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An Unsung Hero: An Earth 723 Fic

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FOOTNOTE #9887354467392, INCLUDING FOUR DELETED POTENTIALITIES

Historian's Note: The following is the historical record of Twyla Todd and her involvement with the X-Men of Earth 816 between April 5 and April 20, 4067 OST (Otherworld Standard Time). All facts herein have been researched and authenticated by Rowena Zahnrei, Head Historian of the Omniverse and Second Advisor to the Supreme Omniversal Guardian Roma.

 

CHAPTER ONE: TWYLA TODD

Twyla Todd groaned and shifted her position on the bed. Her fingers felt numb, her arm threatening to fall asleep.

She shook the tingling appendage and rolled over on her side to steal a glance at the glowing digital clock sitting on the table by the side of her bed.

1:30 A.M.

Twyla groaned louder and clenched her teeth, silently cursing herself for procrastinating so long. She had frittered the entire afternoon and evening away immersed in her favorite science fiction stories, completely oblivious to the time until her mother had passed by her door some four hours ago...

 

"You will be asleep by eleven, won't you, Twyla?" her mother said in her stern 'mother' voice.

Twyla jumped, slowly becoming aware of her true surroundings as the futuristic landscape of the story faded from her mind.

"Wha--? What?" she stammered.

"Twyla," her mother said, her Virginia accent thick with warning. "For the past three nights, you've been going to bed past midnight. I'm not going to watch you ruin your health. You're fourteen now. I shouldn't have to be telling you this."

Twyla realized the light had gone from her window. There were stars outside. With a gasp, she turned to her clock.

"Oh, my God!" she exclaimed, jumping up from her bed and dashing to her backpack. "It's 9:30! I've still got to write that stupid journal entry on Plato's 'Republic'! And I haven't even started my Latin!"

Twyla's mother sighed, her eyes dark with annoyance.

"Twyla, if you knew you had homework why did you waste the entire day reading those stupid sci-fi books?"

Twyla felt her back stiffen, and turned on her mother.

"They are not stupid! They're about robots, Mom."

"If they start to interfere with your studies, robots or not, those books are going to the shredder!" her mother snapped. "You need to get your priorities straight, Twyla. What's more important to you? Getting good grades, getting into a good college, having a real life and a career, or letting that trash you've become obsessed with lately eat away all your time?"

"My books are not trash!"

Twyla glared down into the depths of her battered backpack, furious at her mother's words but more angry at herself for losing track of the time. She pulled out her Latin textbook and her worn, dog-eared copy of Plato's 'Republic' and tossed them onto her bed. She then began digging for a pen.

She did not look up at her mother.

Aretha Todd frowned down at her daughter.

"Don't stay up all night," was her only parting shot before she continued on her way down the hall...

 

Twyla scrubbed the sleep from her eyes and struggled to focus on the textbook in front of her.

"I am such an idiot," she grumbled, grasping her pen in her newly awakened fingers and carefully copying the Latin sentence into her notebook.

"God, I hate parsing. It's too late for this. Maybe I should pretend to be sick tomorrow."

She snorted as she brushed a few errant strands of long, frizzy hair from her face.

"I don't feel so great right now, come to think of it."

Her eyes strayed longingly to the colorful book lying on the floor beside her bed. She felt warm and dreamy as her mind began to fill with images from the text, her imagination latching onto her favorite characters, preparing to take them off in new directions...

With a small gasp, she caught herself before she fell asleep and shook her head, disgusted by her weakness.

"Work, Twyla," she grunted. "Work comes first."

She forced her attention back to her homework, seething with agonized frustration as she stared at the sentence before her.

"Regem malum tolerare numquam debemus," she read out loud. "What the heck kind of word is 'numquam'?"

She rolled her eyes.

"Like I really care at practically two in the morning..."

She clutched her face in her hands and executed a muffled scream.

"I am such an idiot!"

A sharp POP left Twyla in total darkness. She froze, terrified, the silence of the sleeping house buzzing in her ears.

Slowly, she reached for her lamp, flicking the switch on and off.

Nothing happened.

She glanced down at her clock, wondering if there had been a power blackout.

The red numbers glowed dimly in the darkness. The power was still on. Blinking, Twyla realized her light bulb must have died.

"Wonderful," she grumbled, slipping off the bed and stretching out her aching muscles in the darkness. "Five more sentences to go and my light bulb goes out on me. I am never getting to sleep tonight."

Twyla dropped to her hands and knees and crawled silently to the hall closet where the light bulbs were kept, holding her breath as she snuck past her mother's open door. Squinting through the dimness afforded by the hall nightlight, Twyla quickly chose the right kind of bulb for her lamp and scampered back to her room, fervently praying that her mom wouldn't hear the small creaks of her bare feet on the floorboards, or the click of the latch as she gingerly closed her bedroom door.

Unwilling to risk turning on her overhead light, Twyla reached out into the darkness, feeling for her bed. She followed its edge to her lamp and quickly set about unscrewing the still warm bulb.

As she did, a strange, tingling sensation began traveling up her arm. She ignored it as merely a sign of her extreme fatigue and rested her finger against the edge of the empty socket, reaching for her replacement bulb...

That's when her world exploded.

A scream ripped from Twyla's lungs, raw and wild and terrified. Powerful waves of energy rolled up her arm, into her violently trembling body, causing her every cell to glow with an inner light of its own. Twyla felt the power building behind her eyes, collecting at the edges of her fingertips—

It was as if she had become a sponge, a vacuum cleaner, helplessly absorbing the electricity surging from her lamp. Fractal sparks exploded all around her, fading off into infinity; power wrapped her thumping heart, filling her mind with a strange elation. The power she drew in was as intoxicating as it was overwhelming; she could never get her fill of it...

A violent scream sounded behind her, and Twyla snapped back to her senses. She pulled her finger from the lamp with a forceful wrench and turned to face the source of the scream.

Aretha Todd stood just outside her daughter's doorway, staring in speechless horror at the impossible sight in front of her: Twyla's form silhouetted against the window, her hand clutching her lamp, her whole body glowing like fingers pressed over a lit flashlight.

"T-Twyla?" she choked.

Twyla gasped, feeling the energy within her churning and building into something more, something dangerous, something that threatened to burst from her at any moment.

"Mom, get out of here!" she shrieked, her voice raw, her tongue crackling with electricity as it moved against her teeth. "Now!"

Her mother just stood there, her dark skin ashen, her round, brown eyes wider than Twyla had ever seen them. She had always been a formidable woman, tall and strong, but now she suddenly seemed so small, so helpless...

The churning energy continued to build, and Twyla knew she couldn't contain it, couldn't control it. She raised her arms slowly, her hands flat, her fingers tight together...

All the energy she had absorbed into her body bolted from her eyes and fingertips in an exhilarating rush of power. Her mother had no time to draw in a breath, let alone scream, before the blinding beams burst through the wall beside her, knocking her off her feet and setting the old, wooden corridor ablaze.

Reality erupted into gleaming, flashing fractals, into angular, beautiful lines and patterns of light that stretched into infinity, and Twyla twirled among them, overwhelmed by the power that swirled and tossed within her deceptively fragile frame. She ran from the burning house, screaming in mad exultation, with no direction in mind, no plans, no coherent thoughts at all.

But, that didn't matter.

In her power-flooded mind, Twyla Todd had become a god.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Wolverine froze, his sharp, animalistic senses on full alert.

He had been tracking his quarry through the mansion's grounds for nearly an hour now and, so far, his target had remained frustratingly elusive. He would catch a glimpse of him here, just to run into a shadowed branch instead. He would hear movement above, only to catch a nearly faded wisp of sulfur, making his sharp eyes tear and dulling his sense of smell.

Wolverine grunted, acknowledging a grudging respect for his opponent's unexpected skill, despite his growing annoyance. Only one other had ever been able to evade him this long, and he had possessed the same skills, training, and powers as Wolverine himself.

It had been Chuck's idea to have him participate in this so-called 'exercise'. Following Jean Grey's death at Alkali Lake, Wolverine had gone off on his own, trying to deal with his grief by distancing himself from the school and his fellow X-Men—particularly Cyclops, who had been Jean's fiance. He had stayed with the team for as long as he could stand, helping with the reconstruction of the mansion and even going so far as to lead a few tutoring sessions on the grounds until the repairs to the classrooms had been completed, but the whole time he had felt like he was being suffocated. The memory of Jean was everywhere, and the team he had joined was not the same without her.

Many of the students had doubted he'd ever come back, but the Professor had known that he would. And he had, after nearly eight months of aimless wandering and hopeless searching—for what, he still didn't know.

Xavier had assured him that tracking Nightcrawler through the grounds would be just the challenge he needed to take his mind off his troubles. Wolverine had scoffed at the very idea. He had met Nightcrawler only briefly during the adventure that had claimed the life of the woman he was now nearly certain he had loved, but he hadn't been particularly impressed by what he'd seen. The strange looking blue man with the long tail and the scarred face had seemed painfully shy. He had clutched his worn rosary like a lifeline, cringing and praying whenever danger struck.

Wolverine gathered the man had once been with some circus in Germany, but to his mind that was hardly impressive news. It would have been more surprising to learn that a mutant as obvious as Nightcrawler had not been raised in a circus. No, the pious blue acrobat had not made much of an impression on Wolverine, and the aggressive Canadian had seriously doubted that tracking him would pose any challenge whatsoever—especially since the strong scent of sulfur his teleporting left behind would make his trail so easy to find.

Still, he had agreed, more out of boredom and depression than anything else.

And now, to his surprise and deeply irritated chagrin, Logan was almost ready to admit the Elf had stumped him.

Wolverine turned his head slowly, leading with his nose as he sniffed the breeze for the distinctive scent of his quarry.

Nothing.

He heard leaves rustle above him and snapped his head up, but all he saw were two squirrels chasing each other through the branches of a tall maple.

"Grrrr..."

A low chuckle from behind caused Wolverine to spin around so quickly he nearly lost his balance, his temper rising from simmer to boil. He lunged at a dark, nearly invisible figure, his long, adamantium claws projecting from his knuckles with a metallic SNIKT!

The shadowy figure vanished in a BAMF of sulfur-scented smoke, only to reappear high in a nearby oak tree, still chuckling.

"What took you so long, mein Freund?"

The shadow beamed a white, Cheshire Cat smile, his amused tenor voice tinted with a rural, southern German accent.

"I thought you were supposed to be the expert at this game of hide and go seek! Had I not laughed at that priceless expression on your face when you were startled by those two squirrels, you would still be searching for me!"

Wolverine growled. His eyes shone with a murderous light and his teeth were bared.

Alarmed by his attitude, Nightcrawler swung down from heights of the tree, falling into an easy crouch on one of the lowest branches. As he spoke, his golden eyes took on a somber glow.

"I know a thing or two about being tracked, Herr Logan," he said softly. "'Demon' hunting parties tend to employ very fierce dogs. The pungent smell of brimstone that accompanies my teleporting was like a beacon to them, lighting my trail. I have had to learn to use the winds to my advantage, how to move swiftly and silently through the treetops. My training as an acrobat helped me more with that."

He tilted his head slightly, his glowing eyes all Wolverine could really see of him.

"These things have saved my life on many occasions," he told Logan. "They are skills I learned of necessity rather than by choice. Please do not be angry at yourself or blame me for using them so well against you during this exercise."

The impish grin was back, a streak of white in the darkness.

Wolverine's eyes flashed again, but he relaxed his stance, retracting his adamantium claws back where they came from.

"I could 'a killed you, Elf," he grunted.

Kurt Wagner chuckled.

"Nein. You would have had to catch me first!"

Wolverine's dangerous scowl cracked into a grudging smile.

Kurt grinned, his tail swishing with relief. For a moment he had been afraid that his teasing had truly angered the shorter man. He leaped down from his perch with the grace of an Olympic gymnast, landing just beside the burly Canadian.

Wolverine regarded him rather appraisingly.

"I don't know about you, Elf, but I could sure use a beer," he said. "Whadda ya say?"

Kurt cocked his head to one side.

"But, I thought Herr Professor had forbidden the use of alcohol in his school."

Logan grunted.

"What Charlie don't know don't concern me."

Noticing his companion's uncertain expression, he sighed.

"Come on, you ain't gonna go all 'guilty Catholic' on me, now, are ya, Elf? It's just a couple of brews. Charlie's got no—"

Kurt shook his head, holding up a three-fingered hand.

"No, no, it's not that," he said. "And I would never turn you in. I don't agree with that rule myself. Americans tend to have a very strange attitude when it comes to alcohol. It was just the realization that I have not had a beer in so long that the prospect of an American beer is actually looking good. It surprised me."

Logan's eyes widened.

"Wha—?"

"I know you drink that weak, watery stuff," the taller man said. "Don't get me wrong, Herr Logan, I am grateful for your kind offer. But one day, mein Freund, I must introduce you to real, German beer. Once you have tried that marvelous brew, you will never go back to the pale, American variety."

Logan stared at the indigo mutant, a new respect gleaming in his eyes. Nightcrawler stood in a relaxed, erect posture, very different from the hunched cringe that had been his normal pose when Wolverine first met him. Looking at him now, the slender man seemed more mature somehow, more confident, and his glowing yellow eyes held a playful self-assurance Logan had not seen in them before.

"Ya know, Elf," he said, "you're the last person I would've expected to talk like this. I mean, when we first met you were so shy and withdrawn, and so pious it was actually startin' to turn my stomach! I never expected you to have a wicked streak, or even a sense o' humor. And now, I find that not only do you enjoy drinkin', but you're actually willin' to go behind Charlie's back to do it. There's more to you than I thought, circus boy. People don't often surprise me like this. I'm gonna have to keep an eye on you."

Kurt smirked, then shrugged, an almost invisible gesture in the dark.

"When we first met, I was not quite myself," he admitted, his lashing tail betraying his discomfort. "I had been kidnapped and tortured, my body used against my will to make a political statement. I had nearly killed the President of the United States, and I was terrified.

"Then," he said, "suddenly, I was surrounded by these strangers with such amazing powers and technology...thrown into a jet the likes of which I had never seen, put into one life-threatening situation after another..."

He shook his head, still slightly incredulous as he thought back on his first meeting with the X-Men.

"Now, I am shy at the best of times," he said. "An unfortunate side-effect of growing up looking as I do. But, I recognized how important it was that your mission succeed and I forced myself to help you all."

He sighed slightly and turned his golden gaze to the mansion's lighted windows. When he spoke again, it was with a warm sincerity.

"Now, I have found a home and people who care about me, not what I look like. Though I was never fortunate enough to attend school myself, I have been given the opportunity to become a teacher: to help others like myself learn to accept themselves for who they are, to look at the world with tolerance and compassion, and to see themselves and others through different eyes. In some ways, I am more comfortable here that I was at the circus. Here, I have a chance to change the world for the better, to work for the day when normal humans and mutants will share the world in peace."

He looked up at Logan with impish eyes.

"And you wonder that I am not the cringing, whispering, terrified little man you thought I was? Seven months is a long time, mein Freund."

He grinned, his sharp white teeth gleaming in the moonlight.

"I should challenge you to duel in the Danger Room sometime. Then, you would certainly get a surprise!"

"Duel?" Logan repeated. "You mean, with swords?" He shook his head, incredulous. "You're jokin' with me, Blue. You don't seriously expect me to believe that you are a fencer?"

"I am a master swordsman," Nightcrawler retorted, proudly drawing himself up to his full height, his tail swishing behind him. "As well as being an Olympic class acrobat. If you were surprised by the simple little game of hide and go seek we just played, I can't wait to see your face at the opposite end of my saber."

A slow smile spread over Wolverine's face.

So, Charlie had been right. In less than an hour, Logan had found a sparring partner and a drinking buddy in a place he never would have thought to look.

"Kurt," he said, reaching out to clap the taller man on the shoulder. "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Kurt shook his head, his impish grin threatening to split his shadowy face.

"Humphrey Bogart, 'Casablanca'. One of my all time favorite films. Coincidentally, mein Freund, much of the action takes place in a bar..." he prompted, wagging his eyebrows.

Logan laughed.

"Right. Come on, Elf, I'll show you my stash."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Logan laughed and dug through the cooler for a second beer.

"Yeah? And, how do I know you're not makin' all this up?" he teased, tossing another can to Kurt.

"I'm quite serious!" the blue acrobat said, pressing a hand over his heart. "Those crazy city girls would gather at my dressing room every night, dying to catch a glimpse of the Incredible Nightcrawler...au naturale...without make-up...if you catch my meaning... Normally, I had no trouble ducking them. It's just, this one Fräulein was particularly determined. I had to find a way to deflect her...uh...curiosity..."

"And, that's where the balloons came in?"

"Ja," Kurt said, smirking. "With so very many balloons filling the small room, she could not find me, but I could 'sense' her. I stayed in character, you know, the mischievous Nightcrawler, taunting and teasing and, before long, we were popping balloons and laughing... After that, I could see, I was no longer an 'object' to her. She agreed to allow me my privacy. That prank sealed my reputation as the 'camp trickster,' I think is the term. But, these jokes did work to keep the groupies, and their questions about me, at bay."

The Elf chuckled over his beer, and Logan shook his head, enjoying the story but still not entirely trusting this comfortable silliness. He'd been on his guard for so long, keeping to himself, lurking only at the periphery of laughter and light. And yet...

"So, the fans never did catch on that you were really—"

"A mutant?" Kurt supplied, and shook his head. "Just a talented performer in an incredibly detailed costume."

Logan nodded, the missing piece of Kurt's story finally starting to click...

"Then, when that girl was asking about your tail, she was really saying—"

"Oh, it was a definite double-entente, mein Freund," Kurt said, his smile bright with wicked amusement. "Though, the, uh... The 'pun' is far more effective in German. You see—"

Kurt gasped and pressed his hands to his head, his golden eyes wide.

"Kurt?"

Wolverine set his beer down and moved toward his friend.

"Kurt, what—?"

He felt it then, too - a commanding, cultured voice ringing out from somewhere inside his head. He scowled and twitched at the uncomfortable sensation.

*X-Men: Come to my study at once. A matter of great urgency has just come up.*

"D-did you hear that?" Kurt stammered, still recovering from the shock of the intrusive experience. "It sounded like the Professor's voice in my mind!"

Logan snarled.

"Yeah. Shocked the spit outta me too, the first time Charlie tried that trick with me. He only does it when there's somethin' real important goin' on. We'd better get a move on. We're gonna be the last ones there as it is."

"But, the beer..." Kurt said. "Herr Professor will—"

Logan swept the cans into a black plastic bag and kicked the cooler back into the dusty shadows under the workbench.

"Look, kid, with my healing factor I couldn't get drunk if I tried. An' I have. You?"

"I am a teleporter and an athlete," Kurt said. "Doktor McCoy once told me that my metabolism is so high, I all but metabolize alcohol 'on sight'. I, too, have never experienced alcohol's negative effects."

Logan grunted.

"Then, we're good. Let's go."

"I have been working on my powers, getting a 'feel' for most of the rooms. I can teleport us there in an instant," Nightcrawler offered. "If you don't think it would make you too queasy."

Logan looked uncertain for a moment, then shrugged.

"Well, I guess if Storm and Chuck got through it OK, it can't be all that bad. Just watch where you put that tail, eh, bub?"

Kurt snickered, but nodded as he snaked his tail around the shorter man's waist and put his arm across his broad shoulders.

"Ready?" he asked.

"Shoot," Logan responded.

Nightcrawler's face took on an intense expression of total concentration, then the two of them were suddenly jerked out of the tool shed. Wolverine experienced a moment of raging disorientation then, just as suddenly, he and Nightcrawler appeared in a far corner of Professor Xavier's large, plush office, some three feet above the floor.

Nightcrawler landed gracefully, but Wolverine stumbled a bit, reeling with nausea from the jolting experience.

"I'm sorry!" Nightcrawler said. "It was much harder to 'port with you than I had expected. It must be the weight of all that metal on your skeleton. Are you all right?"

Wolverine grunted and fell into a chair, rubbing his temples.

"Yeah, fine. Just don't ever talk me into doing that again, got it, Elf?"

Nightcrawler nodded, his expression contrite.

"Ja, ja. I got it. You are sure that you are OK?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Now get off it. We came here for a reason. I, for one, would like to know what that reason is."

Logan got up from the chair and strode over to the main part of the office, where Professor Xavier sat behind his large, mahogany desk talking softly with Cyclops.

Nightcrawler shoved his large, three-fingered hands into the pockets of his long coat and took up his usual position in the corner, using his feet and tail to stick to the wall just below the ceiling. It was much more comfortable for him to perch up there than to sit on one of the high-backed wooden chairs that furnished the Professor's office. For someone with a tail, that kind of chair was nothing short of torture: too narrow to perch on, yet too broad to turn around and straddle.

The office door opened and Ororo Munroe walked in, followed by several of the older students: Rogue, Bobby, Piotr, and Jubilee. A younger girl, Kitty Pryde, trailed behind, clearly delighted to have been summoned to an official X-Men meeting.

Kurt waved cheerfully to the students, who grinned at him in return before taking their seats. Then, he turned his deep, yellow gaze to Ororo, and his smile warmed noticeably.

"Guten Abend, Fräulein," he said, his color purpling slightly as he blushed.

"Good evening, Kurt," Ororo said, and smiled back, walking over to his unique perch. "I heard that you and Logan went out on a tracking exercise. How did it go?"

Kurt glanced down at where Logan was sitting, obviously listening to every word they said. He shrugged.

"Perhaps Logan would like to tell it. You know I am not one to blow my own trumpet, if that is the expression I want."

Ororo turned her curious gaze to Logan.

"So, I underestimated the Elf a little bit," he said, scowling pointedly in response to Kurt's broad, unrepentant grin. "You can be sure that won't happen again."

Rogue looked over to him in shock.

"You mean, you didn't catch 'im?"

Logan's scowl deepened. Before he could answer, though, Kurt broke in. He'd seen Logan squirm enough. He didn't want Rogue to think any less of her chosen hero because of Kurt's teasing.

"Not exactly, meine Freundin," he assured her kindly. "You see, I laughed and gave myself away so it wasn't really fair. However, I am sure that Herr Wolverine would have caught me if given but a little more time."

Rogue seemed satisfied with that. With a sly smile, she turned to Logan.

"Ah suppose that leaves things open for a re-match," she drawled in her thick, Mississippi accent.

"Anytime," Logan growled good naturedly. "Only next time I won't go so easy on ya, Blue."

"Nor I on you, mein Freund."

Kurt beamed, his eyes twinkling mischievously at the look Logan shot him.

"Ahem," came the Professor's voice from behind his desk.

All the conversations in the room came to an immediate stop as every X-Man turned his or her attention to their founder.

"Now that you are all here..." he said, looking around the crowded room as though he were taking attendance.

Hank McCoy slipped into the room from his post in the infirmary, located in the lower levels of the mansion. He had taken over as the resident doctor for the X-Men shortly after Jean's death.

Professor Xavier waited for him to get settled, then continued, "...it is time for us to get down to business. Cerebro has detected a new mutant, a young girl who has only just come into her mutant 'gifts'. From what I can tell - which is not much at this point - it seems she can absorb vast amounts of electricity into her body. The effect of this has been, well, explosive to say the least. Her name is Twyla Todd and she lives in Seaford, Virginia, a small town right on Chesapeake Bay."

"What happened, Professor?" Kitty Pryde asked, brushing a strand of long, brown hair from her eyes.

"Yeah," Jubilee added, igniting a small, colorful spark and allowing it to dance on her fingertip. "You said explosive. Did she, like, blow up her house or something?"

The Professor regarded her sadly.

"Unfortunately, Jubilation, you are not far from the truth. Her house did indeed burn to the ground, and her mother has been flown to a specialized hospital in New York City where they are working to treat her serious burns. The girl herself has gone missing and, at this point, is presumed dead by the local police. However, using Cerebro, I have been able to determine that she is, in fact, on the move, heading - I think - toward Philadelphia."

He sighed.

"I must tell you, her mental state concerns me. Her experiences have been very traumatic for her and she is hovering on the brink of severe depression. I fear she may try to end her own life, unless we get to her first."

"Mein Gott," Nightcrawler breathed from his position on the wall. "If I may ask, Herr Professor, how old is this girl?"

"Fourteen," Professor Xavier answered quietly.

"Gott im Himmel!" Kurt exclaimed, his golden eyes wide. "And she is contemplating suicide? We must find this poor child at once! I volunteer to go, Herr Professor."

"As do I," said Ororo from her chair just below Nightcrawler.

"Me too," Logan added.

Professor Xavier held up a hand with a small smile.

"As pleased as I am to see such enthusiasm, you all must be aware that we cannot simply go in without a plan. We don't wish to frighten the poor girl, or anyone else who might be nearby for that matter. This must be a silent operation. Cyclops and I have worked out a course of action, so I will turn this meeting over to him."

Scott Summers stood up, carefully adjusting his specially made ruby-quartz glasses as he turned to address his colleagues.

"First of all," he said brusquely, "we decided it would be best to keep our party small, so only five of you will be going. Rogue, you're going because from what we can tell your powers are the most similar to Twyla's. She might find that reassuring."

Rogue nodded.

"Ah understand, Mr. Summers. Ah'll do my best."

"I know you will."

He turned his head toward Ororo.

"Storm, you'll be piloting the Blackbird, and—"

"And I will provide enough cloud cover to shield us," Storm said. "Yes, Scott, I know."

"Good. Next, Nightcrawler. You'll be co-pilot and should expect to be on hand to teleport Twyla out of danger should she try something rash."

"I pray it will not come to that," Kurt said sincerely, fingering the ever-present rosary twined through his belt-loop.

"As do we all," Professor Xavier added.

Nightcrawler favored him with a small smile.

Cyclops continued.

"Wolverine, you'll be going in as back-up in case anything goes wrong. Shadowcat," he said to Kitty, "you're closest to Twyla's age and she might feel comfortable talking with you. Also, if anything should happen you can phase her long enough to keep her out of harm's way. Does everyone understand what will be expected of you?"

The chosen X-Men nodded.

"Good. Go suit up and prepare the Blackbird. The Professor will continue to track her movements, and he'll send you the flight plan. You have your instructions."

He looked to the Professor, who inclined his head slightly, then turned back to his teammates.

"This meeting is adjourned," Scott said. "Good luck, guys."

With that, he strode out of the room, followed by several curious, concerned glances.

"He still hasn't gotten over Jeanie's death, I see," Logan noted quietly.

"None of us have," Ororo said. "We all blame ourselves, but Scott especially. He attacked her while under Stryker's influence. He feels that if he hadn't weakened her so, she might have survived. He will not allow himself to be consoled."

Kurt jumped down from his perch and placed a comforting hand on Storm's shoulder. She tilted her head, brushing her dark cheek against his thick, indigo fingers.

"Ach, meine Liebling," he said, "Herr Summers lost a part of his soul, a part of his Self when he lost Doktor Grey. We cannot expect him to heal from a wound like that so quickly. Though it hurts us all to see him this way, he is getting better. We can only offer him our support, our friendship, and our prayers."

"Well said, Kurt," Professor Xavier commented from his wheelchair. "I wish you all good luck. Please remember to turn off all the lights in here when you leave."

"Yes, Dad," Logan sneered.

The others snickered slightly, and even the Professor smiled.

"I'll be in touch soon," he said, skillfully maneuvering his chair through the door.

Storm rose to her feet.

"Well, I'd better get ready. I'll meet you both in the hangar. Fifteen minutes?"

She glanced at Nightcrawler, a warm smile spreading across her mocha face.

Kurt smiled back, and gently took her hand in his. He kissed her hand, then met her blue eyes with his yellow ones.

"Until then, Liebchen."

Blushing just slightly, Storm withdrew her hand and left the room.

Kurt stared after her, only slowly becoming aware of the loud throat-clearing noises Logan was making.

"Ja? Pardon?" he asked, the smile still lingering on his scarred face.

"So," Wolverine teased, his eyes knowing, "when did you two become an item?"

Kurt looked startled, his yellow eyes wide.

"An 'item'?" he asked. "I do not understand. Ororo and I are very good friends, of course, but there is nothing more to it than that."

"If you believe that, you're foolin' yourself, kid. These eyes don't lie."

Kurt blushed violently, though his indigo skin managed to hide most of it.

"N-nein," he stammered, "No, it is just—"

"What is it just?"

"She doesn't need that right now," Kurt blurted out, his accent thickening in his discomfort. "She is still hurting from losing her best friend. If she is reaching out to me now in her pain, it is because she is trying to fill that gap, to soothe her loneliness. It is not love. It cannot be. She needs to heal, and once she does she will realize that she could not..."

Kurt trailed off, sinking into the hunched, cringing posture Logan hadn't seen since returning from his travels. For some reason, that angered him.

"What? That she couldn't possibly love you? That's bull, Kurt, and you know it. Why would you even say something like that?"

Kurt looked everywhere but at Logan, uncomfortable and embarrassed.

"She is so beautiful!" he confessed, the words heavy and painful. "So strong. Her anger fills her and I long to help her, she is like an avenging angel, a vision from Heaven itself! While I... It is impossible!"

"Why don't you give the girl a little credit?" Logan retorted. "Weren't you the one sayin' how important it is for people to look beyond appearances? And, who knows? Maybe your appearance is what attracts her to you!"

Kurt's eyes widened until they were practically circular. He paled slightly and took a step back, his tail swaying slowly back and forth.

"Was? What did you say?"

"I said that Storm is attracted to you, Elf," Logan pronounced slowly and clearly, as though he were speaking to a child. "I can read her as easy as I can read you. You're just too deep in denial to see what's right in front of your face."

Kurt took a deep, trembling breath, then closed his eyes and let it out slowly, lowering himself into a frog-like crouch. He kept his eyes closed as he began to speak.

"All my life I have wished for a family of my own," he said softly. "To the tribe that raised me, family was everything. The strongest bonds were the bonds of blood. I had no such bonds. They took me in as an infant because my appearance drew the curious, and once I showed a talent for acrobatics I became the star attraction of their circus. But even though I loved them and they cared for me, I did not 'belong' to any of them. They raised me in common, and some were kinder than others."

Slowly, he opened his eyes, turning their golden light toward Logan.

"When I was a child, I would spend hours dreaming of the mother and father I never knew," he admitted. "But, as I grew older, I began to want my own family, you know? Only, then I would think, who would ever want to have a family with me? And, if there ever was someone who did, what would the children look like? Would they even survive, or would they be too grotesquely mutated even for that? If they were mutants, and they did survive, they would have to live through the same pain, the same suffering that I did while growing up, and I would never wish that on anyone, least of all my own child."

He shook his head, picking morosely at the carpet.

"So, because of what I am, my dreams of having a loving family of my own become a nightmare before they even begin. It has always been this way."

Logan frowned, keeping his silence as Kurt straightened, slowly rising back to his full height.

"But, now I am here," he said, as though it were a revelation. "For the first time in my life, I am among others who are like me, mutants who have gone through much of what I have gone through. I believe in Professor Xavier's Dream of a world where mutants and normal humans live together in peace with all my heart. It is a dream I have cherished in my soul for as long as I can remember. And now, at last, God has given me the opportunity to help make it a reality. But... When you tell me that meine Liebe, my beautiful Sturm, feels for me as I feel for her..."

He looked over to Logan, his eyes tentative and fragile.

"Do you think that it could be possible, that she might...one day...wish to marry me?" he asked softly, his painful hope lancing through the question like a spear. "To be a...a family? Do you believe that my beautiful Ororo could share my dream?"

Logan sighed, sorry now that he had ever broached the subject. He should have left things as they were, allowed events to develop as they would. The whole Catholic thing should have clued him in that Kurt would be one of those rare 'marriage first' guys, despite his rather...demonic...looks. Even those jokes he'd told had been more about 'deflecting' casual female attention than 'attracting' it. Now, Kurt was looking at him with those 'eyes', and he knew whatever he said would fall flat.

"You're going to have to talk to her about all this family shi—stuff," he said weakly, knowing he was passing the buck but not sure what else he could do.

Kurt sighed and sank back down again, his swaying tail low and one thick, blue finger tracing the design on the plush carpet.

"Ja, I know this. That is why I cannot tell her. Not yet, anyway. She is suffering, like Scott and like you. She is still in too much pain for me to feel comfortable discussing my feelings with her, even if what you say is true. Until she is ready, the most we can be is good friends. Until that time, we will both just have to wait and see what happens, ja?"

Logan nodded.

"Ja."

He clapped Kurt's shoulder, then pulled him to his feet.

"Come on, Elf. There's a scared kid out there needin' us to find her. Time to suit up."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

"Hey, guys, I got something," Kitty called out from the back of the plane, tapping at her laptop's keypad. All eyes but the pilots' turned to her as she said, "Looks like Twyla's father lives in Philadelphia. Must be why she's heading there. I'm trying to track down a last known address..."

"And the train?" Storm asked.

"Is still on time," Kitty confirmed, clicking the tab to check the timetable she'd pulled up earlier. "And should be pulling into the station in about ten minutes. Maybe less."

"That doesn't give us a lot of time," Rogue said. "Assumin' that's where she's going in the first place. What if she doesn't get off the train in Philly?"

"We follow the Professor's directions," Storm said. "And we don't assume anything. Right now, we need a suitable place to land the Blackbird. Please try to find us one, Shadowcat."

"Right," Kitty said, pulling up the GPS map. "OK, according to this satellite map, there's a big park about thirty-eight miles from here. It's only a few blocks from the train station. We should be able to land there and still get to the station in time to get to her."

Nightcrawler fed the coordinates Kitty read out into the control panel and, within minutes, they were in sight of their destination.

"We're approaching the park," Storm announced. "Preparing for vertical landing."

"Ach, I can see the train depot from here," Nightcrawler said.

"But, it's pitch black out there," Rogue said. "Most of the city lights are blocked by those trees. How can you see—?"

She broke off when she noticed Nightcrawler pointing to his golden eyes, smiling his Cheshire Cat smile.

"Night vision, remember?" he said. "The darkest night has always been as clear as day to me."

"OK, so what can you see?" Rogue asked from her seat in the back.

"Well, it's still pretty distant, but I think... There is someone walking on the tracks, perhaps looking for loose spikes or..."

He trailed off, his eyes widening with alarm.

"Mein Gott!" he exclaimed. "The train!"

Before any of them could react, Nightcrawler vanished in a flash of smoke, leaving behind a smell like a handful of freshly struck matches.

*******

Twyla Todd had been raised Catholic. She'd gone to Sunday school and Bible camp and she knew - she knew - she could never be forgiven for taking her own life.

Yet, staring into the lights of that oncoming train, Twyla really didn't care...

BAMF!

"Ach, Gott, what are you doing here, child!"

Was that a shadow speaking?

Twyla turned her head, dazed and uncomprehending, the shifting light revealing the yellow eyes and spaded tail of...a creature...a demon straight out of medieval folklore...

"I am sorry, Fräulein," the demon said in a soft, yet authoritative voice. "But the train is coming, and I must get you out of here."

The creature reached out to her with thick, malformed fingers, pulled her into a tight embrace—

"NO!"

Twyla screamed and struggled, fighting to keep the monster's tail from wrapping around her waist. The blue, misshapen creature smelled of...of new leather, strong soap, with an undercurrent of sulfur...

The smell provoked one clear thought before Twyla Todd went entirely mad: of course!

Of course... She was a killer...a suicide... This demon was here for her, for her soul....!

Twyla's eyes rolled back, her screams becoming wild, animalistic, the monster fighting to keep his grip as she kicked and clawed and writhed.

"Stop - stop please... I will not hurt you, but—"

An awful, gut-wrenching jerk pulled Twyla out of space, out of time, and she grabbed for the demon's shadowy face, drawing the creature's life energy in through her fingertips, into her cells...

The demon's eyes opened wide and he gasped, his grip loosening. The sensation of motion stopped—

The intense silence around them was unbearable, it pounded in her ears. With a fierce wrench, Twyla pulled her glowing hand away from the demon's cheek and he collapsed at the knees, panting and shivering, his scarred face drawn with fear.

"Was? Where?"

Twyla laughed, low and strange, her mind a fractured, disassociated whirl. Stepping back from the demon, she pushed his limp tail away and stared around with wild eyes.

This was a place out of the nightmares of humanity: pitch black, yet burning with dark flame. A strange power buzzed in the air, unlike anything Twyla had ever felt before, and the stench of brimstone was overwhelming. The alien energy soaked into her pores; a negative energy, without light and warmth, an otherworldly sensation that told her she was no longer on the Earth she had known.

The winded demon struggled to his feet, terror painted clearly across his narrow features, his eyes darting around in something nearing panic.

"Fräulein, what have you done?" he asked in a shaky voice, his foreign accent more pronounced than before.

There was no ground beneath them, no sense of rock or earth, but Twyla spun on him, her swelling fury stronger than her disorientation.

"What have I done!?" she screamed. "You're the one who brought me here!"

Her screams broke something inside her...her sense of disconnect cracked, releasing an emotional dam...

"Oh, God, oh God! Please! I don't belong here!" she sobbed. "I am - I am so sorry I took my life so lightly! Please, please, please, don't make me stay here! I'm not dead! I'm not, I'm not!"

The demon stared at her, his long tail swaying slowly behind him.

"You believe that I have been sent to bring you to Hell because you wished to end your life?"

Twyla curled into herself and rocked, her shoulders shaking with sobs.

He shook his head, his bright yellow eyes softening with compassion.

"Ach, Liebling, nein. I am not a demon, I am just a man, though I am a mutant as you can see."

He smiled self-depreciatingly, and Twyla caught a glimpse of his sharp, white fangs.

"My name is Kurt Wagner," he told her. "My mutant gift is teleportation. This horrible place we are in...it must be the dimension I pass through when I jaunt from one place to another. Usually, I never see this frightening place, I pass through it too quickly. But you did something that stopped our progress and, unless you trust me now, we will both be trapped here. Come to me, mein Kind, and I will take us both to safety."

The demon held his weird, three fingered hands out to her, his luminous eyes gentle and pleading.

Twyla spun away, her dark eyes flashing.

"You are a liar and a trickster just like all the stories say!" she shrieked. "I will never believe you, Devil! I love God!"

The demon looked like he'd been hit, but Twyla didn't care. She wasn't about to be tricked into feeling sorry for this scarred monster so it could steal her soul away.

She would fight.

The demon moved closer, the thick yellow nails of his dinosaur-like toes looking almost like hooves in the dimness...

A terrible shudder ripped through her, and Twyla released a feral scream. She lunged at the creature, kicking, punching, and clawing.

The demon grabbed her wrists, holding her off with a strength that belied his slender frame.

"Please, Fräulein, I do not want to hurt you. But we must leave this place, and in order to do that you must trust me!"

"Trust you! Famous last words, Devil!"

The demon's golden eyes took on an intense, focused look. Twyla twisted in his grasp, but the same gut-wrenching jerk that had brought her to this unholy place overwhelmed her and she tried to scream.

The sensation of movement felt different than before. The demon seemed to be having a much harder time doing whatever it was he was doing. Then, the smell of cold, damp grass hit her nostrils, pale moonlight dazzled her eyes...

Twyla rolled out of the monster's arms and leaped to her feet, the world spinning around her. Nauseous and disoriented, she turned on her demonic kidnapper, lying on the grass beside her. He groaned dizzily and curled up in a tight blue ball, his eyes closed, his long tail wrapped around his knees...

Twyla wasn't about to give him the opportunity to recuperate. She lunged at the creature, her hands closing around his indigo neck.

The demon's unearthly eyes flew open and he gagged. His tail lashed, but Twyla pressed a knee against his chest, concentrating on her hands until her power kicked in—

The world exploded into blinding, multi-colored fractals as it had when she destroyed her house...her family... She felt the creature's life-force flowing through her fingers, up her arms to her eyes, her heart, her brain...

This connection was deep...deeper than she'd ever felt. She could see into monster's very cells, sense their workings, knowing instinctively how it all fit together, like a giant puzzle. The creature's genetic code, his strange, demon DNA - she could read it, feel it, manipulate all she saw just by thinking. The power of Life was at her fingertips and it intoxicated her; she reveled in her strength, laughing as she played, no longer caring it was blasphemy to believe herself a god.

With this power, no demon could ever touch her again.

She broke the connection only when she realized the creature was close to death. She didn't want him to die, not yet. She wanted to see what a demon looked like stripped down, peeled back to the very essence of its being. She wanted her kidnapper to wake up knowing she had done this to him, that she now held the power of life and death over the evil messenger who had come to steal her soul...

Twyla came to herself with a gasp and stood up, elated from the exertion and dimly aware that her dark skin was glowing again. She took a few moments to collect herself, to breathe in the chilly air, catch up with her racing, pounding heart...

Then, she lowered her glowing gaze to the unconscious demon at her feet.

Once, during a camping trip, Twyla had been told that some demons were made of mud that had been formed and animated by the powers of evil. Though they looked and acted like living beings, they could never be truly alive because they had not been created by God.

That's what she'd expected to see there, in the grass: a mudman, golem, a statue...

Not a man.

...I am just a man... ...just a man, though I am a mutant, as you can see...

A mutant... That's what he'd said. And his name...

...Kurt Wagner...

The understanding came to her in pieces, fragments. This man had been a mutant, not a monster. And there, half-in and half-out of his pocket...a well-worn rosary...

Twyla gasped, reaching out with tentative, glowing fingers to touch the smooth beads. A sharp shiver ran down her spine and she pulled away, her heart seared by a terrible realization.

This man, this mutant, he'd seen her on the railway tracks, teleported in to save her, and she...

She...

Twyla pressed her hands to her head, squeezing her frizzy hair tightly between her fingers.

She was the monster now.

The whole episode, from the strange man's initial appearance on the train tracks to this moment, with him lying helpless and unconscious on the grass, had taken barely a minute in real time.

Twyla stood slowly, her eyes blank and empty as she watched a sleek, black aircraft land in the grassy clearing ahead. A ramp lowered, and several people ran out, all of them dressed in uniforms similar to...

To Kurt Wagner's...

One of them, a woman with dark skin and pure white hair, rose into the air, flying toward Twyla at a speed that would rival Superman. She alighted gracefully beside her, looking into Twyla's dark, glowing face with concern. When she spoke, it was with the faintest hint of a north African accent.

"Are you all right, child?" she asked. "What happened?"

Twyla couldn't answer. She could only point to her victim.

"Bright Goddess!" the woman exclaimed, and rushed to kneel beside the unconscious young man, lifting his pale wrist, then turning it over in confusion. She pushed back the sleeves of his uniform, ran her hands over his belt, his pockets...

Then, she turned on Twyla.

"What have you done to him?" she demanded, her blue eyes clouding, her snow-white hair lifting of its own accord.

A flash of lightening crackled above, and Twyla stammered.

"I...I...I—"

The tall woman clenched her teeth, apparently working to control herself, and turned her back on Twyla, focusing her attention on her unconscious friend.

Twyla felt hot tears fall from her glowing eyes, and she sank to the ground, hugging her knees to her chest and rocking back and forth on her heels.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I am so, so sorry..."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

A strange scent hung in the clear, still air...like electricity, but more earthy somehow...

Wolverine followed his nose to the source, and actually gasped.

A girl hunched, rocking, on the grass, her frizzy hair sticking out in all directions and her dark skin glowing as if lit from within. Less than a meter away, Storm knelt with her back to the girl, her half-clouded eyes fixed on the smooth features of a slender young man wearing an X-Men uniform. The man's pale feet were bare, and his uniform seemed oddly loose at the shoulders and hips...

Logan sniffed again, his mind not quite believing what his nose was telling him.

"Tell me that's not..."

"It's Kurt, Logan," Storm said grimly, pressing Nightcrawler's limp, five-fingered hand close against her chest. "Truly Kurt. He did not bring his image inducer..."

Nightcrawler had told Wolverine about the image inducer the Professor had given him back at the mansion, before they'd left for the mission. He'd even demonstrated it, before unstrapping the bulky wristwatch and placing it in his locker.

"The hologram this 'machine' projects may make me 'look' like a normal man," he'd said, activating the image designed to shield his mutations and scars from view, "but I don't think it's right to meet a new mutant wearing such a disguise. We cannot expect to earn this child's trust if we first approach her with a lie. And that's what this watch is, Logan: a lie. Nein...when I meet this girl, I will do so as myself."

Squinting his flinty eyes, Wolverine crouched low and peered closely at his friend's pale face. It wasn't quite the same as the holographic image projected by the image inducer. Comparing the two in his mind was like comparing a digitally animated figure to living, breathing reality. The familiar features were all there—the long, Roman nose, the high cheekbones, the narrow, elfish chin—but it was shocking how different he looked without his natural indigo coloration and large, pointed ears. His scars were completely gone, his pale skin smooth and unmarked but for the slightest, shadowy hint of beard. He seemed smaller, somehow, more delicate. Even his scent had changed. The musty odor of sulfur and his unique mutancy...Logan could only describe it as 'blueness'...that had always clung to him was gone. He smelled like any other ordinary human now.

"Nightcrawler!" Shadowcat exclaimed, coming up behind Wolverine and diving for her friend's other hand. She looked over at Storm, her eyes wide. "But... Oh, my God, his fingers! Five, separate fingers... This isn't a hologram. How did this happen?"

Storm turned to Twyla, hunched in a glowing ball a short distance away, still rocking miserably on her heels.

"I believe 'she' is responsible for Kurt's transformation," Storm said bitterly, her eyes clouded with barely contained anger. "I think she must be this Twyla Todd we were supposed to 'rescue'."

Wolverine said nothing, just stared down at his transformed friend with a strange look in his eye. Slowly, he reached out and gathered the unconscious Kurt up in his powerful arms. The other X-Men gasped slightly when they saw he had no tail.

"Come on," Logan grunted, already heading back toward the jet. "Get that girl and let's go home."

Rogue looked to Kitty, who nodded nervously. Slowly, with Storm watching their backs, the two young X-Men approached the dangerous girl they had come to save.

"Hi," Kitty said gently, crouching down to Twyla's level. "My name's Kitty. Kitty Pryde. What's yours?"

Twyla buried her head deeper against her knees.

"You and your friends have come to take me away, haven't you?" she mumbled.

"Well, not exactly," Kitty said. "We've come to make you an offer." She smiled. "I'm a student at a school for people like us, for mutants, in New York. My friends and I came here to ask you if you would like to join us."

"And what is it that you do at this mutant school of yours?" Twyla asked, sounding more bitter than she really intended.

"Well, for one thing, we could help teach you how to control your powers and how best to use them to, well, benefit the world."

Twyla raised an eyebrow at her and Kitty smirked.

"I know it sounds corny, but it's really true. On top of that you learn all the regular, basic school stuff like algebra and history and all that."

"I always wanted to be a lawyer," Twyla said softly, her eyes downcast and distant. "Will your school teach me what I need to know to get into law?"

Kitty shrugged.

"I don't see why not. I'm into computers, Kurt's an acrobat, we've got quite a few doctors and geneticists, I'm sure we can find room for a lawyer. So, what do you say?"

Twyla looked as though she were about to speak, then she turned her head away in shame.

"But, what about your friend? You saw what I did to him. Aren't you afraid to take me with you?"

Kitty reached out a hand to touch her shoulder, but before she could make contact, Twyla flinched away in a gesture that was strikingly reminiscent of Rogue.

"Don't touch me!" Twyla exclaimed, leaping to her feet. "Don't you see, that's how I did it! I touched him and I changed him and I enjoyed it! I'm a monster, how can you want me to come with you?!"

Rogue shook her head slightly, coming up to stand beside Kitty.

"Ah know you must feel like a vampire, sugar, but you're not really a monster," she said softly. "Look at me! Because of my power, ah can never touch another living thing. If anyone touches my skin, ah absorb their memories, their powers, whatever makes them 'them'. Dear Lord, ah put the first boy ah ever kissed into a coma! And, yeah, ah enjoyed it. Ah hated myself for it afterward, but ah can never deny that ah enjoyed that feelin' of power it gave me while the contact lasted. For the longest time, ah thought ah was the worst kind of monster, but ah learned the hard way that ah didn't have to be one if ah didn't want to. Ah could use my powers to help people rather than to harm them. And you can learn that too, if you'll agree to come with us. We can help you, sugar. Will you trust us?"

Twyla looked up at the expectant mutants, her eyes blurring with tears of self-hatred and shame.

"That's what he said," she gestured fiercely to the plane where Wolverine had carried Kurt, "and I didn't. I didn't trust him at all. I hurt him so badly. I changed him and I know can't fix that. I just... I don't want to do that to anyone else! I don't want to lose control like that ever again. I don't want to...to 'kill' anyone else, like my...my...my mother—"

She broke off, collapsing into a fit of violent sobs.

"I burned my house to the ground," she cried, trembling as she clutched her knees to her chest. "And I don't know what happened...my thoughts were just so scrambled and...and when I finally went back home it was gone, Mom was gone, and I couldn't find her and she must be dead because I didn't find her and it's all my fault: I don't deserve to live!"

The two young X-Men looked at each other, sharing an understanding gaze. Slowly, Rogue approached her, carefully smoothing her gloved fingers over the girl's long, frizzy hair without coming into contact with her glowing, chocolate skin.

"There, sugar, it's good to cry. It's good to let it all out."

Twyla continued to sob for another five minutes while Rogue knelt beside her, gently stroking her hair and murmuring reassurances in her ear. Slowly, the girl's trembling stopped and her sobs quieted. She looked up at Rogue through swollen, puffy eyes.

"I am so sorry," she said.

"It's all right, honey," Rogue reassured her. "We don't hold nothin' you did against you. We're here to help you, not to judge. And we'll help Kurt too. So are you coming with us?"

Twyla nodded, rubbing at her streaming eyes with the heels of her hands.

"Yeah," she said with a sniffle. "I'll go with you."

Rogue smiled and rose to her feet.

"Then come on, kid. Let's get out of here."

Twyla stood up, brushing the clinging grass from her jeans, and followed her new friends over to their sleek, black jet. If she was to make amends for her terrible actions, this was the time to start.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Pain! Unbearable...

Kurt couldn't breathe, couldn't think... His bones burned from the inside out, lances of hot agony searing his spine, his tail... His fingers - he felt his fingers splitting, dividing, tearing themselves in half—!

Fire...flames... They tore at his skin, scorching his corneas, his ears, his feet, crackling between his teeth...

Light exploded behind his eyes; the pain grew stronger as he grew weaker. Blood pounded in his screaming ears, his agony expanding, swelling, his energy being pulled, ripped away—

As the pain reached a crescendo, the brightness that enveloped him went out. For a long, long time, he knew nothing more...

*******

Soft groans from the medical cot beside her pulled Kitty Pryde from her thoughts and she straightened in her chair.

"Hank," she called, "I think he's waking up!"

The X-Men had been taking turns sitting with their unconscious friend during his stay in the infirmary. No one wanted him to wake up alone, afraid of his reaction once he realized what had happened to him.

Dr. Hank McCoy charged in from his office; a muscular, broad-shouldered man whose intelligence and wit more than matched his enormous size.

"Kurt," he said, his eyes moving from his patient's face to the monitors beeping and bleeping at his bedside. "Kurt, my friend, can you hear me?"

"Elf?" Kitty prodded, lifting his slender hand and pressing it between hers. "Hey, Elfie, you in there?"

Kurt's eyes fluttered open, and he gave her fingers a weak squeeze.

"Hallo, Kätzchen," he whispered. His eyes flicked up to the towering figure above him and his tired smile broadened. "Hi, Hank. What am I in for this time?"

Hank started to answer but, looking at Kurt's face, he could tell the man had no knowledge of his transformation.

Fortunately, Kitty spoke for him.

"How are you feeling, Elfie?" she asked softly.

"Ach," Kurt moaned, leaning his head back against the pillows. "Like I was trampled by an angry elephant. My head is all fuzzy, and I can't seem to 'see' right. Even this, talking...my teeth feel strange..."

He sighed and blinked up at her.

"It's hard to explain. Everything seems so 'flat' somehow. It is like, I can 'see' you with my eyes, you know? But I can't 'feel' how far away you are. Does that make sense?"

