked wary.
"I'm curious about you," Kelly said, and his eyes flickered yellow.
"Y-you—" he stammered, "But you can't be! Why would you take the form of the Senator Kelly?"
Kelly's smile twisted into a smirk as his pale, pouchy features morphed into the lithe, indigo form of the scaled, shapeshifting terrorist, Mystique.
"There is no Senator Kelly," she told the gawping young mutant. "At least, not anymore. The real Senator Kelly died months ago in—let us call it a freak accident of nature. His position in Congress, however, has been incredibly useful to me of late."
"Then his family…" Kurt said, concerned. "What happened to—"
"Oh, they're safe enough," Mystique told him. "I put them in a cab before climbing back up here. Your little 'rescue' really messed things up tonight, you know."
"How do you mean?"
"I have grown very tired of playing the part of the good Senator," Mystique said bluntly. "Frankly, his wife is a shrew and his daughter is a pampered little brat. Pyro's grand stunt tonight was part of a very carefully laid plan to allow me to finally rid myself of this irksome Kelly persona. And you ruined it."
Kurt stared at the scaled metamorph for a very long time. Then, he closed his eyes, suddenly incredibly tired.
"I give up," he said. "I can't do anything right here. I try to do what is right, but it always ends up looking wrong! I want to go back home!"
"Back to Xavier?" she asked.
"Nein!" Kurt snapped, surprised at his own vehemence.
Mystique's smirk broadened.
"I see. Not so much fun there now that their perfect little Jean is dead. I expect they overlooked you. Spoke kindly but acted coldly, is that it?"
Kurt just scowled, unwilling to speak ill of his friends.
The X-Men had taken him in, given him food and shelter and company when he'd been at his lowest point. And for a time, they'd also given him a purpose. But now, after all he'd seen and experienced, Xavier's Dream of a perfect future where humans and mutants could live together in peace was starting to ring a bit hollow.
Kurt believed, without doubt, such peace was possible. But not here, not yet. Not through violence. His dreams rested with his circus family...the good he could do as a performer, using his art to confront prejudice and fear with joy and awe and laughter...
But, such dreams were impossible as long as he remained branded "The White House Assassin."
Mystique noted the sadness in his eyes with a sly tilt of her head.
"What do you think of Charles and his X-Men?" she inquired. "I notice they still haven't given you one of their cute little uniforms. Or did you leave it at the cleaner's tonight?"
"They offered," Kurt said quietly. "I did not accept. I told them I am still debating whether to join their team."
"I think you've already made up your mind," Mystique observed.
Kurt looked up at her, his frown deepening.
Mystique's golden eyes flickered with amusement.
"Oh yes," she said. "I've done a great deal of reading up on you."
"Just because you read a few files on me doesn't mean you know me," Kurt said. "Though, you are right. I do not wish to join the X-Men. They have noble goals…but I am uneasy with their methods. I am not comfortable with all this fighting and secrecy. And I certainly will not disguise myself in public as they seem to wish. They tried to give me this device, once, that would make me appear as a normal human. But I would not accept it."
"Why not?" Mystique asked, genuinely curious.
"Because of something you said, actually," Kurt told her. "When I asked you why you chose to remain in your natural form rather than disguise yourself while among our group. You told me we shouldn't have to. And you were right."
Mystique looked somewhat taken off guard at that, but she quickly covered it up with her usual confident sneer.
Kurt narrowed his eyes.
"Now I have a question for you," he said. "Did you choose to imitate Senator Kelly because he voted against the Mutant Registration Act?"
"Are you kidding?" she scorned. "I was the one who voted against the act. The real Kelly was all for it—even despite the fact that his own daughter is a mutant."
"Was? She is?"
"Oh, yes," Mystique confirmed. "It's a huge family secret. The girl has the ability to stretch her limbs. Hardly a big deal, but the Kellys treat this like it's some debilitating disease, especially the girl's snob of a mother. It's disgusting."
Kurt shook his head sadly.
"And to think I admired Senator Kelly," he said. "Though, I suppose it was you all along, ja?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well," Kurt tried to explain, "Senator Kelly was the one man on the news who seemed to understand that being a mutant is not a choice. It is something that can happen to anyone, no matter who or where they are. He was the one who said no person should be penalized for what is really just a genetic quirk no one can control. He took a great political risk in taking such an unpopular stand, but that courage seemed to inspire others. Now, though, it is all just another sham…"
He sighed deeply, turning his gaze to the stars to avoid seeing the flashing sirens and flickering firelight far below.