He winced again, squeezing his eyes shut and raising the thumb and forefinger of his pale, five fingered hand to his forehead.

"Maybe it has something to do with this pounding headache. I hope it's not a concussion."

He tucked his hand under the back of his curly brown hair and opened his eyes, dark blue, like the sky at twilight.

"What happened to me?" he asked. "What am I doing here? The last thing I remember I was 'porting a young girl away from the path of a moving train."

"You saved her life, Elfie," Kitty assured him, "That girl turned out to be the mutant we were after. She's here at the mansion now, and she's very grateful. But...I'm afraid there was, like...well... An accident."

Kurt looked up at her, his focus sharpening.

"What kind of an accident?"

Kitty looked up at Hank, at a loss. Hank twisted his oversized hands in discomfort.

Kurt sat up in the bed, looking from one to the other, a strange, cold feeling growing in the pit of his stomach.

"Was?" he insisted, his voice growing stronger. "What is it? What is wrong?"

Kitty flinched.

"You've been unconscious for, like, two days, and..." She trailed off.

"Was? Two days!" Kurt exclaimed. "You mean, I have been lying here for two whole days—!"

"You're fine, Kurt," Hank assured him quickly. "You're in top physical condition, as healthy as an ox."

"Then why are the two of you looking at me as though I have just contracted the plague?" he asked suspiciously.

Kitty reached down and took his hand again. Kurt followed her gaze, and his eyes widened in surprise. Then he looked up at Hank, confused.

"Why am I wearing my image inducer?" he asked. "I don't believe I brought it with me when we went to Pennsylvania. If we were going to recruit a new mutant, I would not think I would need it. You know how I hate this thing."

"Oh, Kurt," Kitty burst out, tears glistening in her eyes, "you're not wearing an image inducer. This isn't a hologram. Somehow, that girl you saved, that Twyla, she did this to you. You're, like, a normal human now, a flat scan. You're not a mutant any more."

Kurt laughed brightly, shaking his head in denial.

"Nein, Kätzchen," he said. "Don't be silly. If I've been changed into a normal human, why is it that I still can feel my..."

He trailed off as he turned around in bed, looking for his familiar spade-tipped tail. Not seeing it at first glance, he felt for it with his free hand, his face paling dramatically when he didn't find it.

"Hank, I can't see my tail," he stated, his tone completely flat. "I feel it moving, I know that it is there, but I can't 'see' it."

"I'm sorry, Kurt," Hank said, his voice heavy. "There's no easy way to say this, but your tail is gone. It's not a trick or a hologram. What you're feeling must be close to what a man who has lost an arm or a leg feels - a ghost of your tail, if you will. It isn't really there. You're a normal human now and you're just going to have to learn to accept it."

Kurt looked up at him, a peculiar smile twisting his pale features.

"I don't quite understand," he said, sounding oddly as though he was on the brink of laughter. He raised his hand to the level of his eyes, watching in disbelieving fascination as he bent each of the five fingers in turn. He touched his face, his smooth, rounded ears—

"How is this possible?" he asked, starting to giggle. "What does this mean?"

Kitty stepped back as Kurt slid off the bed and started to move towards the mirror hanging over the sink. But, his gait was strange and he soon lost his balance, his arms swaying, his blue eyes wide with fear and confusion as he started to fall—

Hank caught him before he reached the floor, hefting the smaller man to his feet and helping him back over to the bed.

Kurt sat there, staring and shaking his head, his wide, blue eyes unnaturally bright. His breaths came in quick pants, his soft, incredulous chuckles rapidly swelling into frantic laughter.

Kitty backed away from him in alarm, looking to Hank, who grabbed his slender friend by his narrow shoulders before he could erupt into full blown hysteria. Shaking him, he caught the terrified man's over-bright eyes with his own serious gaze.

"Kurt, calm down," he ordered. "I know this must seem a bit overwhelming right now, but-"

"Nein!" Kurt snarled harshly, twisting free from Hank's grasp. "You do not know! How could you know!"

Tears began to leak from Kurt's blue eyes, his pale face cast in an expression of unspeakable loss.

"I lost my balance!" he cried, desperately willing his friend to understand what that meant to him. "I can't even judge distances! It is as if I have been blinded! I can see shapes, but they are without dimension!"

He tore his fingers through his tousled curls, his eyes wild with fear.

"Never before have I been unsure on my feet," he stated. "I never wobbled on the highwire, even as a child. All that is gone now! You saw what just happened! I can not even walk across a room!"

He shook his head with a violent shudder, his terror and denial plain to see as he tentatively wiggled his bare, pink toes.

"I am a stranger to this body," he said flatly. "I am no longer an acrobat. I am no longer an X-Man. I am nothing!"

"Kurt," Hank started, alarmed at where this was going and trying desperately to think of a way to reassure him without making the situation worse. But, before his brain could kick into gear, Kurt spoke again in a tone that nearly broke Hank's heart.

"What can there be for me like this?" he whispered with a frantic, terrified hopelessness. "Who am I, Hank?" Kurt pulled his knees up to his chest and buried his face in his pale, perfectly normal hands. "What do I do now?"

The question was muffled and indistinct, but it angered Kitty.

"You're, like, normal now. That means you can do anything you want," she snapped bitterly. "You're still Kurt Wagner, even if you aren't, like, a mutant anymore. You don't look all that different. And, you'll get your balance back. You just have to get used to walking without your tail, that's all."

At the mention of his tail, Kurt curled himself into an even tighter ball.

Kitty's anger faded, but it was replaced by a rapidly growing annoyance.

"You're still an acrobat, Kurt," she said, a bit more gently. "You just need some time to adjust."

Kurt didn't even raise his head to acknowledge her words.

After a few more moments of watching him sob into his hands, Kitty turned on her heel and walked away.

*******

Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Rogue, and Bobby raised their heads from their poker game as Kitty phased through the wall. Piotr looked up from the corner where he was busily capturing the scene in his ever-present sketch-book.

"Any change?" Scott asked, his concern clear despite the red, multi-faceted glasses that hid his deadly eyes from view.

Kitty nodded, her jaw set.

"Yeah. He's awake."

The tension that had gathered in the small room lessened at that, but the expression on Kitty's face made Storm uneasy.

"How is he?" she asked carefully, her blue eyes boring into Kitty's own.

Kitty sighed and flopped down in the nearest overstuffed chair.

"He's not taking it very well," she said. "When I left, he was crying. He wouldn't even listen to me."

Wolverine growled, chomping hard on his unlit cigar.

"Knew this would happen," he muttered.

Storm nodded, her stern face softening.

"My poor Kurt. I can only begin to imagine what he must be going through," she said with deep sympathy.

"Why?" Kitty demanded, straightening in her chair. "I don't get it. He's normal now! He can, like, go outside without being afraid he'll, like, be attacked by some crazy mob or something! He doesn't have to hide anymore! You'd think he'd be happy about this. So he'll be, like, a little wobbly on his feet for a few days as he gets used to walking without a tail. He'll get used to it. Why is he so upset?"

Piotr and Rogue nodded slightly, a similar pain gleaming in both their eyes.

Scott unconsciously reached up to touch his glasses.

"Ah sometimes think ah would give anything just to be able to touch someone again," Rogue whispered. "To kiss someone without bein' afraid of killin' them. To have a normal relationship, a normal life..."

She turned away, rubbing her arm quickly across her eyes to prevent her tears from falling. Bobby reached out to touch her shoulder, and she carefully laid her head on the thick fabric of his jacket, scrupulously avoiding all skin contact.

Piotr remained silent in his corner, his face drawn, his eyes distant, and his thoughts wistful.

Logan shook his head.

"Kurt ain't like the rest of us," he grunted. "That blue skin of his didn't manifest at puberty, he was born with it. For a guy like him, bein' different is what's 'normal'."

"Logan makes a good point," Storm said. "Kurt is not simply facing the loss of his powers here, though that will be hard enough for him to deal with. Our friend has undergone an extreme physical transformation. The psychological blow of this change will be even more traumatic than the physical aspects. He will be questioning his very identity."

She turned to Kitty, her blue eyes intense.

"You say you cannot understand his feelings. Answer me this, then. You have been white all your life, correct?"

Kitty gave her a confused, incredulous look, caught off guard by the unexpected question.

"Well, yeah."

"Imagine that one morning you woke up to find yourself black. Or blue. Or orange. You still maintained your own features, but the color of your skin had changed. How would you feel?"

Kitty shrugged, very uncomfortable.

"I - I don't know... Scared, I guess. But I don't think I'd, like, totally freak out like Kurt did."

Storm nodded.

"Perhaps. But, we are not merely dealing with surface appearances. Imagine this," she went on in the same lecturing tone she used when teaching her history classes. "You are a black girl living in the South sometime before the Civil Rights laws were passed in this country. Your entire life, you have been shunned and hated, even feared, simply because of how you look. Yet, despite all the hate, all the fear you see in those around you, you are proud of who you are and of your achievements. You accept yourself for who you are, you like yourself as your God made you. Your appearance, your uniqueness, has become an integral part of your identity. Now, suddenly, you wake up one morning to find yourself white. Tell me how you would feel."

Kitty stared at her, blue eyes wide, her voice trembling slightly as she spoke.

"I...I don't know," she she repeated. "I guess...I'd worry how my friends would react...if they'd still want me around... And my parents would probably freak out worse than they did when they found out I was a mutant—"

She cut herself off as a sudden thought occurred to her.

"Wait a minute, are you saying that's, like, how mutants are being treated today?"

Storm's expression softened just a little.

"Now, add this," she said. "You are a great concert pianist. Since childhood your musical talent has been the cornerstone of your self-image. Now, your livelihood depends on your abilities. But, imagine you are in an accident. Your hands must be amputated. You can no longer play the piano. How would you feel?"

"Is - is that how Kurt feels about his tail?" Kitty asked, her eyes wide and bright. "That he can't be an acrobat without it?"

Storm came over and placed a comforting hand on Kitty's shoulder. When she spoke again, her eyes were warm.

"Now, you are beginning to understand, child."

After a moment, she straightened, her face drawn with concern.

"I must see Kurt," she stated. "You are all welcome to join me if you wish."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Hank McCoy frowned down at the lump curled miserably under the white medi-cot sheet, and sadly shook his head.

"All right, Kurt, that's enough lying around," he said, injecting a jovial note into his rich, resonant voice. "I brought you something."

"I'm so tired, Hank," Kurt's accented voice mumbled. "Please leave me alone."

"You're bound to feel a little tired while your body adjusts to its new metabolism," Hank told him. "Now come on, get up. It's time to get you back on your feet."

Kurt's groan was more like a snarl as he reluctantly shifted from a lying-down hunch to a sitting-up hunch, the sheet falling back to reveal his blotchy, tear-streaked face and wildly tousled hair.

"That's the way," Hank said brightly, earning a dagger-sharp glare from the man on the bed.

"We already tried this," Kurt growled sullenly. "Twice. It is not just the loss of my tail causing me to lose my balance. These 'new' feet are so stiff and flat, I may as well have boards strapped to my legs."

"Yes, yes, hold that thought," the broad-shouldered mutant said. "I want to try something."

Hank strode to his office and returned with an antique, folded three-way mirror. He rolled it over to the cot, saying, "I remember you once mentioned learning dance moves as a way to warm up while the trapeze were in use, back at your old circus. That made me think it might help you find your balance if you could see yourself while you walk."

Kurt stared at the folded mirror, trepidation widening his eyes as the doctor began to open it up.

"Stop," Kurt said, holding out his hand, his slender fingers unconsciously pairing like the Vulcan salute. "Just... Just wait, bitte. I can do this. Just, let me..."

Hank watched in silence as his patient slid off the bed onto his feet. At first, Kurt leaned most of his weight on the cot but, slowly, he became confident enough of his footing to ease off until he stood alone, without support. Hank resisted the urge to clap.

"There, you see?" he said brightly. "I told you you could do it."

Kurt shot him a scathing glare, his normally pleasant features twisted into a bitter scowl.

"Now, try taking a few steps toward me," Hank said encouragingly.

Kurt's scowl deepened.

"I can't believe this," he muttered, taking a slow, careful step forward. He wobbled and raised his arms slightly, consciously working to maintain his balance.

Hank watched him closely, his wide brow furrowed.

"I believe I have discovered your problem, my friend," he said.

"What?" Kurt snapped. "That I cannot walk on these stupid feet?"

"No, why you can't walk. Look at how you're standing."

Kurt glared.

"If I move my head I will lose my already precarious balance."

"Well..." Hank suggested, patting the mirror.

Kurt worked his jaw and looked away.

Hank waited patiently, watching Kurt's posture shift as he gathered his courage. Finally, he nodded, and Hank opened the mirror wide.

Kurt's head twitched, and he blinked in confusion. Who was that man in the mirror?

Ebony-brown hair, dark eyebrows, and the faint shadow of beard contrasted sharply with porcelain-pale skin. His lips were thin and pink, his blue eyes unnaturally wide in a thin, smooth face that seemed surprisingly young without the intricate scars...

Kurt dropped down to a crouch, his hands resting on the floor between his knees. This was a habitual pose for him. In his true form, it seemed perfectly natural. The pale man in the mirror looked ridiculous.

Kurt shuddered.

"That," he said, pointing at the figure in the mirror with two fingers, "is not me. He is a pale little shrimp of a man, a pasty worm."

Kurt's scowl returned, deeper than before.

"That man is a 'nightcrawler' in truth."

"At least it's good to know your pseudonym remains an apt description," Hank commented dryly.

Kurt wrinkled his nose, and turned his eyes away. After a few moments, he slowly began to rise to his unsteady feet.

"You brought this verächtlich thing here for a reason," Kurt snapped. "It might as well make itself useful. Tell me, Herr Doktor, just what exactly is wrong with the way I am standing?"

"Well, look at yourself," Hank said with a small gesture. "What do you think?"

Kurt glared at the mirror, his jaw set. The man he saw there stood on the balls of his feet, his knees bent and far apart, leaning forward in an oddly threatening manner as his arms swayed by his sides. Kurt laughed at the awkward image. But, it was a bitter sound.

"You are right," he said, turning dark eyes to Hank. "I look quite the fool."

"I never said that, Kurt," Hank said seriously. "What you look like is someone who is very much missing the counterbalance he has relied upon his entire life."

"You mean my tail," he said bitterly, swallowing hard to keep back the angry tears.

"Look at the man in the mirror, Kurt," Hank said, trying to direct his patient's attention away from his pain. "How would you expect him to stand?"

"Straight," Kurt grumped. "Not like he was doing a dismal impression of a Tyrannosaurus Rex."

Hank shot him a disapproving look, which Kurt ignored.

"So, try to make your reflection match your perception of how he should look," the doctor said.

"You mean indigo blue and devilishly handsome?" Kurt said with an ironic smile that did not reach his embittered eyes. "I'm afraid that's a bit beyond my capabilities, Hank."

Now it was Hank's turn to glare.

"You know what I mean, Kurt."

Kurt sighed deeply and looked back at the pasty reflection. Slowly, carefully, he straightened his posture, lowering his heels to the floor and unbending his knees. He'd feared this position would make him even more unstable but, surprisingly, he actually stopped wobbling.

With his spine and shoulders straight, the slender man in the mirror seemed marginally less pathetic. He looked taller, broader, more formidable. For the first time, Kurt began to see a hint of something he could recognize in this new reflection.

"Better?" Hank prodded.

"Ja, actually. It is."

"Good. Now, try taking a step forward."

Kurt did, maintaining his new posture but still off balance as he moved.

Hank grunted.

"Was?" Kurt snapped.

"Your gait," Hank said. "You walk toe to heel. This is probably natural to a man with tridactyl feet but, generally, normal humans don't walk on their toes. They roll their foot from heel to toe, thereby maintaining a constant center of balance as they move."

Kurt glared.

"Until two days ago, Hank, my heel 'was' a toe."

Hank could only nod, sadly.

Kurt sighed again, his shoulders sagging.

"Who would ever have thought that such a basic thing as walking could be so difficult?" he complained.

Hank laughed.

"It's actually an extremely complicated exercise. What surprises me is that so many people manage it so well. Now, come on. Try walking heel to toe."

Kurt sucked in his cheeks, but did as he was told.

*******

Kurt was just finishing his third lap around the infirmary when Ororo entered the room, followed closely by Logan, Piotr, Scott, and Kitty. Hank had turned them away the first time they'd come to visit, suggesting they give Kurt a few hours to calm down and collect himself. Now, he welcomed them with a warm smile, but Kurt froze in place, his expression one of acute discomfort. Flushing a brilliant scarlet, he hunched his shoulders and turned away, avoiding their involuntary stares.

Logan was the first to speak.

"Hey, Elf," he said, his gruff tone slightly softer than usual. "I see Hank's already givin' you a workout, so I guess it's no good trying to take you up on that duel, eh?"

Kurt turned and fixed his bitter, blue gaze on his friend.

"Workout," he snorted in disgust. "This is teaching me how to 'walk'. Apparently, normal humans do not walk on their toes, all hunched over like something out of a bad monster movie."

Ororo shook her head, her eyes flashing.

"You never looked like that, Kurt," she said sternly. "You were always so graceful, your movements so fluid. You had the walk of a dancer."

"Or an acrobat," Kurt added. "Ja, I know. But, the key word here is 'had'. Without my tail I am so awkward that it has taken me all this time to learn to walk well enough to circle this room. Can you imagine how long it will take me to relearn how to do something as basic as a handspring, or even a cartwheel?"

"You seem to have walking down pat now," Kitty chipped in with a hesitant smile.

Kurt snorted again, and headed toward the cot, his gait slow and hesitant.

"Yes," he said harshly, his tone causing Kitty's smile to vanish. "You see how 'pat' I have it down. Perhaps, in a few weeks, I will be able to make it all the way to my room without falling over, ja? It's not like I can just teleport myself there, not anymore."

"Kurt," Storm said gently, walking to his side, "you have just undergone a traumatic physical transformation. You can not expect to be able to simply jump out of bed and continue as if nothing has changed. It will take time to adapt to your new circumstances, but it will happen. Never forget that we care for you, Kurt. Now and forever, you are one of us, a member of our family. Do not allow this bitterness you feel right now to overcome the hope and optimism you always shared with me when I doubted myself and my place on the team. Don't let this transformation make you lose sight of who you are. To us you will always be Kurt Wagner, no matter your outward appearance."

Kurt looked up at her, the cold bitterness gone from his blue eyes. They were now rapidly filling with tears as he all but collapsed into her willing embrace, sobbing like a lost child.

"Ororo, meine Liebe, I feel I no longer know myself," he sniffled against her shoulder, his eyes tight with desperation. "I look in that mirror and I do not recognize the man I see before me. It is the most frightening experience I have ever had, to look in the mirror and see this stranger looking back at me. How did this happen? Why did God allow this to happen?"

Ororo shook her head and lowered her eyes, sadly.

"I can't answer that, Kurt," she said, pulling back and smoothing his tousled curls away from his forehead. "All I know is that you have friends here, real friends who care about you deeply. We want to help you, Kurt. Please, don't be shy of us or push us away in your pain."

Kurt's eyes were tearing up again and he sniffed deeply.

"Danke, meine Freundin," he said, his voice soft and sincere. "I will take your wise words to heart."

He turned to include the rest of them in his gaze, brushing the tears from his eyes.

"Thank you all for coming to see me. I truly appreciate your kind concern for me. I know I have not been in the best of moods."

"Hey, we get it, Elfie. It's OK," Kitty said, standing beside the massive, though silent, Piotr.

Scott nodded.

"Yeah," he said. "Mutant or human, you've still got a place on the team."

Deeply touched, Kurt favored his friends with his broad, characteristic grin. As they returned it in kind, delighted to see his mood improving at last, Kurt caught a glimpse of his smiling face in the mirror. His eyes widened, and he gasped in surprise.

"Oh, there you are!" he exclaimed.

"There who is?" Kitty asked, looking around in confusion.

Kurt chuckled very slightly.

"That man in the mirror," he said, with a small, self-depreciating smile. "I just realized it was me."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Twyla sat on the large, four-posted bed, staring around the elegant old room the Professor had called 'hers'.

The thing was, it wasn't hers. It was 'his'. His mansion, his money, his school for talented, useful mutants. She didn't belong here.

What made these people think she belonged here?

Professor Xavier's mansion was truly enormous, and new additions and appendages were under construction. Yet, despite its size and grandeur, the mansion managed to maintain a warm, cozy feel. A sense of comfort, of refuge. Maybe, under other circumstances...

But, after what she'd done, the shameful ways she had chosen to use her new powers...

Twyla hadn't been assigned a roommate. The man who had shown her around - Mr. Summers, the one with those strange, multi-faceted red glasses - he'd assured her it wasn't because of her powers.

"It's because you came to us so late in the semester," he'd said. "Everyone's already been paired up. But, seriously, you're not the only one here with potentially devistating powers. Do you know why I wear these glasses?"

The story he told, of the day his eyes inexplicably began shooting deadly force beams he couldn't stop, couldn't control... Even now, Twyla's glowing eyes burned with tears at the memory of the energy building up within her own body, the euphoric release as she blasted out her bedroom wall, setting her house ablaze...

Then, there was Rogue. Rogue was one of the older students and already she associated more with the adults than the rest of the children. But, what she'd said back in that park, about feeling like a vampire, a monster... Rogue understood. She'd felt the kind of guilt gnawing at Twyla's core.

Mr. Summers had suggested she get to know Rogue, to talk with her. Twyla had agreed, though with trepidation. Talking was connecting, and Twyla didn't want to connect with anyone just yet.

The two days since her arrival had been little more than a hectic blur. This was good, since it kept Twyla's mind off her crushing guilt and gave her something to focus on. She had spent the time signing up for classes, self-defense training - a required course at Xavier's school - and being assigned chores. It seemed every student, and faculty member, at the school was expected do their share of keeping the mansion livable.

The chores were done in rotation so no one was stuck with one job for too long. For her first week, Twyla had been assigned cooking duty with Rogue, Bobby, and Jubilee with Miss Munroe as their supervisor, and she was actually quite pleased about it. She had always enjoyed cooking, especially during that warm time just before Christmas when she helped her mother bake cookies...

She shivered and swallowed back tears. That warmth was gone forever now, and it was all her fault.

Signing up for classes was far more challenging. Twyla had to take an academic placement test, then find classes that seemed closest to the ones she'd been taking at her old school so she wouldn't feel too left behind. Unfortunately, her favorite class, the one she had always felt would give her a head start when she started her studies to become a lawyer, was taught by the one person she felt she could never face.

Kurt Wagner was the school's sole Latin teacher.

Professor Xavier had volunteered to take over Herr Wagner's classes until he was released from the infirmary, but even that small relief was tainted by the painful knowledge that she was the one who had put him there.

A sharp tap on her door snapped Twyla out of her dark musings.

"Come in?" she called, hesitantly.

A girl of perhaps fifteen stood in her doorway. She had long, strawberry blond hair and dark, brown eyes.

"Hi," she said with a pronounced Irish accent. "Professor X sent me to fetch you. He wants to have a talk with you."

Twyla suppressed a shudder. If she was this nervous about talking with the school's founder, perhaps having him for a temporary teacher wouldn't be such a relief after all.

Sliding off the bed, Twyla nodded silently and slouched out the door, trying not to take offense when the taller girl nimbly moved out of her way. She continued to keep a safe distance from Twyla as she walked with her down the long, richly carpeted hall toward the main flight of stairs.

"My name's Theresa, by the way," the girl said as they walked. "Theresa Rourke. But, most people round here call me Siryn."

"Why's that?" Twyla asked curiously, peeking up from her dejected slouch.

The girl grinned.

"You ever read Homer's 'Odyssey'?" she asked.

Twyla shook her head.

"No, but I always meant to."

"You should," Siryn told her. "It's good. Anyway, in the story there are these women called Siryns, whose song would ensnare any man who sailed by their island, drawing them to be dashed to pieces upon the rocks. My power is not quite that cool, but I can create enormously powerful sonic vibrations that can shatter steel. If I do it right, I can even use these vibrations to fly. So, like the Siryns, my voice can be deadly. My dad's got it too. He's called Banshee."

Twyla very nearly smiled.

"Wow," she said. "That's a really interesting power."

She lowered her head and sank back into her dejected slouch.

"I don't have a nickname," she said. "I'm just plain Twyla Todd. I suck energy out of things and people and can do even worse stuff. Do you know of any mythological monster that can do that?"

Siryn grimaced uncomfortably.

"Yeah, I heard what you did to Nightcrawler. How did it happen? Or don't you want to talk about it?"

"No," Twyla said firmly. "I don't want to talk about it."

Siryn raised her hands in mock defense.

"OK, OK! But, don't worry about it. I'm sure Herr Wagner will forgive you. I have him for German and Film Analysis, and he's the nicest guy I ever met."

At Twyla's disbelieving expression, Theresa's eyes softened.

"Truly, now," she assured her. "That man can forgive anybody anything. I heard he even prays for the soul of that awful Stryker, that creep who kidnapped and brainwashed him some months ago. If he can forgive the terrors that horrid man inflicted on him, and all of us, he will certainly forgive you for what was surely an accident."

Twyla sighed deeply, fixing her gaze firmly on the polished, hardwood floor.

"Even if you're right, he's not the only one I've hurt," she whispered, surprised to see a tear splash on the floor beside her as she and Siryn came to a stop.

"Here it is," Siryn said with a small gesture to the door behind her, her richly accented voice gentler than before. "Professor Xavier's office. I've got to go now or else I'll be late for Danger Room training. I'll see you around, OK?"

Twyla shrugged.

"Yeah, OK," she said listlessly, then reached for the door.

Siryn watched until the door closed behind her, then hurried away down the corridor.

*******

"Ah, Miss Todd," the bald, imposing man called to her from behind a broad, mahogany desk. Professor Xavier spoke with a cultured English-sounding accent, although Twyla had heard he'd been born in that very mansion.

"I am sorry I was not here to welcome you in person upon your arrival," the Professor said. "There was an important Senate meeting I had to attend, though I was instrumental in pinpointing your location. Please," he said with a kindly smile, gesturing to one of the high-backed wooden chairs just in front of his desk, "sit down."

Twyla sat down quickly, hunching even further into herself.

"Well," the Professor said, still smiling, "how do you like it here? I trust you are not finding it too difficult to adjust?"

Twyla shook her head.

"No, sir," she mumbled. "It's very nice here."

"Have you met any of our students?"

Twyla nodded.

"Yes, sir. They're very nice."

"Is your room satisfactory?"

Twyla sank down a little further.

"Yes. It's very nice."

"That's nice," the Professor said, his bright eyes sharpening. His voice stayed warm, but the chipper friendliness had vanished.

"Twyla, I asked you here for a reason. Can you guess what that reason is?"

Twyla tried to vanish into the back of the chair, her eyes focused firmly on one of the swirling designs that colored the plush carpet under the professor's desk.

"I suppose it's because of what I did to your friend," she said, her trembling voice barely above a whisper.

"Hmmm."

She risked a brief glance at the Professor's face. His lips were pursed and his brow was furrowed. Quickly, she dropped her head again.

"And, can you tell me how that happened?" he asked in the same tone as before.

Twyla shuddered at the memories, trying hard to force them back, to keep the images out of her conscious mind.

"I - I... I guess I panicked," she said. "I mean, he came out of nowhere in a puff of blue-black smoke! He smelled of brimstone, and the way he looked—"

Twyla broke off and took a deep, shuddering breath.

"I thought for sure he was a demon come to claim my soul for the Devil."

"And, why would you think that, Twyla?" the bald man asked, his sharp eyes apparently curious. "What could you possibly have done in your brief fourteen years to warrant such fears?"

Twyla looked up, surprised.

"You mean you don't know?"

"Enlighten me." The man smiled softly, not giving anything away.

Twyla sighed deeply and watched her swinging feet as she made her painful confession.

"I was trying to kill myself," she whispered, dreading what she might see if she glanced at the Professor's eyes. "I didn't want to go on the way I was. Herr Wagner came to save me before the train could hit, and I panicked. He was so nice about it, but I wouldn't listen to what he had to say. I was so convinced that he was a demon, that he was trying to trick me into letting my guard down so he could steal my soul. I touched his face and we were suddenly in this awful, dark place that reeked of brimstone. It crackled with this weird energy that just soaked into my skin. It felt awful, all cold and backwards. It's really hard to explain."

She sighed, her shoulders drooping even further as she continued.

"Anyway, when he saw where we were, he was all shaky and frightened. He told me something about dimensions and teleporting and he reached for me to try to get us out of there. And I just... I lost it completely. I had never been so freaked out in my entire life, and once I realized we were back on Earth, lying in some park, I looked over to him and...and seeing him curled up there, all weak and helpless—I don't know but it just made me want to hurt him more! I jumped on him, I think I was trying to strangle him, but before I knew it my power started up. I felt so strong, so powerful, and I loved it. I really did. I could do anything, just by thinking about it. I felt...it felt so good..."

Her legs stopped swinging as a violent shiver ran down her spine.

"I'm a monster," she said, her soft voice completely devoid of emotion. "A horrible, cruel, mindless monster."

Slowly, Twyla looked up at Professor Xavier, her glowing eyes empty.

"So, there it is," she said simply.

"Twyla," the Professor said, his voice somber. "From what I gather about your state of mind at that time, your reaction to Herr Wagner was perfectly understandable, and I am sure that if Kurt were here he would agree with me on this. What concerns me is what you were doing on the train tracks in the first place. You are an intelligent, ambitious young girl. You have your entire life ahead of you. You don't seem to me to be the type who would resort to suicide to solve your problems."

Twyla gasped, nearly choking on a sob.

"But I—" she started, then she broke off and tried again, her words coming in a desperate rush. "It was my fault!" she exclaimed, jumping up from her chair. "Mom told me to go to bed, to stop wasting time reading science fiction when I should be doing my homework, but I didn't listen to her! And then, when I tried to change my light bulb in the middle of the night so I could finish my stupid Latin, that's when it all started! My finger got stuck in the lamp and I thought I was going to be electrocuted but instead my skin started to glow and my mom came in to see what was wrong and I blew a hole through the wall! Everything was catching fire and I couldn't control it! I...didn't 'want' to control it..."

Twyla's voice started to tremble as tears streamed from her glowing eyes.

"I didn't even stop to see if my mom was OK, to get her away from the fire and smoke, I just ran away," she cried, her dark face a study in shame and agony. "And I didn't even care! I didn't care about anything but that incredible power I felt. It was only after it...it faded...that I realized what I'd done. I went back to find my mom, but the house was just a pile of cinders. Even the television had melted! I went to the hospital to see if she had been taken there, but she wasn't there. She wasn't anywhere!"

Twyla took in a shaky breath, her entire body trembling now.

"I killed my mom and I burned down my house all because I didn't listen to her when I had the chance. I thought I was so much smarter than her, that she was treating me like a little girl and I didn't have to listen to her because I knew better. If I hadn't been awake, if I hadn't had to change that light bulb, none of this would ever have happened! I'm a murderer and an arsonist and I am too dangerous to be allowed to live!"

Twyla broke down into hysterical sobs, collapsing at the knees onto Xavier's expensive carpet, shaking with the violence of her guilt and self-loathing.

Unable to crouch down and comfort her physically, the Professor reached out with his mind, caressing her troubled spirit with soothing thoughts.

After a long time, Twyla's sobs began to lessen and her shoulders stopped shaking. Slowly, she looked up into the bright, compassionate eyes of Professor Xavier.

"Dear Twyla," he said, his cultured voice soft and intense, "Your pain runs deep. But, you must remember, no matter what you may have done in the past, you are a member of our family now and your life is precious to us. Our job here is to help you learn to control and focus your powers so that terrible accidents like the ones that brought you here will never happen again. That will take time, and it will certainly not be easy. We expect that you will make many more mistakes before you can safely control your powers. But, Twyla, even in the depths of the darkest despair there is always room for hope. The people here, at this school, are your friends. Talk to them. Share your feelings with them. And, remember, Twyla, my own door is always open."

Twyla sniffled, her heart still heavy with pain but her mind somehow lighter.

"Yes. Thank you very much, Professor. I will remember."

"Good. Now, I believe you've pulled kitchen duty this week. I suggest you make your way there now before you're missed or else I will have to answer to Miss Munroe."

He smiled.

Twyla straightened.

"Oh. Um, where is the kitchen?" she asked.

The professor's smile broadened.

"I will show you," he said.

Twyla gasped as a detailed map of the mansion suddenly appeared in her mind, accompanied by Xavier's calm voice.

"Just follow the red arrows and you'll be there in no time," he said.

Twyla nodded and favored him with a grateful smile.

"Thanks, Professor. And I will be back. You've given me a lot to think about."

Twyla left and the Professor sighed, maneuvering his highly advanced wheelchair away from his desk. He knew he should have told Twyla about her mother's condition, but she was so fragile at the moment. He didn't want to get her hopes up just to have them dashed again if (but more likely when) her mother died. Twyla's situation was complicated further by the fact that Xavier still hadn't been able to reach the girl's father. It struck the Professor as odd that Twyla hadn't asked about him. Still, from what he had been able to learn about her family, her parents had gotten divorced before Twyla was even born. Thinking about it now, it occurred to Xavier that there was a real possibility Twyla and her father had never met.

Shaking his head, he pushed Twyla's problems to one side. It was past time he checked on Kurt.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Professor Xavier sensed Kurt's intense concentration before he rolled into the infirmary. He peered around the door frame into the patient's room, and actually gave a start. Could that pale young man truly be the same gentle, blue mutant Xavier had come to trust, and respect, over the past few months...?

The slender man stood balanced on his hands, his back curled until his feet dangled just over his tousled, dark brown curls. As Xavier watched, the young man slowly stretched his body until his bare toes pointed toward the ceiling, his back straight and stiff as an arrow. Then, he pushed off with his lean, muscular arms, letting his legs fall into a slow cartwheel that rapidly gained speed until he tucked his legs in for a backflip, then landed gracefully on his feet.

Xavier raised his hands to applaud the young man's impressive skill, but a series of sharp, bitter thoughts pummeled his mind, stopping him in mid-motion.

*Sloppy!* the thoughts reprimanded harshly. *Unforgivably sloppy. Your balance is still off, your legs are shaky, your timing is atrocious, you've never performed this badly! Star attraction indeed. If Mother Margali could see me now, she'd be sorry she ever took me in. You're worthless, Wagner, completely worthless.*

Blinking in surprise at the angry disgust behind those thoughts, the Professor decided to announce his presence before they could go much further.

"Hello, Kurt," he said, his voice as warm as he could make it. "I'm pleased to see you up and about."

Kurt jumped at the unexpected voice behind him, but he brightened when he saw the Professor.

"Guten Tag, mein Herr," he said with a slight bow. He straightened and gave the older man an impish little smile. "Please don't tell Hank what I was just doing. He wants me to take it easy. He has actually threatened to keep me in here for an entire week if I 'overextend' myself, as he put it, and you know how much I loathe inactivity."

Xavier matched his smile, rolling forward to close the space between them.

"Your secret is safe with me, my friend," he assured him. "But I don't see any reason for you to stay here. If you're feeling well enough to perform the astounding moves I just saw, you have no business lounging around in the infirmary."

Xavier caught a dark flash of incredulous disbelief from Kurt at the word 'astounding,' though the younger man hid it well. He even grinned.

"Do you mean you've come to spring me out of this joint?"

Xavier chucked slightly.

"I'll speak with Hank. I'm sure he'll see things my way."

Kurt nodded.

"Sehr gut. I hate hospitals. They have always put me on edge. Maybe it's the smell?"

"What smell?" Hank asked, his large frame looming in the doorway to his adjoining office.

"Ah, Hank, just the man I wanted to see," Professor Xavier said, rolling over to him. "Kurt and I were wondering if you felt he was well enough to return to his duties."

Hank looked hesitant, then bent down slightly towards the Professor.

"Charles, can I speak with you in private?" he whispered.

Xavier felt a surge of bitter annoyance from Kurt, and realized the young man was surprised he couldn't hear Hank's whisper from his position across the room. He sighed, understanding Kurt's pointed ears must have been much more than just for show. The poor man was going to have a great deal more to adjust to than the Professor had originally anticipated.

"We'll be right back, Kurt," the Professor assured him.

"Don't go flipping and bounding around the room while we're gone, OK?" Hank added. "You're not accustomed to this form yet, and I don't want to see you do yourself an injury."

Kurt grunted and flopped onto the cot. With careful deliberation, he laced his long fingers together and shoved them under his head.

"Ja, ja, ja," he muttered. "I'll just lie here like a good little patient, OK?"

"See that you do," Hank said, and walked back into his office, the Professor trailing close behind him.

"I know what you're going to say, Hank, and I want you to know that I agree with you," Charles said.

The tall mutant looked down at his friend and mentor, his broad arms crossed.

"Then you agree Kurt should remain here until he has become better adapted to his new physiognomy."

Xavier shook his head.

"Quite the contrary, I'm afraid."

Hank's eyes widened.

"What? But, Charles, surely a transformation of this nature—"

Xavier held up a staying hand.

"Hank, Kurt is taking this harder than either of us could have imagined."

"But, he seems to be adjusting quite well."

Xavier nodded.

"That's part of the problem. His strength in this case is deceptive, he could break at any moment."

Xavier sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him.

"The way Kurt deals with his problems is to pretend they just bounce off him when, in reality, they strike him to the core," the Professor explained. "He's been trained from earliest childhood to think and behave as a performer. I've often caught the thought running through his mind in times of stress: 'The audience pays to forget their troubles, not to see yours.' The cheerful attitude I just saw is an act he's putting on, the smile he shows to the public, a mask of safety that he can hide behind."

He shook his head, a slight frown twisting his lips.

"I fear the longer he stays here, the harder it will be for him to break through that protective mask and truly face the rest of the school," he said. "He's terrified of the reactions of his students, as well as his friends, to his new form, and without his physical mutations he's feeling inadequate to the challenge of carrying out his duties as an X-Man. I feel that the sooner he gets back into his normal routine, the sooner he will realize that he can."

Slowly, Hank began to nod.

"I understand what you're saying," he said. "But he is no longer possessed of superhuman agility, to say nothing of his powers of teleportation and ability to cling to walls. I am afraid that if he goes back to his usual routine too quickly he will either cause or be victim to an accident and end up back here in worse shape than he was when he first arrived."

Xavier sighed.

"Of course, there is that risk. But Kurt is a professional."

He looked to where Kurt was sitting up in bed, grimly juggling four plastic pill bottles and an enema bulb. Hank shook his head disapprovingly, but the Professor understood Kurt was struggling to get a feel for his new fingers.

"We'll just need to have faith in him."

*******

Kurt looked up when Professor Xavier came back into the room.

"So, mein Herr, what is the verdict?" he asked, catching the pill bottles two to a hand and placing them on the table next to the enema bulb. "Am I getting out of here?"

Xavier smiled at Kurt's mental image of himself as Hank's unwilling patient: tucked tightly into the hospital bed, his blue, three-fingered hands clamped tightly over his pointed ears and his tail lashing in agony while Hank stood by his side, spouting long strings of complicated English words. Xavier was not surprised or concerned that Kurt still mentally perceived himself as a mutant. Something of that image would most likely remain with him for the rest of his life, as would the sharp pain he felt over the loss of his tail. It would be up to Xavier and the rest of Kurt's friends to help him deal with it.

"Yes, actually," he replied, his amusement evident in his tone. "In fact, as it is nearly time for supper, you can accompany me to the dining hall."

Kurt was off the bed and standing by the door almost before the words were out of Xavier's mouth.

"After you, then, mein Herr," he said with a theatrical bow, his bare heels tight together.

Xavier noted Kurt's bare feet as he passed through the door, his brow furrowed in thought as Kurt concentrated on keeping up a steady pace beside him.

*...heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe...*

Xavier picked up on the mantra, as well as a sustained flash of frustrated annoyance as Kurt strode carefully down the hallway.

"Perhaps we should stop off at your room so you can change into something more comfortable?" Xavier suggested.

Kurt wore his newly laundered uniform, which seemed larger and looser on his slender frame than it had been. Hank had told Xavier about the extra muscles that had been a part of Kurt's mutation. They had been instrumental in controlling his tail and allowing Kurt his super-human agility. Now they were gone, it came as no surprise to the Professor that the young man felt his earlier performance in the medbay to be 'sloppy'. No doubt, although he was still amazingly flexible, he had never felt so stiff in his life.

Kurt blushed in embarrassment in response to Xavier's suggestion, the red creeping up beyond his hairline and down his neck. Xavier wondered if he had flushed so deeply as a mutant. His scarred, indigo skin had made it so difficult to tell...

"Ja, that might be a good idea," Kurt said with a very small smile. "Although..."

He trailed off, his shoulders stooping as he looked away.

"What's wrong?" Xavier asked, stopping their progress.

Kurt hung his head, peering down at the professor through his long lashes.

"It is just that all of my trousers have, well..." He took a deep breath, his voice dropping to a pained whisper. "...tail holes in the seat. And now that my...my tail is..."

Xavier nodded his understanding.

"I'm sure Scott would let you borrow something of his, at least until you have made the appropriate...adjustments...to your own trousers. You two seem to be about the same size."

Kurt's head drooped further. He felt physically pained at the thought of having to sew up the tail-holes he had so carefully made.

"I would hate to impose, ja?"

"Nonsense," Xavier said, keeping his voice light and bright. "In fact, I have already asked him and he would be honored to be of assistance. He'll meet us at his room. Oh, and he has also offered to lend you some shoes, if they fit you."

Kurt blinked, then slowly raised his head.

"Shoes?"

A smile spread over his pale face.

"You know, I have always wondered what it would be like to be able to wear real shoes. With socks and everything. It is very difficult to find shoes to fit a foot with a toe on the heel, ja? It is very uncomfortable."

Xavier raised an eyebrow.

"I can imagine."

Kurt looked down at his bare feet as they started moving again, heading now for Scott's quarters. They seemed so strange to him, with those ten knobby little pink toes. They could barely grasp the carpet, let alone a trapeze.

How could he fly with feet like these? How had his circus family done it?

He sighed deeply. If they had done it, at least Kurt knew it was possible. All it should take was practice. And, Kurt had never been one to shrink from hard work.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

The babel of laughing, talking, eating students already filled the dining hall by the time Kurt, Scott, and the Professor entered.

Kurt clacked awkwardly to the serving table in his new - or, rather, Scott's old - shoes, his shoulders hunched and his eyes cast down. He felt like an imposter, a child again, lost inside his older brother's oversized hand-me-downs.

"Hey, Kurt, you OK?" Scott asked.

"Ja, fine, danke," Kurt assured him, and the Professor behind them. "It's just...these socks and shoes will take some getting used to, I think. Please, allow me..."

He reached over to the stacks of trays and plates at the edge of the table and politely handed one of each to Scott and to the Professor before gingerly collecting his own and taking a place at the end of the line. Both men noted the way Kurt lifted and handled the plates, with his slender fingers paired in twos, but neither made a comment.

Kurt set his jaw and glared at the floor. He was used to glances and stares, of course, but that had been for his physical looks, for his talents and unusual abilities. Now, his awkwardness made him stand out, and he did not like earning glances like that for doing things 'wrong'.

As the line moved slowly forward, Kurt placed his tray on the counter and fingered the rosary in his pocket, praying no one else would notice or approach him until he had at least reached the teachers' table. He had never felt more exposed, and he was in no mood to deal with questions from the curious, no matter how well meaning.

The prepared food was self-serve, which meant if Kurt wanted his dinner, he would have to force his clumsy new fingers to use serving utensils...in front of the Professor, Scott, and the entire student body.

He watched closely as Scott ladled seasoned peas onto his plate, trying to figure out exactly how he used his fingers to clutch the large serving spoon. Carefully mimicking Scott's movements, he awkwardly took the handle in his own, pale hand. When he was sure he had a good grip on it, he dipped the spoon into the peas and wobbled them slowly to his plate, his brow furrowed in concentration.

Sighing with a mixture of frustration and relief - he hadn't dropped a single pea, but he was sure he'd looked like an idiot - Kurt plopped the spoon back into the peas and slid his plate over to the next tray. Carrots. Well, since he didn't have night-vision anymore he supposed his eyes could use all the help they could get. Carrots, on the plate. Mashed potatoes? He was getting pretty good at using the serving spoons by this time, so why not?

Next - the main dish. The kitchen team had prepared sirloin steak with blue-cheese sauce, with optional veggie-burgers for those like Kitty and Ororo, who didn't eat meat. Yet, to earn his steak, Kurt would have to conquer a new challenge: serving tongs.

Scott and the Professor had already been and gone, so there was no model to emulate this time. He would just have to teach himself.

Kurt straightened. No problem for the Incredible Nightcrawler!

He reached for the tongs, but pulled back when he saw his fingers had paired themselves of their own accord into a tridactyl shape.

NO!

He thought back to the man in the mirror. He would do this the right way, or he wouldn't do it at all.

Kurt splayed his fingers out as far as they would go, then relaxed his hand and reached for the tongs again. This time, his hand cooperated, the fingers wrapping around the tongs as naturally as they always had.

Kurt chose a steak and squeezed the tongs. He nearly squished all the juice from the meat with the force of his grip, but he got it to his plate without spilling a single sloppy drip on the white tablecloth. By the time he got to the buttered rolls, Kurt was nearly grinning. Some utensils, a napkin or three, a shiny, red apple for his teeth, and Kurt was ready to perform one of the most difficult balancing acts of his entire career: walking all the way to the teachers' table without fumbling his dinner plate.

Could anything be more ridiculous?

Keeping his eyes averted from the seated crowd, Kurt carefully began his trek across the dining hall.

*...heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe...*

As he moved, he could swear he felt his tail swishing along behind him. Unconsciously, he shifted his stiffly-upright posture into something more 'natural', only realizing what he'd done when his uncertain balance nearly made him stagger into a stack of extra chairs by the wall. Several peas rolled off his plate to bounce and splatter on the immaculate floor.

Kurt ground his teeth and concentrated on walking, fighting to ignore his burning face and ears.

Several of the students he passed gave him curious looks, but no one waved or smiled or called out to him as usual. True, he hadn't wanted attention, but even so the way they seemed to be ignoring him stung him more deeply than he would have expected. By the time he finally reached the teachers' table, he felt surly and churlish, and he had lost most of his appetite. Not that he'd had much of one to begin with. Hank had told him that without his mutant gift of teleportation, his metabolism was no longer nearly as high as it had been. Perhaps that, too, had something to do with his present mood.

Kurt slid into his usual seat at the corner - next to Ororo and across from Logan - without looking at any of his friends. Instead, he busied himself by carefully arranging his napkins and utensils beside his plate. He knew his manner was unforgivably rude, not to mention childish, but he didn't care. He felt miserably exposed, shunned, and painfully embarrassed, and all he really wanted was to teleport to his room and hang by his tail from the chandelier with a good book. Of course, even that simple escape was denied to him now. With his uncertain balance, he could barely stick to the floor anymore, let alone climb to the ceiling...

Ororo and Logan shared one of those 'looks' he'd been seeing too often, so Kurt hunched over his tray and fixed his attention on his knife and fork, grumbling and muttering under his breath in German as he battled to coordinate his unsure fingers.

"Kurt," Ororo offered gently, "would you like me to show you—"

"I can do it!" Kurt snapped.

Ororo straightened, startled by the vehemence of his tone.

Kurt's surly expression crumbled, and he dropped his utensils to his plate.

"I'm sorry," he said softly. "I didn't mean to—"

He sighed.

"I didn't mean it like that, meine Freundin. Thank you for your offer."

Ororo shook her snowy head and scooted her chair closer to his, reaching out to gently turn his head to face her.

"Kurt," she said, once she held his blue gaze. "You have nothing to apologize for. You have every right to feel angry."

Kurt swallowed, breaking their locked gaze and turning back to his plate.

"Tomorrow is Tuesday, am I right?" he asked, again ignoring his burning face.

Logan nodded.

"All day."

"That is my long day. All my classes meet," Kurt said.

"Are you sure you feel up to facing the students, Kurt?" Ororo asked. "I'm sure everyone would understand if you wished to take a few days off to—"

"Nein!" Kurt firmly shook his head. "What kind of an example would that be for the children?"

Ororo furrowed her brow, but Kurt gestured to the crowd of chatting, laughing, eating students, saying, "All of them are dealing with traumatic transformations of one kind or another. My present situation is not much different. I have been physically changed, yes, but I am not ill. I am perfectly capable of carrying out my duties as a teacher."

"No one is doubting that, Kurt," Xavier said. "In fact, I agree with you entirely."

Hank sighed slightly, crossing his knife and fork over his plate.

"But you know how kids are, especially teenagers," he said, looking straight at Kurt. "Are you prepared to deal with their..." The doctor trailed off, circling his hand at the wrist as he tried to come up with a politic way of expressing his thoughts, "...curiosity?" he finished.

"Hank," Kurt told him, "I have been dealing with such 'curiosity', as you put it, all my life. To tell you the truth, I'm more worried about writing on the board than I am about my students' reactions to my...erm...new look."

"Writing on the board?"

Kurt smirked, wiggling his fingers at Hank.

"Too many fingers!" he exclaimed. "I can barely use a knife and fork! I would hate to see how my already atrocious handwriting has suffered. I do not wish to appear...clumsy..."

He shook his head, then slammed his clenched fists down into his lap.

"How can anyone function with such an unruly crowd of digits at the ends of their hands!" he cried.

"Perhaps you might consider sitting in on a typing class," the Professor suggested. "The exercises would help you develop better coordination, and you would gain a valuable skill - one that was all but closed to you previously."

Kurt frowned, more subdued as he brought his hands back to the table.

"I had not thought of that," he said, vainly attempting to find the most practical way to hold his knife and fork. "Though it would probably be a good idea," he observed with a sheepish smile.

Ororo returned his smile, lifting up her own utensils in demonstration.

"Here," she said, "try holding them like this."

As he had with Scott and the serving spoon, Kurt emulated Ororo's grip. He still felt horribly on-the-spot awkward as he cut his steak, but after a few slices he began to get the hang of it.

"See," Ororo told him, her eyes gentle. "All it takes is a little practice."

Kurt shrugged, but didn't say anything. Every move he made, the flat, dimensionless feel to everything he saw, the odd tingle where his tail should be, the strange, sympathetic way Ororo was looking at him...all these and more were constant reminders of his transformation and he didn't like it. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't just grin and joke and pretend nothing had changed. 'Everything' had changed. And, though he hated to admit it, even to himself, he was terrified of how his students would react when he stepped up in front of the classroom in the morning. The children had been told what had happened, of course, but that didn't mean they would recognize him...

"Hey, Kurt," Logan's voice broke into his musings. "Where'd you go, Elf?"

Kurt blinked and looked up at his friend.

"Huh?" he asked. "Was?"

"I asked if you want to get in some extra Danger Room practice," Logan said. "'Cause I've got this new sim—"

"I think it would be better to give Kurt some time to adjust to his new body before you start throwing it around the Danger Room, Logan," Hank scolded, his eyes narrowed.

Kurt shook his head, suddenly feeling very tired.

Ororo noticed the change in his posture.

"Kurt, are you all right?" she asked.

Kurt's spine prickled with angry frustration, and he pulled away from her hand.

"Yes," he snapped. "I am fine. I'm just a bit tired, that's all."

He stood up to address everyone at the table.

"If you will all excuse me, bitte," he said, "I think I will head up to my room. It has been a very long day, and I have a lot of sewing to do."

There were several confused looks at that last remark, but Kurt didn't expand on it.

"Would you like me to come with you?" Ororo offered, the concern in her eyes only sharpening his frustration.

"No, danke," he said stiffly. "I think I would rather be alone. I will see you all tomorrow."

He walked slowly and deliberately from the crowded room, his friends' worried looks boring into his back even after he turned a corner and vanished from their view.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

Kurt groaned loudly and rolled over to slap the annoying alarm clock into blessed silence.

His tail was cold. Weirdly, tingly cold. It must have slipped out from under the covers while he was asleep. Snuggling deeper into his pillow, Kurt tried to wrap his tail around his leg to warm it...

Nothing happened.

"What the—?" he exclaimed, jolting upright and turning his head back as far as he could. But, the sight of the pale, five-fingered hand propping him up on the mattress made him freeze.

"Ach, Gott," he moaned, and collapsed back onto his pillow, pressing his hands over his eyes.

He was still a 'normal' human. No miraculous transformation had occurred during the night, as he had so childishly prayed. His tail was gone, vanished without a trace...save for that tingling ghost at the base of his spine.

Kurt groaned again and kicked the covers away with his stiff, ten-toed feet. The dried tear tracks from the night before felt rough and tight around his eyes and cheeks, and that awful, pervasive 'tiredness' was still with him. He 'wanted' more sleep, but he 'needed' a shower and a shave before class, and he really needed to brush his teeth. Running his tongue over his strangely flat, smooth teeth, Kurt swore that no matter how upset he got in the future, he would never forget to brush his teeth again. His mouth tasted awful and his teeth felt downright disgusting.

He had an unsteady moment as he rose to his feet, swaying slightly until he remembered to stand with his heels flat on the ground. Rolling his eyes, Kurt scowled and marched across the room to his bathroom, the now-familiar mantra sounding in his head as he walked.

*...heel, toe, heel, toe...*

A tousled, bleary face blinked back at him from the bathroom mirror, the bristly stubble on his cheeks and chin surprisingly dark against his pale skin. The prominent contrast startled him. Previously, it had been all but impossible to see his indigo bristles against his scarred, blue skin. He'd only had to shave when his stubble began to give his face the illusion of fine, fuzz-like fur. Now, it looked like he'd have to make it an every day habit. And, here was something new: a reddish mark from his pillow ran up the side of his right temple. It didn't hurt, but Kurt found it annoying. He rubbed at it absently as he prepared for his shower.

Twenty minutes 'till class. Kurt realized only slowly...that didn't give him much time to get ready, head down for breakfast, then make his way to the far wing of the mansion. Teleporters didn't exactly have to factor 'travel time' into their daily schedules.

Well, if he had to skip breakfast, so be it. He wasn't hungry anyway...

Kurt took great care choosing his wardrobe that morning. He had always taken pride in his appearance, and now that he was a 'normal' human he felt he had to make an even greater effort to make himself presentable to his students. Sorting through his suits was rather like sorting through the costumes he had worn at the circus. What kind of impression did he want to make today?

He finally settled on a blue shirt just a few shades lighter than his eyes with a tan jacket and matching, newly sewn up trousers that somehow made his pale complexion seem just a trifle darker. He had a brief struggle with his tie as he fought to make his extra fingers cooperate with his wishes, but after a few false starts he managed a decent knot. The shoes he had borrowed from Scott completed the ensemble.

Examining his new reflection in the mirror, Kurt couldn't help but smile. He looked the very image of a teacher. He straightened his shoulders, feeling the confidence his 'costume' supplied settling over him. He could do this. He could face the stares. After all, he'd survived the first time, when they really did have something to stare at. Now he was 'normal', he had no reason to hide.

A surge of guilt squeezed his heart, and Kurt scowled down at his pale, slender hands. He felt like a traitor to all mutantkind, having thoughts like that. He'd never had anything to be ashamed of as a mutant. He had been blessed with amazing gifts, gifts it seemed he had taken for granted all his life. Only now that he was forced to live without them was he truly starting to realize the extent of the blessings God had bestowed upon him at birth.

Tears stung his eyes again, and Kurt forced them back, pressing his palms over his face, then running his fingers back through his hair.

*Mein Gott, I miss my tail!*

Kurt's watch beeped and he felt a very odd jolt...the aborted impulse to teleport. Normally, that little alarm left him enough time to set up for class and chat with his students before the bell. Now, he needed those five minutes just to grab his briefcase and 'get' to his classroom!

*You can't teleport anymore, Dummkopf,* he berated himself as he pushed and picked his way through the teeming mass of students clogging the stairway. *You should have taken that into account before you started preening in front of the mirror. I'd hoped to get there before the students arrived. So much for that plan.*

Despite getting caught in the human traffic jam, Kurt managed to skid into his classroom just before the bell. Barely half the students had arrived, and more continued to trickle in as Kurt set his briefcase down on his desk and started rifling through his notes for the morning's lesson. Turning to the board, he picked up a piece of chalk, holding it awkwardly in his strange, narrow fingers. He reached back for his notes with his tail—

Only to swear darkly under his breath and snatch the paper with his hand, his entire face burning red as he carefully, deliberately began to write on the board.

HOMEWORK, he spelled out, disgusted with the weak, wobbly look of his lettering. CHAPTER X, SENTENTIAE I-XIV.

The noise of morning chatter and scuffling feet outside the door had mostly died down by the time he finished writing. Setting down his chalk, Kurt straightened, smiled, and turned to face his class.

Several hands shot up before he could say a word. Nodding to the nearest one, he said, "Yes?"

"Are you our new substitute?" Jamie Madrox asked.

A faint cloud of wondering murmurs backed up the question as the rest of the hands dropped.

Kurt stared out at the sea of expectant faces before him. He saw expressions ranging from curiosity and confusion to disinterest.

He did not see recognition.

The room seemed to shrink, the floor to fall away... He felt a dizzy pounding in his ears, his chest, but he couldn't panic here, not in front of the children, he couldn't teleport, he couldn't run. He needed to reclaim control...to turn a bad situation into a show.

With great effort, Kurt swallowed back his roiling fears and assumed a playful, showman's stance, striding to the front of the desk.

"Ach, I see my disguise is too good," he said, placing a theatrical hand over his heart. "It has fooled even the brightest among you." He smiled. "Nein, Jamie, I am not your substitute. I'm much worse. What you see before you is your actual teacher, in the flesh. This is not a trick or an illusion."

At the gasps and startled murmurs set off by his words and distinctive accent, Kurt gave the children a conspiratorial wink.

"Yes, it is a fact. The rumors you have heard are true. By some strange quirk of fate, the Incredible Nightcrawler has been transformed into the dreaded Herr Wagner of Introductory Latin 101. Be warned - your worst nightmare is about to come true!"

There were a few scattered giggles at his dramatic tone. Slowly, his students were accepting the realization that the dapper young stranger before them was the same Herr Wagner they had come to know so well over the past months. Kurt let them have their moment of amusement, then rubbed his hands together with the wickedest grin he could muster.

"Now, if you would clear your desks of everything but a pencil, bitte, I believe we have our weekly vocabulary quiz today."

The collective groan was all the proof he needed. He had successfully broken the ice. The students knew him now. He smiled in relief as he walked down the rows passing out lined paper, mentally taking attendance while everyone scribbled their names.

There was a new face in the crowd, huddled in the shadows of the far left corner, her dark skin glowing faintly. He stared at the girl, unable to place her...

 

Fräulein, what have you done?....

I will never believe you, Devil! I love God!...

Please, Fräulein, I do not want to hurt you. But we must leave this place and in order to do that you must trust me!...

Trust you! Famous last words, Devil!...

 

"Herr Wagner!"

"Hey, Mr. Wagner!"

"Kurt, man, are you OK?"

Kurt slowly opened his eyes, and found himself surrounded by worried faces. He straightened, with only a slight wobble, and favored them all with a reassuring smile.

"Es tut mir leid, meine Studenten," Kurt apologized, leaning back against his desk. "I am very sorry. It's just...I've been through a lot these past few days... I am sorry if I worried you."

Looking relieved, the students returned to their seats, waving off his apologies as unnecessary, and Kurt felt a surge of warm affection for them, the youngest members of his new extended family. He couldn't hit them with a quiz after they had been so kind.

"You know," he said out loud, "I think we can forget this quiz."

The cheers that announcement brought on were so loud that Scott, teaching in the classroom across the hall, slammed his door shut. Kurt winced with an amused chuckle, then turned back to his exuberant students.

"I'm sure you all studied anyway. If you all perform well during the remainder of this class, I shall award each of you with ten well deserved points. Keep the paper, though. It'll save me the trouble of passing it out again next Tuesday. Now, please get out your workbooks and let's see about getting some translations on the board. Who remembers the differences between how you use the ablatives of means, accompaniment, and manner?"

As the students rummaged through their backpacks, Kurt hopped up onto his desk. Normally, he would crouch there, his long toes curled over the edge of the desktop, his tail swaying freely as he taught the lesson. But, he couldn't get away with a pose like that now. Now, he sat in a conventional manner, his legs crossed at the ankle.

The room was settling down and several hands were shooting up in response to his question.

Kurt smiled at his students, a wave of pride growing within him. They seemed to be handling his transformation better than he was. His warm smile faded, however, when his eyes fell on Twyla Todd.

Burning anger seethed and coiled, and he had to look away. He hadn't expected this. Seeing her there, her cold, glowing eyes fixed sullenly on her desk, her jaw set in what could be either discomfort or disgust...

He didn't want her there. He didn't want her anywhere near him. That girl had attacked him in cold blood, when he was at his weakest. She was undisciplined and she was dangerous. What she had stolen from him... Kurt felt he could never forgive her for that. Never. And, that realization shocked him.

He swallowed hard, his hand reaching reflexively for the rosary at his belt.

*Oh, my God, I am sorry for my sins...*

Looking back at the small forest of hands, Kurt forced a smile.

"Ah, Rahne!" he said brightly. "What can you tell us about these pesky ablatives?"

*******

It had been a very long day. Latin classes, then German classes, then Film Analysis, followed closely by the after school activities he had volunteered to preside over: fencing and gymnastics.

Kurt had always joined in with the students as they practiced, providing demonstrations and standing in as a partner for those who had none. Not today, though. Today he'd stood on the sidelines, acting more as an adviser or a coach, shouting out advice and encouragement where needed. He hadn't even picked up a sword, too embarrassed to face what his students might think - let alone say - when they saw the one-time fencing master's uncertain grip.

Always before, Kurt had ended the school day with energy to spare, but tonight he felt utterly exhausted. Keeping up a chipper face for the students, devising polite excuses to avoid his concerned friends...it was very tiring work. Everyone he ran into seemed to want to to 'talk', as if every action he took 'wasn't' a forced reminder of his unwelcome and unwanted transformation. Logan and Hank were bad enough, but Ororo was the worst. Why couldn't she understand: he didn't 'need' to talk! He 'needed' some time alone, a few hours of solitude to recharge with a book, or a good movie.

Lucky for him, Jones, the boy who never slept, had decided to spend the night playing videogames, so Kurt had the big TV all to himself. A good adventure movie would be just the thing to help him forget, at least for a while...

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Ororo Munroe would have been angry, if she wasn't so concerned. Kurt had been avoiding her all day. Every time she'd approached him, he suddenly found he needed to be somewhere else. He was going to be late for a class... He had left something in his room and really needed to get it... Did you hear that? I think someone is calling me. I am sorry, Liebchen, but I must go...

The excuses were as pathetic as they were false.

Kurt had never been a good liar and, even without his tail, his fidgety feet, twiddling thumbs, and flushing face easily gave the game away. Whether or not he was aware of it, he was doing just what she'd warned him to avoid. He was pushing her away, bottling his emotions up inside. His forced smiles and falsely chipper attitude were really starting to get on her nerves.

"Why don't you give the Elf a little space, 'Ro," Logan said, peering at her over his forbidden beer. "I'm sure he'll talk when he's ready."

Ororo looked up at him in surprise.

"How did you know I was thinking about Kurt?" she asked, spinning her glass of carrot juice between her palms.

Logan tapped his nose.

"I always know when you're thinkin' about Kurt."

"What does your nose have to do with—" She cut herself off when she saw the look on Logan's face, then scowled.

Logan smirked and set down his beer.

"Yeah, I know how you feel about the kid," he admitted. "Can't hide somethin' like that. Except from Kurt, himself, of course."

Ororo drew herself up.

"Just what are you implying, Logan," she demanded.

Logan took another swig of beer.

"Kurt told me somethin' the night before the mission," he said once he'd swallowed. "It got me thinkin'."

"What did he say?" Ororo asked curiously.

"That's somethin' Kurt's gotta tell you himself," he said, causing Ororo's scowl to deepen. "But I can tell ya this."

He leaned forward, looking his friend in the eye.

"The kid's crazy about you, 'Ro," he said. "I'm sure you've noticed. He's shy, but he hasn't exactly been subtle about his feelings."

Ororo's expression softened, and she smiled, reflecting back on all the small things that may not have meant much at the time, but taken together said a great deal. All the shy little smiles he gave her during meetings, the way his eyes lit up when she approached him, the times he kissed her hand, how his tail sometimes wrapped itself around her ankle at dinner. She truly believed he'd been unaware of what his tail had been up to, and she'd never said anything about it...secretly afraid he would stop if she did.

"If you ask me," Logan went on, "that's why he's been avoidin' you."

Ororo furrowed her brow.

"You're saying that Kurt is avoiding me because he likes me?" She shook her head. "He's a grown man, Logan, not a teenager."

Logan shrugged.

"Take it as you will. But think about it. And be careful. That's all I'm gonna say."

Ororo regarded the gruff Canadian for a few moments, but when nothing else seemed forthcoming, she rose and carried her empty glass to the sink.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Logan," she said. "Thank you for your advice."

Logan grunted and grabbed a second beer, flipping the page of his newspaper with a loud crinkle.

*******

A familiar movie theme met her ears as Ororo passed the rec room, along with a catch phrase: "Never give up, never surrender!"

Curious, Ororo poked her head into the darkened room, half-expecting to see Jones sitting cross-legged on the sofa. But, the sofa seemed empty. She flicked the light switch—

A loud thump followed a startled yelp, and Ororo rushed into the room saying, "I'm sorry! I just wanted to see if there was anyone watching the TV, and—"

"Nein, nein, it is all right, Fraulein," Kurt's muffled voice came from behind the sofa. "It was my own fault."

Kurt stood up, a sheepish smile on his pale face.

"I was crouching on the arm of das Sofa here, and when you turned the lights on I was startled. I tried to teleport, but lost my balance instead."

Ororo grimaced.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

Kurt chuckled and climbed over the arm of the sofa to sit properly on the cushions.

"Only my pride was bruised, danke. And how is meine leiblings Fraulein this evening? You seem troubled. Is something bothering you?"

"Yes, something is bothering me," she said, sitting down beside him and placing a hand on his arm. "You are. You've been avoiding me all day, and I want to know why."

Kurt blinked, then his lips tightened and he pulled his arm away.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," he said, his voice strained.

Ororo glared at him, then turned away, frustrated and more than a little hurt.

"Fine," she said shortly. "Fine, if that's the way you want to play it."

She stood, brushing the wrinkles from her skirt.

"I'll leave you to your movie," she said. "I'm sorry I disturbed you."

Kurt stubbornly kept his eyes fixed on the screen as she stalked away, his strange, inexplicable flash of anger dissolving, to be replaced by deep shame. Leaning his forehead against his palm, Kurt squeezed his curls tightly between his fingers, the slight pain helping him hold back his bitter tears.

Why had he done that? Why did he lie to her when he knew she only wanted to help? His behavior had been reprehensible. He could never expect Ororo to forgive him for the way he'd been treating her.

Kurt couldn't face the movie any longer. The amusing adventure had lost its appeal, and Kurt was in no mood to laugh.

Usually, when he felt conflicted or confused, Kurt teleported to his brooding spot on the roof. Now, his private refuge was just another painful reminder of all he had lost. The only way a 'normal' human could reach the roof was with a ladder, and Kurt had no intention of going through the trouble of finding one.

With an angry growl, Kurt stood and kicked the sofa hard with his shoe, knocking it violently against the wall with a loud, though unsatisfying, THUMP. He flicked off the television and DVD player and shuffled out into the hallway, slouching his miserable way back to his room. It really galled him how long it took to walk from place to place. Teleportation had spoiled him.

He still had one refuge left, one source of comfort that had never yet failed him. As he closed his door, locking out the rest of the mansion, Kurt rubbed the beads of his ever-present rosary between his slender fingers. Falling to his knees, Kurt propped his elbows on the bed and leaned his forehead against his folded hands, offering up the most heartfelt prayers he knew.

Less than an hour later, he fell asleep like that, his pale, tear-dampened cheek resting against his interlaced fingers.

*******

"Have none of you been studying?" Kurt shouted. "What I have asked is a basic question, one you all should know by heart by now. Every hand in this room should be raised! I will ask you this one more time, and if again none of you respond, I will make this a pop quiz. What are the endings for first declension nouns? We'll start with the nominative case. Anyone?"

The students shifted uncomfortably in their seats, their eyes darting about the room as though the answer would somehow materialize on the walls. Several began to surreptitiously flip through their books.

Kurt snarled, and threw down his chalk. It broke in half, the center shattering into dusty fragments on the floor.

"Very well," he snapped, his accent lending a clipped edge to his words. "Don't say I didn't warn you. Clear your desks of everything but a pencil and take out those papers from last week. This quiz counts for ten points."

The students stared at him in disbelief.

Kurt glared back, his blue eyes hard.

"Are you deaf today as well as lazy? I told you to clear your desks. Now, do it!"

Taken aback by the real anger in his tone, the students leaped to comply with his orders, sharing bewildered, angry glances.

Kurt stalked back and forth before the board with his clasped hands resting against the place his tail should have been.

Once the rustling died down, Kurt stopped his pacing with a sharp turn and crossed his arms over his chest.

"You have three minutes to complete this quiz," he told him. "Starting now. Begin."

Rahne raised her hand.

Kurt glared, his eyebrows raised in sarcastic amazement.

"Oh, so now you choose to participate. What is it, Rahne?"

"I'm sorry," the Scottish girl said, "but I dinnae quite understand what it is we're supposed to be doin'."

Kurt ground his teeth, then gestured to the board.

"You are supposed to fill in this chart," he told her. "Like I've been asking you to do for the past fifteen minutes. I want all the case endings to the first and second declension nouns. It is all on the board. You have two minutes."

"But that's not fair!" Ray called out. "You were talking for that first minute!"

"One minute and fifty-four seconds," Kurt said, looking at his watch. "Fifty-three seconds. Fifty-two seconds."

"All right, already, we get the point!" Ray exclaimed. Then, he mumbled something under his breath. All Kurt could catch was something that sounded like, "...freaking Nazi..."

Kurt spun on him, his blue eyes blazing.

"What did you just say?" he demanded.

None of the students had ever seen him like this, and truth to tell, most of them were terrified.

Ray sat back in his chair, defiantly keeping his mouth clamped shut.

Kurt's glare hardened as he pointed at the boy with two fingers.

"All right," he snarled. "You. Out. Out of my classroom. You can go to the Professor or to the devil for all I care, just get out!"

With a disgusted sneer, Ray gathered up his books and papers and strode from the classroom.

The rest of the students cringed in their seats under Kurt's furious, blue gaze, thoroughly intimidated and desperately trying to turn their concentration to their quiz.

Kurt scowled and stalked over to sit in the chair behind his desk, ruffling through his briefcase in search of his notes for his next class. A few students shot him annoyed looks at the noise he was making, but Kurt honestly didn't care. If they had prepared for the lesson, as he'd told them, they wouldn't be having this quiz.

Having found what he was looking for, Kurt closed his briefcase with a snap, then glanced at his watch.

"Time's up," he announced. "Pass your quizzes to the front of the room. Jamie, you collect them and bring them to me. While he's doing that, the rest of you get out that passage we've been translating. I want three volunteers to put the last three sentences up on the board. If I have to ask twice, this passage and the next one will be assigned on top of your regular homework. Am I understood?"

"Yes, Mr. Wagner," the students mumbled.

After some hesitation and a few dark mutters, three students detached themselves from the group and huddled together at the end of the board, as far from their teacher as they could get.

Twyla hunched miserably over her desk at the back of the room, her glowing eyes fixed on her half-translated Latin passage. She had watched in silence as, over the past week, the kind, funny man Herr Wagner had been deteriorated into the bitter, angry figure scowling at the front of the room.

She wanted so much to apologize to him. She'd planned to, but it was getting harder to approach him by the day. For a man who had, by all accounts, been willing to forgive anybody anything, he sure had a short fuse now.

But, Mr. Wagner's own temper wasn't the worst of it. His anger and frustration had set the entire school on edge. The other students, even some of the teachers, blamed his sour mood on her, and she couldn't fault their logic. This whole situation was her fault. She only wished she knew a way to fix things.

Unfortunately, at this point, repairing the damage she'd caused seemed impossible. The one time he'd looked straight at her, he'd nearly fainted. His anguished expression still haunted her dreams...

Twyla closed her eyes and sighed, a shamed tear trickling down her nose, spreading slowly through her worksheet...

At the front of the room, Mr. Wagner ordered the students to define the functions of each word in each of the three sentences on the board, still using that awful, sharp tone.

Twyla set her jaw.

She would talk to Mr. Wagner, no matter how hard it was for her or how angry he got. She would make a pest of herself, bugging him until he finally looked at her. It was time she took responsibility for her actions.

Hopefully, she could reach him before the students rose up in a mutiny...

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

"Kurt, we have to talk."

Kurt closed his eyes, squeezing his pen tightly in his hand.

Professor Xavier rolled the rest of the way into Kurt's small, cluttered office, taking up a position on the opposite side of Kurt's desk.

"If it is about Ray, Herr Professor, I can—"

"It's not just Ray," Xavier interrupted.

Kurt winced, but still did not look up.

The Professor shook his head.

"Kurt," he said, "I know you don't want to discuss this, but the situation is beginning to get out of hand."

"Why can't everyone just leave me alone?" Kurt snapped, looking at the Professor for the first time. "Why can't I have two blessed minutes to myself?"

"We are concerned about you," the Professor told him. "You haven't been behaving like yourself lately—"

"I haven't 'been' myself lately," Kurt muttered darkly, shooting a deadly glare at the wall.

Xavier steepled his fingers under his chin.

"Scott tells me you re-took your piloting exam on the simulator," he said conversationally.

Kurt turned back to him, his blue eyes wary.

"Ja. So?"

"He also told me you passed with flying colors, so to speak," he said, smiling at his little joke.

Kurt rolled his eyes.

"Then Herr Summers must have been exaggerating," he grumped, slouching in his chair. "My score was significantly lower than last time."

"Yet, it was still well above average, Kurt," Xavier told him. "It was a very impressive performance, considering—"

"The loss of my special spatial perception, yes, I know," Kurt snapped. "You don't have to say it."

Xavier regarded the angry young man before him with calm, understanding eyes.

"You haven't scheduled any sessions in the Danger Room," he observed. "In fact, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were deliberately avoiding it."

"Perhaps that is because I am," Kurt said bluntly. "You saw me that day in the medbay."

He frowned.

"Besides, I did run through my training course. Five times. Three different days."

Xavier straightened.

"You didn't record it," he said, slightly concerned. "How did it go?"

Kurt scowled down at his desk.

"I fell," he said. "Five times."

Xavier sighed.

"Kurt, you know that is only to be expected. Given time—"

"I did not tell you 'why' I fell," Kurt interrupted, turning his bitter, blue gaze to the Professor.

Xavier gestured for him to go on.

"I fell because I was doing so well," Kurt told him, his accented voice flat.

The Professor narrowed his eyes.

"I'm afraid I don't quite follow," he said.

Kurt sighed.

"As an acrobat," he explained, "I knew my body and all that I was capable of. I knew my limits and I knew how to stretch them. It took me a lifetime to learn that kind of control. When I began my training session, I had expected that I would need to learn to control my body all over again. You cannot imagine my joy when I realized I had retained almost all of my former abilities. As the session progressed, I truly began to enjoy myself, so much so that, for a moment, I was able to forget what had happened to me."

A muscle in his jaw twitched, but he went on.

"The first time I fell, it was an honest mistake. I tried to grab a bar with my foot and I slipped."

Xavier nodded.

Kurt smirked.

"I laughed about it," he said, "then I tried again. The second time, my performance was better. So, I decided to stretch myself a little. I would have pulled it off, too, had I not tried to shift direction with that ghost that once was my tail."

He snorted in disgust.

Xavier lowered his head, beginning to understand where Kurt was going with this.

"I suppose something similar happened the other three times?"

Kurt nodded.

"Ja. Each time I swore I would not allow myself to be fooled by that ghost. And, each time I forgot myself and ended up in the net."

He sighed, squeezing his eyes closed with an anguished scowl.

"Doktor McCoy was right," he said, his voice tight. "I am a danger to myself and to all my teammates the way I am now. If I forgot myself during a fight or on a mission, I could either cause or fall victim to an accident, an accident that could possibly take the life of someone I care about."

Kurt frowned, his eyes darkening with self-loathing.

"I am no use to anyone like this."

"That is not true, Kurt, and you know it," the Professor retorted sternly. "You have an important function here. You are not only a teacher, you are a mentor and a friend, someone the children look up to and respect."

Kurt raised an eyebrow.

"Respect?" he repeated incredulously. "I behaved like an ogre today. For the past several days, actually. Whatever respect they may once have had for me must have long faded by now."

He lowered his head, a deep shame tightening his features.

"They still care about you, Kurt—"

"Oh, really?" Kurt snapped, his blue eyes blazing. "If they care about me so much, why do they stop their conversations when I walk by? Why do they avoid me at meals? No one invites me to play cards anymore. None of the children ask me to tell them circus stories, or to watch cartoons with them. Now I am 'normal', I have become an outcast all over again!"

He snarled, revealing his smooth, flat teeth.

"I am sick of being the freak!" he shouted. "I am sick of the stares, of the people talking about me behind my back! I am sick of everyone telling me they know how I feel, or that I am ungrateful, or how happy they would be if this had happened to them! I have had to put up with being a freak all my life and I do not want to deal with this anymore!"

Kurt pounded his fists down on the desk, his various knickknacks and picture frames shuddering in sympathy with his outburst. Drawing in a shaky breath, he rubbed viciously at his stinging eyes with his sleeve.

"I am also sick of crying," he sniffed angrily. "I have cried myself to sleep every night since this happened. It's pathetic."

Xavier was silent for a moment, allowing Kurt time to collect himself.

"Have you thought about leaving the mansion for a few days?" he asked gently. "Maybe going to the city, attending a show?"

Kurt stared at him, his blue eyes wide.

"Leave?" he repeated.

"You have been focusing on what you have lost," Xavier told him. "And I do not mean to belittle what you are going through. But, have you considered any of the benefits of your transformation?"

Kurt stared at him, a strange, stricken expression crossing his narrow face.

"But...but, I can't...!"

Xavier frowned at the thoughts his friend was projecting.

"There is no need to feel so guilty about this, Kurt," he told him sincerely. "You will not be betraying anyone by allowing yourself to get some enjoyment out of what has happened to you."

His eyes sharpened as a sudden realization dawned on him.

"You will certainly not be betraying yourself by accepting what you have become," he said firmly. "If anything, you will be doing yourself a great service."

Kurt trembled slightly, then shook his head.

"Nein," he exclaimed. "No! I mean - I am not ashamed of how I looked before," he blurted out. "I liked my appearance! I liked who I was! I was never ashamed of being a mutant!"

"No one is saying you were," Xavier assured him.

"I was proud of it!" Kurt went on, as though he hadn't heard. "But...but if I, if I begin to think about it..."

He stared up at the Professor with an odd look in his eye.

"I no longer even carry the mutant gene," he told him, his voice soft, as though he were revealing something confidential. "And, when I think that - it never will happen - but, when I consider..."

He trailed off, flushed and embarrassed and filled with guilty shame.

Xavier's eyes widened with sudden understanding.

"It is a relief to know that, if you ever were to have children, they would not be born mutants," he finished the thought.

Kurt swallowed and lowered his head, curling himself up into an awkward, miserable ball in his chair.

The Professor's expression softened, and he wheeled over to place a fatherly hand on Kurt's shoulder.

"Is that what has been bothering you, Kurt?" he asked gently.

Kurt pulled his legs up tighter, resting his forehead against his knees.

"You are the telepath," he mumbled. "You should know."

Xavier shook his head.

"After all the horrible experiences you have had, after all the abuse and cruelty you have had to endure simply because of your appearance, you seriously believe that we would hold such feelings against you?"

"Well, don't you?" Kurt asked, looking up from his knees. "How is that thought any different from all those people who want to control the mutant population, or those scientists who are trying to isolate and destroy the X-gene before it can be passed on? I am just as bad as any of them."

Xavier chewed thoughtfully at the inside of his cheek, considering his next words carefully.

"I know we are speaking hypothetically at the moment," he said, "but suppose you did have a child and you learned that child was a mutant. What would be your reaction?"

Kurt sighed.

"All right," he mumbled, his expression still miserable. "I get it."

"What do you get?"

Kurt rolled his eyes slightly.

"My fears stem from protectiveness rather than hatred. I would do all in my power to keep that child safe from harm, to teach them to use their powers responsibly. You are right, and I am a fool for behaving so childishly and allowing these feelings to eat at me in this way."

Xavier shook his head.

"You are anything but a fool, my friend," he told him. "A fool would never have been so honest with himself."

He smiled slightly.

"Now, do try to cheer up," he said. "I don't know if you're aware of this, Kurt, but ever since you started moping this entire school has been on a short fuse. All this ill temper is beginning to give me a terrible headache."

Kurt smiled for the first time that day, even chuckling a little.

The Professor grinned, clapping him on the shoulder then wheeling to the door.

"That's the spirit," he said brightly. "Oh, and Kurt, there will be a meeting in my office at the end of classes. I would appreciate your attendance."

"I will be there, mein Herr," Kurt assured him. "Is it anything we should be concerned about?"

For a moment, the Professor appeared pensive.

"Perhaps," he said. "I will know more this afternoon."

Kurt nodded.

"Very well, then. Have a good day, Professor. Thank you for coming to see me. I believe this talk has helped me a great deal."

Xavier smiled at his friend, relieved to feel the bitter guilt and pain that had filled the young man ebbing away to be replaced by far less disturbing emotions, and even a touch of familiar humor.

"I was glad to be of service," he said. "And remember, Kurt. My door is always open should you need me. And, you shouldn't hesitate to confide in your friends. They are worried about you as well, particularly Ororo and Logan."

Kurt winced.

"Ach, Ororo," he moaned. "I have been so horrible to her, and I know she has not forgiven me. How can I ever face her?"

"I'm sure you'll find a way," the Professor said, a knowing look in his eye. "Good day, Kurt."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Kitty Pryde walked into the language lab, her bag brimming with German homework but her head filled with ideas for a new computer program she really needed to talk out with Doug, her computer science partner.

"Hi, Kitty," Jamie said, smiling up at her from the front desk. Apparently, he was the lab monitor this week.

Kitty smiled back.

"Hey, Jamie," she said. "So, like, where can I sit?"

"Computer Three is free," Jamie told her, quickly typing her name into his own computer and handing her a small, laminated card with a '3' on it. "Right there, next to Mr. Wagner."

He pointed.

Kitty scrunched up her face.

"Couldn't you, like, get me a different computer?" she asked, leaning in close and keeping her voice soft so no one else could hear. "I kinda don't want to sit next to him, if you know what I mean."

Jamie scowled.

"That's not very nice," he whispered back. "Besides, I already typed your name into the records and I don't know how to delete the file."

"I do," Kitty said. "I'll show you—"

"No." Jamie shook his head firmly, standing protectively in front of his computer with his arms crossed. "If you ask me, the reason Herr Wagner's been so mean lately is because everyone's been avoiding him. If you smile at him, he'll smile back. He smiled at me just like always when I signed him in just now."

Kitty stole a glance at her teacher's back, considering Jamie's words. Then, she sighed.

"Oh, all right," she grumped. "But I don't know if I'll be able to do any work with my teacher, like, 'right there' and everything."

Jamie rolled his eyes.

"There's a divider, Kitty. If you lean forward, you won't even see him. Besides, it never bothered you before."

"That was before," Kitty said. "Back when he was, like, nice."

"He's still the same guy, Kitty," Jamie said. "Just pretend he's wearing his image inducer. That's what I do."

"Were you even, like, in his class today? If you ask me, that Twyla kid changed way more than just his looks."

Jamie shook his head a little sadly.

"Come on, Kitty," he urged. "Just go sit next to him? He needs a friend."

Kitty growled a little, but finally nodded.

"OK, Jamie" she said. "Here goes. But if he, like, bites my head off, you owe me big."

Leaving Jamie to settle himself back behind his desk, Kitty strode boldly up to Computer Three, dropping her books on the table beside the keyboard and adjusting the chair's height to accommodate her.

Kurt looked up from his computer screen, but when he saw Kitty he turned back quickly, his pale face burning. His evil mood had carried over into his German class from his earlier Latin class and, in a fit of temper, he had ended up assigning the students a heap of extra homework. He was probably the last person she wanted to see right now, let alone sit next to...

"Hello, Herr Wagner," Kitty said politely. "How's it going?"

Kurt flinched. Busted, as they said in the movies. Wincing slightly, Kurt lifted his head and carefully gauged her expression. To his surprised relief, she didn't seem angry, just a little formal. Kurt risked a tentative smile.

"It is going well, danke," he said, keeping his voice as soft as hers. It was the study period and the language lab was rather crowded. Kurt didn't want to disturb the students. Rolling back slightly, he swiveled his chair and turned to face her directly.

"Katzchen," he said, "I wish to apologize for my behavior this morning. I should not have overreacted as I did."

Kitty smiled slightly, more relieved than surprised by Kurt's complete shift in attitude.

"Yeah, well, I guess we kind of, like, deserved it. I mean, we had gone over those vocabulary words before, and, like—"

Kurt cut her off with a shake of his head.

"Nein," he told her, "you did not deserve it. There is no excuse for losing my temper as I did. I have never behaved so unprofessionally as I did this morning."

Kitty shrugged, the contrite shame in Kurt's large, blue eyes making her uncomfortable.

"Yeah, well, don't worry about it." She grinned wickedly. "I'm sure if you laid off the homework for a couple of days and, like, canceled Friday's quiz everyone would forgive you in an instant!"

Kurt chuckled.

"Although that is probably true, I am afraid I cannot do that. But, I was thinking of counting the extra homework I assigned this morning as a bonus quiz. You know, if you do well on this assignment I would count it in place of your lowest score. How does that sound to you?"

Kitty pretended to consider that for a moment, then broke out with a genuine smile.

"That could work too," she said.

As Kurt smiled back, Kitty stole a glance at his computer screen.

"So, like, what are you doing?" she asked.

Kurt turned back to his computer, looking rather embarrassed.

"I am searching for theater tickets," he told her.

"Need any help?" Kitty offered.

Kurt smiled at her, a small, appreciative grin.

"Ja, actually," he said. "I don't quite know what I'm doing. I have never really used the Internet before. I have watched others, but watching and doing are two different things."

Kitty scooted her chair closer to him and started tapping at his keyboard.

"It's really easy," she assured him. "Here, let me show you. You've started that typing class, right?"

"Ja, but all we have been doing is typing things like j-k-l-; and f-d-s-a over and over and over. It is very boring, you know."

Kitty laughed.

"Yeah, typing classes totally stink, but it's, like, a really good skill to have and everything. Now, what show did you want to see?"

Jamie watched from his place at the front of the room as Kitty and Kurt talked and laughed together just like always, satisfied his favorite teacher was finally starting to feel better.

"Hey, Jamie!" Ray greeted. "Some crowd in here today, huh? Wagner strike again, or what?"

Here we go again, Jamie thought to himself, and pulled up a new file on his monitor.

"Computer Five is free," he said, handing Ray a small, laminated card with the number '5' printed on it. "It's right there. Next to Mr. Wagner."

Ray looked like he'd just swallowed his tongue.

Jamie smiled.

"I already signed you in," he said unapologetically. "Sorry."

*******

"Guten Tag, Ororo."

Kurt shook his head.

"Nein, too formal."

He took a breath and tried again.

"Hallo, Ororo, how are you this afternoon? I'm so sorry I gave you the cold shoulder last week. Perhaps this will warm you up?"

Kurt groaned and shifted his bulky package in his arms, quickening his pace as he strode down the long hall to Ororo Munroe's history classroom. The final class of the day would be letting out in a few minutes and Kurt wanted to catch her before she left for the meeting in the Professor's office.

"Very suave, Dummkopf," he berated himself. "What about, 'Hey, Liebchen, you wanna go out?'" He snorted. "Ja, that will work."

Kurt slapped his forehead and moaned miserably.

"Ach, she will never forgive me. I totally blew it, I know it! She came to me and, like an idiot, I pushed her away. I hurt her, and now she is angrier than ever."

His shoulders drooped, and he sighed. He had been feeling so confident just a few moments ago, his good spirits rejuvenated by the unexpected approach of nearly all of his students in the language lab, one after the other. They had been angry at first, understandably, but once he had apologized and talked with them for a short while, they had forgiven his odious behavior surprisingly quickly.

Earning the forgiveness of Ororo Munroe, though... That was an entirely different matter.

"This is stupid. She won't want to talk with me. What am I even doing here?"

Kurt's swelling self-doubt nearly had him ready to turn around, when the bell sounded, signaling the end of class. Hugging his fragile package to his chest, he pressed himself against the wall, gathering together whatever shreds remained of his courage as he waited for the main outpouring of students to rush past.

Ororo had her back turned to him when he stepped into her classroom. He swallowed nervously, but straightened his shoulders, performing possibly his bravest act to date. He cleared his throat, alerting Ororo to his presence.

"Erm," he started as Ororo turned to look at him, her sky blue eyes clouding when she saw who it was.

"Hello Kurt," she said, coldly. "Did you want something?"

"Erm," Kurt said again, feeling an embarrassingly deep flush rising in his face but completely unable to suppress it. She had taken up her 'goddess' pose; tall, imposing, and aloof.

Kurt refused to give in to intimidation.

"I wanted to apologize," he said. "For last week. And, for waiting so long before apologizing to you. And, for my atrocious behavior in the meantime, particularly with the students."

She just stared at him, her expression unreadable. Kurt felt a chill, but went on just the same.

"I don't expect you to forgive me," he said. "At least, not all at once. But I wanted you to know that I take full responsibility for any bad feelings my temper may have caused among the population of this school and I am working to remedy the situation."

Her stare didn't break. Kurt sighed, and gently placed his package on a nearby desk.

"Erm, this is for you," he said awkwardly. "You can use them as you wish, go with whomever you want. I'll just be going now. I'm sorry I disturbed you."

Slowly, Kurt made his way to the door, his shoes clacking softly against the hardwood floor. As he walked, his ears continued to strain for any sound that might suggest she was calling him back, that she wanted him to return to her.

His heart plummeted to the subbasement when no such sounds were forthcoming.

A slight shiver ran down his spine, and he swallowed, fiercely blinking back his burning tears.

Quickening his pace, Kurt straightened his shoulders and headed straight for the Professor's office. Mutant or not, he still had his duties to perform, and he wasn't about to let anyone else down.

*******

Ororo stared alternately at the package on the desk, then at the empty doorway, her heart tight in her chest and her mind swirling with conflicting emotions.

He'd done it again, just as he had that time in the Blackbird shortly before the tragic events at Alkali Lake. Slowly, Ororo raised a hand to where he had brushed his thick, indigo finger against her cheek all those months ago, his deep, accented voice still ringing in her ears...

"Someone so beautiful should not be so angry..."

Just as he had that day, Kurt had managed to pierce through her defenses as if they didn't exist, his sincere, blue eyes taking her protective anger and turning it on its head, leaving her off balance and painfully exposed.

She'd had an entire speech prepared. She had been ready to chew him out royally, to really let him know how his behavior was affecting his friends.

But, his anguished expression, the way he flushed red right up to his hairline... These things tugged at her heart like nothing else, leaving her confused, frozen, and utterly speechless.

Her breathing slightly ragged, Ororo slowly stepped forward, carefully tearing the thin tissue paper from the package Kurt had left her, gasping softy as she revealed a careful arrangement of blooming bramble and lesser bindweed. He'd known she'd understand the meaning behind the wild, thorny bouquet. These flowers, culled from the grounds, were a gesture of humility and a gentle plea for forgiveness and, as Ororo tore away the last of the tissue paper, she found the whole thing bound with bittersweet for sincerity.

"Oh, Kurt," she whispered to herself. "You make it so hard for anyone to stay angry at you." A slight, affectionate smile tweaked her lips. "Even when you deserve it."

Carefully lifting the flowers, Ororo noticed an envelope tangled in the torn tissue paper. Opening it gently, Ororo's eyes widened, her small smile growing into an excited grin. Somehow, Kurt had managed to obtain two fifth row center tickets to the new Broadway production of Giuseppe Verdi's Egyptian opera, "Aida." They must have cost him a small fortune!

Rushing to the door, Ororo leaned out into the hallway, her long, white hair spilling across her shoulders.

"Kurt!" she called out, her voice echoing slightly in the long corridor.

But, he had already gone.

*******

Kurt barely looked up when Ororo arrived at the meeting, nearly five minutes late. He knew that if he looked at her, if he saw that cold, emotionless expression on her face, nothing could stop him from breaking down. It was embarrassing enough putting up with the, admittedly lighthearted, teasing from the others when they saw him sit in a chair with his feet on the floor, rather than hopping up to crouch at the edge of the seat, as he'd done during the earliest days of his transformation. He didn't need to start crying in front of them too.

"So glad you could join us, Ororo," the Professor said from behind his desk.

"My apologies, Professor," she said, taking her seat.

Xavier's eyes flicked briefly from Ororo to Kurt, his brow furrowed slightly at the polarity of their emotional states. Clearly, there had been some kind of miscommunication somewhere. But, now was not the time to unravel the cause.

"Please, continue, Scott," he said.

Scott nodded curtly.

"As I was saying, there have been at least seven reported incidents of this nature so far and, as of yet, no one has any idea what could be causing them. The latest involves a narrowly averted traffic accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. Eyewitnesses claimed the two trucks involved actually duplicated themselves. One pair crashed - a very messy accident, possibly fatal. The second managed to miss each other. When those drivers rushed to approach the accident, the smashed-up trucks and injured drivers vanished without a trace: no debris, no tracks, no anything. Three 911 calls and about thirty eyewitness accounts are the only evidence the authorities have to indicate the accident even happened."

The Professor looked to the rest of his gathered X-Men.

"Although we have no conclusive evidence so far, it is possible a telepath could be behind all this," he told them somberly. "It is also probable that, if this telepath is powerful enough to cause mass illusions on this scale, he or she can also avoid detection by Cerebro. If a mutant is responsible, he or she will have to be found and stopped before the human population is roused to a panic. News broadcasts throughout the country are already blaming these occurrences on mutants. That's why we must act now."

"We'll be heading to the scene of the latest incident within the hour," Scott said. "The Professor will be joining us on this mission. Storm and I will pilot the X-Jet. Wolverine, you'll be our tracker. Stay on the alert for any unfamiliar scents or other clues that could lead to uncovering the identity of our mystery mutant."

Wolverine grunted.

"I know what to do, One-eye," he snarled. "Ya don't have ta spell it out for me."

Scott tightened his lips, then turned to Kurt.

"Kurt," he said.

Kurt looked up, his head tilted and his eyes narrowed slightly. Scott had called him Kurt, not Nightcrawler. But, Cyclops always used codenames when handing out assignments...

"It will be up to you to watch over the students while we're gone."

Kurt straightened, his eyes wide.

"Wa-was?!" he exclaimed. "But - but I—"

"This is probably the most important assignment of all, Kurt," Xavier tried to reassure him, leaning forward in his chair, his eyes understanding, yet stern. "The safety of the children and this mansion will be your responsibility."

"It ain't as easy as it sounds, bub," Wolverine spoke up, sympathizing with Kurt's reaction to being left behind. "Remember what happened last time they got me to do the babysittin'."

There was a collective murmur as everyone recalled the devastation left by Stryker's attack on the mansion some eight months ago.

Kurt sighed.

"I understand, Professor," he said softly. "Without my powers, I probably wouldn't have been much use to you anyway. You already have two excellent pilots. I would just be in the way."

"Kurt, you know that's not true," Cyclops said, a bit sharply. "We just thought that after what happened last time—"

"Ja. What happened last time."

Kurt set his jaw and rose to his feet, running his thumb over the fingers of his fist.

"Well, if it's all right with everyone, I'll be in the kitchen," he said with false brightness as he picked his way through the small crowd to the door. "With all of you going away, somebody has to see about dinner."

"Kurt," Ororo started, rising herself.

Kurt turned without really focusing his gaze on anyone in particular. He was smiling, but his expression was disturbingly blank.

"I'll see you all when you get back," he said as he left. "Good luck, everyone."

Ororo shook her head, heading for the door with every intention of going after him.

"Storm!" Scott called out.

Ororo spun on her heel, turning a fierce glare on their team leader.

"What?"

"You can talk to Kurt later, Ororo," Scott told her, a bit more gently this time. "Right now, we need you here."

"But we can't leave with Kurt like that! I have to—"

"You can sort things out with Kurt later," Xavier assured her. "Right now, though, this mission must take precedence. Kurt understands this, and I know you do as well."

Still scowling, Ororo returned to her chair, casting one last look at the door before turning her eyes back to the briefing. Her mind, though, remained fixed on Kurt's expression, and the ludicrously expensive theater tickets she still had to find a way to thank him for.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Twyla Todd looked up from her book report on Asimov's "The Gods Themselves," her glowing eyes unfocused as she pondered how to write her next sentence. The book had three parts, the title of each inspired by a line from a Friedrich Schiller play: "Against Stupidity...The Gods Themselves...Contend in Vain..." But, how could she get into all that when she only had five hundred words to explain the entire plot?

"Then, why is he still here?" an older boy said loudly, and rather irritibly - one of a group of students playing cards at another table.

Twyla turned to face them, curious and rather grateful for the distraction.

"Well, maybe he has a contract with the Professor or something," an Asian girl answered. "I don't know. Why does it matter anyway?"

The boy scowled, and Twyla racked her brain trying to remember his name. Billy? Bobby? Bobby sounded right...

"He shouldn't stay here," he said bluntly. "He's not a mutant anymore."

Twyla's eyes flashed angrily as she realized they were talking about Mr. Wagner. She drew in a breath, ready to confront them, but one of the boys from her English class - Artie, she thought his name was - spoke first, sitting up on the carpet and pushing aside his own book report book, "Shoeless Joe," by W.P. Kinsella.

"That'ss not fair!" Artie lisped, his dark, forked tongue making it hard for him to speak clearly. "He'ss sstill Herr Wagner! What doess it matter if he'ss a mutant or not?"

"Yeah," a girl spoke up. Amara? There were so many students here, Twyla could never hope to learn all their names. "I thought this school was about fighting prejudice! You know, mutants and humans, living together without fear or—"

"It's not prejudice!" Bobby protested. "You can bet if I lost my powers I'd leave here in a second. I wouldn't even look back."

The Asian girl smirked.

"Oh, yeah? And where would you go?"

"Home!" the boy snapped. "My family would take me back..."

He lowered his head, his voice tight.

"I know they would."

"What about Rogue?" the Asian girl teased.

"What about me?" Rogue said from the doorway, weaving her way through the chatting study groups sprawled out on the floor. "Hey, Jubes," she greeted the Asian girl. "Hey, Bobby. What are y'all talkin' about?"

"Just the mission," Bobby covered, scooting over to make room for her on the small loveseat.

"Bobby Drake," she scolded, "you know we're not supposed to discuss official meetings with anyone who wasn't there."

"Aw, come on!" Jubilee prodded, a slight whine coloring her voice. "I've been going crazy trying to guess what's up."

"Sorry, Jubes," Bobby said, and started gathering the scattered cards into a pile. "OK, so I'm dealer. Anyone up for Texas Hold'em?"

*I am,* Twyla thought mournfully, turning away from the other teens to stare at her homework. She knew they wouldn't want her to play, even if she did ask to join. They probably hadn't even noticed she was sitting there, just a table away, despite her glowing skin...

"If it's poker, I'm in," Jubilee said, dragging her chair closer to their table. "Please say we haven't lost all the chips."

Bobby leaned forward to search through the table's long drawer, fishing out colored, plastic poker chips by the handful and dumping them on the tabletop. Rogue and Jubilee proceeded to stack them by color.

"I think we're missing some red ones," Jubilee pointed out, peering dolefully at the tiny stack she'd made.

"We could always use checkers pieces," Rogue suggested.

"And lose them too?" Bobby smirked. "Nah, I think we can get by with what we ha—"

"Guten Abend, everyone."

Rogue looked up and smiled brightly at the slender man standing in the doorway.

Bobby turned away to hide his frown. Rogue had been crazy about that weird German ever since he saved her life during the mission to Alkali Lake. It was almost as bad as the whole Wolverine hero-worship thing, and Bobby didn't like it - especially now Kurt was 'normal'.

It really angered Bobby that most freakish among them got to be an ordinary human, when he didn't even want it! Ever since he realized his parents truly had disowned him, that he never could go home again, that all his letters would be returned unopened and his e-mails deleted unread, Bobby's whole attitude toward his mutantcy had changed. Seeing Kurt as he was now made him feel like even more of a freak than his family took him for, and he couldn't stop the bitter, childish voice inside him from crying out against the unfairness of it all.

The rest of the gathered teens greeted the newcomer with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Kurt smiled in return and offered an awkward little wave, hesitating at the threshhold as if he expected them to evict him from the room.

"Please," he said, "do not stop what you were doing on my account. I was only...you know...checking in..."

"Hey, Kurt!" Rogue called with a beckoning wave. "Y'all wanna join us? We were just about to play some poker!"

"No, don't invite him..." Jubilee hissed with a wince, but she trailed off when Kurt's face lit up like a lighthouse beacon shining through a fog.

"Ja! Sure!" he said happily. Then, he caught himself, struggling retain some teacherly dignity as he crossed over to their table.

"I'd like that," he said shyly. "If you're sure you don't mind being seen with me. I know I haven't exactly been endearing myself to the student population of late."

"Of course we don't mind, right guys?" Rogue said, daring Bobby and Jubilee to protest.

"Yeah, sure, pull up a chair," Bobby sighed, turning his head towards the window and rolling his eyes slightly. Whatever Rogue wanted, Rogue got...

Kurt's smile faltered when he caught Bobby's expression, but he did as he'd suggested.

"So," he said conversationally, taking his seat and scooting up to the table. "How is everyone this fine evening? No pressing troubles or concerns?"

"Nope," Jubilee said flatly. "Everything's fine, Herr Wagner."

Kurt blinked at her, rather hurt. He didn't think he could remember Jubilee ever addressing him by his formal title before. As with Kitty, he'd always been Elf to her, or Elfie.

Jubilee lowered her eyes, and Kurt sighed.

"I suppose such formality is appropriate in the classroom," he said quietly, "but we are all off duty now. If, in your eyes, I have lost my 'elfish' charm, you kids could call me Kurt...at least, while we are playing cards."

He smiled, just slightly, and Jubliee found herself returning it.

"OK, Kurt," she said. "Bobby, deal the cards!"

Twyla couldn't concentrate on her report, not with HIM so close by, talking and laughing with his friends. She'd promised herself that morning she'd find a way to approach him, to take responsibility for what she had done, but now he was there - actually there... She couldn't even bring herself to look at him.

It was pathetic. SHE was pathetic. A dangerous, irresponsible, pathetic, mutant coward.

*Just ask to join their game,* her mind ordered her. *You don't even have to stand up. Just ask. It's easy. Just four little words: May...I...Join...You.*

Twyla groaned softly and buried her head in her arms.

"I can't," she mumbled. "They all hate me. Especially him."

*You can!* her mind snapped back. *They only hate you because you've been hiding, avoiding these people instead of facing them. They only know what you've done, not who you are! Only you can change that.*

Twyla sighed again, turning her glowing gaze to the ceiling and offering up a short prayer for courage and guidance.

*OK,* she told herself firmly. *I'm going to do it. Just as soon as this hand is over.*

*You're stalling, Twyla.*

*No, I just don't want to interrupt.*

*Yeah. Right.*

As it turned out, her internal argument was moot anyway. Bobby crowed in triumph and spread his cards out on the table.

"Ha, ha, look at that. A straight!"

He grinned wickedly, reaching out to scoop up the chips he'd won.

Kurt chuckled, and shook his head, shooting Jubilee a look of playful sympathy.