"Is that why you came to Kelly's rescue?" Mystique prodded.
"Was?" Kurt shook his head. "Nein. I just saw some people in trouble, that is all."
Mystique made a face.
"How…altruistic of you," she commented.
"Oh, no. My motives were quite selfish," Kurt said, a little half-smile quirking at the edge of his mouth.
"I would not have been able to live with myself if I just sat here and let those people be killed. Not when I could do something to help them."
Mystique stared at him, her golden eyes deep with an emotion Kurt could not place.
"That is what makes you a hero, Kurt," she said at last, her voice uncharacteristically sad. "But it also makes you incredibly stupid. You risk your life with no thought of reward. You don't seem to understand that all those people down there would have felt perfectly justified in leaving the Kellys to die, as long as they were able to save their own necks."
"Oh, I do understand that," Kurt told her. "But I am not responsible for their actions. I am responsible for mine."
"You are a foolish boy," Mystique stated flatly. "But while we're on the subject of taking responsibility for one's actions, what is with those scars of yours? That kind of behavior seems uncharacteristically self-destructive for someone like you."
Kurt closed his eyes, pained by the question. He considered not answering at first, but it had been so long since he'd had someone to really talk to, someone who truly seemed interested in him instead of what he could do…
So, he told her the truth.
"The first time I found out about the scars was after the attack on the President," Kurt said with great difficulty. "I had no memory of what had happened to me, and I had no idea where I was. But, for some reason, I just kept teleporting north until I reached Boston. I found an abandoned church there, and in the spire was a small room where I had apparently been living for some time, even though I couldn't remember ever having been there before. That's when I first saw the scars—in the broken mirror standing by the wall. I recognized them as angelic symbols, and somehow I knew that they had been put there for my sins. I just could not remember who had done it, or when, and this terrified me.
"It is just this week that I have started to remember more of what Stryker made me do while I was his captive. In—in one of the memories, there was a long, serrated knife… I found a knife just like it under the bed when I was in Boston. I think…I think after Stryker completed his brainwashing program, he must have let me go for a time. I must have found the church and used the knife to…to try to stop the pain. To stop myself remembering the terrible, terrible things Stryker had made me do…"
He trailed off, starting to feel sick at the mere mention of the gruesome memory. That soldier lying on the floor by the poker table, blood spurting from the gash in his neck…
Kurt shuddered and lowered his eyes, deeply horrified. Strangely enough, though, Mystique seemed to understand.
"You're no murderer, Kurt," she told him. "What Stryker made you do under the control of that mind-altering serum had nothing to do with you. Those were his crimes. He is the one who will be held accountable in the next life."
Kurt's eyes widened.
"You believe in the afterlife?" he asked.
"No," Mystique stated. "But you do."
Kurt raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment.
Then, out of the clear, starry sky, came a brilliant flash of lightening. Kurt and Mystique looked around, only to spot Storm hovering above Rockefeller Center. Rain was pouring down on Pyro's fire creatures, shrinking them down in a cloud of black smoke.
"Ach, the X-Men have arrived," Kurt said. "I should get you out of here before we are noticed, ja?"
Mystique nodded once, then pointed down the still-busy street.
"See that building just there?" she said. "That's the hotel where the Kellys are staying. Since, thanks to you, I'll have to keep playing the good Senator for a while, you'd best take me there."
While Kurt prepared himself for the long teleport, Mystique took the opportunity to really get a good look at the young man.
She knew Kurt was unaware of who she really was. She also knew she would never reveal their true relationship. There was no way she would risk anyone finding out she was old enough to have a son his age. The continued success of far too many of her personas depended on keeping up the illusion that she was young, beautiful, and carefree.
Even so, at this moment, she had to admit she was tempted to tell him. She could feel the words on her tongue—Kurt, I am your mother—but in her heart she knew that would only make things more difficult for her in the long run. Her need to remain unattached had been the main reason she'd abandoned him as an infant in the first place.
Besides, this was hardly the time or place to start a meaningful relationship with the boy. Although, it did please her to know he would probably be leaving Xavier's soon. She was loathe to admit it, but it had pained her to think that she and her child would be destined to fight on opposing sides.
Unaware of her thoughts, Kurt gingerly reached out to touch Mystique's scaly shoulder.
"Erm, ready?" he asked, clearly uncomfortable touching the completely nude woman—even if her strategically placed scales made sure nothing indecent really showed.
Mystique smirked at his hand on her shoulder, and stepped closer, wrapping her startled son in a tight embrace.