"I warned you he wasn't bluffing," he teased.

"Yeah, well, I'll get him next time," Jubilee promised.

"My turn to deal!" Rogue announced, already collecting the cards. "An' ah pick Five Card Draw."

*Now, Twyla!* her inner voice prodded sharply. *It's now or never!*

"Um, excuse me?"

Four heads turned to face her, each twisting into a different expression. Twyla cringed in her chair, pressing it back against the wall as though its rigidity could somehow give her strength.

"Yes, Twyla?" Kurt said, using the exact tone he used when addressing her in class - formal and distant and without a trace of the playful humor he had just been displaying.

"Um," Twyla said again, pressing harder against the wall. "I was just sorta wondering if, maybe, I might, perhaps..."

"Just spit it out, girl," Rogue said, her tone more encouraging than her words. Rogue had been one of the very few who had been kind to her since her arrival at the mansion. She was also the only one she'd met so far besides Professor Xavier who seemed able to understand even half of what Twyla had been going through.

"Can I play?" she blurted, then cringed, the stricken look on Mr. Wagner's face making her wish she'd kept her silence.

But: "Of course you can play, Liebling," Mr. Wagner said, and Twyla was stunned to her sneakers to see him actually smiling. "Just bring your chair over here, and Rogue will deal you in."

"Here, sug," Rogue said, patting the tabletop. "You can sit next to me."

Twyla blinked, then rushed to comply, abandoning her half-finished book report with no regrets. She kept to her very best behavior but, as the game progressed, everyone could tell Kurt's mind was somewhere else. His leg jiggled under the table, and he never once directly looked at Twyla, even when it was his turn to deal. Finally, after Jubilee had won two hands in a row, lording her victories over Bobby, Rogue decided to ask outright:

"Somethin' wrong, Kurt?"

"Was?" Kurt asked, looking up in surprise. "Nein. No, nothing is wrong," he assured her. "It's just... I've been meaning to do something, that's all, and I was wondering how best to go about it."

He tilted his head slightly, shooting Rogue a rather appraising look.

"If I leave this room, can I trust you and Bobby to watch over things while I'm gone?"

"Of course you can," Bobby said. "We'll be fine."

Kurt nodded.

"Sehr gut. If I don't return here by ten, please make sure everyone gets to their rooms in time for curfew. Tomorrow is a school day, after all."

"Sure thing," Rogue assured him. "Where will you be if we need to reach you?"

"I'll be in the Danger Room," he said, "testing out a new simulation Logan wanted me to look over. Dankeschon for doing this."

"It's no problem. Really," Rogue said.

Kurt shot her a brief smile, then rose to his feet.

"Bye," Bobby waved absently, turning back to his cards.

Kurt waved back, then left the room.

Twyla sighed and bit her lip as she watched him leave. She'd been sitting at the same table with him for over twenty minutes, and still she'd barely managed to speak two words. She shook her head in disgust, then rose to her feet as well.

"I'm afraid I have to leave the game too," she said apologetically. "I've... Well, I've really got to finish my book report."

"Hey, we understand." Rogue smiled at her. "School comes first. See you tomorrow?"

Twyla blinked in surprise.

"Yeah," she said, a slow smile creeping across her dimly glowing face. "Yeah, sure."

"OK, then. Bye."

"Yeah... Bye!" Twyla said, gathering up her homework materials and trailing Mr. Wagner out the door.

*******

BAMF!

A dark form among the shadows, wisps of smoke in the air...

Something wasn't right. Where was he? This wasn't where he'd meant to go...

He stood on the balls of his feet, tense and alert, silent as a ninja. His sense of this place was 'off', somehow. The very air felt wrong.

He concentrated on his spatial perception, trying to determine the layout of this large, empty room while peering through the pitch blackness with sharp, glowing eyes.

Someone was coming. Someone was just beyond the door.

Slinking over to the nearest wall, the dark figure began to climb, his palms and toes adhering to the sheer metallic surface like magnets. When he'd crawled to the high ceiling, he stopped, hanging head-down as he waited for whoever was outside to enter.

His spaded tail flicked forward to shield his eyes as bright light flooded the room, irritatingly disorienting after such complete darkness. Barely a moment later, the large, electronic door slid open to reveal a slight, slender man with curly, dark hair. Something about his profile seemed familiar...

But even this felt wrong. What was going on?

He reached for the double-scabbard on his back, lightly fingering his sword's hilt...

The man below strode straight to a control terminal and began tapping at it and muttering, obviously unaware the dark stranger was watching. He decided to stay a while, to see what this man was up to. For now, he was looking for answers, not a fight.

Though, if a fight were to come, he would be ready...

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Kurt carefully typed his faculty ID into the Danger Room's main control panel, placing his ten fingers on the keypad just as he'd been taught, then scrolled through Logan's list of training programs until he found the right one.

Logan had told him about this simulation about a week ago, shortly after the 'incident' that had robbed the Nightcrawler of his powers and appearance. He'd hoped it would take Kurt's mind off things, goad him out of his miserable funk.

He hadn't replied to the invitation, and Logan had left Kurt to himself without comment.

Kurt closed his eyes, stung by yet another in a series of sharp stabs of guilt as he recalled how coldly he had behaved towards his friend.

So many sins in so short a time, so many things to make up for...

But, at least he was making a start. When Wolverine came back from the mission, Kurt would be ready with a full report.

Kurt selected the file and tilted his head as a short audio message began to play:

Hey, Elf. Knew you'd get around to this sometime. You know how Cyke and the Prof are always going on about how if we're gonna be working as a team we've gotta know all about each other's strengths and weaknesses? Well, here's a sim that should help with that, though I guess I'm gonna have to update it now, huh. We're all in it, all our talents and vulnerabilities - yeah, even mine. Every good fighter must know his weaknesses so he can work to improve them. God, listen to me, I sound like a teacher already. Anyway, appreciate any advice you could give. And remember, Elf - powers or not, you still owe me that duel. Logan out.

Kurt smiled, very slightly.

He'd been feeling so useless, unable to stop thinking about the meeting, worrying about all the dangers his friends could be facing without him... Rogue's invitation to join the students' poker game had helped, but Kurt just hadn't been able to stay focused. His roiling emotions needed a physical outlet. With luck, Logan's training program would prove challenging enough to take his mind off of his pain for a few blessed minutes - and the additional concern that was Twyla Todd.

But, he wouldn't think about her. Not now.

Not yet...

Now he'd had some time to consider it, he had to admit Scott had left him out for good reason. His poor attitude, coupled with the disturbing results of the few, unofficial training sessions he had run through, were certainly not signs he was physically or psychologically fit for active duty. From this point on, Kurt would have to work very hard to prove he was still a valuable member of the team - not just to Scott and the Professor, but to himself. And, he knew from experience that, when it came to his own performance, he was the most demanding, most unforgiving judge of them all.

He scowled, and looked back at the screen.

At least, now, he'd be doing something productive with his time while his friends were out saving the world without him.

Kurt growled a little, then activated the program with a few jabs at the touch-pad, tapping his foot as he waited impatiently for it to load.

"Please state number of players," a feminine voice prompted, echoing slightly in the cavernous space.

"One," Kurt said brusquely.

"Choose your opponent," the computer went on in its calm, even monotone. "Limit: five per player."

Kurt blinked in startled amazement as dozens of holographic figures began to appear before him in small fizzes of colored light. All the students were there, as well as the X-Men themselves. Even Professor Xavier had been included, though Kurt had to wonder why. He rather doubted the computer could simulate his considerable telepathic abilities - but then, he honestly wouldn't put anything past the impossible machines the Professor had developed. All this technology was so far removed from his own experience, even after all these months it was still almost like magic...

"Unglaublich..."

Kurt smiled as he walked down the double line of holograms, deeply impressed at how realistic they seemed. But for their slightly cartoonish skin tones and their unnatural stillness, they were all but indistinguishable from the people they were meant to represent. He had no trouble recognizing Jubilee, Kitty, Rogue, Jamie, Scott, Logan...

Kurt paused, taking a playful moment to stand back to back with the image of the fierce Wolverine.

"Still taller than you, mein Freund," he teased, but his expression...and posture...dropped when he passed by Ororo. As a mutant, he'd been able to easily match her statuesque 5'11'' just by walking on his toes; but now, his 'normal' feet and spine had him just brushing 5'9''. Looking into her face, that calm, emotionless expression... It tore at his heart, and he quickly moved on—

Only to stop short with a shaky, wide-eyed gasp.

It had been more than a week since he'd seen that face looking back at him. The golden eyes, the intricate scars, the slightly hunched posture...

Kurt swayed on his feet, a strange, dizzy, dislocated feeling taking hold of him as he stared at the image of his former self. The long toes, the tridactyl hands, the pointed ears...

His tail...

Kurt swallowed with some difficulty, his breaths coming short and fast. Slowly, tentatively, he stretched out slender, trembling fingers to gently touch the hologram's indigo cheek, alarmed and disturbed by the contrast between light and dark...desperately missing his once-natural affinity with the shadows...

"Choose your opponent," the computer repeated. "Limit: five per player."

Kurt gave a start, snatching his hand away and turning to stare at the ceiling.

"Was?" he asked, his voice weak. "Ach, yes, of course."

Whatever spell had overtaken him was gone now, and Kurt turned back to his hologram with an appraising eye. He had originally planned to choose Logan as practice for that duel, but now he was starting to change his mind.

Fighting with himself...there was a novel idea. Well, perhaps not so novel. After all, was that not precisely what he'd been doing for the past week as he struggled to come to terms with what had happened?

The Professor had been painfully accurate when he'd pointed out Kurt's fears of betraying himself by choosing to accept what he had become. Now, Kurt was curious to know how this 'human' form would measure up against his mutant self. He wondered what Logan believed his weaknesses to be, and if they matched his own perceptions...

"Choose your opponent," the computer started again. "Limit—"

"I choose the Nightcrawler," Kurt said firmly, an ironic smirk playing across his narrow features as the other holograms faded away. What better way to prove himself than to physically fight and conquer his own, personal demon once and for all?

Kurt's eyes hardened. Yes, he had been his own demon, haunting his own nightmares since his earliest days. The dark, misshapen figure he saw before him had been a thorn in his side his entire life, a torturous burden he should never have had to bear. As a child, it had earned him the cold derision of his peers, the hatred of their parents, the terrified screams of the uncounted men, women, and children he had unwittingly frightened just by being himself. He had been hunted many times because of that form, tracked down like an animal, beaten and bullied, his bones broken and his faith shaken to the point where, as a young teenager, he had once attempted suicide.

...like Twyla...

Kurt shook that thought away, his jaw and fists clenched tight.

No...no, it wasn't the same. His emotional nadir had not stemmed from his own thoughtless actions, but from the cruel acts of others. His circus family's caravan had been attacked while on the move by a drunken group of superstitious, Gypsy-hating bigots. He'd been thirteen then, just a skinny kid, but he'd grabbed a prop sword and jumped out onto the dirt road, thinking only of protecting his sister, his mother...

But the creeps were stronger, bigger... They disarmed him and dragged him to a tree, tied him to the trunk and beat him with fists, boots, sticks, hurling rocks and bottles... Only the timely manifestation of his mutant powers had saved his life - although the form those powers had taken...the smoky stench of brimstone and the flash of teleportation...had seemed at first to confirm his worst fears: that he truly had become a demon...

His adolescence had been such a long, difficult time, learning to rebuild his wounded psyche, regain his sense of 'self'. The cuts and gashes healed, but the scars...those terrible, ugly scars on his face, his arms and chest...

It had been an act of reclamation, transforming the disfiguring brands of violence and hatred into works of art. One for every sin... He'd chosen angelic symbols: all that remained to humanity of the language of creation, of Eden, before the Fall... No demon could wear such symbols, and he'd hoped these new scars would be enough to convince himself and others of his humanity, that the sight of those sacred symbols etched into his skin would finally put an end to the screams that had followed him for so long...

Kurt looked back at the hologram of his former self, his expression grim. The dark, malevolent form standing before him had caused him more anguish and heartache than Kurt could bring himself admit, even in prayer. The delicately intricate scars that had marked his body were nothing next to the deep, painful gashes that still seared his heart.

Unlike the physical scars, those gashes had never fully healed.

"Nightcrawler possesses the mutant gift of teleportation," the computer began to recite, interrupting his dark thoughts, "along with the ability to become functionally invisible in shadow, to cling to sheer surfaces, and—"

"Yes, yes, I think I should know my own powers," Kurt cut it off in impatient frustration. "Just give me a sword and start the program."

"Choose a weapon for your opponent," the computer droned. "Nightcrawler is a master fencer, and with his prehensile tail—"

"Give him a sword as well! Idiotisch Maschine..." Kurt growled, not wanting to hear about his tail. The base of his spine still tingled painfully, every moment of every day, but Kurt resisted the urge to rub the spot, taking in a deep, calming breath through his nose, then letting it out slowly.

He was going to have to focus, to clear his mind of all distracting thoughts and emotions if he hoped to stand a chance against his mutant self, even a holographic copy like this one.

He sighed again, running his fingers nervously through his hair.

Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea after all...

A sword appeared in mid-air just in front of Kurt. He straightened, regarding the sleek weapon for a long moment. Then, his jaw set and his blue eyes narrowed in firm resolve, he grasped the sword by the hilt and whipped it back and forth a few times, allowing himself to get a feel for the surprisingly realistic holographic weapon.

"Select level of difficulty," the computer spoke again. "Selections: Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced."

"Advanced," Kurt told the computer with a frown. If he'd still had a tail, it would have been lashing wildly by this point.

"You have chosen the Advanced level of difficulty. Warning: The Advanced level is representative of your opponent's actual level of ability. Due to the potential danger, only a faculty member can authorize the use of this level. Voice print and retinal scan required."

Kurt's eyes widened in incredulity, and he clenched his teeth in a snarl as he strode back to the control panel, lashing his sword in lieu of his tail.

"Kurt Wagner," he enunciated clearly and precisely into the proper microphone.

"Voice print verified. Kurt Wagner, please prepare for retinal scan."

"Ja, ja, ja. Verdammt safety precautions..."

But, as he bent over the scanner, Kurt's irritation was displaced by a sudden flash of panic. His eyes had been changed along with everything else. Would his retinal scan still match up? How would the computer react if it didn't? Set off an alarm? Close off the school?

The pale, blue light made his eye tingle in discomfort, and he rubbed it as he waited nervously for the results. Had it always taken this long for the computer to—

"Retinal scan verified. Match found. Kurt Wagner, Faculty Clearance: Language Studies and Film Analysis. Begin program."

Kurt barely had time to process his relief before he noticed a flicker of movement behind him. Spinning in place, he saw the holographic Nightcrawler now stood in the center of the large, cavernous room, holding its sword at the ready.

A slow, wicked grin spread over Kurt's narrow features.

"Did you hear that, mein holographic Doppelgänger?" Kurt asked wryly, crossing over to his opponent. "The computer has verified that I am indeed Kurt Wagner, despite my current...ahem...condition."

He stopped several feet from the hologram, his posture loose, erect, and confident as he brandished his own sword, his wicked grin broadening.

"That means that you, mein Freund, are going down. En guarde!"

*******

The match started off normally enough. The hologram leaped to life the moment Kurt touched its sword with his own. At first, both fencers kept their feet on the floor - no teleportation or acrobatic tricks - just sizing each other up.

But, the fight soon took on a much more serious tone.

Sheltered among the shadows of the metal rafters and holo-projectors that criss-crossed the high ceiling, Kurt Darkholme watched in fascination, fingering the hilts of his own swords where they rested, strapped securely across his back.

By this time, he'd gathered he'd somehow teleported into an alternate reality...one in which his alternate self - Kurt Wagner - had apparently been transformed into a powerless flat-scan. He had enough experience with 'alternates' to know that would account for the 'wrongness' his highly attuned spatial sense had been warning him about since his arrival.

This was bad, and not just for him. His mother, Mystique, was waiting for him; their mission depended on his ability to get her into the enemy control center and out again before Apocalypse—

But, there was no point fretting about a situation he couldn't change, and this was not the time to announce his presence. This fight could tell him more about this foreign reality, and this other Nightcrawler, than any amount of 'conversation'.

Darkholme couldn't help but feel for the man below. He was clearly giving it his all, sweat trailing down his flushed face as he lashed out against the scarred hologram, again and again....

He frowned, his golden eyes narrowing at the pale man's shadowy opponent. What was with those scars, anyway? All those odd-looking symbols and swirls Darkholme did not recognize... What on this alien Earth could have prompted his alternate to disfigure his face like that? And, where was his fur? Did he shave it off, or had he been born that way?

Darkholme scratched thoughtfully at the stubbly bristles poking through the fine, fuzz-like fur on his own face, his thick fingers stretching up to touch the vivid, red tattoo over his eye.

Sure enough, hologram's eyes looked different too. It had yellow irises and dark pupils, while Darkholme's solid yellow corneas obscured even the whites of his eyes. And, there were other differences. Those thick, yellow nails looked decidedly unhealthy and, where Darkholme's teeth were straight and even, save for a set of sharp fangs, the hologram's were jagged. Then, there were the sharp, bony ridges just below the spade of its tail. Darkholme's tail was smooth, with fine, velvety fur.

Might he and this Kurt have different fathers? Judging from the blue skin and yellow eyes, Darkholme was willing to bet they had the same mother...

"VERFLUCHT!"

The harsh cry echoed savagely throughout the cavernous room.

Darkholme winced, and rubbed at his sensitive, pointed ears. The hologram had won that match. It was to be expected, really, but the slender human down below wasn't taking it at all well.

"Computer, start again!" the flushed, angry human snapped in his too-familiar German accent. His narrow face was turned toward the ceiling, his dark, blue eyes fixed almost exactly where Darkholme was crouching....

Darkholme froze. He had the ability to become functionally invisible in shadow, but there were those who knew 'how' to look for him. Might his alternate—

But, the human turned away, stalking back to the center of the room, where the re-set hologram waited.

Darkholme relaxed. Flat-scans really were blind...

The next match was far more vicious than the first, and Darkholme couldn't help an admiring smile. It was a very rare thing for him to see such skilled fencers spar.

Even in a reality torn by war, Darkholme's predilection for swordplay made him stand out as something of an anomaly. Most other warriors preferred to rely on guns in battle, or their own mutant powers.

But, Darkholme liked to get in close to his enemies. It allowed him to see their eyes: to tell whether he was dealing with some brainwashed dupe or a hard-core killer; determine whether to teleport their weapons away...or take their entire arm.

...Or head...

The human Kurt Wagner was shouting now, screaming in German, Romani, French, Swedish, and a few languages Darkholme didn't know as he battered against his opponent's blows.

He could get the basic gist, though.

Darkholme set his jaw, averting his glowing eyes from the raw fury twisting his double's reddened face. He knew the feelings fueling that bitter anger...knew them all too well. That man was focusing all his self-loathing, all the self-hatred he'd worked to suppress his entire life, on the hologram of his former self - using that angry pain to power his attack.

It hadn't been easy, growing up looking the way he did. Watching this...display... It was almost like watching one of his childhood nightmares come to life. Once again, it seemed the demon was winning, threatening to overpower his humanity, just as it had tried to do in his dreams.

Darkholme had long since grown out of such fears, and come to terms with his inner demons. He'd had to, or he wouldn't have survived in the harsh world he'd been born into. His mother had taught him early on to harden his heart, to take things as they came, to live in the moment and adapt in a heartbeat.

He could tell the man fighting below had a long way to go before he reconciled himself...with himself.

*******

Kurt Wagner kept close on the heels of his hologram as it flipped and 'teleported' around the room, strategically evading the human's wild, emotional attacks. Yet, for all his fury and pain, Kurt retained enough of his wits to plan out a strategy of his own. He would work with his opponent's weaknesses rather than try to battle his strengths. He'd turn his own powers and agility against him, using them to bring him down.

And, one weakness he knew Wolverine would have picked up on was Kurt's penchant for teleporting in above an opponent.

BAMF!

This was his chance. The hologram had just performed one of Kurt's best 'disorientation' moves, flipping and somersaulting toward his opponent, then teleporting out just before he made contact. Kurt usually followed that move by teleporting in from a completely unexpected direction - only this time, the holographic Nightcrawler's opponent was ready, just waiting for the nearly instantaneous—

BAMF!

With a terrible roar, Kurt thrust his sword upward, his opponent's descending weight causing the human's blade to slide deep into its shoulder - even as Kurt rolled out of range of the hologram's own downward-hacking blow. If that hologram had been real, Kurt's fierce stab would very likely have cost it an arm.

As it was, the hologram simply dropped to the floor and vanished.

Kurt climbed to his feet, breathing heavily, sweat turning his soft curls into squiggly ringlets that stuck to his forehead, the back of his neck... For a long time he didn't move, his drawn, exhausted face completely devoid of any expression.

Then slowly, very slowly, he sank to his knees, pulling his rosary out of his pocket and pressing it to his forehead.

*******

It took Darkholme a few seconds to realize the man was crying.

The warrior sighed, biting his lip in frustration.

He knew the word for what that man was going through. Catharsis. He'd just watched his alternate release his inner hatred with reckless abandon, probably truly acknowledging its existence for the first time in his life. He had fought his oldest fears, and he had won. Kurt Wagner would never be bothered by that particular demon again, but he would be useless to Darkholme for quite a while yet.

The fuzzy mutant shook his head, and teleported away...unseen and unheard over the sounds of Wagner's echoing tears...

*******

Twyla Todd had never witnessed anything like that fight in all her fourteen years - hadn't known anyone could move so quickly, or with such determined skill. The two fencers had been little more than a blur of motion and flashing blades. And, with Nightcrawler's hologram 'teleporting' all around the room, literally bouncing off the walls and even the ceiling, Twyla found it astonishing that Mr. Wagner could keep track, let alone keep up.

Yet, even without his powers, he had managed to meet the Nightcrawler move for move, evading his sword and his grasping tail, screaming in languages Twyla couldn't even identify, let alone understand. It had been terrifying to watch, but exhilarating too. When Mr. Wagner finally brought the vicious match to an end, somehow catching Nightcrawler's hologram just as it came out of a split-second teleport, Twyla could barely hold back her applause.

But, strangely, Mr. Wagner didn't seem happy about his victory.

Twyla narrowed her glowing eyes, watching in concerned confusion as Mr. Wagner's expressionless face crumpled and he sank to his knees, sobbing with a soft intensity that frightened her even more than the blazing fury he'd displayed only moments before.

She glanced helplessly around the observation deck, frowning at the small elevator to the Danger Room below as she debated whether or not to go to him. She knew very well how he felt about her...the last thing she wanted was to make things worse...

But, from up there he seemed so small, so alone in that vast, empty space, rocking slowly as he sobbed into his hands...

Decision made, Twyla Todd headed for the elevator, and Mr. Wagner.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Kurt had never imagined he could lose control like that, that he could harbor such dark, overwhelming emotions in his heart.

But, the way he’d screamed at his double…disgorging all the old curses, the insults and the hateful slurs he’d been forced to swallow all his life… The rage had been so intense, so searingly intense, and it had all been directed inward…against himself…

He had never seen Wolverine lose control before, but he had heard the students talking about the way he’d attacked Stryker's soldiers when they invaded the mansion all those months ago. The Wolverine had become a vicious killing machine, tearing his claws into soldier after soldier…

He had to wonder if his raw outburst was anything like the anger Logan constantly struggled to control.

Kurt had believed he'd worked past his self-destructive tendencies long ago, that he had learned to appreciate his appearance as part of what made him unique and special in the eyes of God. He did trust God’s love and, despite his youthful lapses, his self-inflicted scars and his (thankfully) unsuccessful suicide attempt, as he had grown older he had come to treasure his uniqueness, gradually learning to dismiss the adolescent urge to blend in…to be ‘normal’…as stifling to his individuality and to his creativity as an aerial artist. ‘Normal’ was relative, a delusive ideal. His reality was his circus, his talents, his friends and – now – his X-Men teammates and, he had to admit, they were much more fun.

To realize that all the old fears, all the old pain, had been lurking inside him all along...all the insults and beatings and cruelty he’d been forced to endure from Stryker and the other Gypsy and mutant-hating goons before him—

But no longer. And never again.

Kurt lay flat on his back, his arms spread wide against the cool, metallic floor. The base of his spine prickled and burned like firecrackers, urging him to roll to his side, to keep from pinching his tail beneath him, but he ignored it. As he kept having to remind himself – he didn't have a tail to squash anymore. Besides, he was too exhausted to move. He had finally released the only demon that had ever truly haunted him – and it was a powerful, dizzying relief to know it hadn't been his appearance after all. It had been his own self-loathing, the manifestation of the anger he had directed against himself rather than against those who had hurt him because of what he was. What he had been…

Viewing his childhood with an adult’s perspective, Kurt could understand where that bitter loathing had come from. Growing up under the protection of a tight-knit, insular family group, the sheltered child he had been simply couldn’t comprehend the intolerant hatred he’d encountered as the circus traveled around Europe. Instead of getting angry at them, the local bullies with their cold eyes and sneering faces, the boy had blamed himself for their cruelty towards him, believing it was his failings, his misdeeds that made them chase him and call him names. With a child's logic, the boy had reasoned he couldn't blame others for what must have somehow been his fault.

All this confused despair had ultimately grown into a dark, frightening monster that had festered inside him for far too long. Now it was gone – really gone, not merely locked away in some seldom used corner of his mind – it was like a fist had unclenched in his head, leaving him feeling oddly light…almost like he was floating…

Maybe he would go into the city, sit in the park, watch the people as they passed by. The Professor was right. He’d been keeping himself cooped up in the mansion, a prisoner of his own uncertainties. It was time to stand up, to get out past the gates, find some fresh air and a change of scene.

Wednesdays were half-days at Xavier’s school, with afternoons devoted to Danger Room training. Kurt only had two classes to teach, early in the morning. That meant the rest of the day was his – his time to relax, to explore, to finally come to terms with everything that had happened to him.

Kurt rolled over, looking down at his blurred, puffy-eyed, tear-streaked reflection in the polished, metal floor.

"I don't hate you, you know," he told the blotchy-faced man, feeling deliriously silly as he did. "I did once, but I don't anymore. It was never your fault, but I forgive you anyway. Although, I do wish you were still blue."

He giggled a little sadly, and ruffled his hair with his hand.

“Perhaps I could get my hair dyed when I’m in the city tomorrow, ja? Buy some yellow contact lenses? But that wouldn't be the same, would it?"

He shook his reflection's head.

"No, you’re right. I always did prefer the natural look."

He sniffled, tracing his reflection's melancholy smile with one long, slender finger as yet another tear splashed to the floor beside him. He was amazed that, after all that crying, he still had tears left.

"Mr. Wagner?"

Kurt shot to his feet so quickly it was a miracle he didn't sprain something. He rubbed at his eyes with his sleeve, struggling to erase any sign that he’d been crying.

"T-Twyla?" he stammered, blinking at the faintly glowing girl as his bleary eyes struggled to focus.

"Yeah," Twyla acknowledged, slouching her shoulders. "Look, I know I'm probably the last person you want to see right now, but—"

Kurt straightened, his eyes wide and his head slightly tilted. There was something familiar there...something about her words, the expression on her face…her plaintive question at the poker game...

The understanding he’d been praying for hit him like a ton of bricks, and he moaned into his hands.

"Ach, Gott…"

"Mr. Wagner?" Twyla asked, taking a hesitant step forward. "Are you OK?"

Kurt shook his head and smiled a very small smile.

"Ja. Yes, I am, Twyla. Thank you."

To Twyla's surprise, he closed the distance between them and crouched down to her eye level. Twyla marveled to think how strong his leg muscles must be to stand like that…

"And, what about you?" he asked with genuine concern. "I’m afraid we have not been as welcoming towards you as we should have been, myself especially. I have been blaming you for an accident that was not your fault, and you have had to suffer for it. Can you forgive me?"

Twyla stared, not certain she had heard him right.

"What?" she asked. "Me, forgive you? But – but it was my fault!"

Kurt sighed and lowered himself to the floor with uncanny grace, gesturing for her to join him. After a moment's hesitation, she did, sitting cross-legged on the chilly metal.

"You were terrified, hurting, desperate," Kurt said once she'd made herself comfortable. "Your powers had just manifested, you had no idea what they could do, let alone how to control them. Add that to my sudden appearance and your…well….understandable reaction—"

"But, I said such awful things!” Twyla exclaimed. “I didn't listen to you, and I was so scared and there was just all that power! It felt so incredible, but it was so awful at the same time! I became a total monster, you have no idea—"

Kurt held up a staying hand.

"I know, Liebling," he said softly. "But, I want you to know that I don't blame you for what happened. I did once, but I don't anymore."

He smiled, a slight twitch at the corners of his lips as he glanced down at his blurry reflection in the floor.

Twyla felt at a complete loss.

"But..." she said helplessly, "...why?"

Kurt looked over at her.

"Because you came here tonight," he said simply. "Because you are taking responsibility for your actions. If you really were a monster, as you feared you were, you would not have sought me out like this."

"Oh," said Twyla, considering that novel idea for the first time.

"Are you happy here, Twyla?" Kurt asked, taking her off guard.

"Who, me?"

Kurt looked around the room, a grin spreading across his narrow face.

"I don't see anyone else in here with us."

Twyla giggled, embarrassed that she had said something so stupid. Then, she sighed.

"Am I happy here," she repeated slowly, playing absently with her shoelaces. "Well, it's not like I really have anyplace else to go. My dad… I never really met him, and my mother..."

She lowered her head.

"Well, she's not dead, which is a blessing, but she’s in seriously critical condition. The Professor took me to see her in the hospital over the weekend, but she still hasn't woken up."

She shivered a little, then looked up at him.

"But, I’m OK here, I guess. I mean, I hadn't really thought about it."

Kurt nodded.

"Well, have you made any friends?"

Twyla considered. Her initial impulse was to say no, but after the poker game she wasn't so sure.

"Rogue has been very nice to me," she said. "And Jamie. He helped me with my Latin homework once, and he always smiles when he sees me. And Siryn...though I can't recall her real name."

"Theresa," Kurt told her. "Rourke. She's in my film class."

"Yeah, she said that."

Twyla smiled.

"She's the one who showed me how to get to the Professor's office. He's been really nice too. Besides taking me to the hospital, he's been helping me figure out the nature and extent of my powers, and why I'm still glowing."

Kurt tilted his head, his brow furrowed slightly.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, the first time I...with the light bulb?"

Kurt nodded his understanding, gently urging her to continue.

"Well, all that energy I absorbed made me glow like mad. And then, after it all...um...went out again...I wasn't glowing anymore."

Kurt frowned and cupped his chin in his palm, recalling the first time he'd seen her.

"You were not glowing on those train tracks. Only after you...erm..."

Now it was his turn to pause in discomfort, searching for the words that would be least likely to bring back vivid memories of the ‘incident’.

"...touched my face," he finished.

"And it still hasn't gone away," Twyla said, holding up her dimly glowing fingers in demonstration. "But the Professor thinks he has an idea that could explain why."

"Oh?" Kurt asked, leaning forward in curiosity.

"Yeah," Twyla said, scooting closer to him. "He and Dr. McCoy have been running all these genetic tests and things, and they think my mutation hasn't finished yet."

She sighed in frustration, trying to think how best to explain.

"It's really hard to describe all this, seeing as I can barely understand it myself," she said apologetically.

Kurt smiled.

"That is quite all right," he assured her. "When the Professor and Hank get together, I often find myself wondering whether I've suddenly lost the ability to understand English. If you ask me, scientific jargon should have a linguistic category all its own. Technobabbleese."

Twyla giggled, and his smile broadened.

"Just do your best to translate."

"OK, I'll try," Twyla said, sobering quickly. "It seems that the time I spent in that other dimension, the one you...erm..."

"Used to teleport through," Kurt finished for her, firmly suppressing his emotional reaction to those words. "Go on, bitte."

"Right," Twyla said, relieved she hadn't had to come out and say it herself. "Well, it seems the weird negative sort of energy I absorbed in there triggered something called a ‘secondary mutation’. Dr. McCoy says it's possible this would have happened anyway at some point, but that weird energy made it happen sooner for some reason."

Kurt nodded thoughtfully.

"Do they have any idea what form this secondary mutation will take?" he asked, regarding her with some concern.

"Not yet," she said. "But, whatever happens, I'm probably going to be glowing like this for the rest of my life. Not to mention sucking up energy from my surroundings like a human vacuum cleaner."

She smiled, a bit sheepishly.

"That's what makes me glow like this in the first place," she explained. "I can't turn it off by releasing the energy anymore. I just keep on sucking in more and more. Kinda stinks, huh?"

Kurt shrugged.

"Oh, I don't know. At least you'll never get lost in the dark."

"Oh, ha," Twyla retorted. "Small comfort."

"I thought I might as well make an attempt."

Kurt smiled, rising gracefully to his feet without using his hands. Twyla tried to copy him, but ended up falling back. Slightly embarrassed, she got up in her usual way.

"Mr. Wagner?" she said.

Kurt looked down at her.

"Bitte, Madchen," he said, "when we're not in the classroom, you can call me Kurt. I know the Professor doesn't like it when the students address the teachers by their first names, but he isn't here right now. Besides, such formality all the time makes me uncomfortable. If I can call you Twyla, you can call me Kurt."

Twyla tried very hard not to giggle like the schoolgirl she was.

"OK, Kurt," she said, not quite sure how she felt about addressing an adult as an equal, especially when he was so agile and talented and she was so...not. Praying her glow would hide her blushing cheeks, she asked, "Do you think that, maybe, you could show me how to use swords like you?"

Kurt froze.

"You...you saw that?" he croaked.

Twyla bit her lip hard, mentally kicking herself for bringing up the subject. How could she have forgotten how upset he'd been? He'd been crying on the floor, for goodness sakes—

"Um, just the end," she said awkwardly.

Kurt blinked at her, his frozen expression melting into astonished incredulity.

"You mean to say that you saw that and you still decided to come in here?"

Twyla cringed slightly.

"Um, yeah?"

Kurt stared at her for a moment longer, then he straightened, stroking his chin as he gave her a mock-appraising glance.

Twyla straightened too, struggling not to smile.

"How would you like to join my after school fencing club?" he asked her. "I think you have what it takes to do well there."

Twyla's eyes widened.

"I'd love to! But – but I don't know the first thing about fencing!"

"I'm sure we can fix that right now."

Kurt smiled at her, bending down to pick up his holographic sword, then holding it out to her.

"Here, you take this. I'll get the computer to make me another one."

Twyla considered the sword as Kurt walked over to the control station, grasping the hilt in her hand and swishing the blade back and forth a few times. Kurt returned a few moments later with an identical sword of his own.

"Now, I can show you a few basics," he said happily. “The first thing you have to learn is how to stand. Watch me, and copy my movements. Like this, ja?"

*******

High above the Danger Room, Logan and Ororo watched through the observation booth’s windows as Kurt and Twlya laughed together, clearly comfortable in each other's company.

Ororo smiled down at the impromptu fencing lesson with soft affection.

"So, Kurt wasn't idle while we were away," she said.

"Looks like the Elf was more successful in his mission than we were with ours," Logan grunted. "It's good to see 'im laughin' again, anyway."

"It has been far too long," Ororo agreed, her expression distant.

Logan regarded her, his flinty eyes narrowed as he shifted his unlit stogie from one side of his mouth to the other.

"Why don't you go down to him?" he asked her.

Ororo straightened, dropping her hand from where it rested against the glass.

"I wouldn't want to interrupt them," she said coolly. "Not when they've just started to become reconciled."

"Somehow, I don’t think the Elf wouldn't mind," Logan said, frowning slightly

Something was off here. Ororo smelled of fear; a fear so old and so familiar it almost blended with her usual scent. It was a fear stemming from her childhood, spent as an orphaned pickpocket on the streets of Cairo until the manifestation of her mutant gift, the power to control the weather, transformed the street-wise child into the savior of the communities who struggled to survive in Kenya's parched savanna; a goddess made flesh. It was the fear of getting close to someone, and of letting someone get close. It was the fear of abandonment, of vulnerability, of getting hurt.

"What are you afraid of, 'Ro?" Logan challenged her.

Her posture stiffened as she slipped into her 'goddess' pose, turning to Logan with cold, distant eyes.

"Kurt wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, and you know it."

"I am not afraid of Kurt," she told him firmly.

"My ears are hearin' one thing, but my nose is tellin' me different."

His eyes narrowed shrewdly.

"Or maybe not. Maybe it's yourself you're afraid of."

"That is not true," Ororo retorted, but her voice was somehow softer than before.

"Then what's the problem? Just go down there and tell him how you feel! Make it easy on us all."

"I can't. Not now."

"Why the hell not?"

"Because."

Logan raised an eyebrow, not about to let her off with such a pathetic non-answer.

Ororo sighed, her shoulders drooping ever so slightly. She turned away from him, away from the window, focusing her gaze on the bare wall.

"I am afraid," she admitted, rubbing her arms as though she was cold. "Afraid of being smothered, of somehow losing...who I am. He would want marriage, a family, and I don't know if I can live like that. If I can give enough of myself..."

She sighed in frustration, lowering her head until her snowy hair obscured her mocha features from Logan's view.

"I love him," she stated matter-of-factly. "I can admit that. But, I… I don't want to start something neither of us could finish."

She shook her head, starting for the door.

"He deserves better than me."

Logan blinked, incredulous. She couldn't actually believe the crap coming out of her mouth...

"'Ro—" he started.

But, Ororo cut him off.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Logan. If you talk to Kurt, tell him..."

She shook her head.

"On second thought, don't tell him anything. I'll talk to him myself after classes tomorrow. I...I just need some time to think. Good night, Logan."

She walked through the doorway, leaving Logan alone with his thoughts as he turned to face the two laughing figures far below.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Kurt headed out of the crowded, lunchtime dining hall, still laughing, and nearly bumped into Logan.

“Oh, sorry! Excuse me!” he said.

Logan grunted, and looked him over. There was something different about Kurt today, and it wasn’t just his cheery smile. His ‘costume’ had changed as well.

“Hey, Elf,” Logan said, and gestured to his hair. “What’s with the…?”

Kurt brought a hand to his hair and blushed, his bashful grin threating to split his face.

“Oh, you mean the blue streaks?” He chuckled. “Yeah, you can blame Jubilee, Rogue, and young Kätzchen for that. I told them I planned to go to the city this afternoon, and they insisted on giving me this…what did they say… Ah, this ‘make-over.’ The blue is ‘hair chalk,’ which they promised me should brush right out. Which I intend to do, as soon as I am out of sight of the mansion. But, look at what they found for me!”

His smile broadened as he pulled a pair of yellow-tinted night driving glasses from the pocket of his long, leather coat, along with a pair of navy blue driving gloves. He slipped them on and struck a pose.

“I look sehr toll, nein? Very cool. No more ‘teacher’ suit.”

Logan snorted, but returned his friend’s smile.

“Yeah, you look great, kid,” he said. “I’d offer you a ride, but Chuck’s got me roped into overseeing the kids’ Danger Room practice today, and—“

“Nein, nein, it’s all right, mein Freund,” Kurt said. “My license to drive in this country came through a few months ago, while you were away. I intend to give it a work out.”

“Lemme guess,” Logan teased. “You signed out the Prof’s—“

“Red BMW,” they chorused, and Kurt laughed.

“The James Bond of sports cars, ja,” he said, and twirled the keychain around his slender finger. “Well, I better be off. I am already an hour later than I planned. If you see Herr Professor, you can tell him not to worry. I will be back in time for the meeting this evening."

"Why don't you ask 'Ro along?" Logan suggested. "She only has a few classes today."

Kurt's smile faltered. When it returned, it seemed a pale reflection of its former self.

"Nein," he said. "I wouldn't want to bother her. I haven't seen her since the meeting yesterday, and, well..."

He sighed.

"I tried to apologize, and it fell rather flat. If she doesn't want me around, I will not force my presence on her. I would never want to make her feel..."

He trailed off, searching for the right word.

"Smothered?" Logan suggested with a strange look Kurt couldn't quite figure out.

"Ja," Kurt said. "Besides, I'm just going because I must get out of this mansion for a while. You can understand, can't you?"

Logan nodded.

"Yeah, kid. Go enjoy yourself. Don't do anything I would do."

Kurt snickered, his eyes recovering something of their former gleam.

"Jawohl. Getting into a rowdy bar fight and taking a swipe at a burly motorcycle gang member with my claws is definitely out. I think, today, I'll stick with people-watching in Central Park."

Logan scrunched up his face.

"People-watchin'?" he repeated.

Kurt shrugged.

"People have watched me long enough, I think. It's about time I watched them for a while, nein?"

Logan raised an eyebrow, a smirk spreading across his rugged features.

"Sure, Elf. Knock yourself out. And thanks again for reviewin' that sim for me."

"I was glad to do it, Logan. And don’t worry, I haven't forgotten about that duel. Or, the German beer I told you of. Perhaps, I’ll bring some back today. Build up a ‘stash’ of my own."

Kurt shot him a jaunty smile, and continued on his way to the garage.

"Auf Wiedersehen, mein Freund! I shall see you upon my return!"

"Bye, Elf.”

Logan shook his head as he watched his friend's departing back…then froze, his nose twitching as it detected a familiar smell…

No, it had to be his imagination. Kurt had just left, and the Elf's problems were still in the forefront of his mind.

Still, for a moment he could have sworn he'd caught a whiff of the distinctive, sulfurous smoke of a teleport wafting from the direction of the kitchen...

*******

"Excuse me?"

Kurt looked up, slightly disoriented. He had been deep in a dozy daydream, half-watching a small group of boys playing baseball some distance from the bench he had claimed for the afternoon. Now, he turned his rather startled gaze to the young woman who had spoken.

She looked back at him, her expression kind and genuine. Her dark eyes sparkled in the sunlight, her thick, raven-black braid reached almost to the small of her back, and her quirky, crooked smile made his breath catch in his throat.

Kurt rose politely to his feet, returning her smile with one of his own.

"Guten Tag, Fräulein," he said with a slight tip of his head. "Was there something you wished of me?"

The woman seemed rather taken aback, a light flush rising in her pale, coppery cheeks. She had the complexion of a princess out of an Indian fairy tale but, when she spoke, it was with a distinct northern English accent.

"Oh...no, I..."

She laughed, deep and rich.

"I was just wondering if you wouldn't mind if I sat down. I didn't really want to sit on the grass. It's still a bit damp from the rain last night."

Now, it was Kurt's turn to blush.

"Oh. Of course," he said, feeling rather foolish. He gestured to the bench. "Please, be my guest." He smiled, a bit shyly. "I would consider it an honor to be seen beside a lady as lovely as you."

The woman stared at him, then broke into a grin. Kurt noticed her teeth weren't quite straight. Somehow, that slight imperfection only made her smile seem all the more enchanting.

"You are a charmer, aren't you," she said, and laughed.

Kurt lowered his eyes in an attempt to hide his burning face.

"So, are you here on holiday?" she asked as he joined her on the bench.

Kurt blinked.

"Was? Ach, no."

He smiled again. For some reason, he couldn't seem to stop smiling at her. He hoped she didn't think him strange.

"I am a teacher," he explained, "at a private school in Westchester. I only had two classes today so I thought I might as well take the opportunity to see the city, you know?"

"You're lucky you can do that," the woman said enviously. "As for me, I'm only here for the week. Research trip. Come Saturday, I must pack my bags and head back to dear old England. I'm a graduate student at a university in London."

"But, your accent suggests you are not from London originally," Kurt observed. "I would guess you are from much farther north...Northumberland, perhaps?"

"Yes," she said, impressed. "That's it exactly! I grew up in Rothbury! Have you been to England?"

Kurt nodded.

"Yes, a few times. I...I traveled a great deal as a child."

The woman raised her eyebrows.

"But, you are originally from...Germany? I'm sorry, I'm rather horrible with accents. You could be from Austria or even Switzerland for all I can tell."

"Nein, nein..." Kurt chuckled at her embarrassment. "Germany is correct. I am from Bavaria, near the Alps."

The woman gasped slightly.

"Oh, that must have been lovely," she said. "I've never been, myself, but I have always wanted to see the Alps – although I'd probably kill myself if I tried to ski. I'll bet you are an expert skier."

Kurt lowered his head, twisting his fingers in his lap.

"Nein. Actually, I didn't really get out much. But, you are right. It was a very beautiful place to grow up."

"Your parents were in business?" the woman asked tentatively.

Kurt tilted his head, confused.

"Was?"

"The constant traveling, not getting out much...I assumed your parents—"

"Oh!" Kurt exclaimed, understanding. Then, he laughed. "Ja, I suppose you could say that. Show business, if you want to know the truth. My mother runs a circus."

The woman's eyes widened.

"You're kidding," she stated.

Kurt placed a hand over his heart.

"On my honor, I swear it is the truth!"

The woman regarded him, not quite ready to believe him.

"And what did you do at this circus?" she teased. "Set up the tents? Clean up after the elephants?"

Kurt laughed again, delighted with her disbelief. Usually, when he told people he had been with the circus they pretty much said, "Figures," and left it at that. The reaction he was getting now was a completely new experience for him.

"Ach, nein," he told her. "We had horses. And, I only had to clean up after them when I was in trouble. For the rest of the time, I was the star acrobat."

The woman sat back, her arms crossed over her chest.

"Now I know you're pulling my leg."

"Why do you say that?" Kurt asked, really curious.

"Well," the woman said, "for one thing, why would the star acrobat of a European traveling circus decide to become a teacher in New York? I mean, most boys want to run away from school to join the circus, not the other way around."

Kurt shrugged.

"Perhaps I felt I could do more good as a teacher than I could as an acrobat," he said simply.

The woman squinted at him, shaking her head slightly.

"My God," she said, a small smile spreading across her face. "You really are for real, aren't you?"

Kurt returned her smile, a mischievous gleam glowing in his eyes.

"Jawohl, meine Dame," he said, and took off his yellow glasses. "And, if you would agree to hold these for me, I can prove it.”

"What are you going to do?" the woman exclaimed, accepting the glasses as he jumped up from the bench.

"The Incredible Nightcrawler, former star of the world-renowned Munich Circus, is going to treat you to a private performance, absolutely free of charge!"

Kurt grinned, carefully scoping out his surroundings, his mind filling with possibilities.

"Mother Margali would probably kill me for this, but to earn a smile from such a beautiful woman…" He winked. “It is worth the risk.”

The woman gaped, then giggled, blushing deeply.

Kurt spread out his arms, taking up a dramatic pose.

"The eye is quicker than the nose," he recited, falling into a string of carefully planned cartwheels as he scooped up three rocks and a stray baseball from the ground. Then he leaped to his feet, beginning at once to juggle his finds. "Notice how my fingers never leave my hand!"

He grinned and tossed the ball and the rocks higher and higher into the air.

The woman laughed brightly, clapping her hands.

Kurt beamed, spinning in place, then falling to one knee as he smoothly caught all four objects before they reached the grass.

"Wunderbar!" she exclaimed. Then she laughed again, a little apologetically. "That's all the German I know. But truly, that was marvelous!"

"Dankeschön."

Kurt chuckled, rising to his feet and gracing her with a sweeping bow, peeking up with a sly wink.

"But as they say in America: You ain't seen nothin' yet."

A small crowd had begun to gather by this point, and more people were starting to take notice. Kurt tilted his head slightly, rather surprised but enormously pleased to see they were smiling as they pointed him out to their friends and family members. A few had raised their phones, taking selfies and snapshots.

It seemed a little strange, really, but he had to admit, this sort of attention was much better than the screams he was used to.

"Damen und Herren," he called out, his grin stretching broader than ever now he had a proper audience. "Before I begin this next dangerous and dazzling feat of daring do, attempting to astonish you all with my amazing acrobatic skill, I must advise all those present not to try this at home. Especially you."

He smiled knowingly, tossing the stray baseball to the small group of boys that had been playing on the grass a few minutes before.

There were a few chuckles, then a low murmur broke out among the growing crowd as Kurt leaped, flipped, and tumbled his way over to a nearby tree, a smooth sycamore, carefully testing the branches as he nimbly climbed to the top with seemingly effortless grace. He had done this so many times in the forests back home, on the grounds of the Xavier Institute... There was no reason to feel nervous now, no reason at all...

"Can you all see me?" he called down to his audience, balanced on a narrow branch with his arms at his sides.

The gathered spectators shouted a collective affirmative, interspersed with several cracks about the dangers of a sudden gust of wind. Kurt waved to them all, then crouched down on the branch and began to swing.

"No feet and no tail," he muttered as he launched himself off of the branch, catching hold of the next one and raising his knees over his shoulders, stretching out his legs before flipping down to the branch just underneath. "Concentrate on your arms," he coached himself, firmly ignoring the tingling ghost itching at the base of his spine. "One more branch, then the aerial somersault. Keep it simple, just like the games we played back home. Use your tail and you're out."

The growing crowd gasped as Kurt flipped down to the final branch, his body taut and straight as an arrow as he swung a complete three hundred sixty degrees, once, twice, three times, building up momentum before launching himself high into the air, tucking in his legs as he performed a perfect double aerial somersault before coming to a graceful landing a short distance from the trunk of the tree.

"So, I did a double instead of a single," he said to himself, smiling as he soaked in the enthusiastic cheers and applause of his audience. "I couldn't make it too simple, after all."

"That was just...incredible!" the dark-eyed woman exclaimed, running over to hand him his glasses back as the sea of raised phones began to ebb and the crowd started to disperse. Several cameras flashed and Kurt looked up, flushed and grinning.

"That is why I was known as the Incredible Nightcrawler," Kurt told her. "But, that was just a silly exercise. Kid stuff. You should have seen me in Munich. I had a tail back then."

The woman laughed, and Kurt let her think he was joking. It was no use explaining, anyway…

"Um, excuse me Mister...?"

Kurt and the woman turned to face the newcomer. He was a tall, gangly man with glasses and a thick mop of brown hair, and he held a young girl by the hand.

Kurt grinned.

"Wagner, mein Herr," Kurt told him. "Kurt Wagner."

"Mr. Vahgner," the man repeated, apparently a little embarrassed. "Well, the thing is, my daughter, here, was wondering if she might have her picture taken with you."

The little girl looked up at him with big, brown eyes.

"You're really handsome," the girl stated, taking his hand and pressing it to her cheek.

Kurt's eyes widened and he flushed deeply, his flustered discomfort only growing as the dark-eyed woman laughed behind her hand.

"I think you might have some trouble with this one in years to come," she teased.

The girl's father blushed almost as deeply as Kurt.

"Cara!" he scolded, reaching for her free hand.

She shook him off and latched on to Kurt even tighter.

"Come on, you know that's no way to act! You're embarrassing the poor man."

"Nein, it’s quite all right," Kurt said, gently easing his fingers from the girl’s painfully tight grasp and taking her small hand in his.

"Is she your girlfriend?" Cara pointed with all the brazen curiosity of a six year old.

"Huh?"

Kurt and the woman stared at each other, then they both burst out laughing.

"No. No, she— We just met," he said, running his free hand rather awkwardly through his hair. "In fact, I don't believe we've been properly introduced. An unforgivable lapse of manners on my part."

He offered the young woman a small smile.

"My name is Kurt Wagner," he told her, as formally as he could with a six-year-old attached to his hand. "And, what is the name of the lovely woman for whom I made such a spectacle of myself a few minutes ago?"

"Alice," the woman said, smiling shyly back. "Alice Dhoraji."

“Alice Dhoraji.”

Kurt's smile deepened and he reached for her hand, gracing her knuckles with a gentle kiss.

"A beautiful name," he observed, finding her eyes with his own. "Fitting for such a stunning young woman."

Alice bit her lip and turned away, unwilling to let him see her blushing face.

Cara tugged on Kurt's other hand.

"Hey," she complained, "what about me?"

Kurt grinned, bending down to lift her into his arms.

"You are beautiful as well, my bold young Mädchen. So, your name is Cara?"

The girl nodded, reaching out to play with his curls. Some blue powder from the hair chalk he’d tried to brush out got on her fingers, and Kurt looked to the sky, struggling not to laugh.

"I'm Cara Johnson," she told him, "and I'm in first grade."

"My goodness," Kurt said. "Beautiful, and intelligent as well. And I get to have my picture taken with you? Why, I must be the most fortunate man alive."

Cara giggled.

"Don't be silly," she told him. "You're the one who can do all those tricks."

"Cara," Mr. Johnson called out, raising his camera to his eye. "Smile!"

As Kurt and Cara smiled for the camera, Alice noticed a tall woman watching their small group from a short distance away. This woman had long, white hair tied back with a colorful scarf. Her regal poise and confident posture suggested power, but the expression on her mocha face was tentative and uncertain. Furrowing her brow, Alice turned back to Kurt, surprised to find herself worrying whether he knew her or not.

"Come on, now, Cara," Mr. Johnson said. "It's time to go home. We've bothered poor Mr. Vahgner for long enough."

"But, Daddy…!" Cara whined.

"Nein, Liebling, your father is right," Kurt told her. "I have taken up too much of your time, and I am sure you have a great many important things to do."

Cara sighed in resignation, then leaned in and pecked him on the cheek. Kurt's eyes widened as he set her down, surprised and touched by her innocent gesture.

"You move too quickly for me, my young Mädchen," he said, taking her small hand and bending low as he graced it with a courtly kiss.

"After all, we've only just met."

Cara giggled brightly and ran back to her father, who smiled at Kurt with a mixture of apology and gratitude.

"Thank you for being so understanding," he said.

"It was my pleasure, mein Herr," Kurt assured him. "You have a very charming young daughter."

"Hear that, Daddy?" Cara asked, taking his hand and digging her heels into the ground, swinging slowly back and forth. "Mr. Vahgner says I'm beautiful and charming."

Mr. Johnson tried to grimace, but it came out closer to a smile.

"You know I'll never hear the end of this now," he said to Kurt.

Kurt shrugged with a helpless smile as he waved in farewell.

"Auf Wiedersehen, Cara," he called after her. "Be good for your father, now."

"Bye, Mr. Acrobat!" Cara waved back, skipping backwards until her father turned her around and the two of them disappeared around a corner.

Kurt straightened his shoulders, a wave of relieved pride washing over him. So, he was still an acrobat after all…even if he did have a long road ahead before he could reclaim his former skill level…

Kurt was just turning back to Alice, still chuckling softly to himself, when he caught sight of a woman with long, white hair walking down the pathway. She was moving away from him, but he recognized her at once.

"Ororo!" he called out. "Ororo!"

She didn’t turn…didn’t seem to hear him… He shook his head, turning to Alice with a frantic expression of apology.

"I am very sorry, Alice," he told her, "but I—"

"No," Alice said, more disappointed than she cared to admit. "I understand. Go after her."

Kurt still seemed uncertain.

"You are sure you don't—"

"Thank you for the show, Kurt," she said, and smiled at him. "Meeting you was a highlight of my time here! But, if you don't go now, you'll never catch her."

Kurt nodded, his blue eyes bright.

"I assure you, the pleasure was mine. Farewell, Fräulein. Perhaps, one day, we shall meet again."

Alice sighed and leaned back against the trunk of the tree, watching Kurt race after the tall, queenly woman with the white hair.

Of course, he would have a girlfriend…

*******

"This isn't right," Marta said. "Not right at all. Where are we?"

Kurt Wagner shook his head, looking around the park through narrowed, golden eyes.

"It looks like Central Park," he said. "But you're right. Something is off."

"What?" Suzie asked, looking around. "Nothing looks off to me."

"No, it's more a feeling," Marta tried to explain to her younger sister, her fuzzy, indigo tail twitching in agitation. "A feeling of...'wrongness'. There's a word for it somewhere, I just can't think of what it is."

She turned to her father, hoping he could explain better, but Kurt looked just as confused as Marti felt.

"Where's Auntie Jean and the others?" Edmund spoke up, pulling on his mother's arm with his sky-blue tail. "I thought we were going to a birthday party."

"We were," Alice told him, peering at her uneasy husband with concern. "What is it, Kurt?" she asked, moving up beside him. "Did something happen during the teleport?"

"I'm not sure," Kurt said, his lightly accented voice distant as he concentrated on his spatial sense, trying to identify the strange feeling that was making his fuzzy skin crawl.

"Hey, Mum," Suzie spoke up, her golden eyes curious in her pale face. "Who's that lady? She looks a lot like you."

Alice Wagner looked in the direction her daughter was pointing, and froze.

"Erm, Kurt, love," she said warily.

"Yes, Liebe?" he asked, turning to follow her gaze. "Mein Gott!" he exclaimed. "That woman could be your twin!"

"No she couldn't," Suzie said. "She's way younger than Mum is."

Alice would have shot her a look, but the young woman had noticed she was being watched. The Wagners stayed quite still as she approached them, her dark eyes wide with curiosity.

"Excuse me," she said, "but, I couldn't help but notice your amazing costumes."

The Wagners looked at each other in something close to bemusement, then turned back to her.

"Costumes, Fräulein?" Kurt inquired politely.

The woman's eyes widened further.

"Oh, and you’re German as well?" she said. "I just met a young man from Germany. He used to be with the circus. Kurt Wagner."

She flushed at the startled, uncomfortable expressions her words sparked.

"I wouldn't have mentioned it, really," she hurried on, "but, you see, he said his costume had included a...well, a tail, and I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps..."

She trailed off as she caught sight of Alice, standing beside Kurt with her son's pale-blue tail wrapped around her leg. She took a startled step backwards, then looked up into Kurt's face with a sharp, searching stare.

"Oh, my God," she whispered. "You could be his twin..."

She took another step back, shaking her head in frightened disbelief.

"Those...erm, those aren't costumes, are they?" she managed to choke out, slowly raising her arms in an unconscious, protective gesture. Her breath quickened, her eyes darting to each of their faces in turn as she continued to back away.

"I believe now would be a good time to leave," Kurt whispered to Marti, slowly taking his wife and son by the hand and gesturing with his chin toward the top of a tall skyscraper nearby.

Marti nodded, wrapping her spade-tipped tail around her sister's waist.

BAMF!

Alice Dhoraji gasped, falling backwards onto her hands as the five Wagners disappeared in a double flash of sulfurous smoke.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Marti stumbled as she forced her way out of the teleport, nearly toppling over and taking Suzie with her.

"Hey, watch your tail!" the twelve-year-old exclaimed, breaking out of her sister's grasp.

"Sheesh, Marti, I know vertical teleports are harder, but that was really awful! What the hell just happened there?"

Marti shook her head, holding up one thick finger as she worked to catch her breath.

"I don't know," she gasped at last, running her fuzzy, three-fingered hands through her springy, red curls. "I don't know what happened. It was weird...like something was pulling me, slowing me down."

She looked at her sister, her green eyes wide.

"Didn't you feel it?"

Suzie narrowed her golden eyes.

"I did feel something," she said slowly, "but I wasn't—"

"Wait!" Marti interrupted, looking around the bare, deserted rooftop with growing alarm. "Suzie, where are Dad and Mum and Edmund?"

Suzie swallowed, and ran over to the high brick wall, jumping up to peer over the edge to Central Park far below.

"I don't see them anywhere," she called back to her sister.

"You don't suppose they didn't make it through...?"

"What? What do you mean?"

"I don't know," Marti said. "I just... I don't know, OK! Everything is wrong here! This whole place..."

Marti bit her thumbnail and began to pace, her long tail lashing behind her.

Suzie scowled at her older sister's frightened expression, hating the cold dread she felt clutching at her stomach.

"All right, Marti, what the hell is all this?" the pale girl snapped angrily, marching over to her sister. "If you have any idea what's going on here, spill it now! I'm a bloody shapeshifter, I don't have your special 'spatial sense'. I can't feel what you can feel, and I can't see what you can see! You're the teleporter. You tell me what's wrong!"

Marta's green eyes flashed, but instead of responding in the same angry tone, she clenched her fists and took a long, slow breath, struggling to put all the strange feelings and impressions her senses were throwing at her into words.

"This place?" she said, indicating the entire bustling city with her arms and her tail. "It's not the New York we know. Everything about it...the air, the people, the height of the trees and placement of the buildings...is wrong."

"Yeah, you keep saying that," Suzie snapped. "But what does that mean?"

Marti sighed, carefully chewing at the inside of her cheek as she thought.

"Something happened during the teleport," she said. "Both teleports: this last one and the one to Central Park. Usually, we pass through that other dimension in an instant. It's as effortless as thought. This time, though, it was like there was something in there with us...something huge and powerful. It was dragging us towards it, away from where we were trying to go. The pull was almost irresistible, like a magnet or something. It took everything I had to break us away!"

Suzie shivered, her angry scowl no longer able to hide her growing fear.

"And you think maybe Dad is still—?"

A loud BAMF cut Suzie off in mid-sentence, and both girls ran in the direction of the sound.

Kurt, Alice, and Edmund stumbled unsteadily out of a thick cloud of sulfurous smoke, coughing and breathing heavily. As the smoke dissipated, Kurt fell into a crouch, holding his nose with both hands.

"Here, love," Alice said, crouching down beside him. "Use my handkerchief."

"Danke," Kurt muffled through his hands as he took the proffered handkerchief with his tail. The white cloth became stained with a rapidly spreading red the instant he pressed it to his nose.

"Mum! Dad! What happened," Marti and Suzie exclaimed, rushing over to their parents. Kurt and Alice looked up, deep relief shining in their eyes.

"Thank God you made it out of there!" Alice cried, leaping to her feet to pull them both into a close embrace. Kurt was still too weak to rise, pressing the bloody handkerchief even harder in an attempt to staunch the flow of his heavy nosebleed.

"Mummy," Edmund's weak, plaintive voice called out. "I don't feel very good..."

Alice hugged her daughters once more before breaking away to help Edmund. A sickening retching sound soon followed, and Suzie made the mistake of looking.

"Oh, eeew!" she moaned. "Now I think I'm going to be sick..."

Marta ignored her, crouching down beside her father.

"You were in there for so long," she said. "Are you OK?"

Kurt nodded, giving Marta's hand a reassuring squeeze with the spade of his tail. He sniffed slightly and gently wiped his nose with the badly stained handkerchief.

"I think it's stopped now," he said, his voice still slightly shaky. "Mein Gott, Marti, I don't believe I have ever experienced a more strenuous teleport. For a moment there, I was truly afraid we wouldn't make it out."

Marti jumped up, her tail lashing behind her.

"So, you felt it too!" she exclaimed. "That weird force pulling at us, dragging us off course!"

"I didn't only feel it, Liebling," Kurt told her, his expression as somber as his lightly accented voice. "I saw it." He narrowed his golden eyes. "Or, at least a part of it."

Suzie tilted her head.

"What was it?" she asked.

Kurt shook his head, his lips tight.

"Whatever it was," he said, "it was incredibly powerful." He turned to Marta. "I want there to be no more teleporting until we find out more about this anomalous force," he said firmly. "Am I understood?"

Marti nodded, raising her hands in a placating gesture.

"Jawohl, Papa. I don't want to get stuck in that creepy place any more than you do!"

"Gut." Kurt nodded sharply. Then, his expression softened. "Now help me to my feet, there's a Liebchen. That teleport took more out of me than I thought."

"Should we contact Uncle Scott?" Suzie asked anxiously as Marti took her father's hand and pulled him up.

Kurt thanked Marta with a smile, then turned to Suzie.

"Liebling," he said, "wherever we are, this is not the world we know. Somehow, that strange force must have displaced us from our own dimension."

"Displaced!" Marti exclaimed. "Yes! That's the word I was looking for!"

Suzie wrinkled her pale forehead.

"Then...wait. Are you saying we're seriously in some alternate universe?" She snorted, a slight smile tweaking her lips. "Then that lady we saw down there really could have been Mum! Some weird alternate Mum who didn't have a clue who we were!"

"That is quite possible," Kurt said. "And, judging from her reaction to us, I would assume that either mutants do not exist on this world, or that they exist but are in hiding, much like on our own world before the war, back when Professor Xavier first founded the X-Men."

"So, it's like that Star Trek episode," Marti said. "You know, the one where they end up in an alternate universe and the alternate Spock has that cheesy paste-on beard?"

Kurt nodded.

"Essentially, yes. But, as long as we remain stuck up on this roof, we have no way of knowing if the X-Men even exist on this world."

"There's a phone booth down on the corner," Alice said, walking over to join them with Edmund in tow. The powder-blue boy still seemed a bit green around the gills after that teleport, but the way the eight-year-old's curious eyes darted around the cluttered roof assured his parents he was just fine. "If Xavier's school exists here, it should be listed."

Kurt tilted his head, then nodded.

"Good plan, Liebe," he said. "Take Suzie with you. I'll stay here with Marta and Edmund."

"Wait, that's not fair!" Marta exclaimed. "I've had defense training! Suzie can't even—"

Kurt cut her off with a sharp look.

"Marti, please..."

Marti drooped her shoulders.

"Sorry," she said. "But, why do I have to stay up here? I want to go too!"

Kurt sighed, his golden eyes darting to Alice as his tail curled and uncurled in discomfort. Alice frowned, unable to forget the horrified look on her double's face when she realized the Wagners were not wearing costumes...

"You know why as well as anyone," she said.

Suzie smirked.

"If it makes you feel any better," she said to Marti, "I can go like this!"

The rest of the family gasped as Suzie morphed herself into a non-mutant version of Marta: a freckly fourteen-year-old with springy, copper-red curls, green eyes, and ten pale, fuzzless fingers.

"Don't you dare, Ingrid Susan Wagner," Marti exclaimed, her night-goggle green eyes glowing dangerously.

"Kinder!" Kurt snapped, his voice sharp and crisp.

The two girls turned to him, both speaking at once.

"Dad, tell Suzie that copying me is absolutely out of bounds—"

"Come on, Dad, I was only—"

"That is enough!"

Kurt crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at his daughters with his sternest expression.

Suzie rolled her eyes, but changed back to her own, pale, elfish form. Marti glared at her, her long tail lashing.

"That was uncalled for, Ingrid," Kurt scolded. "You know better than to duplicate family."

"Yes, Dad," Suzie said, scowling down at her shoes. "I know I'm not supposed to duplicate family, Excalibur members, or any other X-Men except in an emergency. Or as a strategic diversion. Or as a friggin' joke—!"

"Suzie...!" Kurt warned.

"OK, OK," she said. "I'm sorry, Marta."

Kurt grunted.

"Now, I will say this again. Marta and Edmund, you are staying with me up here on the roof."

Edmund nodded. Marta rolled her eyes.

"Marta?" Kurt prompted.

"Yes, all right!" she snapped. "I'm staying up here."

Kurt kept his eyes on her a moment longer, then turned to Suzie.

"Suzie, you will accompany your mother - as yourself. Just change the color of your eyes and hair."

"What color?" Suzie asked, fingering her long, azure hair.

"Whichever is easiest," Kurt told her.

Suzie turned a look of pure concentration on her mother. A moment later her blue hair had become a deep, rich brown, as had her golden eyes. Her pointed ears rounded, and her pale skin became a light, creamy copper.

"Sehr schön," Kurt said, and smiled in satisfaction. Suzie looked almost like a smaller version of her mother like that, except she'd inherited Kurt's nose.

"Well, wish us luck," Alice said, opening the door that led into the building.

"Even though we won't need it," Suzie added smugly.

Alice sighed.

"Suzie, love, this isn't a game," she said. "Even if the X-Men do exist here, we may not be able to convince them we are who we say we are. Not all worlds are familiar with the concept of alternate universes. Many more don't believe they're real."

Kurt walked up to her, a soft smile brightening his dark face.

"If anyone can persuade them, it's you, meine Liebe." He leaned in to kiss her cheek, then stepped back.

"Don't worry," he told her. "Even if we can't look to the X-Men for help on this world, we will certainly think of something. I truly believe that someone, somewhere is looking out for us. Otherwise, how could we ever have come this far?"

Alice smiled at him, a smile of pure affection, then she turned and started down the stairs with Suzie close behind her.

*******

Rowena stood on the balcony of the Starlight Citadel's largest conference chamber, watching the Otherworld landscape shift and fade, then shift again.

The chaos was spreading, the fabric of the multiverse unraveling at the seams like some old, frayed quilt, and it was taking Otherworld with it.

Rowena sighed, keeping her posture straight even as her heart sank within her. She was Roma's Second Advisor, the Head Historian of the Omniverse, but she knew no precedent for this. Universes had fought each other in the past. Mad scientists and megalomaniac leaders had tried to break through dimensional barriers, conquer neighboring realities...even attack Otherworld itself.

But, this was different. This odd dimensional merging... She could find no mind behind it, no traces in any of the records. The chaos had struck so quickly...almost like a force of nature.

Or, perhaps...

She gasped, struck by an epiphany that turned the entire problem on its head. Her heart pounding with trepidation, Rowena smoothed back her long, brown ponytail and stepped out of the wind, away from the shifting landscape and into the conference chamber, where she focused her attention on the tall, lean man at the podium.

"...and we've had another report of a dimensional cross-over, again to Earth 816," the speaker's prim voice droned. "Whatever it is that's causing this mess must originate from there. I propose someone from this office be sent there to investigate this crisis at once, before the barriers between the timelines disintegrate completely!"

"Was it another teleporter?" she asked him.

Horatio Cringebottom looked at her, somewhat surprised.

"Why, yes. Two, actually. A family of mutants from Earth 723."

Rowena nodded, twirling her thick hair nervously behind her back as she mixed this new data in with the rest of her stewing thoughts.

"Something to add, Historian?"

The Supreme Omniversal Guardian Roma looked down at her from her elegant throne, her large eyes narrowed in her round, youthful face.

Rowena straightened her shoulders and stepped forward.

"Mistress Roma," she said, "I volunteer for this mission."

"Historian," Roma responded, her tone regal but her expression curious. "I hear your request, but there are scouts trained for this sort of thing. To send a top advisor into the field when Otherworld itself is in danger...it is most irregular."

"If you please, Mistress, so is this situation," Rowena pointed out. "My office records all things as they happen. Not a nanosecond is left unaccounted for. Ever since this crisis began, my senior staff, their teams, and I have been reviewing all the myriad actions and events that ultimately led up to this present moment in a search for a cause, yet we have found nothing concrete, only vague notions and speculations. Such a thing is impossible..." She took a bracing breath, and voiced her epiphany. "Unless we turn the picture around. View it from another angle."

"What do you mean?" Roma inquired.

"If the actors affecting our present are not acting in the past, then whatever is causing this crisis must be working backwards through time," Rowena said. "Otherwise, my teams would have found something as we sifted through past events."

"You mean, this threat may have its origins in the future?" Roma asked, running her fingers through her own long, dark hair as she sat back in her throne.

"Yes, Mistress," Rowena said. "And, I suspect these instances of teleporters being drawn across the dimensional boundaries to Earth 816 could be the clue we have been hoping for - one that could, perhaps, lead us to the core of this crisis."

"Explain."

Rowena sighed, biting her lip as she struggled to put her swirling thoughts into words.

"It just strikes me as odd that so many teleporters are ending up on Earth 816 specifically, and in so short a time," she said. "There have been fifteen cases of this sort in as many hours! There has to be a connection, a correlation of some kind. I request that I be sent to Earth 816 to find out just what this correlation is."

Roma regarded Rowena through her large, bright eyes, her brow furrowed with worried concern.

"Historian Zahnrei, although I am loathe to send one of my chief advisors away from my side at this time of crisis, I must admit that, in this case, you are best qualified for a mission of this nature. However, I must ask if you are certain your department will be able to continue its vital function without you present to oversee the work."

Rowena looked up at her, the determination in her brown eyes barely covering her own worry.

"With respect, Mistress, to you and to my position, my teams can handle themselves. Besides, if this threat continues to spread, keeping our cohesive history of the multiverse up to date will be the least of our worries." She indicated the fading, shifting landscape beyond the conference chamber, her expression grim.

Roma nodded somberly.

"Then go with speed, knowing that all our hopes go with you. The fate of the entire multiverse rests on your shoulders."

Rowena smiled, but only slightly.

"Be assured, Mistress," she said firmly, "I will get to the bottom of this."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

"Ororo! Ororo, stop! Please, wait!"

Kurt really had to concentrate to keep his posture erect as he raced to close the distance between himself and Ororo. An embarrassing and painful tumble in the Danger Room had taught him it was pretty much impossible to run on all fours without the unique make-up of his tridactyl feet and the counterbalance his tail had provided. Still, it was incredibly difficult to change the habits of a lifetime.

A nervous chill gripped his stomach and Kurt stopped short, his heart pounding in his chest as an uncomfortable thought occurred to him.

What if Ororo didn't want to see him? What if she just stared at him as she had in her classroom, aloof and cold, an untouchable goddess. Or worse, what if she just kept on walking, as if he wasn't even there?

Slowly, ever so slowly, Kurt sank down in to a crouch on the slightly damp grass, watching the space between them widen with every brusque step she took.

Had his angry, frustrated outbursts truly cost him his dearest friend?

Kurt picked at the grass, his curly head bowed. He was behaving foolishly, he knew. He probably looked ridiculous as well, crouching like this in huddled ball. Quickly, he rose to his full height, standing straighter than he ever could as a mutant.

He had to know the full extent of his sins before he could find a way to make things right again. He had to talk with her, and he had to convince her to talk with him. He could still see her in the distance; it wasn't too late to catch her before she left the park.

But, he couldn't approach her empty handed, and his previous attempts at a peace offering had failed dismally.

Kurt looked around, his eyes landing on a bright patch of color under a nearby tree.

Tulips and daffodils.

He walked over to them, bending down slightly to get a closer look. The tulips were fresh and perfect, recent blooms with a few sparkling droplets of moisture clinging to their soft, fragrant petals. The daffodils were almost past their prime, though, their yellow petals slightly faded and browning at the tips.

Would Ororo like these? Or, would she be upset with him for picking them, dooming the lovely plants to an untimely death?

"Kurt!"

Kurt spun on his heel at the sound of his name and looked back the way he had just come.

"Was... What? Ororo? But..."

Impossible! He had just seen Ororo walking away from him, yet there she was, trailing him up the path!

Kurt shaded his eyes and turned, searching for the woman he had just been following.

She was gone.

But... No, unless Ororo had suddenly developed the ability to teleport, there was no way she could have left the park so quickly, let alone...

"Kurt! Kurt Wagner!"

The voice was unmistakable. Kurt turned back to face the rapidly approaching Ororo Munroe, and found himself startled once again when he realized she was wearing a different dress and her cloud-white hair was loose about her shoulders rather than tied back with a scarf.

Could he possibly have mistaken someone else for Ororo? But, her face, her eyes... He had been so certain it was her...

"Kurt, are you all right?" Ororo asked, her blue eyes dark with concern. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

Kurt swallowed and blinked a few times, shaking off the unsettling surreality of the moment and allowing the dawning realization that Ororo was actually there, seeking him out, talking to him without even a hint of anger, to sink in.

"Ororo," he said, a small smile creeping across his face. "I'm sorry...you just startled me, that is all." His smile turned a bit sheepish as he confessed, "I was just thinking about you."

The concern left Ororo's eyes, to be replaced by an amused warmth.

Kurt felt his heart still, apprehension warring with incredulity as he cautiously watched her brightening expression. Was she actually smiling at him? Could it be she forgave him after all...?

Ororo lowered her head slightly. If Kurt didn't know any better, he would say she appeared shy. But, surely that was impossible...

"I was thinking about you as well," she said softly, not meeting his eyes. "I should have said something earlier, I know, but what with the mission and classes, and then finding out you'd gone to the city..."

She looked up, her eyes tentative and searching.

"I just didn't have a chance to say thank you."

Kurt's mind was an expansive void of swirling blankness, completely unable to process her words or the meaning behind them.

"Thank me?" he repeated.

"For the tickets," Ororo explained. "And the bouquet."

She shook her head.

"Oh, Kurt, you didn't have to go to all that trouble for me. I would have forgiven you anyway."

Kurt blinked, the void in his mind swirling even faster, making him feel slightly dizzy and lightheaded.

"Forgiven me? You...you mean, you forgive me? You...you aren't...angry anymore?"

Ororo smiled, stepping closer to him and taking his hand in hers.

"Kurt, I forgave you the moment you stepped into my classroom," she assured him, her tone sincere but her eyes somehow nervous.

Kurt forgot to breathe.

Ororo broke away, running her hands through her long hair, avoiding his gaze once again.

"If either of us should be angry right now, Kurt, it's you," she told him, her voice hard and flat. "I have been perfectly horrid to you since you came here. I knew how you felt about me. I've known for so long...but I never said anything, did anything..."

She scowled in angry shame, a familiar self-loathing darkening her eyes.

Kurt shook his head, reaching out to stroke her cheek with two slender fingers.

"Nein, Liebchen," he whispered, pained to see that look haunting her beautiful eyes. "How can you say that? You were never cruel to me. You are the kindest, dearest woman I have ever known...my best friend."

He smiled gently.

Ororo reached up to press a hand to his fingers, leaning her head into his touch, her eyes closing slightly. Then, she shook her head, brushing his hand away.

"No," she said. "No, I'm not. I've hurt you! I've caused you so much pain, and you do not deserve to be hurt like that. Kurt, I've been so selfish and cold towards you... An Ice Goddess, as Bobby might say. I've allowed my fear to come between us for so long...! And I - I just don't understand how you can stand to be around someone like me!"

Kurt's ears had stopped working long before Ororo reached the end of her outburst. He stared at her in mute shock, an ancient wound searing his heart.

"You were afraid of me?" he asked her, unable to keep the hurt from his voice.

Ororo blinked, alarmed at how he had misinterpreted her.

"No!" she exclaimed, causing the heads of several passersby to turn in vague curiosity. She reached for his hand again, pressing it to her heart.

"No, Kurt, never!"

Her eyes grew slightly distant, a small, almost dreamy smile quirking the corners of her lips as she went on.

"From the moment I first saw you, suspended upside down in that church, I knew there was something special about you. I..." She flushed slightly, turning her gaze to the ground. "I had never seen a more striking man, and I...I just didn't know how to react to you."

Kurt tilted his head.

"Striking?" he repeated, not quite sure how she meant that.

Ororo's smile broadened and she nodded.

"It was so sudden, and so strong, and...and I'd never felt that way about anyone before," she went on. "I really didn't know what it was or how to deal with it, but I couldn't get you out of my mind. And, the more time we spent together, the better we came to know each other...the more beautiful you became."

Kurt's eyes widened.

"Beautiful?"

He shook his head slightly, his open expression filled with wonder.

"You...you thought I was beautiful?"

Ororo bit her lip, a flush rising in her mocha cheeks as she nodded.

Kurt stared at her for a moment, slowly understanding that she was telling him the truth. All this time, and she had felt for him just as he had felt for her. But then, why had she never said anything? What could a woman so beautiful and intelligent possibly fear if it wasn't his appearance?

"Then," he said, sliding a finger under her chin and gently raising her eyes to his. "Then, what were you afraid of? You knew I would not reject you. I would never hurt you, Ororo."

Ororo took in a trembling breath, her crystal eyes filling with tears. Kurt pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her in a tender embrace, showing her it was all right to cry. He stroked her soft, snowy hair as she spoke into his shoulder.

"Everyone I ever loved has left me," she told him, squeezing him with a fierce desperation as she cried. "My parents were killed when I was a small child, and I was taken in by one of the many bands of pickpockets that roamed the streets of Cairo. I watched my dearest friends die of malnutrition, and from the beatings we received if we were caught or if our take was too small. I saw men beat their wives and children. Those who fought back often ended up dead, while those who didn't were broken, subservient. I swore then I would never allow myself to get close to anyone again. I locked my feelings away behind a shield of anger. I thought I was protecting myself, but it wasn't until I met Charles Xavier that I realized that I had constructed my own prison. I've been living with those shields for so long now, though, that it is terrifying to be without them."

She pulled back, sniffling slightly as she looked up at him, her eyes gleaming with unshed tears and...something else. Slowly, she placed a tentative hand on his pale cheek, tracing his jawline as she watched his expression. She missed the nighttime contrast of his golden eyes and indigo skin...glowing stars in a midnight sky...but she wasn't about to bring that up. She wanted to show him she accepted him, then and now. She didn't want to hurt him any more than she already had.

"You are the first person who has ever been able to cut through those shields," she confessed with some difficulty. "For the first time since I was a very small child, I found myself unprotected from my own emotions. And that is what terrified me."

She shook her head with an baffled expression, absently smoothing his unruly curls.

"I have no idea how you do it, Kurt - you're doing it right now, in fact! - but you are the first man to ever touch my heart. The Professor couldn't, at least, not all the way. Not even Jean could pierce my shields completely. And when she died..."

She shook her head, banishing the memory with a sharp intake of breath. Then she turned back to him, staring deep into his eyes.

"But you..."

She trailed off, lowering her eyes and her hand.

"Ororo..."

She looked up, pensive and frightened as she gazed into his expressive face, seeing her reflection mirrored in his blue eyes. They were eyes so full of love and concern that she felt she could lose herself in them. And for the first time, she found she no longer feared that feeling.

"Kurt..." she said, her voice breaking slightly with emotion.

"I love you."

There was a moment of complete silence. For a few interminable seconds, it seemed all the ambient noise of the bustling city and the crowded park had melted away around them. Then, they were in each others' arms, laughing against shoulders, into sun-warmed hair...

"We both spoke at once!" Kurt giggled, kissing her neck and jaw as she stroked his back, holding him close, so wonderfully close...

"Oh!" she gasped, once her own laughter allowed her to speak, "Oh, Kurt, I can't believe how good that felt! I have been so stupid—"

Kurt shook his head, still chuckling as he kissed the tip of her nose.

"Nein, Liebling. I have been the stupid one. I never even dared to hope you could love me as I love you...that you could ever think of me as more than a friend, a colleague..."

"If I hadn't come today, you never would have said anything, would you," Ororo said in mock-accusation, her laughter dwindling into more manageable chuckles as she smoothed back his curls, nuzzling her nose against his cheek...

Kurt shrugged, embarrassed.

"Well, I thought you didn't want to see me. I would never want to make you feel...ach, what is that word Logan used?"

"Smothered?" Ororo suggested, a sly look crossing her face. So, Logan had spoken with Kurt after all. That reminded her, she would have to thank the gruff Canadian for that kick in the pants. But, that would come later. Right now, she had a beautiful man to reassure.

Kurt was nodding, his narrow face reddening slightly. Ororo felt her heart melt into a warm, cozy puddle and did nothing to stop it.

"Kurt," she said, pulling away just far enough to look into his face. "Before this goes any further, let's get one thing straight," she told him. "I know that you are a devout Catholic, and you are aware that I am not a Christian."

Kurt nodded again, a bit nervously, wondering if she was going where he thought she was going. ...I love you but you can't expect me to agree to a marriage in your church. Even the idea of marriage is too confining...

"I have been considering this for a very long time, possibly as long as you have," she continued. "And this morning I decided that if our relationship ever comes to the point where our love would tempt you to betray the teachings of your faith, I would be willing to marry you. If we share an open, honest partnership, a ceremony designed to affirm such a bond should only make it stronger." She looked at him, suddenly concerned. After all, she knew practically nothing about these matters. "Am I right?"

Kurt nodded, beaming, his relieved elation causing him to seem slightly taller than his five feet and nine inches.

"You would really want to marry me?" he asked, his deep voice cracking slightly with emotion. Then, his smile fell, weighted down by a sudden concern. "Because you know I would never want you to do anything that would make you uncomfortable—"

Ororo chuckled at his sincere expression. She felt a warm burst of love fill her heart, causing her to close the slight distance between them.

"Well, perhaps not today," she said with a mischievous smile. "And...perhaps...not indoors. But, outside, among the living flowers, the sky and the sea... I can see it happening in the future. I do love you, Kurt, religion and all."

"I love you too—"

Kurt's words melted away as Ororo's lips met his in a tender, playful kiss that quickly deepened in to something more. There was desperation and passion and a fierce, wondrous joy as two such different worlds joined in the admission that neither felt complete without the other...

"Mein Gott," Kurt breathed, feeling light-headed and rather weak in the knees.

"Bright Goddess," Ororo chuckled, and kissed him again.

He responded quickly, gently tightening his embrace.

This second kiss lasted even longer than the first, and several passersby let out a few wolf whistles and ribald shouts. But, Kurt and Ororo didn't hear them. For them, the omniverse stretched no farther than the joyous light in the other's eyes. Even when they finally broke the kiss, they continued to hold each other, reveling in the warm contentment merely being together brought them.

"So," Kurt teased. "What do we do now?"

Ororo glanced at the sun, her connection with the earth giving her a more accurate sense of the time than any watch.

"It is not quite three o'clock," she said, "and the Professor is not expecting us back until the meeting at eight this evening. That means we have plenty of time to do whatever you like."

Kurt smiled.

"This is my first time in the city without the children," he admitted. "I wouldn't know where to go. Perhaps, you could choose our itinerary?"

Ororo looked thoughtful. What she really wanted was to go shopping for evening clothes. She had two tickets to the opera and nothing to wear! From what she'd observed, though, most men were less than thrilled with the prospect of spending an afternoon shopping for clothes. Still, it couldn't hurt to ask...

"Well," she said, feeling a bit apprehensive, "if we are going to put those ludicrously expensive theater tickets you bought to proper use, I, for one, am going to need a suitable dress."

To her surprised delight, Kurt's eyes lit up at that suggestion.

"A marvelous idea, meine Liebe!" He grinned and waggled his eyebrows. "And, would I get to help you choose?"

Ororo smirked at his wicked smile.

"Only if I get to pick out a suit for you."

Kurt took her hand, laughing brightly.

"Then, what are we still standing here for?" he asked, tugging her hand with gentle insistence until she was walking beside him on the pathway. "I have never seen inside those huge, famous department stores, but I have heard how grand they are."

He looked down at his feet.

"Oh, and I will need some shoes as well. These are Scott's, and while I am very grateful to him for lending them to me, they are a little small."

Ororo raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. Perhaps it was just the novelty of seeing a new place, but for now Kurt was not only willing, but eager to go shopping with her. She didn't think she could recall a time she had ever felt so happy. Judging from the look in Kurt's eyes, it was clear he felt the same way - and it was because of her. She only wished she hadn't waited so long...that she'd managed to tell him how much he meant to her before his traumatic transformation...

But Kurt was still talking, unaware she had drifted away for a moment.

"...an early dinner, and perhaps some dancing?" he said, his excitement plain to see. "There should be time, I believe."

"Dancing?" Ororo repeated, her eyes widening as she caught on to his meaning. "Oh, I don't know, Kurt. I have watched others dance, but have never joined in myself. I wouldn't know what to do."

Kurt laughed.

"That is quite all right, Schatz," he assured her warmly. "It would be a pleasure to teach you."

Ororo still looked doubtful.

Kurt shook his head, a playful gleam in his eyes.

"Nein, meine Liebe, none of that," he said. "Watch this."

Raising the hand that was holding hers, he spun her around until she was in his arms, then spun her back again, dipping her into a graceful pose.

"There," he said, kissing her softly before allowing her to straighten. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

Ororo laughed.

"Nein," she said with a smile that matched his own. "I think we could manage to squeeze some dancing into our schedule for this afternoon."

"Wunderbar!"

Kurt beamed, though this smile faltered slightly as he felt the ghost of his tail longing to wrap itself around Ororo's slender waist. Still, he recovered quickly, squeezing her hand with his instead.

"First shopping, then dinner, then dancing. What could be better?"

"A night at the opera, perhaps?" Ororo suggested teasingly.

"Ach, ja," Kurt agreed. "All that time in the dark with you by my side...romantic music swelling in the air..."

Ororo stared, then burst out laughing, affectionately linking her arm with his.

"Kurt Wagner, if I live to be a hundred, you will never cease to amaze me."

Kurt raised an eyebrow.

"And is that a bad thing?"

Ororo smiled.

"Absolutely not," she stated, leaning in to give him a playful peck on the cheek. "It's one of the things that made me fall in love with you."

Kurt flushed, a broad, unabashedly goofy grin spreading across his face.

They walked like that, arm in arm, as they left the park and joined the steady current of pedestrians crowding the busy sidewalks of the city: a happy new couple reveling in their New York moment.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Kurt Darkholme paused his progress as he crawled swiftly and stealthily along the smooth ceiling of the long, plush hallway. He carefully sniffed the air, every sense on alert.

Someone was smoking a cigarette in one of the rooms nearby.

Darkholme clenched his teeth in a disgusted snarl. He despised the stench of cigarette smoke. The foul air he was forced to breathe in his own reality was polluted enough. He didn't need secondhand smoke to blacken his lungs any further.

Besides, wasn't this enormous place supposed to be a school of some sort? He wouldn't have thought a school as posh as this would allow smoking indoors...

The smoker stood alone before a large, bay window, the bright sunlight and the haze of cigarette smoke wreathing his head partially obscuring his shadowy form.

Darkholme dropped silently to the carpeted floor, a slight frown deepening his normally stern expression. He might have a personal distaste for smoking, but he needed information. He had been trapped in this reality for over nineteen hours now, and although he'd learned a great deal about his surroundings, aside from the emotionally distraught human version of himself he had seen the night before, most of the people he'd observed so far were little more than children. If this man could help him in any way, Darkholme would eagerly buy him an entire case of cigarettes to smoke at his leisure. He had important duties to fulfill in his own reality. Lives depended on him. If he didn't get back soon, he didn't want to consider what might happen. His mother had never been a very patient woman...

Darkholme cleared his throat, announcing his presence to the shadowy smoker.

The smoker didn't seem to hear him.

He cleared his throat again, more insistently this time.

The smoker took a long drag of his cigarette, then turned lazily, blowing smoke directly into Darkhome's face.

Darkholme blinked rapidly, reflexively holding his breath, but he stood his ground, his expression darkening with barely suppressed fury at this man's rudeness. His anger swelled when the man laughed at the look on his face.

"What is the matter, mein Doppelganger? Smoke get in your eyes?" the shadowy figure said with a very thick Berlin accent. His deep voice was smooth with curdled charm, the silky, cultured tone causing Darkholme's fuzzy skin to crawl.

Darkholme snarled dangerously, fingering the hilt of one of his swords.

The other man stepped out of the light, a wry smirk twisting his narrow features.

Darkholme's golden eyes widened in aghast amazement as he took in the slightly ludicrous, though unquestionably disturbing sight before him, his tail lashing in an involuntary shudder.

"And just what the hell are you supposed to be?" Darkholme sneered, disgust dripping from his every word.

He knew the answer. He had seen historical tapes, spoken at length with members of his resistance group who had survived the Holocaust. He knew about the devastation Hitler had wrought long before the rise of Apocalypse. This creature he saw before him, leaning casually against the windowpane, smoking a cigarette and wearing his face, was a living, breathing Nazi. His indigo hair was slicked back except for a long curl that dipped down over his purple-tinted mirrored shades and his colorful uniform looked like a reject from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. His gloved hands and feet sported long, talon-like claws and, although his body was well toned, he had a thin, gaunt look to him. His dark, blue fur was dull and lifeless, probably from all the smoking.

Darkholme didn't even try to keep his lip from curling in revulsion.

"I could ask you the same question, mein Freund." The Nazi smirked, one thin eyebrow rising over his tinted shades. "Body armor, swords, that vivid, red tattoo over your eye, and of course your completely humorless expression... Why, you look like a reject from a bad science-fiction flick."

He snorted smoke and laughter.

"Skewered any aliens lately?"

Darkholme's frown deepened, his yellow eyes glinting dangerously as he slid his sword from its scabbard in one smooth, menacing motion.

"I'd be more than happy to start with you," he snarled, his pointed teeth flashing in the sunlight.

The Nazi laughed, resting a casual hand on the hilt of his own sword where it hung at his waist.

"Ach, so you do have a sense of humor after all. Tell me, Herr Zinnsoldat*, is this your world I've come to? And, if so, could you tell me how to get back to mine? As much as I'm enjoying our light banter, I'm afraid I left my teammates in something of a tight spot."

With a quick, practiced flick of his hand, the Nazi snagged a fresh cigarette from his pocket and lit it with the end of his nearly burnt out stub, extinguishing the butt on the windowsill and carelessly leaving it there.

Darkholme's eyes narrowed into disapproving slits as he noted the burn mark the Nazi had left on the polished wood and the ashes that littered the plush carpet by his taloned feet. Clearly this creature had no respect for other peoples' property.

"I was actually hoping you might know the answer to that," Darkholme admitted gruffly, replacing his sword in its scabbard. He crossed his arms over his chest, trying to slow his breathing as the Nazi continued to blow smoke his way.

"I have been trapped here for nearly twenty hours now. I, too, am needed back on my own world."

The Nazi regarded him through his tinted shades.

"I didn't say I was needed," he said lightly, taking another puff as he turned towards the window. "I asked the question out of a sense of - shall we say 'misplaced duty'? - more than anything else. I actually couldn't care less if they all ended up killed, particularly that Hauptmann Englande. I never did like that pompous jackass. Meggan is easily just as bad, and Kate..."

He sighed, the affected smarm dropping from his shoulders like a soiled cloak. When he next spoke, his voice was soft, sad, and surprisingly sincere.

"The poor girl is little more than a living ghost as it is. After all that has been done to her...to both of us, really..."

He stared at his thick, taloned fingers, his expression unreadable behind his shades.

"She has been looking forward to her death since they took her family."

He looked over at Darkholme, his characteristic smirk twisting his thin lips.

"But, apparently we mutants are worth more to the Reich alive than dead, even the Jewish ones."

He turned back to the window, sucking at his cigarette like a lifeline, his clawed, three-fingered hand trembling slightly as he worked to regain control over his anger.

Darkholme tilted his head, regarding the Nazi through narrowed eyes.

"Why do you not resist?" he asked after a long moment. "Fight back?"

"And risk certain death?" the Nazi retorted with a snort. "Not to mention the loss of my special privileges as an elite member of the Lightening Squad. As long as I'm on time for duty, I can pretty much do anything I like, with any woman I please."

He leered suggestively, all his former smarm returning in a rush.

Darkholme's low opinion of him sank to the level of the sub-basement.

The Nazi didn't seem to care.

"It wouldn't do any good anyway," he went on with a careless tone. "Even if we managed to take down Der Führer and all his minions, there are many more even worse just biding their time, eager to take his place. Nein, mein Freund. I, for one, would rather live in comfort than sacrifice myself in some pointless attempt at resistance."

"I, for one, would rather die fighting than allow myself to become a willing accomplice to evil," Darkholme retorted with a stanch, passionate glare.

The Nazi actually chuckled, taking another deep drag of his cigarette.

"Then that is where you and I differ, mein Doppelganger."

He lifted his sunglasses slightly, regarding him with bloodshot, yellow eyes.

"You know," he observed, "in some ways you remind me of another alternate of myself I met some years back on Earth 616. You seem to share the same noble delusion that you can actually change things."

He chuckled again, and turned back to the window, effectively dismissing his double with a casual flick of his spaded tail.

Darkholme scowled and shook his head, unwilling to waste any more time on this jaded, pessimistic creature. Without another word, he vanished with a bright BAMF, the sulfurous residual of his teleportation mingling with the yellowed curls of tobacco smoke clouding the elegant room.

*******

*Tin soldier

*******

Artie pulled back his arm and fired the baseball straight at Bobby. Bobby swung with all his might, the wooden bat connecting solidly with the ball: THWUNK!

Bobby dropped the bat and started running as the ball sailed high into the air, heading straight for left field.

"I got it!" Jamie called out, racing after the ball as quickly as his legs could carry him, his glove outstretched.

"Jamie, watch out!" Rogue shouted from her position as short-stop. She winced as the younger boy dove for the ball several seconds too soon, the ball hitting him on the shoulder then bouncing off to roll to a stop in the thick grass. There was a brief fizzle of light and, suddenly, three identical copies of Jamie Madrox stood in the outfield.

Without hesitating, the Jamie nearest the ball reached for it and tossed it to Rogue. She turned and threw it to Twyla, who was guarding second base. Twyla caught it smoothly, touching the base with her foot mere seconds before Bobby reached her.

"Hey!" Jubilee cried out from the line of students waiting for their turn at bat. "No fair!"

"Mr. Logan!" Ray shouted with an angry scowl. "Jamie used his powers!"

"It was an accident!" the four Jamies chorused defensively. "I didn't mean to!"

Logan stood from his crouch behind home plate, lifting his catcher's mask with a scowl.

"You might not have meant it, Short Stuff," he rumbled, "but the rules of the game are no powers. Bobby, get back here and let's do this over again. Jamie, pick one to stay. The other three, go sit on the bench."

The Jamies pouted a bit, but nodded. After a short discussion, three of them trooped over to the bench. The remaining Jamie bent forward with his hands on his thighs and a determined look on his face. No balls would be getting past him this time.

Logan grunted and went back to crouch behind home plate, still wondering how Charlie had ever gotten him to agree to this. Teaching gym to a bunch of kids...he must be going soft. Or, at least, soft in the head.

"Ready?" he called out.

Bobby nodded, giving the bat a few practice swings.

"Ready, Mr. Logan," Artie lisped, tossing the ball from one hand to the other.

"OK, kids, this one's for real," Logan warned. "If I catch anyone usin' their powers, the rest of class will be spent doin' calisthenics." He smirked. "And I know how much you all love doin' calisthenics."

The horrified looks on his students' faces was almost enough to make Logan laugh. Quickly, he pulled his catcher's mask down over his face, hiding his smile from view. He had to keep up appearances, after all. Couldn't let them know he was actually starting to enjoy this.

BAMF!

Logan's ears pricked up, his nose twitching as the unique stench of teleportation reached his sensitive nostrils. He straightened, turning his head in the direction the sound had come from.

This was not his imagination. Nothing else Logan had ever encountered sounded or smelled quite like the physical residuals of Kurt's power. Improbable as it seemed, there was a teleporter somewhere on the grounds, a mutant with the exact same abilities as his friend. Logan's senses did not lie.

"Mr. Logan?" Bobby inquired, lowering his bat to his side as he fixed his teacher with an alert, questioning look.

Logan shook his head.

"Keep playin'," he ordered, ripping his mask from his head and dropping it onto the grass as he began to run toward the sound. "I've gotta look into somethin'. And remember," he called over his shoulder, "no powers!"

*******

The trail of Logan's quarry ended at a tall oak tree on the far side of the gardens. Looking up, Logan squinted his eyes, searching for any sign of movement.

If this intruder was anything like Nightcrawer, he would be invisible in shadow. Logan could be looking straight at him, yet never know he was there.

"All right," he called out, his gruff voice sharp and his expression stern. "I know you're up there. Get your tail down where I can see ya or this tree is comin' down with you in it."

He extended his adamantium claws with a threatening SNIKT, turning them slightly so they would catch the sunlight.

"Got it, bub?"

Logan wasn't clear on what happened next. No sooner had he finished speaking then there was a blinding swirl of yellow-white light, accompanied by a suffocating cloud of brimstone, far thicker and stronger than the smoke Nightcrawler left behind. Logan found himself blinded, his nose and throat stinging, his eyes tearing. He let out a hacking cough, only to be caught completely off guard by a sharp kick to the gut. He fell to the ground, gasping for breath, rubbing frantically at his streaming eyes as he focused on his ears to track his opponent's movements.

BAMF!

Another swirl of light, another cloud of suffocating smoke, and Logan's opponent was suddenly on top of him, punching him with thick, fur-covered fists.

Logan raised his leg and flipped his opponent to the ground, locking him securely in a scissor hold. His vision was clearing now, his ears assaulted by a steady stream of harsh, frantic German.

Logan straddled the shouting teleporter's chest, pinning his arms to the ground, only to be caught off guard once again as a fuzzy, sinewy tail wrapped itself around his neck and began to squeeze. He blinked the last of the stinging tears from his eyes, forcing his head down to catch his first glimpse of his opponent.

The man was dark, like a living shadow. Brilliant, yellow light poured from his fierce, golden eyes, from between his sharp, clenched teeth. His unscarred skin was covered in fine, fuzz-like fur, but the alarming resemblance to the Kurt Wagner Logan knew was unmistakable.

Logan stared despite himself, his rugged face purpling slightly as the desperately struggling teleporter squeezed his neck even tighter. But for the midnight fur and the glowing mouth and eyes, this man really could pass for Kurt's identical twin.

"Lasst mich los!" the teleporter shouted. "Ich gehe nicht zurück. Ihr müsst mich zuerst töten!"*

"English!" Logan gasped out, pinning the man's lean, muscular arms with his knees as he got a grip on his fuzzy neck. "Who are you and what are you doin' here?"

"Ich bring euch um, ehe ich mich gefangen nehmen lasse! Keine Tests mehr! Ich lass mich nicht nochmal mitnehmen!"**

Logan snarled.

"I've had enough of this," he growled with difficulty, gasping for breath through his constricted windpipe. Keeping one hand tight around the man's neck, he raised his other fist over his shadowy face, slowly extending his claws. But, before he could say anything else, a blinding, red beam of concentrated power cut between them, causing the teleporter to loosen his tail as he cried out in alarm.

Logan jumped to his feet, hauling the midnight-blue teleporter up after him by the neck. He leaned his face in close to his opponent, baring his teeth with a dangerous growl.

The teleporter blinked his glowing eyes at him, suddenly seeming surprisingly young and vulnerable despite the violence of just moments before. Logan narrowed his eyes, loosening his grip slightly but still unwilling to let him go.

"What's going on out here?" Cyclops demanded, running up beside them, Logan's gym students not far behind. "Who is that?"

"That guy kind of looks like Mr. Wagner used to!" one of the Jamies exclaimed.

Twyla stared, an uncomfortable flush rising in her glowing cheeks as she backed away, separating herself slightly from the rest of the group.

The teleporter's eyes widened at the sound of Mr. Wagner's name. Glancing at Logan, he teleported out of his secure grasp with a very loud BAMF, appearing beside the Jamie who had spoken in a swirling cloud of light and smoke.

The students gasped at the sight, so much more dramatic than Mr. Wagner's own powers.

"Wagner," the teleporter repeated, pointing at himself and favoring the Jamie with a pointy-toothed smile. "Mein Name ist Kurt Wagner. Wo bin ich? Was ist das hier für ein Ort?"***

"Erm, I don't think he knows English," the Jamie observed, nervously returning the teleporter's smile.

"Are any of you in Mr. Wagner's German class?" Cyclops asked, turning to the gathered students.

Kitty tentatively raised her hand.

Scott nodded at her.

"Kitty," he said, "can you tell us what he's saying?"

Kitty grimaced, shrugging her shoulders in discomfort.

"I don't know," she said. "I, like, hardly know anything yet."

"You know more than me," Cyclops told her. "Try to talk to him. Let him know we're not a threat to him."

Kitty seemed to shrink slightly, but she stepped forward, cautiously nearing the crouching teleporter.

He eyed her warily, his tail lashing, but he didn't move away.

Kitty smiled and offered him a nervous wave.

"Um, like, guten Tag?" she tried, a bit weakly.

The teleporter tilted his head.

"Guten Tag," he said. "Kannst du Deutsch?"

Kitty winced.

"Erm, like, ein wenig," she said, making a pinching motion with her thumb and forefinger to emphasize how little she knew. "Ich heiße Kitty Pryde. Ich bin deine Freundin. Wir sind deine Freunde."

She gestured to the group behind her, smiling as kindly as she could manage.

"Meine Freunde?" he repeated, casting a suspicious glance at Logan. Clearly, he was not quite ready to trust them.

"Wo bin ich? Wie kam ich hier?"

"Xavier Institute," Kitty told him. "Eine Schule für, um, mutants."

She gestured to herself, then to him, hoping he understood.

"Eine Schule?"

The shadowy teleporter rose to his tridactyl feet, turning his gaze to the sprawling mansion.

"Ist das hier die Erde?" he asked her curiously. "Alles fühlt sich so seltsam an, sogar die Luft. Bin ich im Himmel?"****

Kitty gave him a blank look, grimacing helplessly.

"Erm, like, ich kann nicht Deutsch sprecken. Es tut mir leid."