"Ready," she said, morphing quickly back into her Senator Kelly persona.
The Kellys were anxiously waiting in the lobby when Kurt and Mystique appeared in a BAMF of sulfurous smoke. Mrs. Kelly shrieked in alarm, but "Senator Kelly" managed to quiet her with a glare.
"I have talked at length with this young man, and I can assure you he is no criminal," the "Senator" stated firmly. "His name is Kurt Wagner, and the both of you owe him an apology, and a thank you."
Kurt winced a little.
"Bitte, mein Herr, that is not necessary…" he said, but Kelly was insistent.
"I'm going to make your case a top priority, my son," Kelly went on, his sharp eyes allowing no argument. "I'll see you're returned to your circus where you belong, and with your reputation fully restored."
Mrs. Kelly looked somewhat sick.
"Oh, but sweetie, are you sure…" she said, an expertly manicured hand pressed to her chest. "Championing a…a creature such as this—and you're already so outspoken… Think of your constituents…!"
"This man is an innocent victim of Stryker's experiments," Kelly said pointedly. "It is my duty as a representative of the people to make certain full restitution is made. And I think the voters would agree with me."
Kelly's daughter nodded, but his wife's expression still looked uncomfortably pinched.
Kurt just stood there, taken aback.
"But—but why…?" he started.
"Consider it repayment of my debt to you," Kelly said, his eyes flashing gold for just the briefest moment.
Kurt blinked, but he knew better than to say anything more. Instead, he just nodded.
"So it's settled, then!" Kelly grinned. "Don't you worry, son. We'll have you back home with your circus within a month. And that's a promise from Senator Kelly."
I know you know I've never had much faith in you…or even believed you existed, at times. But when people are at their most desperate they still manage to turn to you, don't they?
And I am at my most desperate.
So I beg of you, Lord…if you are up there, and if you have any compassion for those who are truly deserving…please take care of Kurt Wagner.
I miss him so much more than I ever thought I would… I just hope—someday—I get the chance to tell him…" (see 1)
Amanda Szardos jumped to her feet at the sound of soft footsteps echoing down the aisle of the small church. She self-consciously brought a hand to her light auburn hair, embarrassed to be found in this place…
Amanda frowned, squinting at the newcomer. His form was hidden in a long coat with a deep hood, but his voice sounded so familiar…
"Who's there?" she asked, her heart feeling tight in her chest. "Who are you?"
"Amanda, it's me," the man said, taking a few, hesitant steps forward. "I'm back."
It was little more than a choked whisper, but it was all Amanda could manage. Her eyes welled with tears, and she pressed her hands over her pounding heart, unable to believe he was really there—that her foster brother had really returned home…
"Yeah," Kurt said, a little bashfully. "I'm so sorry, Amanda. I wanted to write you, but—"
Kurt found his attempted apology cut off by a flying tackle as Amanda rammed into his arms.
"Kurt! Oh, Kurt, it's really you! You're alive!"
Kurt stiffened in surprise, then melted into her fervent, tearful embrace, all his feelings for her flooding back in a rush of dizzying emotion. It was a long time before either of them could speak.
"Oh, Kurt, I'm so sorry," Amanda sobbed into his shoulder. "I know you ran away because of me. I knew how you felt about me but I—I just—I was scared and—and then you were captured by that awful Stryker and… Oh, Kurt it was all my fault! If I'd only had the guts to tell you how much I love you, none of this would ever have happened!"
"No, Amanda!" Kurt exclaimed, horrified to realize that, all this time, she'd been blaming herself. "It's not your fault! Stryker had been tracking me for weeks before my capture. Believe me, I saw the records. If they didn't take me then, they would have grabbed me another time. So, even if you had told me you loved me that night, it wouldn't have made—
Kurt replayed that last sentence in his mind.
"Did you… Amanda, did you just say that you lo—lov—"
"I love you."
Amanda smiled, blinking up at him through her tears.
"I love you, Kurt, and I don't care about those scars or anything else," she said, pulling back his hood so she could see his golden eyes. "I'm just so happy to have you back home!"
Squeezing him to her once again, Amanda leaned in to plant a tender kiss first on his scarred cheek, then on his lips. Kurt's eyes widened, then drifted closed in blissful joy.
This...feeling Amanda warm in his arms... This was truly a dream come true. While the scars of the past year would remain with him for the rest of his life, he knew that this was the first time since before his capture that he had truly felt whole.
There was no doubt in his mind. Here, with his circus family, was where he belonged.