The teleporter nodded his understanding, his face falling in disappointment. Then he turned to Cyclops.

"Ist Jean hier?" he asked him. "Jean kann meine Gedanken lesen. Sie kann Ihnen übersetzen, was ich sage."*****

Cyclops paled, a sharp pain stabbing his heart at the sound of his fiancée's name.

"What did you tell him?" he demanded of Kitty. "Why is he asking about..." he swallowed, "...about Jean?"

"I don't know! I didn't tell him anything about her!" Kitty said. "I just said we're his friends and that I can't speak German. Which I can't. We need Mr. Wagner to talk with him."

"But he's gone to the city for the day," Cyclops pointed out, "and I don't think he brought his communicator with him."

"Ororo went to join him a few hours ago," Logan told him. "She usually carries her cell phone in her purse. We could try callin' her, get to him that way."

Scott nodded.

"We'll try that, then. In the meantime, let's get this guy to the Professor."

He gestured to the shadowy teleporter, who was observing their conversation with wary curiosity.

"If he can read this guy's mind, we might not even have to bother Kurt."

*******

TRANSLATIONS: *Release me! I'm not going back! You'll have to kill me first!

** I'll kill you before you capture me! No more experiments! I won't be taken again!

*** My name is Kurt Wagner! Where am I? What is this place?

****Is this Earth? Everything feels so strange here, even the air. Am I in Heaven?

***** Jean can read my thoughts. She can tell you what I'm saying.

*******
The phone was ringing in the hall when the large group filed into the foyer.

"I'll get it!" Kitty exclaimed, rushing off to answer it.

The group paused as they waited to find out who was calling.

"Hello," Kitty said brightly, "you've reached Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. How may I help you?"

"Good afternoon," a woman's pleasant, English accented voice responded. "I'm calling on behalf of Kurt Wagner. Do you know him?"

Kitty's eyes widened.

"Yeah, I know him," she said. "Has anything happened to him? Is he, like, OK?"

The woman seemed relieved, but her tone remained cautious.

"Yes, he's fine. Is Scott Summers there? May I speak with him, please?"

Kitty frowned.

"Mr. Summers," she called out, waving Scott over to her. "There's, like, an English lady asking about Kurt. She wants to talk with you."

Scott furrowed his brow, reaching for the phone. Kitty handed it to him, but remained nearby, listening intently to his side of the conversation. After a few minutes, Scott hung up, his face drawn and his expression serious.

"We've got to talk to the Professor at once," he said. "Kitty, do you know the number for Ororo's cell phone?"

Kitty nodded.

"I know where to find it," she said.

"Call her," Cyclops ordered. "Transfer the call to the Professor's office once you've gotten a hold of her. This situation has just become much more complicated."

As Kitty hurried off to find Ororo's number, Kurt Darkholme tilted his head, waiting patiently for the remaining people to start down the hall before leaving the concealing darkness under the stairway and climbing up the wall to the ceiling. He smiled to himself as he stealthily shadowed Cyclops, Logan, the dark teleporter, and the trailing students to the Professor's office. It looked as though he would finally be getting some answers.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

"What happened?" Marti asked, meeting her mother and sister at the door to the roof. "You weren't down there very long."

"I managed to get a hold of the Institute," Alice said, "and Scott. You two were right." She nodded to Marti and Kurt, her eyes apprehensive, but her tone calm and matter-of-fact. "We are in an alternate dimension. The X-Men have counterparts here, but their situation is very, very different to our world. There is no Excalibur, no International X-Men Organization at all. In fact, it seems most humans here are barely aware that mutants exist as anything more than a fluke minority."

Kurt shot a worried, protective glance over to Marti and Edmund.

"Has Scott agreed to help us?" he asked his wife.

"He's sending a car to pick us up," Alice said, her strange, indefinable expression tweaking Kurt's curiosity. "Apparently Ororo and this reality's version of you, my dear, are already in the city. They should be here shortly to take us to the Institute."

Marti shared a look with her sister, her long tail swishing behind her.

"You mean, we're going to get to meet an alternate version of Dad? Brilliant!"

Suzie grinned, morphing back into her own moon-pale form.

"Think he'll freak out like that alternate version of Mum?" she said in a stage whisper.

Kurt lifted an eyebrow at his snickering daughters, but kept his attention on the problem at hand.

"Did you have any trouble convincing them we are who we say we are?" he asked.

"Surprisingly enough, no. But, I got a strange feeling during that call..." Alice frowned. "I'm starting to think we might not be the only ones affected by the anomalous force that pulled us here."

Kurt furrowed his brow, his tail curling in frustration as he strode over to the wall and peered down at the park far below.

"Well, there's not much we can do from up here," he said. "We'll just have to wait until the X-Men arrive."

He turned back to Alice, taking her hand as he pulled her gently to his side.

"If you're right, meine Liebe, they may know a way to send us home."

Alice sighed, moving closer. She rested the back of her head against her husband's shoulder, his tail twining itself around her waist in a comfortable embrace.

"I hope so, my love," she said, the two of them watching their laughing children tease and tumble around the roof. "This reality is no place for us."

*******

Kurt tilted his head in curiosity, bending down to lift an oddly shaped metal object from the thin carpet.

The men's section of the shoe department was surprisingly deserted given the crowds that filled the rest of the enormous department store. Not even a sales assistant seemed to be present. That suited Kurt and Ororo fine, though. Neither of them was particularly comfortable with crowds, and both preferred to do their shopping for themselves.

"What in the world do you suppose this thing is for?" he asked Ororo, turning the flat object over in his hands.

Ororo couldn't help noticing how much more adept Kurt had become at coordinating his fingers over the past few weeks. Although he still paired them unconsciously now and then, those instances were already becoming few and far between. For some reason, that realization caused a strange sinking feeling in Ororo's chest...a feeling that she was losing something...but she wasn't quite sure just what.

Shaking off the odd sensation, Ororo replaced her meloncholy glance with a broad smile, joining Kurt as he examined his discovery.

"It's a measuring device," she said, "used to measure the length of one's foot." She reached over to demonstrate. "You see this knob? You can slide it up and down, and it tells you your shoe size."

Kurt nodded, then blushed slightly, placing the instrument back on the floor where he'd found it.

"Ah," he said. "I should have guessed that."

Ororo favored him with a gentle, affectionate smile.

"Don't worry about it, Kurt," she said, carefully draping her plastic-covered evening gown and Kurt's suit over the back of a nearby chair. "This is your first time in a shoe store, after all. Now, sit down and take off your shoes," she told him. "Let's find out what size you are so we can get you some shoes that fit."

"Take off my—" Kurt looked down at his feet, a sheepish flush rising in his pale cheeks.

"Oh, right, of course," he said with an awkward little laugh, taking a seat and quickly untying Scott's shoes. "Normal feet. I...ah...I almost forgot for a moment..."

Ororo's smile faltered slightly, but Kurt was too busy with his shoes to notice. Her thoughts were interrupted by the intrusion of Kurt's socked foot into her field of vision. He wiggled his toes beneath the stretchy fabric, a rather silly smile on his face.

"So, what do I do now, Liebling?" he asked her as she crouched down to retrieve the foot-scale. "I look to you as the voice of experience to instruct me in proper shoe-shopping procedure."

He wagged his foot in front of her until she grabbed it and held it still. Kurt grinned.

"You see, meine Liebe?" he said playfully. "I put my sole in your hands!"

The joke was terrible, but one look at his face, the honest - if impish - affection in his eyes, and Ororo had to duck her head to smother an explosive snort of laughter. Regaining control over herself, she released his foot, smoothing her skirt as she straightened up.

"Well first," she said, "we need to take a measurement." She gestured to the scale. "Stand up and put your right foot on this with your heel against the back."

Kurt did as she instructed, maintaining graceful balance the whole time.

Ororo kept her eyes down, unsure why she felt so disappointed to see how well he had already adapted to his new physiognomy. Was it because he'd managed it without her? Or, because she still felt like she was holding her breath...as if waiting for this 'human' image to fade like a hologram, to reveal his true, mutant form?

She knew these thoughts were unforgivably selfish, even shallow. Her love for Kurt had always gone far deeper than just his appearance, and she still found him incredibly attractive. She should be proud of how well he was adapting to his new circumstances. And she was.

But, she just couldn't help missing his golden eyes, those pointed ears, that expressive tail...

"Ororo? Liebe, are you all right?"

She looked up, meeting his concerned blue eyes with a small smile.

"I am sorry, Kurt. I was just...thinking..." She cleared her throat, straightening her posture. "What were you saying?"

Kurt's concerned expression only deepened.

"Is there something wrong, Schatz?" he asked her. "You seemed so...distant...a moment ago..."

"Distant?" Ororo thought quickly, unwilling to ruin their time together by bringing up his transformation. "No! I was just considering what kind of shoe would go best with your suits. And, we'll have to get you some gym shoes as well...for the Danger Room."

Kurt nodded, wanting to believe her. But, he couldn't shake the uncomfortable feeling that her melancholy expression a few moments ago had been due to him. She had been staring so intently at his feet—

Still, he was unwilling to ruin their time together by bringing up the painful topic of his transformation, so he just smiled, willingly going along as she changed the subject.

"Now, were were about to see about your shoe size—"

"Excuse me!"

The sharp voice belonged to a slender sales assistant with heavy make-up and meticulously styled blonde hair that hung just past her shoulders.

"Store policy," she said brusquely, pushing her way between them and crouching down beside the scale. "Only employees can use store equipment. Please, allow me."

"Ja, of course..."

Kurt and Ororo shared a half annoyed, half bemused look, watching as the assistant took the measurement.

"Size nine and one half," she announced, standing quickly and striding over to the shelves, pulling out several boxes as she spoke. "On your way to a formal engagement, are you?"

Kurt blinked, turning a startled glance to Ororo.

"Well, we have been friends for nearly a year, but today was the first time we— Ah...I mean, engagement...!"

He trailed off, blushing a furious shade of scarlet.

Ororo pressed her fingers to her mouth, struggling not to laugh at his misunderstanding.

"Kurt," she said. "My sweet, she means a formal event, like a dinner party or an opera..."

"Oh..." he realized, his face redder than ever as he ducked his head. "Oh, Gott!" Then he blinked, tilting his head slightly as his looked up at Ororo.

"Wait a moment. Did you just call me your 'sweet'?"

Ororo smiled, moving closer and twining her arms around his waist in a loose embrace.

"That I did," she told him, planting a playful kiss on his nose. "And that you are."

Kurt blushed again, this time with bashful elation. Remembering they were still in a very public place, Ororo resisted the urge to kiss his gently smiling lips and turned instead to the sales assistant.

"We have tickets to Aida," she explained. "So, we are in the market for formal shoes. And, we would like to see some sneakers as well."

The sales lady nodded and placed her chosen boxes on the seat beside their evening clothes.

"You can start with these," she told them, "and I'll see about the sneakers."

"Dankeschon," Kurt said, and smiled at her.

To Ororo's surprise, the brusque lady actually smiled back.

Kurt peered into the first box, then made a face.

"Ach, I do not like these," he said, holding up a pair of dark, brown shoes with leather fringes and tear-drop shaped holes in the toes.

Ororo wrinkled her nose in agreement, then looked into a second box.

"These are rather handsome," she observed, taking out a sleek, black shoe with rounded laces. "And, they look pretty comfortable." She cast a quick glance at the box. "Reasonably priced, too. Would you like to try them on?"

"All right," Kurt said, reaching for the box.

The muffled sound of ringing started up in Ororo's handbag, and she sighed, practically shoving the box into his hands.

"Goddess," she muttered, rummaging through her bag for her cell phone. "I knew I should have turned this darn thing off."

"Might as well see who it is, meine Liebe," Kurt said, sitting down and pulling the black shoes on over his socks. "It could be important."

"That's what worries me," Ororo said, locating the phone and snapping it open. "I didn't want anything to ruin our day together..."

She sighed again, and brought the phone to her ear.

"Hello?"

"Oh good!" Kitty's voice exclaimed. "You are there! Hang on a sec and I'll, like, transfer you to the Professor's office, OK?"

"Kitty?" Ororo said. "Wait - what's all this about?"

But Kitty was already gone, and the Professor was picking up.

"Ororo?" Xavier's cultured voice inquired. "Is Kurt with you?"

"He's right here, Professor, trying on shoes," Ororo told him. "What is going on? Is something wrong?"

There was a pause, during which Kurt carefully watched Ororo's shifting expression.

"What is it, Liebe?" he asked, standing in the stiff new shoes and walking swiftly to her side.

"I don't know," Ororo whispered, her brow furrowed.

"Ororo?" It was Scott's voice now. Ororo shook her head, frustrated, her worry growing every moment.

"Scott," Ororo said, reaching out to squeeze Kurt's hand. "Tell me what is going on. Is something wrong or not?"

"It's a little hard to explain," Scott hedged.

"Try," Ororo snapped, in no mood for games.

Scott sighed.

"All right," he said. "You remember the mission last night?"

Ororo rolled her eyes.

"Of course I do. Why, have you located the telepath?"

"It doesn't look like there is a telepath, Ororo," Scott said. "From what Hank and the Professor have been able to figure, at this point it's starting to seem that these strange occurrences are being caused by some kind of rip or tear in the boundaries between realities."

"Say that again? In English, this time."

"I know what this sounds like," Scott said, "but I'm serious. Some kind of super powerful force has taken up residence in the dimension Kurt used to teleport through. It seems whatever it is has been messing with the electromagnetic fields that help keep the alternate versions of Earth separate, allowing individuals from other realities to cross over into ours."

Kurt strained to hear, cursing his rounded, human ears and wishing he'd thought to bring along his own communicator. True, it was only meant to be used during missions, but he'd never gotten around to buying a cell phone of his own. It hadn't seemed necessary. As a mutant, he'd stayed pretty close to the mansion, only leaving the grounds a few Sundays a month to attend mass at a nearby church...

"And this means what, exactly?" Ororo asked, watching as Kurt began to pace in the sleek, black shoes. Back and forth, back and forth, between the two rows of chairs.

"Well, you know how Kurt used the earth's electromagnetic fields to guide him when he was teleporting with that special spatial sense he had?" Scott said.

"Yes. Shortly after his..." She broke off, glancing at Kurt as he paced and lowering her voice, "...the incident... He kept commenting on how flat everything seemed."

"Yes, well, because this strange force is manipulating these energy fields - essentially pulling them toward itself - a number of teleporters from alternate realities have been forced off their course, ending up here, in our reality, instead of on their own worlds. We know of two cases so far, but there may be more. And Ororo," Scott said, "both of them are alternate versions of Kurt."

"Of Kurt!" Ororo exclaimed.

"What about me?" he said and hurried over to her, the base of his spine tingling like mad where his tail should be. He rested his clasped hands over the irritating ghost as casually as he could manage. "What is going on, Ororo?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out, Kurt," Ororo told him as Scott began talking again.

"Yes," he said. "One of them is here at the mansion. I don't think he understands any English at all, only German. The other is in the city, trapped on the roof of a skyscraper overlooking Central Park. He has no means of disguising himself and is unwilling to risk teleporting because of that strange, pulling force. Apparently, he and his family barely made it out of their last teleport alive."

Ororo blinked.

"His family?" she repeated rather blankly.

Kurt looked at her, fierce curiosity warring with frustration in his blue eyes.

"What I wouldn't give to know what she is she talking about!" he groaned, balling his fists and quickening his steps as he resumed his pacing.

"That's right," Scott confirmed. "The alternate Kurt, his wife Alice, and their three children. Apparently that Nightcrawler's daughter is a teleporter as well."

Ororo's breath seemed to have caught in her throat.

"You and Kurt will need to pick up all five Wagners and bring them back to the mansion as soon as possible," Scott said. "We need Kurt here to communicate with this other teleporter we've found."

He sighed.

"Look, 'Ro, I'm sorry to mess up your afternoon like this. I know how important it is that you and Kurt get some time alone to talk. But, please believe I wouldn't have called if this wasn't of the utmost importance."

Ororo's lips twitched into a small smile.

"I know, Scott. We'll pick them up. Just tell me where they are."

"Is there a problem?" the sales assistant inquired as she strode over to Kurt, her arms full of sneaker boxes.

Kurt nodded.

"Ja, I think so," he said. He looked over at the evening clothes on the chair, then at Ororo, completely absorbed in her phone conversation.

"Can we purchase all these things here?" he asked the lady with a gesture to the clothes.

"Of course," she said, striding over to the sales counter. "You are taking those shoes, I assume. I must say, they look quite handsome on you." She looked down at the sleek, black shoes Kurt was wearing.

"Was - oh! Ja, why not. Danke. I'll just get the clothes." He smiled, a bit apologetically. "I suppose we'll have to leave the sneakers for another time, ja? Sorry to have put you to all that trouble for nothing."

If the sales lady was upset, she gave no sign. Kurt hurried over to the chair and carefully scooped up the gown and the suit, resting his shoe box on top. He carried the pile to the counter, where the lady began scanning prices in the same brusque way she seemed to do everything.

"With tax, that comes to four hundred seventeen dollars and thirty-five cents," the sales lady announced, looking at Kurt with expectant, hazel eyes.

"Mein Gott." Kurt's eyebrows shot up as he stared at the incredible sum on the digital display. "One moment, bitte..."

He hurried over to Ororo, catching her just as she was putting her phone away.

"Ororo," he began, "I know you wished to pay for my suit and shoes as a favor, and I do appreciate your kind offer, but, Liebe, the price is such that I—"

Ororo rested a slender finger against his lips, effectively cutting him off.

"How much is it, Kurt?" she asked.

"Four hundred seventeen dollars and thirty-five cents in total," he said.

Ororo's white eyebrows rose in surprise.

"That's all? I thought it would be more, even without the sneakers."

"More...?"

Ororo's smile gentled.

"Kurt, shopping in the city is expensive. I planned on spending at least seven hundred dollars today. When Jean and I used to go on shopping trips, it wasn't unusual for us to spend upwards of a thousand dollars."

She grinned at his shocked expression.

"Granted, we could only afford such splurges maybe once a year," she admitted, "but the point is I want to buy these things for you. The money means nothing to me."

She straightened, fixing him with a mock glare as she took up her haughtiest 'goddess' pose.

"So, don't go pulling your chivalry on me, Kurt Wagner. A simple thank you is all I ask in return."

Kurt's wicked grin should have tipped her off, but as it happened Ororo was caught completely by surprise when Kurt reached out and pulled her close, looking deep into her eyes. She gasped, trying to keep up her haughty expression, but failing miserably as she found herself fighting against a sudden flood of embarrassingly girlish giggles.

"Truly, there is nothing else my lady would ask of me?" he teased, leaning in even closer. "Not even...a kiss?"

"Kurt!" Ororo exclaimed, biting her lip to keep her laughter contained. "We're in a department store!"

Kurt stared into her eyes a moment longer, then abruptly pulled back, leaving Ororo breathless and reeling with the oddest sensation, like she'd lost something she couldn't even describe.

"You are quite right, Liebling," he said formally, starting back toward the check-out counter. "I have always abhorred such blatantly public displays of affection. They are so tacky, don't you agree?"

Ororo stared at him, the smallest of grins tweaking at her lips. Pouncing forward, she grabbed his shoulder and spun him around, pressing her lips to his.

"Oh, definitely," she chuckled when they parted several moments later. "Extremely tacky."

She kissed his nose, then his cheek, then pulled away to rummage through her purse.

"Now...where did I put my credit card...?"

While Ororo paid for the clothes, Kurt remained rooted to the spot where she'd left him, his eyes wide and his expression distant.

"If you'll just sign the screen...just there," the sales lady said. "And will you want a printout of your receipt—?"

"WHOOOP!"

Ororo and the sales lady both jumped, turning just in time to see Kurt hop up on a chair and backflip to the shoe display table.

The lady gasped, a hand to her mouth, but Ororo could only stare incredulously...

"Mein Gott, I love this woman!" Kurt said, like a prophet proclaiming a sudden revelation. He spun in place, head tiled up and arms outstretched like a giddy schoolboy, and fell limply into a chair, his shoulders shaking with happy laughter.

"Bright Goddess..."

The sales lady stared from Kurt to Ororo.

"Is he always like this?" she asked as she shoved the shoe box - filled with Scott's old shoes - into a plastic bag.

Ororo smiled, a bit sheepishly.

"Actually, no," she said. "He's usually quite shy."

The sales lady raised a delicately penciled eyebrow. She seemed to be regarding them carefully, especially Kurt, who was wearing a big, loopy grin as he stared up at the ceiling, still chuckling to himself. Slowly, a broad smile spread over her narrow, thickly painted features.

"In all my twenty-two years working in this city, I have never seen anything quite like you two," she stated. "And that is really saying something. I wish the both of you the best of luck. I truly do."

Ororo flushed deeply, torn between wanting to kiss Kurt and kill him. Whooping like a madman and performing a backflip in a high class New York department store...!

But he wasn't showing off. He was just being himself, honest and genuine and wonderfully unique. And Ororo loved him.

The sales assistant winked at her.

"You do know we have one of the best bridal departments in the country right on the third floor," she said. "Just thought I'd put that out there...for future consideration."

Ororo's blush deepened even further.

The lady smiled, slipping the receipt in the shoe bag and handing Ororo her purchases.

"Have a pleasant day."

*******

"So, let me get this straight," Kurt said as he and Ororo hiked through the parking garage where they'd left the cars they'd driven into the city. "We are going to pick up a version of me from an alternate universe and bring him and his wife and children to the mansion where I am supposed to act as translator for another alternate version of me who can't speak English?"

"That's right," Ororo said, adjusting her gown in her arms.

Kurt nodded thoughtfully.

"I just have one question, meine Liebe. Why me?"

Ororo shot him a half-amused look.

"All I know is it has something to do with the electromagnetic fields that guide teleportation. Something is pulling at these fields, directing them toward our dimension. So, when a teleport is initiated, the teleporter is pulled out of his reality and into ours."

"And because this force is weakening the boundaries between alternate realities, it is also responsible for the strange traffic accidents we thought were being caused by a telepath?"

Ororo nodded.

"Apparently."

"Where do you think this strange force could have come from?" Kurt asked. "And why has it chosen the dimension I used to teleport through? Why didn't it choose one of these alternate dimensions?"

"I don't know, Kurt," Ororo said. "These are questions you are going to have to ask the Professor when we get back to the mansion."

"Liebe," Kurt said after a moment, his voice hesitant. "Would you think me a coward if I told you that I was rather nervous about meeting these alternate versions of myself?"

"I could never think you a coward, Kurt," Ororo assured him. "And I don't blame you for feeling nervous. But remember this," she said, stopping their progress as she turned to face him. "No matter what these alternates look like, how they act, or how many of them there are, not one of them is you. You are the Kurt Wagner who is unique to this reality, which makes you the real Kurt Wagner. The others are just manifestations of what might have been."

"But, since they arrived here by teleporting, they are all certain to be mutants," Kurt said softly. "While I..."

He trailed off, watching grimly as he flexed his five, slender fingers around his shoe bag.

"Mutant or not, Kurt, you have something none of those alternates will ever have."

"What's that?" he asked, looking up at her.

Ororo smiled, stepping in closer and twining her arm around his.

"You have me."

Kurt grinned as they started walking again.

"I'm sorry we won't have the chance to go dancing, Kurt," Ororo told him. "I was really looking forward to learning."

"Is that so?"

Kurt smiled, leaning over to kiss her snowy hair.

"In that case, Liebling, there's only one thing for it."

"Oh? And what is that?"

"We'll just have to come back another time, ja? Assuming, of course, we can solve this strange puzzle and stop these realities from getting all mixed up together."

Ororo smiled and squeezed his arm.

"It's a date."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

"Are you sure they're even coming?" Suzie whined. "I mean, it's been what? Half an hour already?"

"Have some patience, sweetling," Kurt said, watching Edmund and Alice play Cat's Cradle with a long piece of string Marta had found tied to a rusty antenna nearby. Unable to join in because of her lack of fingers, Marta had moved off to a corner to pass the time seeing how long she could stand on her hands without losing her balance. So far, this fourth attempt had lasted almost three minutes, and she was showing no sign of wobbling.

Suzie groaned loudly and leaned against the brick wall, kicking at the sun-blistered tar and grit that coated the rooftop.

"I am so BORED!" she wailed. "I promise you all, my brain is turning to mush as I speak."

"You could come play with us," Edmund invited, holding out his string-tangled fingers.

"I don't think I'm quite that desperate yet," she said haughtily.

Edmund stuck his tongue out at her, and Suzie shot her little brother a superior sneer.

“Infant…” she muttered.

“Am not!” Edmund retorted.

“Are too,” Suzie countered.

“I am NOT!” Edmund shrieked.

Suzie let out a terrible growl and climbed up onto a stack of badly decayed and decaying crates that, judging from the many dried white stains, may once have served as a pigeon coop. Turning her back on her family, she leaned her elbows over the side of the high, brick wall and peered down at the busy street far, far below.

"Be careful up there, Suzie, love," Alice warned. "Those boxes don't strike me as particularly sturdy."

“They’re fine, Mum…” Suzie grunted, her pale fingers whitening against the ledge as she fought to reign in her seething frustration. “God, I hate this!”

“It won’t be much longer now,” Kurt assured her.

“I don’t just mean the waiting!” Suzie said. “It’s the not-knowing! I hate not knowing why we’re here, or what’s going to happen!”

“Yeah, me too,” Marta said, turning right-side-up, her dark face flushed deep purple. “This whole situation eats. I mean, if this is an alternate universe, how do we know those X-Men we called will really help us? We don’t know anything about this world, or its history.”

"That is why we must stay close together and keep vigilant," Kurt said, looking at each of the children in turn. "Your mother and I—"

"Hey, look!" Suzie cried, pointing down at the street. "Something's happening down there!"

"Is it Auntie Ororo?" Marta asked, hopping up onto the unstable crates beside her sister. Kurt and Alice both stood in alarm but, somehow, the creaking crates held steady.

"I can see two really sweet sports cars," Suzie narrated for the rest of the family, "One red and one white. Looks like someone's got a pretty big wallet. Ha - and look at that, they're both pulling into that striped area there, where it reads NO PARKING!"

"The drivers are getting out," Marta reported. "What do you think, Suz - could that lady be Auntie 'Ro?"

"Well, she's got the white hair," Suzie said. "Right - they're in the building. Let's go meet them!"

"Not so fast," Kurt said, heading the girls off as they bounded down from the wobbly crates. "Your mother made the call. She should be the one to meet them. And, Liebe," he said as his wife turned to leave, "ask them if they have any blankets or spare jackets in their cars. We don't want to attract any..." He scowled slightly, his powerful tail lashing back and forth, "...undue attention."

Alice nodded, her lips tight and her bright eyes dark.

Suzie dashed to her mother's side.

"I'm coming too," she stated, using her power to match Alice's skin, hair, and eye color as she spoke. "We have to hurry, though. They're probably already climbing the stairs by now!"

Kurt watched Alice and Suzie disappear into the stairwell and sighed deeply, running his thick fingers through his indigo curls. With his family trapped in a hostile dimension and unable to use his powers of teleportation to shield them from danger, the normally confident leader of Excalibur - the European branch of the International X-Men Organization - was seething with frustration and an unsettling feeling of helplessness that did not sit well with him.

Edmund shook the tangled string off his fingers, walked over to his father, and leaned into him, his long, powder-blue tail twining around Kurt's leg as he wrapped his skinny arms around his waist.

"Don't look so worried, Daddy," the eight year old said. "You'll tie your tail up in knots. Everything will be OK."

"You sound pretty certain of that, mein Junge," Kurt said, warmly returning the hug.

"Well, yeah," Edmund said. "Like you said, we're going to meet with Uncle Scott and everybody so you and Mummy can figure out how to get us back home."

The utter faith and trust in his son's voice touched and pained Kurt at the same time. Crouching down to his eye level, Kurt smoothed Edmund's straight, black hair and, with some effort, managed to dredge up a genuine smile.

"Whatever happens, Edmund," he said, "I want you to remember something - something my foster parents often told me while I was growing up in Germany. No matter where you are, as long as you are with your family, you are always home. That means wherever we go and wherever we end up, as long as we stay together, you and me and Marti and Suzie and your mother, we will be at home."

Edmund tilted his head.

"Even if we're in the car?" he asked.

Kurt blinked, then laughed.

"Ja," he said, his golden eyes brimming with affection. "Even then."

"Hey, Dad! They're here already!"

Kurt lifted his head to see Marti flip down from the stairwell ceiling where she'd been hanging upside down, waiting for the newcomers. He gave Edmund's shoulder a little squeeze, then straightened up and walked with him to the doorway, arriving just as Suzie led the rest of the small group up the last few steps and out onto the roof.

"How did you get back up here so fast?" Marti asked her, echoing Kurt's own thoughts.

"Mum and I ran into them near the penthouse floor," Suzie explained. "Seems they took the elevator up, and that's as far as it goes."

Kurt nodded and turned his attention to the newcomers. Ororo was instantly recognizable despite the fact that she was at least thirty years younger than the version he knew. As for her companion...it took Kurt a moment to realize the pale, slender man with the faded blue streaks in his hair was his alternate self. Kurt couldn't help but smile slightly as his doppelganger cast a wide-eyed glance at his gathered children. The poor man seemed rather overwhelmed.

"Guten Tag, meine Freunde," Kurt said, and grinned warmly, holding his fuzzy, three-fingered hand out to his double. "Thank you for coming to our rescue so quickly. I am Kurt Wagner and these are my children, Marta and Edmund. You've already met my daughter Suzie, and my dear wife, Alice."

The pale man shot a nervous glance over to Ororo, who nodded encouragingly, then he shifted the somewhat battered blanket he was holding to one arm and accepted Kurt's handshake.

"Bitteschon," he said softly, his accent far stronger than his older double's.

Kurt narrowed his golden eyes. His double's hand felt perfectly normal: no fur, five separate fingers... He glanced down at the man's wrist, only to blink in surprise when he noticed he wasn't wearing a holowatch, and there was no image inducer at his belt. But surely—

"Just a second," Edmund piped up, interrupting his father's thoughts. "Mummy, I thought you said we would get to see an alternate version of Daddy. Where is he?"

Alice grimaced slightly, and turned an apologetic glance to the two X-Men.

"He's right here, love," she said, gesturing to the slouched figure hunching uncomfortably beside Ororo. "Only, he's in disguise right now. You remember that old image inducer of Daddy's?"

Edmund nodded, turning a bright, curious look to Kurt.

"So, you're wearing a hologram right now?" he asked. "Is it solid? Can I see your watch?"

The pale man seemed to shrink even further.

"Erm, I'm afraid not," he said with a slight wince that could have been an attempt at a rueful smile. "You see, there was an accident during a recent mission to rescue a young girl who had just come into her powers and..."

He sighed, handing his blanket to Ororo and holding up his ten, slender fingers, his blue eyes downcast.

"Well, it seems...I am no longer a mutant. This is not a disguise. I really am a...a normal human."

Marti, Suzie, and Edmund stared in amazement while their parents shared a startled look.

The human Kurt flushed deeply, and Ororo gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze. He seemed to brighten a bit at that, but he didn't raise his eyes.

"If I may... What did you look like before?" Marti asked hesitantly, clearly afraid of offending him. "Were you, well, like us?"

She made a sweeping gesture with her tail, indicating herself, Edmund, and her father.

"Well, I didn't have fur," he said, looking up at her with a shy smile. "And, there were a few other differences. But, yes. I was just like you."

Marti smiled at him, and his posture straightened slightly.

"I bet you must be missing your tail, now, huh," she said sympathetically, her own spade-tipped tail twitching behind her.

"More than you can know," he confessed. "After the incident, it took me almost a full day to learn how to walk without it."

Marti, Edmund, and Kurt's tails gave unconscious shudders. Ororo and Alice had to fight the urge to chuckle at the sight.

"How awful!" Marti exclaimed. "Is there any way you can...you know...reverse the transformation or something?"

"Right now..." Kurt sighed, "...I'm afraid the prospects do not look good. But, it is all right. I have found I can still do many of the things I could do as a mutant. And..." He smiled somewhat bashfully at Ororo, "...I have very dear friends to help me make the adjustment to my new circumstances."

Alice noted the warm look that passed between the two X-Men, her eyebrows raising in surprise. While her children continued to ask questions of the shy human, Alice slunk over to her husband, smiling slightly as she kidded: "You and Miss Munroe? Anything you want to tell me, Kurt?"

"Please, Schatz," Kurt whispered back in the same teasing tone, twining his tail around her waist. "Back home, Ororo is old enough to be my mother."

He took her hand in his, pressing it to his chest as he looked into her dark eyes.

"And even if she wasn't, meine Liebe, you should know by now that no one, not even a weather goddess, could ever usurp your place in my heart."

Alice rolled her eyes slightly, withdrawing her hand and giving his arm a playful punch.

Kurt blinked at her in wide-eyed innocence.

"Was?" he protested, struggling to keep up his hurt expression. "It's true."

"Kurt, you're hopeless," she said, chuckling softly as his twitching lips finally broke into an impish smile. "I blame those ancient movies you watch."

Gracing his smile with a brief kiss, Alice broke away from his tail and walked over to Kurt and Ororo.

"Do either of you know anything about the strange force that pulled us here from our own reality?" she asked them, bringing the wandering conversation back to their present situation.

"Very little," Ororo told her. "Hank and the Professor have come up with some theories, I believe, but you will have to speak with them if you want to know more. In fact, we should leave now if we want to reach the mansion before sunset."

Alice nodded, then turned to her children.

"Marti, Edmund," she called, "come here and take these blankets. Edmund, dear, tuck your tail up under your jacket. We're going to be heading down to the street now, and I want you both covered."

"This eats," Marti protested, taking the battered blanket from Kurt and draping it over her curly head and around her shoulders like an old woman's shawl. "Big time."

"I know," the human said with a compassionate, though helpless, shrug. "But, it's only until we get to the cars."

Marti scowled, but nodded her understanding, wrapping her fuzzy tail around her waist like a rather thick belt.

"I'm afraid we could only find these two picnic blankets in the cars," Ororo said apologetically.

Nightcrawler waved off her concern.

"The solution is a simple one," he said easily, firmly repressing the urge to complain that if he could only teleport, none of this nonsense would be necessary. "Get Marti and Edmund in the cars, then bring the blankets back to me. I can wait in the stairwell until your return."

"All right, then," Alice said. "How are we going to divide this up? We have two cars and seven people."

"I call the red BMW!" Marti proclaimed, raising her hand.

"Me too!" Edmund added.

"Ah," Kurt said, and smiled. "Then you will be with me."

"Suzie?" her father inquired. "Do you have a preference?"

She shrugged.

"Red car, white car, I don't care. Either one's OK."

"Very well," Kurt said. "You ride with your mother and Miss Munroe. Since I would never be cruel enough to leave poor Kurt alone with Marti and Edmund and their antics for too long a time, I shall ride with him."

"Antics my fuzzy, blue foot," Marti snorted, half invisible in the shadows of her blanket. "You just like his car."

Alice snickered.

"She knows you too well, my love," she said, pecking her husband on the cheek, then taking his hand as they walked toward the stairwell. "You two are so alike it's almost scary."

As the Wagner family trouped down and down and down the dark, dirty stairway to the ground floor, Kurt glanced at Ororo, an odd look in his blue eyes.

"What is it?" she asked.

Kurt turned away, shaking his head.

"It is nothing, Liebling. Let's go."

"No, Kurt," Ororo insisted, stopping his progress with a pull on his elbow. "It is something. Something is bothering you."

She set her jaw, uncertain whether she was ready to broach this subject yet but aware that if she let it slide now, it would only fester in silence.

"Was it the children?"

Kurt closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath through his nose.

Ororo sighed.

"I thought so," she said softly. "This can't be easy for you, seeing a manifestation of yourself from an alternate existence, an alternate life..."

"Ororo," Kurt said abruptly, taking her hands in his as he turned to face her. "Do you...do you think that we could ever be like that? Do...do you believe you could ever want what they have...with me?"

Ororo had known that question was coming, but she had to avert her eyes just the same. What Kurt was asking... Ororo would have found the whole concept unthinkable before she'd met him. She had always been the untouchable Storm, aloof and powerful, always in perfect control of her emotions and her life. Her early experiences, growing up on the harsh streets of Cairo, had long ago turned her away from the thought of ever having a family of her own. But, now...

Now, everything was confusion.

The sound of laughter echoed up the stairwell, breaking into her troubled thoughts. She looked at Kurt, who had lowered his head during her long silence, his dark, unruly curls shielding his eyes from view. Slowly, he released her hands, then clasped his tightly behind his back as he turned toward the doorway.

"It is all right, Ororo," he said, his accented voice soft and gentle. "You do not have to answer me now...or even ever."

He looked up at her, a small, sincere smile brightening his pale face.

"Let's go, meine Liebe," he said gently, holding out his hand for her to take. "We shouldn't keep them waiting down there."

Ororo stood quietly for a few moments longer, just looking at him, her mind a whirl of conflicting emotions. She wanted - needed - to say something...but, she just didn't know what. Unable to think of anything else to do, she slowly began to walk toward him. She stretched out her hand, and Kurt took it, gracing her knuckles with a soft kiss.

Something snapped in Ororo's heart. She shook her head, her crystal eyes stinging with tears she refused to shed as she enfolded him in a tight embrace. She trembled slightly as she felt Kurt return the hug.

"My dear, sweet Kurt," she said, burying her face in his shoulder, "I don't deserve a friend like you."

To her surprise, Kurt laughed into her hair, rocking her gently as he held her close.

"And I don't deserve a friend as kind and as lovely as you, Liebe. Yet, here we are."

He leaned in to kiss her cheek, then pulled away, his blue eyes shining with unshed tears of his own.

"Ich liebe dich, Süßigkeit," he confessed. "And, I always will."

Ororo sniffled slightly, then smiled, a warm, genuine grin meant only for him.

"Thank you, Kurt," she said, taking his hand once again. "Come on. I think we've kept those poor people waiting long enough!"

*******

Historian Zahnrei pulled her scanner from its proper slot on her utility belt and activated it, her brown eyes narrowing as a lithe figure, swathed in old blankets, dashed across the crowded sidewalk and dove into a sleek, red sports car. The readout flashed across the white, palm-sized scanner's small display screen, and she grunted slightly in satisfaction.

That was him. The teleporter from Earth 723. The energy signature was unmistakable. According to the readout, he and his family were in the two cars just pulling away from the front of the skyscraper, accompanied by one mutant and one human native to this dimension.

Rowena watched the cars slide their way into the slow moving traffic, and a slow smile spread across her face.

Both cars sported bumper stickers reading 'The Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters'.

Quickly pulling up a map on her scanner, Rowena ducked into a nearby alley.

A flash of light, a loud SHAZZP, and she was gone.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

A sharp knock at the Professor's office door pulled Twyla out of her thoughts, and she hurried to open it.

She had been sitting quietly in the corner of the large room, trying not to bring any attention to herself as she listened to the grown-up X-Men throw out various theories about what could possibly have brought this strange, shadowy version of Mr. Wagner to the mansion. The rest of the kids had long since left, more interested in finding some food or seeing what was on TV than listening to Dr. McCoy and the Professor spout quantum theory at each other. But, Twyla stayed, just praying that the terrible transformation she'd forced on their own Mr. Wagner had nothing to do with all this.

"Who is it, Twyla?" Dr. McCoy asked, looking up from the stack of hastily scribbled notes that had grown up between him and Xavier. Logan and Scott wore slightly glazed expressions, and the shadowy Nightcrawler seemed to have fallen asleep in his chair.

"Um, I don't know," Twyla said, opening the door all the way to reveal a slender young woman with very long, brown hair standing in the hallway.

"Then, allow me to introduce myself," the young woman said, striding into the richly furnished room to address the X-Men where they sat around Xavier's desk.

"My name is Rowena Zahnrei," the stranger announced, "Head Historian of the Omniverse and Second Advisor to the Supreme Ominversal Guardian Roma. We at Otherworld are greatly concerned by a recent rash of unexplained cross-dimensional occurrences that seem to have their origins in this dimension. I have been sent here to discover the cause so that, hopefully, our experts can put things right before the Omniverse collapses in on itself."

Logan straightened in his chair, wrinkling his nose slightly. There was something strange about this lady, an oddly alien scent that made his hackles rise with suspicion.

Scott blinked hard behind his visor, struggling to force his muzzy brain back to full alertness.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but could you say that again?"

Rowena frowned, and reached into her pocket. She pulled out a seemingly ordinary deck of playing cards held together with a cloth-covered elastic band.

Xavier and Hank shared a confused look.

"Excuse me, Miss Zahnrei—" Xavier started.

"Historian Zahnrei is my proper title," Rowena corrected him curtly as she placed the cards on a round, nearby table. Then she smiled, and used the elastic band to pull her long hair back into a quick, efficient ponytail. "But since we're going to be working together, you and your friends may call me Rowena."

"Working together...?" Scott sputtered, rising from his chair. "I don't understand this. Just, who the heck are you?"

"Scott," the Professor admonished, wheeling his way over to Rowena.

"Historian," he said, "I sense your sincerity, and I understand the urgency of this situation, but perhaps if you could explain...?"

"That is precisely what I intend to do," Rowena said, waving the others over to her.

Hank, Scott, and Logan frowned, but crossed the room to her table. Twyla glanced at Nightcrawler, still sleeping in his chair, then crept up to the table herself, trying to get in close enough to see without getting in anybody's way.

"I realize this dimension has yet to discover the true nature of the multiverse, but as I do not have time for a thorough explanation, I will try to make this as basic as possible," Rowena told them, and inicated the playing cards. "Imagine this deck of cards is the multiverse," she said. "Here, I'll spread them out so it'll be clearer."

She placed her palm over the deck and twisted her wrist, fanning the cards out into a neat ring.

"Each of these cards represents a unique dimension," she explained. "Here at the center, where they all touch, is the dimension known as Otherworld, where I am from. We at Otherworld work to regulate the dimensional boundaries and make sure no one from one dimension attempts to manipulate or take over another. In essence, we are sort of an interdimensional police force, if you will, keeping the timelines straight and moving in their proper directions. Now, these dimensions are related to each other in several ways. One way is by the individuals present. You have already seen an example of this in the case of Kurt Wagner. In fact, there are two alternate versions of that man in this room right now."

"You're crazy," Logan grunted, looking over to the sleeping Nightcrawler. "I'd know if there were were two of 'im."

"Nevertheless, there is another," Rowena said, turning a pointed gaze to the shadows by the large potted plant at the far side of the room.

"I don't see anyone," Scott said.

"Mr. Darkholme," Rowena prompted politely, "if you would...?"

The functionally invisible mutant stepped out of the shadows and into the light, his muscular arms crossed over his armored chest.

Logan growled low in his throat.

"Darkholme, eh?" he grunted.

"There are others here besides me," Darkholme said, ignoring the stares that met his sudden appearance. "I met a particularly distasteful individual smoking on the level just above here, and another, some kind of priest, I believe, praying on the roof. There may be more, but I have yet to meet them."

Rowena pulled out her scanner, and grimaced.

"If you want to know," she said, "there are currently eighteen alternate versions of Kurt Wagner, four versions of his daughter, Marta Wagner, and at least twenty other alternates of various other teleporters and those individuals they were teleporting present in this reality. And those numbers are only going to increase, unless we find out what is causing this disturbance and put a stop to it. Now, where was I?"

"Alternate universes," Scott said.

"Right," Rowena said, and plucked a card from the ring - an ace of hearts. "Now, each of these dimensions is entirely unique from the others. There are some in which Earth exists and others in which it doesn't. Each of these dimensions is assigned a number. Every time events in an individual dimension come to an important turning point - a fragile moment where a single decision could potentially change the course of history - the dimension splits, creating two new timelines in a series."

She pinched the card between her finger and thumb, and a second card slid out behind it: another heart.

"Those timelines can also split," she now held four cards, "as can the timelines deriving from them." She used both hands to hold up a fan of sixteen cards, all hearts. "But all of them, no matter how different, can be traced back to that first card - the primary dimension."

She pushed the unwieldy fan together, leaving only the original ace card in her hand, which she placed back on the ring.

"We are presently on Earth 816," she said. "That means, this version of Earth is sixteenth in a series stemming from Dimension 8. This man," she gestured to Darkholme, "is from Earth 679—seventy-ninth in a series stemming from Dimension 6, and this one," she gestured to the shadowy form of the sleeping Nightcrawler, "is from Earth 615. He's from the same dimension as Kurt Darkholme, here, but his world is fifteenth in the series. Does this make any sense to you?"

"Yes," Xavier said.

"No," Logan retorted bluntly.

Hank shot him a look.

"Your explanation is perfectly clear, my dear," he told Rowena.

Rowena sighed.

"Well, clear or not, there's more. You see this table the cards are on?"

The X-Men nodded, and Twyla narrowed her eyes, struggling to wrap her brain around everything Rowena was trying to tell them.

"Well, beneath all these dimensions spread out here, fracturing and splintering and branching, there is another layer commonly known as subspace," Rowena said. "Teleporters instinctively use this dimension to travel beyond normal spacetime as they move practically instantaneously from place to place."

She rapped her knuckles against the polished tabletop.

"Subspace is quite different from normal space," she said. "While the multiverse is divided into separate dimensions, each with its own complex system of series, there are no similar boundaries dividing subspace. Teleporters, therefore, rely on their capability to to sense, and follow, the electromagnetic fields unique to their own version of Earth to essentially feel their way through. These electromagnetic fields keep teleporters moving along the proper track and prevent them from reappearing in a foreign dimension, making it extremely rare for a teleporter to materialize on an alternate world - unless, of course, something interferes with the flow of these electromagnetic fields."

"Yes! My dear Rowena, that is just what we were thinking," Hank exclaimed, seeming almost giddy as the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place for him. "That something must be interfering with the Earth's electromagnetic fields! Unfortunately, we have no idea what this 'interference' is, where it came from, or how to stop it."

"Well, I can tell you where it came from," Rowena said. "Or, rather, when."

"When?" the Professor questioned. "Are you saying this interference is coming to us from another time?"

"From the future," Rowena said. "The future of this world, Earth 816. From what my team and I have been able to determine, this anomaly is somewhat akin to an expanding black hole. As it grows, spreading itself across the spacetime continuum, it absorbs the energy that separates alternate realities, severely weakening the dimensional boundaries that keep the series from collapsing."

"Oh, my stars and garters..." Hank gasped.

"Already, this anomaly, whatever it is, has caused the collapse of several series in this dimension," Rowena said grimly. "And, the effect is being seen right here. Perhaps you saw a friend, long dead, walk past you in the street and fade away, or a traffic accident that didn't actually happen? These are all symptoms of the imminent collapse of the multiverse."

She scooped the ring of cards into a thick pile, then flattened the pile between her palms, squashing the deck until it became, essentially, one large, terribly muddled card.

"How did you do that?" Logan demanded.

"Magic," Rowena said, and winked at him.

Logan scowled, but kept his attention on her presentation.

"At a very basic level, this is a depiction of what will happen here if something is not done about this anomaly, and soon," Rowena said somberly, passing the card around. "The entire multiverse will ultimately converge at this point. More and more alternates will continue to appear, crowding this Earth well beyond its capacity, until your world, along with every other inhabited world in the Omniverse, will dissolve into utter chaos."

She sighed, and lowered her eyes.

"There will be blood, before the end."

She took the muddled card from Hank, and pushed the mashed deck back into her pocket.

"Well," Scott said after a moment, "you said we would be working together on this. What can we do to help?"

Rowena glanced up at him.

"I need to know the anomaly's energy signature in order to determine exactly where and when it originated on this world," she said. "Hopefully, if we can catch it early enough, we can stop it before it ever enters subspace. Then, none of this mess will ever have happened."

"You mean, I will be returned to my own world?" Darkholme asked, his golden eyes gleaming.

"More like you never would have left it," Rowena told him. "The anomaly wouldn't have been there to pull you off course, you see."

Xavier seemed about to speak, then he paused and raised a hand to his head.

"What is it, Professor?" Scott asked.

"Ororo and Kurt have returned," Xavier said. "And, they've brought the Wagner family with them. In fact, they should be here any—"

"Good evening, Professor," Ororo spoke from the doorway, knocking retroactively as she walked into the room, followed by Alice, Suzie, Kurt, Edmund, and Marta. Their own version of Kurt entered last. "So sorry we're late. The bridge traffic was awful."

"It's all right, Ororo," Xavier said, regarding his guests with open curiosity as he held a hand out to Kurt and Alice...and to Kurt Darkholme. "You're all welcome here."

"Danke," the leader of Excalibur said, his spaded tail swaying behind him as he glanced at his heavily armed double. "Have we missed anything important?"

"Yes," said Rowena. "Quite a lot. You are the one who actually saw the energy anomaly while you were teleporting, is that right?"

"It is not exactly an experience I wish to remember," Kurt said. "But, yes, I am."

Rowena smiled.

"Good! Very good. That means I'll need you to come with me when we go back there."

"Go back...?"

Kurt stared, looking to his startled wife, the grim faces of the gathered X-Men, then back to Rowena.

"Ja... Why am I starting to get the feeling we might have been better off on that rooftop?" he muttered, realizing that despite her smile, the young woman with the long ponytail was deadly serious.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

The cottony clouds had faded from brilliant pink to dusky purple by the time the adult X-Men and their group of unexpected guests gathered into the conference room to discuss the strange, dangerous mission to come.

The Nightcrawler from Earth 723 crouched on a chair at the far end of the long conference table next to his wife Alice, with Rowena, Xavier, Hank, and Scott seated beside them. Rowena held out her scanner, recording the Wagners’ statement while they tried to describe what they had seen during the difficult teleport from the park to the roof of the skyscraper where Kurt and Ororo had found them.

Twyla observed them silently from her place in the corner, determined to not to do or say anything that might prompt the adults to send her from the room to join the other students in the dining hall.

Before leaving Xavier's office, Kurt Darkholme had volunteered to track down the Nazi and the priest, and Wolverine had gone with him. Now, the small group of Kurt’s doppelgangers sat at the far side of the table, watching each other rather warily. The Nazi kept reaching into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes that wasn’t there, then snarling at Darkholme. The truly murderous looks that passed between the two every time their golden eyes met were starting to cause the Professor some concern.

"Wer sind diese Männer?" the shadowy Nightcrawler whispered to himself. His posture was tense and alert, his tail lashed warily, and his wide eyes were shockingly bright in his dark face. "Woher kamen sie?"*

Kurt looked up from his slouch against the wall, where he had been leaning with his arms folded over his chest as he watched Ororo with the Wagner children. Seeing them smiling together, hearing her laugh as Edmund tugged at her arm with his tail...the sweet little scene tore at Kurt's heart. It was almost a relief to turn away.

[Have you ever heard of alternate realities, my friend?] Kurt asked the dark young man, speaking in German.

The shadowy figure shook his head, his eyes and mouth glowing eerily as he spoke.

[No,] he said. [What does that mean? Are you saying that we are no longer on Earth?]

[Well, we are on Earth, but it is not the Earth that you know,] Kurt tried to explain. [This is an alternate Earth, just as I am an alternate version of you. My name is Kurt Wagner, and this is my world you've come to.]

The dark man stared, his tail trembling with disbelief as he took in the sight of the pale human before him.

[You...you are me?] he whispered, his voice hoarse. He shivered and shook his head, his golden eyes blazing.

[But...that is impossible!] he shouted, grabbing Kurt's pale hand and pressing his fuzzy, three-fingered hand against it, palm to palm. [You are normal! A human—a...a flat-scan! Why would God make you normal, but allow Weapon-X soldiers to do THIS to me?!]

He stepped back angrily, fiercely indicating the midnight fur that seemed to absorb light, his terrifying eyes, his glowing mouth, the lingering stench of brimstone that never seemed to leave him.

Kurt couldn't seem to find his voice. His throat had constricted, and his blue eyes stung with painful tears. He swallowed.

[I'm sorry,] he managed to say. [But, I wasn't always like this. I was born a mutant like you…and like them.]

He indicated the other Nightcrawlers at the table.

The shadowy man glared at him, fury and anguish darkening his fiery eyes.

Kurt lowered his head slightly, his heart aching with compassion.

"Please, everyone," Xavier's voice called out, breaking through the scattered conversations and causing all heads to turn to him. "If you would just take your seats then this meeting can begin."

Kurt held out a chair for his shadowy double, but the young man turned away from him, choosing a seat across the table, next to the priest. Kurt sighed, then took a seat between Ororo and Logan, his shoulders slumped and his hands folded carefully in his lap.

Marti looked over at him, her green eyes narrowed.

"Are you all right?" she asked in her London accent.

Ororo glanced at him in concern.

"I'm fine," Kurt assured them both. "This whole thing is just..." He sighed. "It's a lot to take all at once, you know?"

Suzie smirked.

"You can say that again."

Edmund nodded his agreement.

Ororo reached for Kurt’s pale hand, pulling it over to her lap and squeezing it gently.

"You're certain you're all right," she asked, her blue eyes searching his.

"I am fine," he repeated. "But, some of these others..."

He trailed off with a small, sad shake of his head, rubbing the beads of his ever-present rosary between the fingers of his free hand as he turned his attention to the Professor.

Ororo regarded him for a moment longer, then turned her own focus to the meeting.

She didn't let go of his hand.

"...might be beneficial if we knew the circumstances leading to your arrival in this reality," the Professor was saying, directing his words to the alternate Nightcrawlers.

The priest, realizing the shadowy Nightcrawler wasn’t following, took it upon himself to translate for the young man's benefit. The Professor paused long enough for him to finish, then continued.

"If there was some kind of common factor, something you all experienced, it might help us to track down this anomaly so we can identify it."

"So," the Nazi said, fiddling agitatedly with a pen. His tail couldn't seem to keep still, and his knee banged rhythmically against the table as he unconsciously shook his foot. "We won't simply be charging into subspace after all. That's something, anyway."

Suzie regarded him from across the table, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a wrinkled pack of gum.

"Want some?" she offered.

The Nazi looked surprised.

"I, ah..."

He raised his sunglasses slightly, then quickly snatched a stick, unwrapping it and folding it into his mouth with a sad kind of desperation.

"Danke," he said as he chewed; uncomfortable, but completely sincere.

"No problem," Suzie said with a slight smirk, shoving the gum back into her pocket. "If you need more, just ask."

"Kurt 816," Rowena said, causing all eyes to turn to the pale human.

Kurt straightened slightly in his chair.

"I believe it would probably be wise to start with you, and go from there. Could you describe the last time you teleported?" she asked. "Was there anything unusual about the experience, anything out of the ordinary?"

Kurt glanced over at Twyla, who had taken the seat across from him and now looked at him with wide, nervous eyes. He smiled gently at the glowing girl, letting her know he had told her the truth before: that he really didn't blame her for what had happened.

Twyla gratefully acknowledged the smile, but couldn't bring herself to relax.

"There was nothing unusual about initiating the teleport," Kurt told Rowena, who held up her scanner to record his words. "The problems came during the teleport. You see, I had gone in to get Twyla out of the path of an oncoming train. There was little time for introductions or explanations. For all the poor girl knew, I was a monster trying to kidnap her rather than to rescue her."

A slight murmur broke out among the gathered Nightcrawlers, and Twyla flushed furiously in agonized mortification.

Kurt shot her a sympathetic look as he went on.

"She naturally tried to defend herself against what she believed to be an attack, activating her powers just as I initiated the teleport. I became very weak and somehow we both came out of the teleport in that strange dimension – erm, subspace, as you called it. We were only there long enough for me to get a good grip on her, then I quickly teleported us both out of that awful place. It was much harder that time because I felt so weak, but we made it without any problems. Admittedly, I don't know what this anomaly looks like, but neither of us saw anything unusual while we were there. It was just blackness: dark clouds and black flames."

Twyla nodded in confirmation.

Rowena narrowed her eyes at the dark-skinned girl.

"How long have you been glowing like that, Twyla?" she asked.

"Ever since I...um..." She gestured weakly to Kurt. "Did that to him. Dr. McCoy says it could be due to some sort of secondary mutation."

"That is correct," Hank said. "It's possible that the energy she absorbed in subspace caused this reaction, hastening the onset of a secondary mutation that would have occurred naturally in adulthood."

"Hmmm." Rowena tapped at her scanner's keypad. "This is very interesting," she said, turning her intense, brown eyes to Twyla.

Twyla shivered slightly.

"Miss Todd," Rowena said, "were you aware that you have no alternates in any other reality?"

Twyla blinked.

"What?"

"It's true," Rowena confirmed, poking at her keypad again. "This does happen from time to time – that the circumstances for an individual's birth only exist on one world – but as you can imagine, it is extremely rare."

"What does it mean for Twyla?" Kurt asked anxiously.

"Nothing, really," Rowena said. "But it does mean that I can't check the Otherworld Historical Database to find out if Dr. McCoy's hypothesis is correct or not. There are no records of any older alternates to compare her condition to." She turned to Hank with a slight smile. "I'll just have to bow to your expertise on this one," she said.

Hank returned her smile with a small nod.

"So," she went on, turning her attention to the gathered Nightcrawlers. "Kurt Darkholme. You were the first to arrive in this dimension. Could you describe your experience for us, please?"

Darkholme leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his armored chest.

"I was on my way to see my mother," he said, his tone curt and gruff enough to match Wolverine on a bad day. "I was aboard a submarine with a group of American refugees. We were running out of air. I waited for the sub to reach the surface, then teleported out, hoping to find a way to help. The effects of oxygen deprivation made teleporting difficult, but there was nothing unusual about the experience. Except, of course, that instead of materializing on top of the sub, I ended up in a dark room: a large space I heard that man," he pointed to the human Kurt, "call the Danger Room. I have been here now for over a day."

"Is your mother Grandmother Raven?" Edmund asked curiously.

"Her name is Raven Darkholme, yes," Darkholme said, glaring down at the boy. "But she is not your grandmother."

Professor Xavier couldn't hold in a sharp gasp.

Kurt turned to him, his blue eyes wide with startled confusion.

"Was?" he asked. "Who is this Raven Darkholme? Do you know her, Herr Professor?"

"Her code name is Mystique, if that rings any bells for you," Darkholme offered.

"Mystique!" Kurt gasped, his alarmed shout echoed by both Ororo and Logan. "Nein! I mean— No! She can't be! There is no way! We met briefly, but she hardly even looked at me... If she had been...wouldn't she have...? Ach, Gott!"

Kurt buried his face in his pale hands, his shoulders shaking as he struggled to control his emotions.

Darkholme smirked darkly and shook his head.

"While I was growing up, my dear mother often told me how close she'd come to abandoning me after I was born,” he said. “I wouldn't be surprised to find she did exactly that in one or more of these alternate realities."

Excalibur’s leader grunted, and raised his hand.

“Right here,” he said. “Although, to be fair, she did try to contact me when I was a teenager.”

Kurt looked up at Rowena, his blue eyes rimmed with red and his pale face drawn.

"Is it true?" he asked. "Is Mystique my real mother?"

Rowena nodded.

Kurt turned his wide eyes to the Professor.

"Did you know about this?" he demanded.

Xavier shook his head, his mouth opening and closing a few times before he answered.

"No, Kurt," he said at last. "I knew nothing about your natural parents. But I do know that Jean suspected this. That night before the events at Alkali Lake, when they caught you listening in on their conversation from that tree..."

Kurt flushed slightly.

"...Jean caught a flash of...something...from Mystique, something painful, like a memory she had consciously suppressed. This worried her, and I know it was on her mind before she left the jet to hold back the waters of Alkali Lake. I was planning to ask her about it...but I never had the chance."

He lowered his head in grief, strengthening his mental shields in an attempt to block out the waves of anguish emanating from Scott's direction. Scott's expression, however, remained stoic and emotionless behind his visor, despite his inner pain.

Logan shifted in his seat, casting a glance over to Ororo, who still held Kurt's hand. His gaze softened despite himself. Apparently, that trip to New York had finally done the trick. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying hard not to think of Jeannie, then he shook his head with a deep sigh. Not everyone was immortal, after all.

Kurt nodded, consciously working to calm himself.

"Well," he said with an attempt at a smile, "I always have wondered who my real mother was. Until now, I had believed that she was dead. To find out that she is alive, to finally know who she is... I—I should... I should be..."

His throat was too tight to let him continue; he felt he was choking on his own words. He trailed off, pressing his forehead against his palm and squeezing his curls tightly between his fingers as he fought to swallow the painful lump in his throat.

"It's all right, Kurt," Excalibur's leader said softly, his golden eyes glowing softly with sympathy. "It's not easy finding out that your mother is...well...a coldblooded criminal. There's no kinder way to say it. But, it was her choice to live the way she does and to act with such brutality and indifference. You bear no responsibility for her crimes."

He leaned forward, folding his hands on the table.

"Believe me, Kurt," he said. "I've tried living with her guilt. It doesn't help anything, and it will never bring you closer to her." He sat back with a humorless smile. "Just some friendly advice from someone who's been there."

Kurt sighed.

"I'll try to keep that in mind," he said. "Danke, mein Freund."

He took in a deep breath, then looked up at Rowena.

"So, who's next?"

"I've already taken the statement of the Nightcrawler from Earth 723, so now it's over to you," she said, pointing to the Nazi.

The brightly uniformed Nightcrawler chewed thoughtfully at his gum for a few moments, then said, "I can't recall anything unusual at all."

"Would you care to qualify that statement?" Rowena asked.

"Not particularly," the Nazi replied lazily, absently checking the state of his fingernails.

Rowena glared at him.

He lifted a wry eyebrow over his shades.

"Honestly," he said in his clipped, precise accent. "There was nothing strange. I had been sitting in a tree watching this pathetic little would-be assassin mill around der Fuhrer's pathetic little garden party for some twenty minutes, doing absolutely nothing more than tremble and stare. I decided to give the fool a good scare, just to get things moving, so I teleported. Only, instead of popping in on the chair next to him, I found myself in your kitchen, Herr Xavier. I suppose now it's up to my teammates to spot the assassin before he spikes the punch, or whatever dastardly deed he was planning to perpetrate. Just another day in the glorious life of the elite Lightening Squad, ja?"

He smirked.

"To tell you the truth, though," he admitted, "finding myself once again in an alternate reality has pretty much made my year. Things have been so dull lately. Once I realized what had happened, I spent a lovely afternoon wandering about this lovely mansion. That is, until I was found by Mama's Boy over there."

He gestured with his thumb to Darkholme.

Darkholme seemed to expand in his armor, his golden eyes flashing as he bared his fangs.

"Just try it, mein Freund," the Nazi snarled in return, running his thick fingers over the hilt of his sword. "I'll teach you the penalty for teleporting my cigarettes into a tree."

Xavier's eyes widened. So, that's how Darkholme had stopped his smoking...

"Keep it up, you Nazi Schleim," Darkholme growled, "and I'll 'port your greasy head in next to them, sunglasses and all."

Logan shot Kurt a wicked grin.

"I'd pay good money to see that," he said. "Never would 'a guessed you had it in ya, Elf."

"I don't," Kurt retorted, embarrassed and concerned at the way his doubles seemed so eager to get at each other's throats. The open hatred in their golden eyes reminded him of his own violent outburst in the Danger Room, and he didn't like it. “They do.”

"Yeah, but they're still you, essentially," Logan pointed out. "They just grew up in a different environment."

Kurt looked over at the snarling Nazi and shuddered.

"I don't want to know what kind of environment could have made me turn out like that."

"That Darkholme guy seems pretty tough, though, eh?" Logan observed. "Guess that's what comes from bein' raised by Mystique."

He spat the name out like a curse.

Kurt raised an eyebrow, though he found himself relieved to realize Logan didn't hold Darkholme's parentage against him.

"We will now turn to Kurt 615," Rowena announced, forcing the conversation back on track. "Since you've been translating for him all along," she said to the priest, "would you mind continuing for the benefit of those here who don't understand German?"

"It would be my pleasure, my dear," the priest assured her, and smiled.

Rowena smiled back.

"Good," she said. "Please ask him how he came here."

The group waited while the priest asked the shadowy young Nightcrawler the question, then while the young man answered.

"Because I was born a monster," the priest translated, "I was stolen from my family and experimented on. I was fourteen years old when Weapon-X took me. I don't know how old I am now. They accelerated my growth, they altered my appearance and my powers, they tried to force me to kill. Only one mutant had ever escaped from them. He was called the Wolverine."

Logan straightened, his interest perked.

The priest went on.

"I knew I would probably be shot down, I knew that even if I did escape, my family would probably be terrified of what I had become at the hands of those evil men. But, if the Wolverine could do it, it had to be possible. So I tried it, but it wasn't long before the soldiers found me. They started shooting, but I saw a snowmobile in the distance. I was teleporting over to it, but instead of landing on the snowmobile, I ended up here."

Logan grinned approvingly at the shadowy young man.

"Good for you, kid," he said. "I bet you'd 'a made it, too."

The priest translated, and Nightcrawler's dark face lit up like a sunrise.

"Dankeschon, Herr Wolverine!" he exclaimed.

He turned to the priest, speaking rapidly. The priest smiled, then nodded.

"He says he is certain that he would have made it, because he had your example to inspire him. The knowledge that escape was possible helped him keep his hope in that dreadful place."

Logan looked impressed.

"Hey, Kurt," he grunted under his breath, nudging the human in the arm. "How'd ya say 'you're welcome'?"

"Bitteschon," Kurt told him, and smiled.

Logan nodded, then turned to the younger Nightcrawler, looking him straight in the glowing, yellow eyes.

"Bitteschon, mein Freund," he said. "Even though it wasn't really me," he added, just loud enough for Kurt to hear.

"Yes," Kurt acknowledged, "but he's still you essentially, ja? He just grew up in a different environment."

Ororo stifled a smile.

Logan would have glared, but the sight of the shadowy young Nightcrawler's beaming face put a stop to that. He couldn't help wondering how long it had been since the kid had last smiled like that.

"And now I suppose it is my turn at last," the priest said, looking around the table. "Like the others, I experienced nothing unusual when I initiated the teleport. I had been tracked down by one of Ahab's hounds; a dear girl I had known many years ago, when she was just a child."

He lowered his head, his golden eyes tight with anger and sadness.

"Her face had been scarred, she wore a spiked collar around her neck..." He shuddered. "Poor child...she had been completely brainwashed by her tyrannical government. She was threatening me, stalling until her loathsome master could arrive. I abhor violence as a rule, but I had to make sure my friend Pietro had time to get the orphaned mutants we were protecting to safety. I was planning to teleport in behind her, to knock her out as painlessly as possible then make my escape, but I ended up on the roof of this mansion instead."

Rowena tapped at her scanner's keypad, then frowned.

"I have plugged in the paths which, based on your accounts, you all must have taken through subspace, but the only point at which they converge is this mansion. It seems we're just going to have to go in and see what we find once we're there."

"I believe we should keep this party small," Xavier suggested. "This anomaly is extremely powerful, and I want to keep the risk to a minimum."

Rowena nodded.

"I agree," she said. "I will need Kurt 723 as a guide, since he was the only teleporter here who has actually seen this anomaly. Because of the difficulty he enountered combating the pull of this force, I believe two other teleporters should accompany us – just in case the energy disturbance interferes with my portal once we're inside. Based on my observations, I believe Kurt Darkholme and Marta Wagner would be the best choices, as they have the strongest teleporting abilities and most developed sense of spatial awareness."

"Wait one moment," Alice exclaimed, rising from her chair. "It's one thing bringing Kurt in there, but Marti—"

"I understand your concern, Mrs. Wagner," Rowena interrupted her, "but of all these teleporters, only Darkholme and Marta have shown that they are able to teleport without adverse consequences, despite the effects of the anomaly."

"She means puking and nosebleeds," Suzie translated for Edmund's benefit.

"I want to go, Mum," Marti said. "I want to help out. Usually, I'm stuck in the control room or something while you and Dad and everyone go out on missions. I'll only be there as back up, anyway, isn't that right, Historian? I most likely won't even need to teleport."

"In a best case scenario, you would be absolutely right," Rowena said.

"'Best case scenario'?" Alice repeated. "No. No! I don't like this."

"Dad!" Marti started, but she stopped when her father raised a hand.

"I don't know if I like this either," he stated. "But, Rowena is right, Alice. Besides," he pointed out, "with the imminent collapse of the multiverse getting closer every second, even sitting still is risky. I think Marti should be allowed to come. In any event, I will be there with her."

Alice scowled for a moment, then sighed, slumping her shoulders slightly.

"Well, when you put it like that..." she said.

Her husband smiled, striding over to her and kissing her soundly on the cheek.

"I'll make certain no harm comes to either of us while we're away, OK?"

"You'd better," Alice retorted, "because if you two come back dead, I'll kill you."

Kurt almost laughed, nuzzling his nose against her dark hair.

"Now who's the one with the corny lines, Lieb?"

He smiled, his golden eyes warm.

"We will be all right," he assured her, his tone serious this time.

As Kurt and Alice embraced, Twyla rose from her chair and walked over to Xavier.

"Professor," she said…a little shakier than she would have liked. "I—"

"No, Twyla," he said, answering her question before she'd even voiced it.

"But Professor, I can't help feeling that all of this is my fault! I messed up Mr. Wagner's teleport. What if that had something to do with this energy thing being able to make its way into subspace?"

Xavier shook his head.

"Twyla, the first time you entered that dimension it triggered a secondary mutation. I don't want you to risk exposure again."

"The damage is already done, though, isn't it?" she asked, turning to Hank. "What difference can it make if I go again?"

Hank shook his head.

"There's no way of knowing, Twyla," he said. "So little is known about what causes secondary mutations..." He sighed. "Basically a second exposure could accelerate the progress of your mutation, have no effect at all…or, it could kill you."

Twyla looked like she was about to object, but Rowena cut her off before she could open her mouth.

"Kurt 723, Darkholme, and Marta," Rowena called out, "please follow me to the lawn. I don't want to risk opening a portal into what is essentially an expanding black hole in this enclosed space."

"A wise course of action," Hank said.

"I don't know about the rest of you," the Nazi said, striding over to the door after the chosen four, "but I want to see this."

"Me too," Suzie added.

The Nazi seemed decidedly fidgety as he looked down at Suzie.

"Erm, Kind," he said, "I was wondering if—"

"Yeah, you can have another piece of gum," she said, reaching into her pocket. "Just don't call me ‘Kind’, OK? I'm not a little child, and my name is Suzie."

"My mistake, Fraulein Suzie."

The gaunt Nightcrawler smiled, taking a second piece of gum from her pack and shoving it hastily into his mouth, his tail lashing like the pendulum of an overwound clock.

Suzie shook her head.

"You must smoke at least ten packs a day, huh," she said. "Bet you drink, too."

The Nazi scowled at her, then turned away, his leg jittering irritably.

Suzie snorted, then turned her attention back to Xavier.

"Well?" she prompted. "Can we watch?"

"We will watch from the foyer window," Xavier told her, though his eyes were fixed sharply on Twyla, "but we will not go outside. Is that understood?"

Twyla scowled, but Suzie and Edmund chorused, "Yes, Grandpa Charles."

Xavier raised an amused eyebrow.

"You know," he said as he wheeled past Kurt and Ororo, "I rather like the sound of that. Don't you?"

Kurt and Ororo stared at each other, flushing deeply.

Logan struggled to keep up his gruff demeanor.

"C'mon, you two," he said, "let's get movin'. If you wait too long to join the others, the teasin' will only get worse."

*******

While the X-Men and the alternate Nightcrawlers gathered around the bay window in the foyer, Twyla Todd snuck quietly down the hall toward the side entrance. Unseen and unsuspected, she slipped from the mansion and hurried to the front lawn, arriving just in time to see Rowena open her portal.

A strong wind instantly grew up around the small group as the anomaly sucked in static electricity, electromagnetic energy, and heat energy from the air. It whipped their hair around their faces as they stepped through the bright, circular portal: first Darkholme, then Kurt and Marta, and finally Rowena.

Twyla ran from the cover of the bushes, reaching the portal just as Rowena's ponytail faded into the near-blinding light. Without stopping to think or even to draw a deep breath, she dove inside.

The portal closed behind her with a loud, crackling SHAZZP, sealing her and her four companions in the mysterious dimension known as subspace.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

"Mummy?"

Alice turned her head slightly at the sound of her son's soft, hesitant voice, but kept her eyes fixed on her husband and eldest daughter, talking with Rowena on the lawn.

Kurt and Marti’s midnight fur blended with the evening darkness, making the two of them look like shadowy silhouettes against the bright light of the lamppost that illuminated the driveway. Only their night-adapted eyes shone clearly, glowing deep gold and pale green respectively in a way that would have been eerie if it wasn't so familiar.

“Mummy?” Edmund said again.

"Yes, love?" Alice said, rather distractedly.

Edmund lowered his hazel eyes, his rounded face drawn with anxiety.

"Is this all my fault?" he asked, his tail twitching agitatedly behind him.

Alice did look at him then, her brow creased.

"Is what your fault, sweetling?"

"This whole thing," he said, looking up at her with wide-eyed apprehension. "Us being here and everything. Is it because of me?"

Alice shook her head a little, and crouched down to his eye level.

"What do you mean?" she asked. "What could make you think that?"

Edmund hung his head, his straight, black hair falling over his forehead and shielding his expression from view.

"I didn't want to walk to Uncle Scott's party," he confessed. "I wanted to teleport with Daddy. It was my idea – I was the one who talked Daddy into it. But, we ended up here instead. And now, everything is my fault because I was lazy and didn't want to walk from the car park."

Alice stared for a moment, caught off guard by the worries that had obviously been plaguing the boy since their arrival, then wrapped him in a close embrace.

"Oh, Edmund," she said and sighed, pulling back slightly and brushing the hair from his eyes. "Of course it's not your fault. Do you honestly think your daddy would have agreed to teleport us if he thought there was any danger?"

Edmund shuffled his sneakered feet.

"No," he said. "I suppose not."

"Of course he wouldn't," Alice said. "This whole thing was an accident, and now Marti and your daddy are going to try to fix things. So don't go blaming yourself for something that certainly wasn't your fault, OK?"

Edmund nodded, but he still looked uncertain.

Alice squeezed his shoulders, catching his eyes as she gave him a reassuring smile.

Slowly, Edmund returned it, the tension draining from his small frame.

"What party was he talking about?" Scott asked, his brow furrowed above his visor as he turned from the window.

"Our Uncle Scott's surprise birthday party," Suzie explained. "He turned fifty today. Auntie Jean planned it. She was bringing all the presents and the food and stuff in her car."

Scott’s back stiffened even at this casual mention of Jean's name, his hands balling into tight fists and his breath catching in his throat.

Suzie tilted her head slightly, her golden eyes narrowed.

"What's wrong?" she asked. "Was it something I said?"

Scott swallowed, his throat painfully tight, his eyes and nose stinging uncomfortably.

Suzie's frown deepened, but Scott shook his head before she could say anything more.

"No," he assured her, his voice sounding strained even to him. "No, it's not you. I...I should have guessed that there would be doubles of her out there. In a way, it's good to know that somewhere, even if it is in another reality, Jean is still—"

He almost choked on the word, but he forced himself to complete the thought.

"Still alive."

Suzie paled, then blushed furiously.

"Oh. Oh, I am sorry. I...I didn't know—"

"Forget it," Scott said, a little more sharply than he'd intended. He sighed, his expression softening along with his voice. "I should be the one apologizing, really. I guess I...sort of overreacted."

Shoving his hands in his pockets, he turned his gaze back to the window. But, behind his visor, his glowing eyes blurred with unshed tears he refused to let fall.

An uncomfortable silence fell over the group. The priest stepped forward, clearly intending to place a comforting hand on Scott’s shoulder, but he paused in mid-motion, his golden eyes widening.

"Gott im Himmel," he breathed, "what does that child think she is doing?"

"What?"

Xavier wheeled quickly over to the window, arriving in time to see Twyla's dimly glowing form dash across the lawn, heading straight for the blinding portal Rowena had opened on the lawn.

“No,” the Professor gasped, angrier at himself than Twyla. He had allowed himself to be distracted by Scott’s emotions…by his own… He should have been paying attention…

"Twyla!" Kurt exclaimed, leaving Ororo's side and rushing across the room to throw the front door open.

The wind from the open portal rustled the drapes and blew loose papers around the foyer.

Xavier pounded his fist against the arm of his chair, swearing softly.

“Scott, Ororo, get them back in here! If that girl enters subspace again—!”

“We’re on it, Professor,” Scott said as he and Ororo raced after their friend.

Kurt jumped down the steps. He could tell he was too far away to catch her on foot, but he had to try something.

"Twyla, stop!" he shouted through the fierce, swirling wind. "Don't do this!"

But, it was too late. She was already gone, the portal snapping closed behind her, the wind fading as though it had never been.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

"I've erected a forcefield around us," Rowena said, keeping her eyes on her scanner while Kurt, Marti, and Darkholme took in their surroundings. "I don't expect it to last long, given the fact that it is an energy field, but even if it dies it should take at least twenty minutes for the air inside to dissipate in this thick atmosphere. Well, as long as we don't move around too much."

"Is the atmosphere toxic, then?" Kurt asked, squinting at the dense crimson and blue-black clouds that slowly swirled and tumbled across the rugged landscape.

Rowena nodded.

"Yes. But you would die of asphyxiation before it could poison you. There is very little oxygen and even less nitrogen in those clouds."

"Then, how did Twyla and that other Nightcrawler breathe when they were here?" Marti asked. “They didn’t have a forcefield like this.”

"You know how when you and your father teleport, some of the smoke from this dimension escapes into your atmosphere?" Rowena said.

"Yes," Marti said.

"Well, it's the same here," Rowena explained. "Some of the air from your dimension escaped into this atmosphere. Only, because of the density of the atmosphere here and the lack of wind, it took far longer to dissipate. If they had remained any longer than they did, they would have run out of air very quickly."

Marti nodded her understanding, then narrowed her eyes at the harsh, frightening landscape they had stepped into.

"I thought this place was supposed to be dark," she said. "Blackness, burning with a dark flame. Isn't that what the human version of Dad said?"

"Yes, that is what he said," Rowena replied, and frowned down at her scanner.

Marti stepped closer to her father, shivering a little.

Kurt wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Grateful for the comfort, his daughter leaned closer into his half-embrace, twining her tail around his lower leg.

Darkholme glanced at them, then turned his sharp, golden eyes to the murky yellowish light that colored the thickly clouded sky – though, he rather doubted 'sky' was the right word. There was no real sense of ‘space’ in this place, no sense of ‘distance’. The dimension beyond their little forcefield bubble looked surreal at best: an airless, windless, formless place of thick, slowly shifting clouds. Crimson and blue-black smoke billowed up like tar-soaked cotton from misty craters in a hazy, pock-marked ground. The jagged cliffs and fire pits were ghostly, insubstantial, and the omnipresent reek of brimstone burned Darkholme’s nose and eyes.

The whole place had the solidity of a dream, a nightmare, and the sickly, yellow-orange light that illuminated it all only amplified the odd sense of unreality that made Darkholme's fuzzy skin crawl.

He crossed his arms over his armored chest and turned to Rowena, his dark features creased by a deep scowl.

"If everything was dark before, where is all this light coming from now?" he demanded. "I don't see a source. There are no stars here, no sun. Those black flames seem to absorb light, not give it off."

His tail lashed behind him, betraying his emotions where his face never would.

"This light is coming from our anomaly," Rowena told him, her eyes fixed grimly on her scanner's screen. "If we could just pinpoint its location..."

She tapped at her keypad, then snapped her scanner shut.

“I understand teleporters tend to possess an extremely acute sense of spatial awareness,” she said. “Kurt Wagner, can you use this sense to point out where you were when you first glimpsed the anomaly?"

Kurt looked down at Marti, who squeezed his arm encouragingly.

"I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure what to look for," he said, “but I will try.”

Kurt closed his eyes and stretched out with his senses, trying to remember the unique feel, the ‘flavor’ of the place he had passed through that afternoon. He turned slowly in place, stretching even further.

As he turned, a vaguely familiar tingle washed over him and he gasped, his golden eyes opening wide as an uncomfortable shudder ran up his spine.

"I found it!" he exclaimed. "It's...I don't know how to describe it... Very high. If we were on Earth, I'd say it is, perhaps, seven kilometers above our current location. But, it's not too far from here. Maybe half a kilometer to the right?"

Rowena flipped her scanner open again and pointed where Kurt had indicated.

"There!" she said, a slow smile spreading across her face. “Like the deadly parasite it is, the anomaly has attached itself to the underside of Dimension 8. And, it’s grown – nearly tripled in size since its initial detection. But, wait…"

She blinked, as if unsure she'd read the screen correctly.

"That can't be right," she muttered, aiming the scanner toward the oddly translucent rocks behind them.

"What isn't right?" Darkholme demanded.

Marti craned her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the scanner’s screen as Rowena edged past.

"For a moment, I thought..."

Rowena trailed off again, biting her lip as she tapped at her keypad.

"No, I wasn't mistaken," she said, turning back to her confused companions. "It was faint, but it was there."

"What was?" Darkholme said, his tail lashing with frustration.

"An energy signature, very similar to the anomaly’s. It’s nowhere near as strong, but it seems to be drawing energy in the same way. And," she said, her brown eyes tight with apprehension, "the readings are unmistakably human."

Darkholme and Kurt shared a startled look, but before either of them could speak, Rowena strode through the forcefield toward the shadowy rocks, creating a visible ripple along its otherwise invisible boundaries. There was a startled cry, then Rowena pushed her way back into the forcefield, her hands clamped firmly on Twyla Todd’s shoulders.

“Dad, it’s that girl from the meeting,” Marta said in surprise. “The one who turned that other Nightcrawler into a normal human!”

“What are you doing here, girl," Darkholme demanded, his tail swaying as he stepped closer.

Twyla cringed.

"I – I just wanted to help," she protested, trying to sound stronger than she felt.

Rowena tightened her lips, letting go of the girl and fixing her with an angry glare.

"You may have had noble intentions, but no good can come from this," she said. "Your presence here is disruptive. Your powers are unpredictable and your genetic structure is currently in a state of flux. More than that – the energy you are absorbing is interfering with my readings! You cannot remain in this environment without risking considerable harm."

Twyla straightened defiantly, and Rowena sighed, her nostrils flaring with frustration.

"This mission is aborted as of now," she said flatly. "Twyla Todd, I am returning you to Dimension 816. Hopefully, this delay you have caused will not prove fatal."

She turned to the three teleporters.

"My readings are tainted. We will have to return to gather new data. At least we now know the physical location of this parasite."

She scowled, and tapped at her scanner.

"I have to open the portal, but it might be unstable. If it is, you three must be prepared to teleport us all out of here. Are you ready?"

Marta looked up at her father, who looked over to Darkholme. The three of them nodded.

Rowena began tapping the sequence into her keypad.

Twyla stared at them, her breathing short and ragged.

"But… But, I—"

Marti gave her a helpless shrug, her green eyes glowing with sympathy in the yellowed light.

"Sorry, Twyla," she said softly.

But, Twyla didn't hear her. It was getting harder and harder for her to breathe. Her face felt hot, everything was spinning and, strangely, her clothes suddenly felt far too heavy.

Panting raggedly, she collapsed at the knees, falling into an awkward crouch on the ground, her hand pressed to her forehead.

"Twyla!" Kurt exclaimed, instinctively reaching for her.

“Dad – don’t touch her!” Marti exclaimed, pulling at her father’s arm.

“But, surely—”

"Better not," Rowena warned, and Kurt reluctantly drew his hand away.

"What is it, Liebling?" he asked the glowing girl. "What is wrong?"

"I – I don't know!" Twyla exclaimed, feeling very nauseous. "I – I'm so dizzy... I think...I think I'm going to be sick..."

Marti’s tail twitched nervously behind her.

"I think she's going to be more than sick..." she said, then yelped as a bright flash burst all around them. The energy field around them wavered and vanished.

"She has disrupted my forcefield," Rowena exclaimed. Then: "No. Oh no, I don't believe this."

She hissed through clenched teeth, staring at the readout scrolling across the scanner's screen.

"What?" Kurt asked, surging to his feet to peer over her shoulder. "Ach, nein! It can't be possible."

"Dad?" Marti asked, flicking her frightened gaze from Twyla to her father.

Twyla's glow was growing steadily brighter, nearly matching the yellow-orange light from the anomalous parasite.

"What's happening?" Marti exclaimed.

"The parasite originated twenty years in the future," Rowena said softly, looking down at Twyla Todd huddled in a shivering, glowing ball at their feet. "Twenty years... A secondary mutation manifesting in adulthood...no alternates in any other dimension... It all fits."

"Are you saying that this child will grow up to become that parasite?" Darkholme asked, glaring at Twyla.

"Their energy readings are nearly identical," Rowena said, indicating her scanner. "The parasite is a creature of almost pure energy – practically nothing organic remains. But, the nature of Twyla’s powers, the yellow-orange glow, and the unique signature of her mutation all indicate the same thing. This child’s unshielded exposure the environment of subspace triggered a mutation process that her latest exposure has now accelerated.”

“In other words,” Darkholme snarled, “she is manifesting into an energy being before our eyes!"

"We have to get her out of here!" Kurt said. "Back to Dr. McCoy, and Herr Professor! She cannot stay here!"

"You're right," Rowena agreed. "She must be removed from this environment without delay. I'm going to attempt to open the portal. Be prepared to teleport."

"But, how can we touch her?" Marta asked warily.

"Remember what happened to that Doppelganger of ours," Darkholme said, his golden eyes narrowed. "I, for one, have no desire to become a powerless—"

"It's noticed us," Twyla interrupted, her voice hoarse and shaky. "It knows we're here...tastes the energy... Oh, God, I can feel it...like it's a part of me. I...I know… It knows what it's doing...it just… It doesn't care…!"

She looked up, her fiery eyes blindingly bright, a fevered, twisted grin spreading across her face.

"I...I don't care! It just...feels so good! All that energy, all that power!"

She jumped to her feet, her frizzy hair shimmering with energy, swirls of yellow and orange light coursing over her dark skin. She stretched out her arms, feeling the maniacal laughter swell, just as it had that first night…when she set fire to her house.

But, this feeling… It was so much stronger than the paltry little energy surge she had absorbed from her lamp. All the energy, all the power of the entire omniverse was hers for the taking, and she wanted it… She ached to gorge herself on this feeling, to lose herself in the heady intoxication of raw, delicious power....

"NO!" she screamed, her short, blunt fingernails cutting into her palms, drawing blood that dripped past her wrists...

The pain helped bring her back to herself, to remember the cost of such wanton gluttony. She had brought her mother to the point of death, she had destroyed her home, she had physically altered the man who had tried to save her, all but ruining his life. She would not be responsible for the destruction of the omniverse. She could not allow herself to become that mindless monster attached to the underbelly of her home dimension.

She knew what she had to do. She only prayed that God would see fit to forgive her choice...

"Rowena," she said, her hoarse, trembling voice sounding strange even to her own ears. "I have to go back. I have to go back to that night – the night it all began. I have to stop this before it starts."

"No, Twyla," Kurt exclaimed, realizing what she meant. "There must be another option. Now that we know what form your secondary mutation will take, we may be able to find a way to prevent it. Perhaps a modified inhibitor, or genetic therapy of some sort. We must talk with Hank and Charles before you contemplate taking any action that cannot be undone."

"Well, we can't stay here talking about it," Rowena said. "Our little air pocket is already dissipating. We can continue this discussion once we return to Earth 816."

The Otherworld official entered the proper sequence into her scanner, and a round hole appeared in midair a short distance away, along with a renewed gust of wind. The darkened grounds of the Xavier Institute could clearly be seen on the other side.

"Quickly, now!" Rowena shouted over the rushing wind. "The portal is very unstable. It could collapse at any moment!"

The five of them rushed towards the flickering portal, their hair whipping wildly around their faces. Kurt turned his head slightly, making sure Marti was beside him, and his eyes widened.

"Faster!" he shouted, his tone brusque and commanding. "It's behind us!"

Marti and Darkholme followed his gaze, and saw five long tentacles of thick, swirling light cutting through the clouds, heading straight for them.

Marti swayed on her feet, feeling horribly light-headed.

Darkholme brought a hand to his temple, then glared at the encroaching tentacles.

“The parasite is draining us too!” he growled. “Much more, and we won’t be able to teleport.”

“Then, run!” Rowena commanded.

Darkholme, Kurt, and Marti dropped down to run on all fours, with Rowena and Twyla close on their heels. They dove through the portal, tumbling onto the short, cool grass.

The portal snapped shut behind them with a strange, fizzling sound, quite unlike its usual SHAZZP, the wind instantly vanishing, along with the immediate threat.

"Well," Marta panted, rising slowly to her feet. "What do we do now?"

"That thing is not me," Twyla stated, her eyes bright with hysteria. "Not anymore. We have to destroy it, whatever it takes!"

"Twyla," Kurt began, but Twyla fiercely shook her head, her tone allowing for no argument.

"Whatever it takes."

To Be Continued…

Chapter Text

Kurt Wagner stared at the place where Twyla had vanished into the portal. Colored spots from the blinding flash still clouded his vision, but he didn't rub his eyes or turn away. He just stood there, his head bowed and his fists clenched, truly hating the feel of his smooth, even teeth against his pressed lips and the way the encroaching darkness made the world seem like nothing but shadows – shadows without definition. He had never felt the loss of his powers so acutely as he did at that moment.

"Kurt?"

It was Ororo. She must have followed him from the foyer.

Kurt took several deep breaths, and turned to face her.

"There was no way I could have caught up with her," he said. "Not on foot. She wouldn't have stopped anyway."

Ororo stepped closer, reaching out to touch his arm.

"This is not your fault, Kurt. You tried. She just didn't want—"

"No," Kurt snapped, pulling away from her. "You don't understand! I didn't try! I didn't even— There wasn't even a thought! I... I just opened the door and ran…!"

He shook his head and raked his fingers through his hair, his blue eyes wide and gleaming in the lamplight.

"Ororo, I didn't even try!"

"Try what, Kurt?" Ororo asked, the expression on his face deepening her confusion to concern. She hadn't seen him look this lost since he had collapsed into her arms in the medbay, shortly after—

After he had lost his powers.

"To teleport?" she questioned gently.

He turned away from her, running his palms down his face. When he spoke again, his voice was much softer.

"Always before, I at least felt the impulse, even though I knew nothing would happen. In the Danger Room, leaving the car, walking out of my classroom... This time, though, it wasn't there! And I didn't even realize until she vanished—"

"Kurt," Ororo interrupted him, stepping forward to grasp his shoulders, forcing him to meet her eyes.

Once she saw the emotions churning there, though, she realized she had no idea what she could say that could bring him any comfort.

Her heart aching with empathy, she did the only thing that came to mind. She pulled him close, curling her fingers into the back of his jacket, leaning her head against his shoulder as she felt him wrap his own arms around her.

Kurt breathed in through his nose, deep and shaky.

"I'm sorry," he whispered against her snowy hair. "I'm being foolish again... We should get back to the others."

"Your feelings are not foolish, Kurt," Ororo protested, pulling away just far enough so he could see the sincerity in her eyes. Her stern expression warmed with affection, and she reached out with a slender hand to brush an errant curl from his pale forehead. "But you are correct. We need to keep our focus on the mission."

She smiled.

"Powers or no, we still need you, my love."

Kurt's tense expression melted, then his lips quirked into a small, familiar smile, his eyes impish and twinkling.

Ororo's own smile broadened at the sight.

"And what about you, meine Liebe?" he asked, catching her off guard as he took her by the hand and twirled her gracefully, only to catch her lightly by the elbow and begin strolling across the grass as if nothing had happened. "Do you need me?"

Ororo glanced over at him, her mischievous eyes matching his twinkle for twinkle. She stopped their progress, running her hand up his neck to twine her fingers into his short curls, and pulled him close.

"Do you really need to ask?"

She smiled, and pressed her lips to his. This kiss was brief, but it was more than enough to answer Kurt's question. He leaned his forehead against hers, his smile bright and full of love.

"Ich liebe dich, Ororo."

"And I love you," she said softly, sniffing slightly as she fought against the unexpected stinging in her eyes. "I only wish I had realized it sooner..."

"Faster! It's behind us!"

Ororo turned her head toward the sound of a faintly accented voice to her left. It sounded as if it was coming from very far away. She shared a startled look with Kurt, marveling distantly at how, although all his doubles spoke with Kurt's familiar voice, they all sounded so different.

An intensely glowing tear appeared in mid-air barely three feet away from them. The tear opened slowly, hesitantly, flickering and fading then returning stronger and more stable than before. A fierce wind whipped up, throwing Kurt and Ororo off balance for a moment.

"We've got to get out of the way," said Kurt, shouting to be heard over the wind. "Und schnell!"

Ororo grabbed his hand and the two of them raced for the stairs, reaching them just as Darkholme tumbled out of the rip to land hard on the grass. He was followed almost simultaneously by Marta Wagner, her father, Rowena, and an almost unrecognizable Twyla Todd.

Twyla’s skin glowed as brightly as molten iron, her eyes an intense, blinding white. Her frizzy hair crackled with energy, the ends shimmering like fine, optic fibers.

"Ach, Twyla!" Kurt gasped from the stairs, reflexively tightening his grip on Ororo's hand. “Liebling, what have you done to yourself…?"

The flickering portal vanished with a strange, muffled sound, taking the roaring wind with it.

The front door to the mansion opened, and Kurt and Ororo turned to see Scott, Logan, Hank, Alice, Suzie, Edmund, Professor Xavier, and Kurt’s little clew of extra-dimensional counterparts file out onto the wide landing. Together, they watched as the small group on the lawn stood up and brushed themselves off. The group spoke, for a moment, among themselves, then Twyla broke away and dashed across the lawn, a glowing cinder floating through the darkness, making the lamplight seem dimmer than it really was.

"Professor!" she shouted out, stopping short before she reached the stairs. "Professor, I need to ask you something!"

Scott and Alice moved out of the way so Xavier could wheel forward.

"What is it, Twyla," he asked.

"Sir, I need to know," she said, her posture stiff and straight. "If I had never entered subspace – that is, if Mr. Wagner had never had to save me from – from..."

She trailed off with a fierce shake of her head, then tried again.

"Could this secondary mutation thing have happened on its own?" She gestured to her glowing form, tears gleaming at the corners of her fiery eyes. "Or, was it really triggered by that weird, negative sort of energy in subspace?"

Xavier looked to Hank, his heart twisting inside his chest. Hank looked back at him with the same pain in his eyes, the same uncertainty. Xavier felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"What did you find out?" he asked.

By this time, Twyla's four companions had caught up with her. She looked at them, then turned back to the Professor.

"It's me, Professor," she said, her voice choked, but her expression determined. "I am the one causing all this."

Kurt moved to take a step toward her, but Ororo shook her head, stopping him before he got too close.

Twyla straightened her shoulders, her chin held high, hot tears trickling slow trails down her luminescent cheeks as she spoke.

"Twenty years from now, my secondary mutation will turn me into some kind of energy parasite. When that happens, I won't be me anymore. I will lose my mind...I'll lose who I am. And, I won't be able to be stopped. I've felt that kind of madness before. I've felt it overwhelm me, and I couldn't control it. And, I don't think you can help me, Professor. I don't think anyone can. That's why I need you to tell me the truth. If Mr. Wagner never teleported me, would this have happened?"

"Twyla," Dr. McCoy tried, leaning forward with his large hands gripping the railing. "I already told you... We don't know enough about secondary mutations to be certain just what is causing yours. But there is a very good chance it was triggered by your exposure to subspace energy. If that is the case, it is very likely this mutation would have remained dormant your entire life, or at least until you were well into your adulthood, had you never entered subspace. With the way science and technology are developing at such a rapid pace – who knows. Perhaps by then there will be a way to detect and prevent harmful secondary mutations such as yours. But, Twyla, right now, we just can't be certain."

Twyla nodded, and turned to face Rowena.

"Then that settles it," she said. "You've got to open another portal. You've got to take me back to that first night so I can try to convince myself not to go to the train station. If I never put myself in a situation where Mr. Wagner has to teleport me, maybe I won't become that parasite thing."

"If you do this, then I am coming as well," Kurt declared, releasing Ororo's hand and taking a step forward. "If you were as out of control that night as you say, you will need back-up, nein?"

He crouched down, his slender fingers barely brushing the stone steps as he looked into her blindingly white eyes.

"I don't want you harming yourself, Liebling, even if it is accidentally. And, there is no way of knowing what could happen if or when you meet your double."

He leaned forward, his blue eyes intense and sincere.

"I would give up my powers all over again, if it meant I could help keep you safe."

Twyla sniffed sharply, deeply touched by her teacher's heartfelt words. But, as much as he wanted to protect her, Twyla knew she could never risk hurting him again. If he came with her, there was no knowing what her own double from the past would do to him…especially if he tried to get in her way.

Before she could speak these thoughts out loud, Rowena shook her head.

"I'm afraid that the power source for my scanner is all but drained," she said, her voice sharp with a kind of frustrated apology. "I doubt there is enough juice left to open another portal, and even if there is, I certainly won't be able to open a return portal."

She sighed, and shoved her scanner into its place on her utility belt.

"It was the proximity to the parasite's energy tendrils that did it," she said. "I am sorry."

Twyla shook her head in mute denial, the voices and suggestions the others began to put forth fading into little more than background noise as her mind raced.

Her solution would work. She knew she could save reality – all their realities – if she could only put her plan into motion. There had to be another way to open a portal.

And then, the answer was there. Right in front of her.

Twyla stared in dizzy amazement as the world around her dissolved into bent, angular fractals. Somehow, her panic must have managed to activate her powers. In a flash of intuition – or perhaps it was a strange sort of instinct – she realized that if she stretched out her hand, she could push through the glimmering fractals like so many scribbled snowflakes, straightening or bending the beautiful, delicate shapes into anything she wanted.

A heady, giddy rush of euphoria filled her as the implications of this power began to sink in. She could control the very fabric of space-time with little more than a thought, manipulating the continuum as easily as she had altered Mr. Wagner's genetic structure.

She laughed; an odd, maniacal sound.

It was true. The power of the multiverse really was at her fingertips. All she had to do was reach out and touch it, draw it into herself...

Twyla shuddered violently, forcing herself to draw in deep breaths, to regain her all-too-shaky self-control. She knew what she had to do, and judging from what had just happened, she needed to carry out her plan as quickly as she could – before she lost her tentative grip on herself forever.

The group on the stairs gasped as Twyla's form began to lose cohesion. Her hair, her clothes, even her facial features all appeared to melt away until she became little more than a vaguely humanoid figure lit from within by a blinding, yellow-orange light – a light that was growing stronger by the minute.

Slowly, the glowing girl stretched out her arms before her, as if pushing her way through a stack of dry hay. She laughed, her blinding eyes wild, half-mad…then reached out again to make a swift, tearing motion in mid-air.

It was as if she had cut a small piece out of a giant mirror, only instead of the expected backboard, there was a whole other world on the far side. From his position on the stairs, Kurt could just see an old, two-story house with one lit window.

Then, before he or anyone else could react, Twyla dashed through the hole she had carved into the spacetime continuum, running up to the house and through the front door.

A moment later, the lit window went completely dark.

Kurt moved forward, but didn’t break his grip on Ororo’s hand. For a few, terribly uncertain moments, nothing happened…

Until the awkward silence was pierced by a horrific, piercing scream. It was the scream of a woman, a sound of pure terror that Kurt, unfortunately, knew all too well.

Without stopping to think, he jumped down the stairs and crossed through Twyla's portal.

Ororo immediately charged after him, shouting: “No, Kurt! You must wait!”

Rowena, who had been inspecting the opening from both sides, jumped aside to avoid being trampled, only to gasp in alarmed irritation when, the moment Ororo passed through, the portal snapped closed without a sound – leaving the X-Men who had been following Ororo to stop short as it vanished right in front of them.

*******

Kurt didn't stop running until he was in the house, only pausing for a moment to allow his normal, human eyes to adjust to the darkness. Once he could see well enough to pick out the stairs from the shadows, he dashed up to the second floor – where he was nearly bowled over by a laughing, wild-eyed Twyla Todd, looking just as she had when he first saw her on the train tracks.

"Twyla!" he exclaimed, reaching out to snag her by the elbow.

The girl looked up at him…and in that moment Kurt knew there would be no reasoning with her. Her dark eyes were vacant, over-bright, her lips twisted into a mad grin. He saw no recognition there, no kindness or curiosity, nothing of the young girl he had come to know. Her powers had overwhelmed her mind completely.

Slowly, Twyla turned her gaze to his hand on her arm, and she giggled, her grin twisting into a wicked smirk as she grabbed his bare wrists.

Kurt gasped, suddenly dizzy, his stomach lurching dangerously.

It was the same feeling he'd had when she forced them out of that first teleport.

His eyes widened as her dark skin started to take on a faint, reddish glow, and he knew that glow was a product of his own energy, the energy she was absorbing from his body into hers. He had to get away from her before she drained him completely.

Moving quickly, he used all his remaining strength to wrench his arms out of her tight grasp. Twyla laughed, high-pitched and undeniably insane, then kicked him swiftly in the shin, making her escape down the stairs as he cried out in pain. He bent down, rubbing fiercely at his throbbing leg.

"Kurt! Where are you?! What's happened?"

Kurt's eyes shot open, his heart pounding in alarm. Ororo had followed him – she was right in the path of Twyla Todd...!

"Ororo!" he shouted. "It's Twyla – that is, her double. She's just manifested! She's trying to get away— You have to stop her, Ororo. But, whatever you do, do not touch her! She's not herself; her power has made her lose her mind completely!"

"I see her, Kurt, and I understand! I'll bring her back."

Kurt smothered his impulse to warn her to be careful. Storm had been with the X-Men far longer than he had. If anyone knew how to safely contain a dangerous mutant, it was her. He just had to trust that she would be all right.

In the meantime, another concern had to take priority. What had happened to his own Twyla Todd?

Kurt took a hesitant step out of the stairwell, wincing as he limped on his bruised leg. All thoughts of his own pain instantly faded, however, the moment he turned the corner into the hall.

Hazy wisps of smoke filled the hallway. The smoke grew much denser near the far end of the corridor, and the stench of burning wood and carpet was nearly overwhelming.

Kurt ducked low and pulled his shirt over his nose and mouth. Halfway down the hall, he began to see the flickering flames of a rapidly spreading fire licking the walls, brushing against the ceiling…

He coughed, searching through the billowing smoke for any sign of Twyla or her mother.

"Twyla!" he called out, between hacking coughs. "Twyla, where are you? Can you hear me?"

"I can hear you, Mr. Wagner. Please, you have to get out of here. I don't want you to get hurt."

Kurt blinked his tearing eyes, straining to see through the smoke and flame.

"What about you?" Kurt asked, and coughed again, crouching low in an attempt to stay under the thick, rising smoke. "I thought you were going to stop your double from running to the train tracks!"

"You know that's impossible," Twyla responded in the same calm tone. "She's lost her mind. The way she is now, there's no way she would listen to anybody, least of all me."

"Then what are you doing here?"

"Saving the omniverse," Twyla told him. She laughed sadly and, slowly, the smoke cleared, fading away like shadows at sunrise. The fire remained, however, although it was no longer spreading, or even touching the walls.

Kurt gasped.

"Twyla..." he stammered.

But, there were no words. Kurt blinked, his eyes filling with tears as he fully began to realize just what the girl was doing.

Twyla stood in the middle of a carefully controlled fire, the outline of her body blending with the flickering flames as though they were a part of her and she of them. At the ends of her outstretched arms, her fingertips flickered and fluttered, and her hair wreathed her glowing eyes like smoke.

It was a stunning vision: beautiful, ethereal, and as graceful as it was terrible. Twyla Todd was not only absorbing the fire's energy, she had literally become the fire. She fed on the fire as it consumed her, and both were weakening.

"I refuse to be the one responsible for all these unraveling dimensions and the end of the universe and everything," she said, her voice firm. "This way, none of it will ever have happened."

Kurt shook his head, rising to his feet and limping towards her.

"Nein, Twyla!" he declared. "There must be another way, another solution. You have to stop this! Come with me. Ororo is out after your double right now. Once she is caught—"

Twyla sighed, her posture wilting as her flames began to die down.

"There are times," she whispered, "when the risk is just too great. I would rather die like this than live knowing there's even a possibility that I might become that mindless parasite I saw in subspace. I want to make the choice while I still have a choice. And Kurt..."

She smiled, a radiant smile that tore at Kurt's heart.

"I choose life."

"Nein..." Kurt whispered, his knees wobbling weakly as he lowered himself to the floor.

Twyla flickered once more, then lowered her arms with a sigh, her brilliant eyes closing as she and the flames winked out of existence. Only the charred wood at the end of the hall and the lingering stench of smoke remained as proof that they had even been there.

Kurt curled in on himself, resting his forehead against his knees and grasping his rosary tightly in his hand as he cried silently, overcome with conflicting emotions as the reality of Twyla's sacrifice sunk in. He didn't know how long he stayed like that, sobbing quietly in the middle of a burnt out hallway, but he just couldn't bring himself to rise, even to search for Twyla's mother.

"Kurt Wagner, you have to come with me. Now."

Kurt stirred, but did not look up.

"Bitte, Fraulein," he whispered, his voice hoarse and tight. "Let me stay, just a little longer. Just one more prayer..."

Rowena sighed, then crouched down beside him, placing a surprisingly gentle hand on his shoulder.

"Kurt," she said, "please believe me when I say I understand how you are feeling. But, you must understand that the implications of what Twyla has done are huge and far-reaching. It won't be long before the resulting timestorm rips through your reality like a hurricane as all the changes made to this timeline – as well as to all the others she has affected – are implemented. Please, come with me now. Ororo is already waiting for us outside."

Kurt looked up at last, his blue eyes red and puffy with tears. Casting one last glance at the end of the hall, he nodded once, then slowly rose to his feet.

"What about Twyla's mother?" he asked, his entire demeanor tired and subdued.

"She will be fine," Rowena assured him. "Twyla saw to it that the flames didn't touch her. She is quite safe."

"But she will wake up to learn her daughter is dead."

Rowena looked over at him, her brown eyes pained.

"I know," she said. "She will likely be told there was some kind of electrical explosion in her daughter's room, originating from the wall socket. The fire was localized and quickly contained. Only, Twyla didn't make it."

"But, there is no body..."

"Temporal inconsistency is out of my jurisdiction,” Rowena said. “I deal in history. I state things as they happen, as accurately and objectively as I can. I do not make up my facts. This matter will no doubt be relegated to my sister's department for clarification."

Kurt tilted his head.

"You have a sister?"

Rowena nodded.

"And two brothers. All employed in the service of Otherworld. So, are you coming or not?"

*******

Ororo ran to meet Kurt as he limped from the house with Rowena, his pale face drawn and streaked with tears and soot.

"Kurt!" she exclaimed. "Are you all right? What happened in there?"

"Twyla's gone, meine Liebe," he said, taking her hand in his. "She saved her mother and all of us. But, the cost was her own life."

"The Twyla I was chasing vanished into thin air," Ororo said, her eyes widening as understanding dawned. "I didn't realize— Bright Goddess…"

"My scanner has regenerated enough power to allow me to open a single portal," Rowena said, though her tone was far more gentle than usual. "I suggest you both step through as quickly as possible, before the timestorm hits."

"What about you?" Ororo asked, breaking her gaze with Kurt to look at her.

"I'll go back in the house," Rowena said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "That's the epicenter, the place from which all this chaos originated, and it is the only place that won't be affected by the shifting timeline."

"You mean, you'll be able to remember everything?"

"I have to," Rowena said. "I must include all this as a footnote in my cohesive history of the multiverse."

Kurt and Ororo exchanged a glance.

"A footnote?"

"This reality will soon cease to exist," Rowena explained. "Once the timestorm passes through, every action, every event, every thought that Twyla influenced will be erased. Everything that follows now will follow because of Twyla's sacrifice. Events will play out as they would have done if none of you had ever met her."

She tapped at her scanner's keypad and a portal opened behind them, leading to the darkened grounds of the Xavier Institute.

"Step through, please."

Kurt's eyes widened.

"But – but that means..."

He shook his head, staring down at his ten, slender fingers. Then, he turned to Rowena, his expression determined through the soot that streaked his smooth, pale face.

"I don't want the changes to affect me," he stated firmly. "I don't want to forget. Let me stay."

"But Kurt," Ororo said, her eyes narrowed in confusion. "If you don't go, you'll never get your powers back. You'll have to remain a human for the rest of your life."

Kurt smiled, just slightly.

"I was always human, Liebling," he said. "And, believe it or not, it was only this week that I fully realized that. But, if regaining my powers means I must forget everything that has happened since my transformation – forgetting about Twyla, and... And that moment in the park? When you told me that you love me..."

His blue eyes glittered warmly as he brushed his fingers against her cheek.

"Then, I don't want them back. I can live without teleporting, meine Liebe. I can even live without my tail. But, I cannot live without you."

Ororo took in a shaky breath, her own blue eyes filling with tears.

"Oh, Goddess, Kurt!"

She pulled him into a tight embrace, not knowing whether to scream at him or use her powers to beat some sense into him. She had never loved him more than at that moment, but there was no way she would ever let him make such a sacrifice for her. She loved him too deeply for that.

"Kurt," she said at last, breathless and trembling. "You asked me a question before, do you remember? On the roof of that skyscraper?"

Kurt blinked at her, uncertain where she was going with this.

Ororo continued, her eyes bright with passion and unshed tears.

"Well, the answer is yes, Kurt. And, I have never meant anything more sincerely in my entire life. I love you. I've loved you since I first saw you, suspended upside down in that abandoned church. And, I never had the courage to do anything about it...until now."

Ororo had been slowly maneuvering them closer to the open portal all the time she was speaking, keeping her arms securely around Kurt so he wouldn't notice what she was doing. Now, she let him go, pushing him backwards even as she finally let her tears begin to fall.

"I will remember, Kurt," she promised, her heart twisting at his startled, disbelieving expression as he stumbled, off balance, through the portal and fell onto the lawn of the Xavier Institute. "I'll remember for both of us."

She stepped back, watching the portal snap shut with a crackling SHAZZP! Then, she buried her face in her hands, giving herself over to her tears.

Far off in the distance, a faint roar began to sound. Rowena looked up, then turned to the sobbing Ororo.

"The timestorm has begun," she said, placing a guiding hand on her arm. "Come. We must get inside."

Ororo nodded, and sniffed deeply, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.

The two women hurried back into Twyla's house and closed the door behind them while, outside, the swelling tide of changing time crashed and swirled. A raging testament to the sacrifice of an unsung hero.

To Be Concluded...

...and then, some deleted scenes! Stay tuned, and please let me know what you think! :D

Chapter Text

Well over an hour had passed since Ororo and Rowena arrived on Otherworld.

Shortly after the timestorm ended, Rowena had punched an emergency code into her rapidly dying scanner. A moment later, a portal had opened in the center of the Todds' living room and a short, scruffy man in a visor cap, baggy pants, and a dingy tank top had stepped out.

"This is Bert," Rowena had introduced. "Bert, this is Ororo Munroe.”

“Howdy,” the little man said, his voice surprisingly deep and hoarse.

“Bert works in my sister's department,” Rowena continued. “It's his job to repair temporal inconsistencies, such as unauthorized tampering with the timelines and the sudden disappearance of individuals, such as Twyla Todd, who have died or have been recruited to join our staff on Otherworld. He is the best there is at what he does."

Bert grinned at them, then tossed Rowena a square box with one round, red button in the center.

"Upstairs?" he asked, his voice surprisingly deep and hoarse.

Rowena nodded.

"Thank you, Bert."

"No prob, Historian" he rasped. "Incredible, what she did. Don't think I coulda done it."

"Yes," Rowena agreed. "Twyla Todd was a remarkable young woman. She will not be forgotten on Otherworld."

Bert nodded, then turned away and jogged up the stairs.

Rowena looked back to Ororo.

"You're going to have to return with me to Otherworld," she said. "Once I give my report, however, I am certain Roma will allow you to retain your memory, at least in part."

Ororo straightened.

"In part? And, what do you mean, 'allow' me?" she demanded.

Rowena raised an eyebrow.

"It is highly irregular for an individual who has experienced a phantom timeline to be allowed to retain her memory of said timeline once she is returned to her home dimension," she said. "The resulting instability could prove extremely dangerous. An entire repair crew would have to be called in, and her memory would be wiped anyway. Given these circumstances, though, I don't believe that will be the case here."

She pressed the red button, opening a wide portal into a long, highly polished corridor. Then she smiled, her brown eyes surprisingly warm.

"What you did was very brave," she said. "Don't worry, Ororo. I'll make it work."

Ninety three minutes later, however, Ororo Munroe was beginning to have her doubts about that.

The corridors of the sprawling, airy building positively bustled with all manner of beings in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Dozens of people continuously entered and left the conference room, but she saw no sign of Rowena.

Ororo sighed as she wandered past the preoccupied beings into a very large, very empty room with many windows. She strolled absently across the polished floor until a sparkling glass chess set caught her attention.

From the look of the board, there seemed to be a game in progress, but there was no sign of the players. She bent down to examine the intricately carved pieces, then stood back, blinking in surprise.

“Why…it’s Kurt!”

The transparent chess piece stood straighter than Ororo had ever known Kurt to stand as a mutant, and he wore a strange uniform with pointed shoulders she had never seen before, but there was no mistaking his face, his tail, his pointed ears…

Clearly, this chess set was meant to depict an X-Men team. But, from which dimension?

Overcome with curiosity, Ororo leaned back over the board, peering closely at the faces of the figures in play.

Only one other was readily recognizable to her. She looked rather like Kitty Pryde, but her hair and uniform were different and she appeared older, more self-possessed than the young girl she knew.

The rest of the pieces – a tall young woman with short-cropped hair and large eyes who bore some resemblance to Jean; a huge, muscular man with a strangely pained expression; a slender, though voluptuous, woman with pointed ears – they were all strangers to her.

Ororo sighed and moved away to sit on a nearby windowsill, trying hard to contain her impatience. Her mind whirled with uncertainty and doubt as she replayed those last moments before the timestorm hit over and over again.

Had she done the right thing when she pushed Kurt though that portal?
She had thought so at the time, but now, alone in the vastness of this strange, busy place, she wasn't so sure. Kurt's experiences as a normal human had changed him, changed both of them. If none if it had ever happened...

"Ah, there you are!"

Ororo looked up from her dark musings to see Rowena striding toward her from the corridor. The long-haired young woman seemed calmer, brighter than Ororo had ever seen her, but she still retained the reserved formality that seemed a part of everyone she had seen during her brief time in Otherworld.

"You've found the chess set, I see," Rowena observed as she approached, and her lips tipped into a slight frown. "It was the trial preparations that delayed me so long in getting back to you. For that, I apologize, but it couldn't be helped."

"Trial preparations?" Ororo repeated curiously.

"Captain Britain from Earth 616," Rowena said, pointing to the figure of the muscular man, "fractured Nightcrawler's femur after provoking him into a fight, blatantly violating Morality Code #9222765 Paragraph 476W of the Captain Britain Corps. It seems he believed Nightcrawler to be in love with Meggan," she gestured to the voluptuous woman with the pointed ears, "and plotting to steal her away from him. Captain Britain's fears were, in fact, groundless, as Meggan is hopelessly in love with the man, and he and Nightcrawler talked the whole thing out after the fight, but such unseemly behavior cannot be overlooked. His court martial is scheduled to take place in three hours and, as Head Historian, I must be in attendance."

Ororo nodded, marveling at how hectic everything here seemed to be: always one thing after another, crisis after crisis, without any time for relaxation in between. No wonder the people appeared so brusque…

"As for you," Rowena continued, "I talked with Roma about your situation. Unfortunately, she believed that the risk to your timeline would be too great if we were to allow you to return home with your memory intact. However," she said, holding up a hand to forestall Ororo's objection. "Thanks to my argument on your behalf, the memory wipe will be selective."

“What exactly do you mean by ‘selective’?” Ororo demanded.

Rowena offered a reassuring smile.

"Don't worry, my friend," she said. "We do this kind of thing all the time, and there have never been any ill effects – well, aside from that odd phenomenon you Earthlings have termed déjà vu."

Ororo frowned, her brows knitting together, but before she could say anything, Rowena opened a portal in the center of the large room.

"How..." Ororo started, then paused and took a deep breath.

"How much will I remember?" she asked.

Rowena regarded her.

"Do you love Kurt Wagner?"

Ororo smiled.

"Without a doubt."

"Then there you are. Step through, please," Rowena said, holding her arm out like an usher. "And may the best of luck go with you."

Ororo looked through the portal, startled to realize it opened to her greenhouse. The sun was just setting, casting a warm, golden glow over the exotic flowers and causing the dust and steam suspended in the humid air to sparkle like diamond-dust.

That's when she remembered...she had been tending her new hibiscus when she had received the initial call to Charles's office...

With a last, grateful look to Rowena, Ororo straightened her shoulders and stepped through the portal.

It snapped closed with a bright flash and Rowena smiled a very slight, gentle smile. Then she turned on her heel, her long hair swaying behind her as she rejoined the growing crowd in the corridor, making her way back to the conference room and the impending trial of Captain Britain 616.

*******

Ororo Munroe finished patting down the soil around her new hibiscus plant, then rose to her feet and turned toward the sunset, stretching out her stiff muscles with a sigh of relief.

As she looked through the steam-streaked glass walls of her greenhouse, a glimmer of movement caught her eye; a pair of shadows moving through the golden light. A bright smile spread over her face and she quickly wiped her dirty hands on an old cloth, dropping it to the floor as she rushed out the door…

*******

Kurt Wagner grinned, his sharp white teeth gleaming in the moonlight as he walked with Logan through the grounds of Xavier’s school. They had just finished a training game which – to the Wolverine’s chagrin – the blue-skinned newcomer had won with little real effort, and were on their way to break out some beers from Logan’s forbidden stash.

"I should challenge you to duel in the Danger Room sometime,” Kurt said. “Then, you would certainly get a surprise!"

"Duel?" Logan repeated. "You mean, with swords?" He shook his head, incredulous. "You're jokin' with me, Blue. You don't seriously expect me to believe that you are a fencer?"

"I am a master swordsman," Nightcrawler retorted, his spaded tail swishing behind him as he proudly drew himself up to his full height. "As well as being an Olympic class acrobat. If you were surprised by the simple little game of hide and go seek we just played, I can't wait to see your face at the opposite end of my saber."

A slow smile spread over Wolverine's face.

So, Charlie had been right. In less than an hour, Logan had found a sparring partner and a drinking buddy in a place he never would have thought to look.

"Kurt," he said, reaching out to clap the taller man on the shoulder. "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Kurt shook his head, his impish grin threatening to split his shadowy face.

"Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca. One of my all-time favorite films. Coincidentally, mein Freund, much of the action takes place in a bar..." he prompted, wagging his eyebrows.

Logan laughed.

"Right. Come on, Elf, I'll show you my stash."

The two friends walked a few steps…then, Kurt froze in place, his golden eyes wide.

"What is it?" Logan asked, sniffing the air for any sign of danger. What he sensed made his rugged face break into a knowing smirk. Especially when he realized Kurt was blushing.

Someone was coming, all right. But, he doubted her intentions were hostile.

"So," he teased, nudging his friend in the ribs. "It’s you and ’Ro, eh? When did you two become an item?"

Kurt’s tail lashed, his yellow eyes shifting awkwardly between Logan and the rapidly approaching Ororo Munroe.

"An 'item'?" he repeated. "I do not understand. Ororo and I… We are very good friends, of course, but there is nothing more to it than that."

Logan raised an eyebrow.

"If you believe that, you're foolin' yourself, kid. You love her, I can see it as clearly as I can smell it."

Kurt scarred, indigo face burned, from his neck to the tips of his pointed ears.

"N-nein!" he stammered, "No, it is just—"

"What is it just?"

"She doesn't need that right now!" Kurt growled, trying to keep his voice low enough so Ororo wouldn't hear. "She is still hurting from losing her best friend. If she is reaching out to me now in her pain, it is because she is trying to fill that gap, to soothe her loneliness. It is not love. It cannot be. She needs to heal, and once she does she will realize that she could not—"

"Good evening Kurt,” Ororo greeted, smiling and slightly breathless as she caught up with the two men. "And to you, Logan."

"Hey, 'Ro," Logan said, and smiled back. "I was just on my way to the garage. Did you need me for somethin'?"

"Actually," Ororo admitted, her own features turning slightly pink, "I was looking for Kurt."

Logan nodded, working to maintain a suitably straight face.

"Then I'll leave you two alone. Good luck, Elf."

Kurt's jaw dropped, his tail lashing wildly as if to say, "Nein! Wait! You can't do this to me!"

But, Logan just winked, whistling as he strode away as if he didn't have a care in the world.

Kurt shot him a scathing glare, then turned to Ororo, a helpless smile plastered across his scarred face.

"Erm," he stammered, clearing his throat as he fought to regain some modicum of his composure. "Guten Abend, Fraulein Storm."

Ororo smiled brightly, her eyes gleaming with affection.

Kurt blinked, his heart quickening in his chest as his mind began to spin...

Was this a joke? Had Logan set this up? What had he said to her? Ororo had certainly never looked at him that way before…

He frowned uncertainly, taking a step back into the deepening shadows under the trees.

Ororo's smile faded, and her blue eyes darkened with concern.

"Kurt?" she asked, taking a step closer. "What is it? Is there something wrong?"

"You tell me," Kurt responded, all but invisible in the shadows. "What is going on here?"

Ororo’s eyes flicked to the ground, and she bit her lip.

Kurt tilted his head, his tail swaying slowly. Was she actually blushing?

He had never seen Ororo so nervous before. She seemed almost frightened... But of what? Surely not of him—

“Ororo…? Are you—?”

"I just came to tell you," she said, sounding uncharacteristically awkward, "they're doing a remake of Aida on Broadway. You know, Verdi's Egyptian opera?"

"Yes, I know it," Kurt said cautiously. "I have heard it is very good."

Ororo smiled in relief.

"I am so pleased to hear you say that," she said. "Because, I’ve been considering whether or not to get tickets, and I wanted…needed…to know..."

She straightened, taking in a deep strengthening breath.

"Kurt," she said, "would you like to go out with me? To the opera, I mean. It's all right if you do not want to, I will understand—"

"Was?"

Kurt stared, his limbs and heart seeming to freeze in place.

This was a dream. That was it. He had to be dreaming. There was no way on Earth a woman as gorgeous and clever as Ororo Munroe would ever ask him out on...well, what she was proposing could only be termed a date. Kurt would have laughed…if that reality wasn't so very painful.

A fierce shudder ran through him, and he shook his head. To think, for a moment he had almost believed...
But, it was time for this cruel dream to end. He pinched his leg hard with his tail, and waited to wake up.

“Kurt…?” Ororo prompted, her expression oddly vulnerable...

He pinched his leg again.

Then again.

And then, with a terrible jolt, he realized…

Ach, Gott!

Ororo was there, really there, asking him out, and he – like the big, blue Dummkopf that he was – was blowing it royally. The look on her face—! Gott im Himmel...it was enough to tear his heart to pieces…!

Ororo seemed to deflate, her posture drooping slightly.

"I…I’m sorry, Kurt," she said, her voice flat and calm. "I apologize. I don't know what made me think—"

"Nein, Ororo!" Kurt exclaimed, coming out of his temporary paralysis to step into the golden twilight, reaching out to take her hands in his.

Ororo looked down at his thick fingers, then up at his face, her eyes widening as her heart began to pound...

"I – I would be honored to go with you," Kurt stammered, his accent thickening as he tripped over the words. "How could you ever think I would refuse you?"

He smiled, his softly glowing eyes bright with emotion. He took in a trembling breath, then daringly raised her hand to his lips, kissing it gently. He had done this hundreds of times before, roguishly, playfully, but this was the first time he had ever allowed his true feelings for her to show through the charmingly old fashioned facade.

Ororo gasped at the warm tickle of his lips on her skin. Where were her shields? Ororo didn't think she had ever felt so much…

Without thinking, she rushed into his arms, enfolding him in a fierce embrace. She laughed delightedly as she felt his long, sinewy tail wrap hesitantly around her waist, and buried her face in his muscular shoulder.

"Goddess, Kurt," she breathed, "I don't know what's come over me. It's just, this feeling has been building up inside of me for so long...and I never realized what it was until I saw you just now from the greenhouse."

She pulled away slightly, but not enough to break out of the warm circle of his arms, and tail. Slowly, hesitantly, she reached out to trace her slender fingers along the intricate scars on his dark face, looking up to see her own turbulent, frightening feelings reflected in his deep, golden eyes.

At that sight, all her doubt, all her hesitation vanished, her heart lifting like a balloon with no balast. She smiled, allowing him to see the sincerity in her eyes as she confessed, "I love you." Her eyes welled up as she said it again. "I love you, Kurt Wagner. And I can't imagine why it took me so long to let you know."

"Mein Gott, Ororo!" Kurt gasped, pulling her close. "This is too wonderful, too unbelievable to be true! Ach, Gott, I have loved you for so long! But, I never dared to imagine you could ever feel the same way... You are so...so very beautiful, meine Liebe. While I…"

"You are the most strikingly handsome man I have ever met," Ororo interrupted him with a broad smile, laughing at the stunned expression on his face. "Would I lie to you?"

"I certainly hope not," Kurt said, and smiled back, his eyes shining with pure, unadulterated happiness. There was no doubt in his mind that she was telling him the truth, and Kurt felt giddy with the wonder of it.

"I love you, Ororo," he told her, his voice warm and sincere as he gazed into her eyes. "It feels as though I have always loved you. And, I know I always will."

"Kurt?"

Ororo smiled, soft and teasing.

"Yes, meine Liebe?"

"How about you stop talking now, and kiss me."

Kurt stared, then laughed, resting his forehead against hers as he whispered, "Who am I to deny the request of a beautiful lady?"

*******

Logan leaned against the side of the garage, watching as Kurt and Ororo leaned in to share a deeply passionate kiss. He smirked, then raised his beer bottle in a satisfied toast.

"Way ta go, Elf."

He chuckled to himself, then headed back to the mansion, leaving the joyful couple to share their private moment in peace.

*******

End of Footnote

Historian's Note: Since these events, a statue has been erected in memory of Twyla Todd and her bravery by order of the Supreme Omniversal Guardian Roma, daughter of Merlyn, Soverign of Otherworld. It stands today in front of the Otherworld Law Courts, placed there in recognition of Twyla's stated ambition to become a lawyer. A goal that was, unfortunately, never realized.

RETURN TO MAIN TEXT
SEE LIST OF FOOTNOTES
EXIT PROGRAM

THE END

Chapter Text

Twyla held back at the edge of the sterile, white hall to the ICU while Professor Xavier rolled his electric chair through the crowded waiting area to the main desk. She shivered slightly, looking down at her faintly glowing hands.

That reddish glow clearly marked her as a mutant. And, not just any mutant. She was the mutant who had burned down her house just a week before. She was the mutant who had left her mother to die, too consumed with her own lust for power to save her from the flames that had destroyed their lives, their home.

She was the reason her mother was here right now, hovering on the brink of death.

"Twyla!"

Twyla looked up. The Professor was beckoning her over to him.

She sighed and started forward, horribly aware of the people in the waiting area. She ducked her head as she passed by them, pulling her hands into her sleeves and praying her thick, frizzy hair would shield her glowing face from their view.

The Professor gave her elbow a reassuring squeeze as she joined him.

"She's just down the hall," he told her softly. "But she hasn't regained consciousness yet. The doctors will only allow us fifteen minutes alone, then the nurses have to change her bandages."

Twyla gave a start. Fifteen minutes! But that was barely enough time to—

"I know that isn't enough time," Xavier said, interrupting her thoughts. "But I am afraid it was the best I could do."

Twyla nodded slowly.

"I understand, Professor," she said softly. "And thank you very much for doing all this for me."

"I only wish I could do more," Xavier said, coming to a stop outside one of the thick, glass doors that lined the hallway.

"This is the one. Third bed on the left."

Twyla nodded again, and stepped hesitantly into the room.

The steady beep of monitors as she walked past the beds was as eerie as it was reassuring. On the one hand, it meant her mother was still alive. On the other, it made this whole experience seem surreal, like it wasn't really happening. This was all just a scene in a movie, a flash of a dream. As soon as she reached her mother's side, she would wake up and smile at her and they'd find themselves at home. None of this would ever have happened.

Twyla gasped, her mind falling back to reality with a painful jolt as she approached her mother's bed. If the clipboard at the end of the bed hadn't said her name, Twyla would never have recognized her.

Mrs. Todd was swathed from head to toe in bandages. Only the tips of her fingers and some of the skin around her eyes were visible, and they were red and blistered, nothing like the creamy chocolate brown Twyla had always known.

Twyla fell to her knees by the bed, her glowing eyes streaming hot tears as she gently rested her forehead against her mother's bandaged hand.

"I'm sorry, Mommy. I am so, so sorry…"

Twyla’s thoughts dissolved into incoherent sobs, her mind a whirl of pain and crushing guilt. She only came back to herself when she felt the Professor’s hand on her shoulder.

She looked up at him, blinking blearily.

"I'm sorry, Twyla," Xavier whispered, "but I'm afraid it's time for us to go."

Twyla shook her head, unable to form her chaotic feelings into words.

Xavier's eyes softened, and he helped her to her feet.

Twyla took in a shuddering breath, then turned back to look at her mother one last time.

"I love you, Mom," she said softly. "I know it probably shocks you to hear me say that, but it's really true. Please get better. I'll make it up to you. I'll make it up to everyone if you just get better. I promise."

The steady beeps from the monitors were the only response.

Twyla turned away at the gently insistent pull on her elbow, and followed Xavier from the room.

Chapter Text

Ororo led the way as she and Kurt headed for the exit to the Men's Department.

Kurt had insisted on carrying their purchases, and was too busy figuring out the best way to hold Ororo's dress without wrinkling it or letting it touch the floor while also juggling his suit and the shoe box to pay much attention to where they were going.

That’s why he didn't notice that Ororo was heading straight for the elevators until she stopped short and stretched out a determined hand to press the 'down' button.

"Ororo?" he questioned, rather startled. "I thought you hated elevators."

Ororo didn't look at him. She stood stiffly with her back straight and her eyes fixed firmly on the elevator’s sliding, metallic doors.

"This is the most direct route to the ground floor," she responded, her voice flat and slightly strained.

Kurt tilted his head.

"But, Liebe," he said, "wouldn't it be better just to walk to the escalators—?"

"It is six floors, Kurt," she said, still in that sharp, short tone. "We'd have to make our way through all those shoppers out there just to get to the first set of escalators, and then we'd have to walk the length of each floor to get to the rest. They probably designed the escalators that way so the customers would have to walk past all the stores before they could go on to the next level. No doubt it’s good for business, but it is terribly inconvenient when you want to get out of the building in a hurry."

Kurt shook his head, but the elevator doors slid open before he could protest and Ororo strode inside, turning sharply on her heel to face him. Her expression was hard and impassive, her crystal eyes glued to the far wall: the picture of extreme self-control.

"Are you coming?" she asked.

Kurt tightened his lips, his concern warring with the warm burst of pride and love he felt for her at that moment. Ororo's claustrophobia had always been her biggest weakness, and she was well aware of it, but he knew she wasn't about to let it hold her back.

Nodding his assent, he walked into the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor.

Ororo flinched involuntarily as the doors closed and elevator gave a gentle lurch. She closed her eyes tightly, her shoulders tensing.

Kurt felt his heart tighten in his chest. Carefully, he placed the clothes on the carpet and moved to her side.

"Liebe," he whispered, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Ororo balked, shaking her head and squeezing her eyes even tighter. Her breath was sharp and ragged, just this side of panicked.

Kurt bit his lip. He had to take her mind off of where they were, he knew that much. But how...?

While he thought, he became aware of a familiar song filtering through the elevator’s speakers, filling the small, confined space...

Don't you draw the Queen of Diamonds boy,
She'll beat you if she's able.
You know the Queen of Hearts is always your best bet...

He smiled softly, an idea forming in his head.

"Ororo," he said, "do you like The Eagles?"

Ororo opened her eyes at the unexpected question.

"The who?"

Kurt almost laughed. He was certain Ororo hadn't meant that as a joke, but it was a perfect opening for a ridiculous conversation. Unfortunately, this was neither the time nor the place for that kind of game.

"Here, Liebling," he said gently as he stepped forward, taking her hand and placing it on his waist. Before she could question his actions, he took her other hand in his and started moving in time to the music....

Don't your feet get cold in the wintertime
The sky won't snow and the sun won't shine
It's hard to tell the nighttime from the day...

"Just concentrate on me, ja?"

Kurt smiled at her bewildered expression.

"Don't think about where we are. There's only me and you and the music."

Ororo stared at him for a moment longer, then, slowly, her tense expression softened. She looked into his eyes, her stiff posture loosening slightly as she moved closer, wrapping her arm around his back and leaning her snowy head against his shoulder.

Kurt held her gently, afraid if he tightened his embrace he would contribute to her entrapped feeling.

Ororo closed her eyes and sighed softly. Kurt smiled tenderly, stroking her back as they swayed to the gentle melody filling the elevator....

Desperado,
Why don't you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences
Open the gate. It may be rainin'
But, there's a rainbow above you.
You better let somebody love you...
(Let somebody love you)
You better let somebody love you
Before it's too late.

The doors opened a moment before the song ended. Kurt lifted his head and looked at Ororo, a small smile touching his lips when he saw her surprised, slightly disoriented expression.

"There now," Kurt whispered, reaching out to tuck a stray strand of silvery hair behind her ear. "That wasn't so bad, now was it?"

Ororo glanced around the small elevator, then returned his smile, leaning in to kiss his cheek.

"Thank you, Kurt," she said, giving him one last hug before bending down to pick up her plastic-covered dress from the carpet.

"If you ask me," she said with a wink, "that dance was over too soon."

Kurt grinned as he gathered his suit and shoes and joined her in the narrow hall.

"Far too soon," he agreed, a playful twinkle in his blue eyes. "I suppose there's only one thing for it."

Ororo tilted her head. "What?"

"We're just going to have to come back some evening and do it again. I hear the elevator at the Empire State Building plays good music."

Ororo stared, then slapped his arm, recognizing the tease.

Kurt chuckled.

"Or, if you prefer, we could find a nice nightclub or a restaurant with a good dance floor. It won't be quite so...intimate...as the elevator, of course..." he wagged his eyebrows suggestively, "...but it might be fun nevertheless."

"Kurt!" Ororo exclaimed, struggling against her own laughter. Before he could make another retort, she surprised him by threading her hand through his arm, squeezing affectionately as she grinned at him.

"It's a date."

Kurt beamed at her, lacing his slender fingers together with hers. Then, together, they walked through the sliding glass doors to once again join the stream of pedestrians rushing up and down the sidewalk.

Chapter Text

Kurt Wagner was generally a very careful driver.

Oh, there were times when he was behind the wheel of one of the Professor's fantastic sports cars—the kinds of cars he had never believed he would be able to touch, let alone drive—that he gave in to the temptation to speed. Just a little. Just to see what those marvelous machines could do.

But for the majority of the time, when he was driving on the highway or even on the back streets of Westchester, Kurt was the perfect conscientious driver. He had to be. An obvious mutant couldn't risk being pulled over by the cops—especially an obvious mutant who was also a German citizen living in America without any official papers aside from a driver's license and a piloting license. And he only had those because the Professor had somehow managed finagle his way into getting them for him through the mail.

Today, Kurt was driving even more carefully than usual. He was no longer an obvious mutant—he wasn't a mutant at all, as his limited senses constantly reminded him—but his three passengers certainly were, and he was unwilling to risk their safety just to arrive at the mansion a few minutes sooner.

"Could we possibly move any slower?" Marti grumbled from the front passenger seat. "Dad always drives much faster than this. I can't even see Mum and Suzie and Miss Munroe anymore. At this rate, it'll be night by the time we get to the Institute."

"Well, believe it or not," Kurt retorted, a little put out by her tone, "we are actually going almost five miles over the speed limit. You would not want us to be pulled over by die Polizei, would you?"

"The cops?" Edmund piped up from the back. "Oh, brilliant! I would very much like to meet a real, live, American, New York cop! I watch Law and Order all the time at home! Lenny Briscoe is the greatest!"

"It is not so much fun to meet a cop when you are the one in trouble, mein Junge," his father said with a small smile. "And Kurt is quite right to keep to the speed limit, Marta. Remember, we don't want to attract any undue attention while we're here. This isn't our world, after all. Just have some patience."

Marta nodded.

"Patience. Right."

She sighed, turning her luminescent, green eyes to the buildings and trees lining the side of the highway.

"Daddy?" Edmund said after a long moment, his voice soft and slightly hesitant.

His father looked over to him.

"Ja, Liebling?"

"Daddy, I don't feel so good."

Marta turned to look at her brother.

"Oh no," she said. "You're not going to be sick again, are you?"

"Do you want me to pull over?" Kurt asked immediately, worried about Edmund but also concerned about the state of the seats of the Professor's new BMW.

Nightcrawler placed a fuzzy hand against his son's forehead, his brow furrowed.

"You do feel rather warm," he observed. "Are you car-sick, honey? Do you need us to pull over?"

Edmund groaned, unbuckling his seat belt and scooting over to lay his head against his father's arm.

"I don't know," he mumbled. "I just feel sick."

"Are you going to throw up?" Marta asked, worried herself now.

"I don't know!" Edmund exclaimed, moving even closer to his father. "My head hurts and stuff. I feel kind of dizzy."

Nightcrawler put his arm around the boy and sighed.

"We're almost there, sweetling," he said soothingly, stroking Edmund's straight, black hair as he spoke.

"The turn off is straight ahead," Kurt added, flicking on the blinker. "It won't be long now. Are you sure you don't want us to stop for a while?"

Edmund's response was a muffled, barely audible, "Don't know," as he snuggled against his father's chest.

Kurt shook his head, glancing down at the speedometer as he carried out a silent debate in his head. The speed limit was thirty-five miles per hour for most of the way back to the mansion, but he had observed that most people managed to get away with forty-five. Sometimes even more. Besides, this was an emergency. Edmund was getting worse by the minute.

Kurt pursed his lips, praying that, if he exceeded the speed limit just this once, they would arrive without incident.

As the needle passed 40 mph, Kurt turned his complete attention to the road ahead, ready to slow down at the first sign of a patrol car. If he sped up to 50 mph, they would reach the mansion in only fifteen minutes.

"Can you hold out for fifteen minutes, Edmund?" he asked, the slight tension in his accented voice betraying the state of his nerves.

Mein Gott, he thought to himself, here I am with a car full of obvious mutants from an alternate dimension going almost twenty miles over the speed limit on a frequently patrolled road. In a red sports car, no less. Bitte, Gott, let the cops be away on their coffee break or something...

"Think so," Edmund muffled. Then he moaned, clutching his head and curling into a tight ball on the seat.

"Ow!" he exclaimed, his hazel eyes filling with tears. "Daddy, my head really hurts. I want to go home! I want Mummy!"

Nightcrawler shared a helpless look with Marta, pulling Edmund onto his lap and holding him securely against his chest as he continued to smooth his hair and stroke his back.

"It'll be all right, sweetling," he soothed, his tone gentle and reassuring despite his rapidly growing worry. "Just close your eyes, ja? Daddy is here. Try to go to sleep."

Edmund nodded with a sniffly, muted sound, closing his eyes and sticking the spaded tip of his tail in his mouth.

Nightcrawler swallowed, a spike of fear causing his own tail to shudder. Edmund hadn't sucked his tail since he was very small. Whatever this was, it wasn't car-sickness.

Nightcrawler ground his teeth, clenching his fist as a burst of frustration exploded within him. There was nothing he could do until they reached the mansion. His family was lost in a strange, potentially hostile dimension, his son was sick, possibly seriously so, and there was nothing he could do.

He snorted softly. Some leader he was. A crisis hits and he's just as terrified a raw recruit. What would Scott do in a situation like this...?

"Dad?" Marti asked, interrupting his thoughts. Her green eyes were wide with concern. "Is Eddie going to be OK?"

"Of course, Liebling," he assured her, praying with all his might that he was speaking the truth.

Marta bit her lip nervously, but nodded, turning back to face the front.

Nightcrawler sighed, then began humming softly, holding his son close in his arms.

Edmund moaned, but didn't open his eyes.

Kurt listened to his double as the man hummed low in his throat. He didn't recognize the tune, but it was soft and soothing; probably some kind of lullaby.

He glanced over at Marta, her chin propped against her fuzzy, indigo knuckles as she looked out the window, and a strange, almost painful feeling washed over him.

He could see himself in her features, a true family resemblance.

He flicked his eyes up to the rearview mirror, catching a glimpse of his Doppelganger cradling his son in his arms, and found himself overcome by an unexpected twinge of sullen bitterness. He shook it off at once, embarrassed and slightly guilty that he would feel that way, but even so, he couldn't stop himself from wondering if the fuzzy mutant behind him realized how very lucky he was.

"Erm, Kurt?"

It was Marta. Kurt looked over at her, his brow furrowing as he noticed her alarmed expression."

Ja? What is it, Marta?"

"A car with flashing lights just pulled up behind us. I don't know if that means anything, but..." She trailed off with a pointed wince.

"Ach, Gott!" Kurt exclaimed, hitting the break at once. "It's the cops! Maybe they won't—"

His words were cut off by the sudden wail of a police siren. One of the cops stuck his hand out the window, gesturing firmly to the side of the road.

Kurt swallowed, cursing softly under his breath. His heart was pounding and his face suddenly felt very cold.

"Daddy," Edmund's weary voice spoke up from the back. "Kurt said a swear."

"It's all right, Edmund," Nightcrawler told him. "He had good reason."

He turned his head to look behind them, a colorful stream of curses rushing through his own mind.

"What do you propose we do, Kurt?" he asked.

"Surely we're not going to pull over!" Marti exclaimed, turning around in her seat. "I thought you said mutants were feared here. What if they arrest us?"

"We don't have a choice," Kurt said helplessly, moving to the side of the road and coming to a stop. "I can just see the headlines, ja? A car full of dangerous mutant terrorists, all of them illegal aliens, led the police on a high speed chase through Westchester yesterday evening..."

He shook his head firmly.

"Nein. We will just have to stop and pray for the best."

"Marta," Nightcrawler ordered, shifting his position slightly as he pulled the old picnic blanket out from under him and draped it over his head and shoulders, covering himself and Edmund as best he could. "Pull your blanket back over your head, and keep your hands and tail hidden. It is starting to get dark, and the air is chilly. It's a long shot, but it might work."

Marta scowled slightly, but nodded, doing as she was told without argument.

Kurt swallowed hard, his blue eyes glued to the rearview mirror as he watched the two cops behind them. They were apparently discussing something. He hoped they were only arguing over whose turn it was to write the ticket.

Edmund moaned again, louder this time.

"It's OK, Edmund," Nightcrawler assured him. "This is just a small delay. We'll be at the mansion in no time."

"But I want to meet the cop," Edmund whined weakly. "I don't like this blanket. It smells."

Marti snickered from under her own blanket, but sobered instantly when she looked into the side mirror. One of the cops had had gotten out of the car and was now headed toward them.

"Here he comes," she said softly, her eyes wide and glowing in the dimness.

Kurt nodded and lowered the window.

The cop walked up to him and bent down slightly, a grim expression on his chiseled face.

"Good evening, officer," Kurt said, and smiled.

The cop just looked at him.

Kurt's smile faded slightly.

"Are you aware that the speed limit in this area is thirty-five?" he asked sternly.

"Yes sir," Kurt answered.

"Did you know that you were going fifty-seven miles per hour?"

"Yes sir," Kurt acknowledged.

The cop nodded slowly, then squinted.

"What's with the blanket, kid?" he asked, looking directly at Marta. "You cold or somethin'?"

Marta shrugged, flashing him a rather hesitant smile, careful to keep her fangs hidden behind her lower lip.

"Or somethin'," she said.

The cop tilted his head a bit, looking from Marta to Kurt, then back to Marta.

"You guys aren't from around here, are you?" he observed.

Marti shook her head.

"No," she said. "Or rather, we're not—my father, brother, and I. But he is."

She gestured to Kurt with a blanket-covered hand.

The cop glanced into the back seat, then shook his head.

"What is it with you guys and the blankets? And, if you live around here," he said, looking sharply at Kurt, "you should know that it's illegal in this county for kids to ride around in cars without a seatbelt."

Edmund sat up on his father's lap, looking the cop straight in the eye.

Nightcrawler tightened his embrace, holding him still under the blanket.

"My son was wearing his seatbelt, officer," he explained, keeping his eyes slightly downcast so the cop wouldn't notice that they glowed yellow. "But he started feeling sick, so I let him sit with me."

The cop leaned in closer, furrowing his brow under his hat.

"Are you two twins or somethin'?" he asked. "'Cause you look exactly alike."

Kurt and Nightcrawler straightened in surprise, startled by that remark.

"Erm, ah, yes," Kurt said quickly, not about to argue with him. "We are twins. And these are my brother's children, from England."

"Is that a fact," the cop smiled, his attitude warming slightly. "I never met any real twins before. Take off that blanket for a sec and let me get a look at you both."

Nightcrawler stiffened in alarm, but Edmund leaned in close to whisper in his ear.

"It's all right, Daddy. He doesn't really see you. He thinks you look like Kurt."

"Was," Nightcrawler hissed, confused and alarmed. "But how?"

"Just watch," Edmund said, yanking the blanket off and stuffing it under the seat in front of him.

"Edmund!" Nightcrawler exclaimed, reaching for the blanket. He froze, however, when he caught sight of his hand. Pale, furless, five separate fingers...

His breath caught in his throat, his wide eyes darting to Edmund. To his shock, his son was no longer blue. His complexion was actually more similar to his mother's, but it was a lighter shade of brown. Also, there was no sign of his tail.

Marta turned in her seat, then gave a short, stifled shriek when she caught sight of her father. Hurriedly ripping off her own blanket, she stared in gape-mouthed astonishment at her ten, pale fingers, reaching up to pull a curl of hair down in front of her eyes.

Instead of the deep, vibrant red she was used to, it was a more natural, carroty color.

She swallowed hard, looking behind her for the tail she knew had to be there.

It was gone.

"Oh my God," she gasped, fighting against her rising panic. "It's contagious!"

"What is?" the cop asked, backing away slightly.

"What's the kid got?"

"We're not sure," Kurt told him truthfully, struggling valiantly to control his own confusion and fear.

What in the world was happening? Could this have something to do with that anomaly Ororo had been telling him about?

"You goin' to see a doctor?"

"Yes, sir," Kurt said. "There's a doctor on staff at the mansion where I live. In fact, we were heading there just now. That was actually why we were speeding."

"Hmm," the cop said thoughtfully. "Well, I guess in that case I can let you off with a warning this time—as long as you observe the speed limit for the rest of the way there. Just show me your license and registration and you can go."

Kurt nodded, turning to Marta.

"Marta, could you open the glove compartment, bitte, and hand me the black book?"

Marta did, although she was unable to take her eyes from her perfectly normal hands. Kurt removed the registration and pulled his license from his wallet, handing them both to the cop, who walked quickly back to his patrol car.

The four Wagners waited breathlessly for his return.

"No prior warnings, no criminal record, and you're all set," the cop said, handing Kurt his forms. "Hope you feel better, kid."

He backed away from the car with a small wave to Edmund, which the boy cheerily returned, then motioned for Kurt to be on his way.

With a sigh of deep relief, Kurt pressed his foot to the gas, careful to keep the speedometer needle just slightly above the 35 line. Once the patrol car was safely out of sight, he turned his head to glance at Marta—and gasped out loud.

"Mein Gott, you're normal!" he exclaimed, his blue eyes wide.

Marta glared at him.

"You think I didn't notice that, you great—"

She cut herself off, her jaw dropping when she saw the accusing finger she was pointing at him was covered in fine, indigo fur.

"I think I'm going to have a heart attack!" She laughed shakily, bringing her tail around so she could hug it to her chest in relief. "What the heck happened to us back there?"

Nightcrawler turned to Edmund, his golden eyes narrowed in his fuzzy face.

"How are you feeling, Edmund?" he asked, the tip of his tail twitching slightly.

The pale-blue boy shrugged.

"Better," he said. "Did you see the look on that cop's face when he thought I was contagious?" he giggled. "That was brilliant, don't you think?"

Nightcrawler wasn't amused.

"Edmund," he said in his firmest tone of voice. "Were you responsible for what happened back there?"

"What, do you mean Edmund made us look like normal humans?" Marta asked, still hugging her tail. "Of course!" she exclaimed. "And that would explain his headache as well! Oh, wow! Mum will be thrilled!"

"Why?" Kurt asked, completely confused. "What do you mean?"

"Well, Mum can sense people's fears and desires and make them real—you know, create solid illusions that can talk and things."

"And what does that have to do with Edmund?"

"Don't you see?" Marta said, "Edmund just manifested! He can create illusions too!"

"Awesome!" Edmund exclaimed. Then he frowned. "But I was hoping I'd get to be a teleporter like you and Daddy!"

"No such luck, I'm afraid," Nightcrawler said, reaching out to tousle his son's hair. "Come here."

He held out an arm while Edmund scooted up beside him, then wrapped him in a warm embrace.

"I'm very proud of you, you know," he said, tapping Edmund's nose playfully with the tip of his tail. The boy giggled brightly, stretching out his own tail to twine it together with his father's. "You really saved our bacon with that cop back there. Although, the next time you pull an illusion like that, I would appreciate a little warning first, ja?"

Edmund flushed slightly.

"I'm not really sure how I did it," he admitted. "It just sort of happened. I looked in the cop's eyes and just knew what he expected to see. So that's what he saw."

"That's what all of us saw," Marta said. "Scared me half to death!"

"Sorry," Edmund said softly. Then he grinned. "But it was pretty cool, huh?"

Marti grinned back.

"You can say that again!"

"We're here," Kurt announced as he pulled up the long driveway to the front of the mansion.

"Hey, there's Mum and Suzie by the door!" Marta pointed. "I want to be the first to tell them about Edmund!"

"No, let me, Marti!" Edmund pleaded. "Please? They're my powers, after all."

"OK, then," Marta said gamely. "I'll race you!"

She winked, then vanished in a puff of smoke.

"Hey!" Edmund shouted, jumping from the barely stopped car and running for the steps as quickly as his sneakered feet could take him. "No fair teleporting!"

Chapter Text

Rowena lowered her scanner and frowned.

"That can't be right," she muttered, waving the device back and forth as if searching for something among the oddly translucent rocks behind them.

"What isn't right?" Darkholme asked impatiently.

Marti craned her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the screen as Rowena walked by.

"For a moment, I thought..."

She trailed off, biting her lip as she tapped at her keypad.

"No, I wasn't mistaken," she said, turning back to her confused companions. "It was faint, but it was there."

"What was?" Darkholme demanded, his tail lashing with frustration.

"An energy signature, disturbingly similar to that of the anomaly. It seems to be drawing energy in the same way, only it is nowhere near as strong. And," she said, her brown eyes bright with apprehensive curiosity, "the readings are unmistakably human."

Darkholme and Kurt shared a startled look, but before either of them could say anything, Rowena walked through the forcefield, creating an odd rippling effect that marked its previously invisible boundaries. As the three of them watched, Rowena pounced on something hidden behind a nearby rock. There was a startled cry, then Rowena pushed her way back through the forcefield, one hand clamped firmly around the back of a sheepish, yet defiant Twyla Todd's neck.

"What are you doing here, girl?" Darkholme demanded, his tail lashing as he advanced on her.

Twyla cringed under the force of Darkholme's glare.

"I - I just wanted to help," she protested, looking to Kurt, Marta, and Rowena in hopes of gaining at least one supporter.

Rowena tightened her lips angrily, letting go of the girl's collar.

"You may have had noble intentions, but no good can come from this," she snapped.

Twyla straightened, forcing herself not to cringe.

"Your presence here is disruptive. Your powers are unpredictable and your genetic structure is currently in a state of flux – not to mention that the energy you are absorbing is interfering with my readings! You cannot remain in this environment without risking considerable harm."

"Then I'll risk that harm!" Twyla retorted. "I know I can help you if you just give me a chance!"

"We are wasting time with this foolish argument," Darkholme snapped, the glare he had focused on Twyla growing even more deadly. "Whether we like it or not, the girl is here, and talking about it is only going to distract us from our mission."

He turned to Rowena, his tail lashing behind him.

"What were you saying before this child so selfishly interrupted?" he asked.

Twyla bristled, but kept her mouth shut.

Rowena took in a deep breath, her nostrils flaring with frustration, then looked at her scanner.

"I have located the parasite's exact location," she said, her tone all business. "However, due to the interference caused by Miss Todd's presence," Twyla lowered her head, though her eyes were blazing and her expression was tight, "we are going to have to get closer. The readings I am getting now are tainted."

"Closer!" Marta exclaimed, looking to her father, then to Rowena. "But how? We can't leave this air bubble, can we?"

"No," Rowena acknowledged, tapping at her scanner's keypad. "But that is not a problem. Hang on."

"To what?" Kurt muttered, a moment before he was nearly knocked off his feet as the energy bubble around them gave a sudden lurch, then started rising slowly from the craggy, translucent ground.

Marta stumbled, grabbing onto his arm for support and nearly toppling them both into Rowena.

"Mein Gott!" Kurt exclaimed, bending his knees and sticking his tail out in an attempt to regain his shaky balance. He narrowed his eyes at Rowena. "You could have warned us, you know."

Rowena glanced up from her scanner.

"I did," she said.

Marti snickered, wrapping her tail securely around her father's leg as she turned to look around them. The thick, colored clouds parted before them like whipped cream. Marta had to squint as the yellowish light grew brighter the higher their little bubble rose.

After only a few moments, the last clouds parted above them, allowing them their first, unobstructed view of the interdimensional parasite. The five of them gasped as one, a terrible fear clutching at their hearts.

The parasite was horrific to behold. It was shaped something like a giant, distended stomach, but its outer membrane was coated with swirling light, oozing slowly across its surface like thick, yellow mucus. It pulsed and writhed, and it was swelling even as they watched.

Twyla gasped, looking down at her shaking hands, her breathing ragged and panicked.

The dim, reddish glow that had suffused her dark skin was deepening, brightening. As she watched, a swirling, yellow light began to flicker across her fingers – a light that matched the parasite's exactly.

"No..." she whispered, her trembling voice barely audible. "Please, God..."

Twyla cried out, clutching her head as bright pain exploded behind her eyes. Her face grew hot, everything was spinning, and, strangely, her clothes suddenly felt far too heavy. Panting raggedly, she collapsed at the knees, falling into an awkward crouch on the underside of the energy bubble, her hand pressed to her glowing forehead.

"Twyla!" Kurt exclaimed, crouching down beside her. He looked up at Rowena, uncertain whether it was safe to touch her or not. "What is it, Liebling?" he asked the shuddering young girl, his gentle voice sharp with apprehension. "What is wrong?"

"I—I don't know!" Twyla exclaimed, feeling very nauseous. "I—I'm so dizzy...I think...I think I'm going to be sick..."

Marti stared, her tail twitching nervously behind her.

"I think she's going to be more than sick..." she said, then she yelped as a bright flash nearly blinded her. Barely a moment later, the energy bubble that had surrounded them wavered and vanished.

Before her confused mind could fully grasp what had just happened, Marta found herself tumbling helplessly through the dense, acrid atmosphere back toward the thick clouds far below. Somewhere high above, she heard the distant sound of terrified screaming. It took her a moment to realize that those screams were issuing from her own throat.

"Marta!" her father's urgent voice called out from just above her. Marta turned her head to see her father was falling along with her. He stretched out his hand and Marta took it, grasping his fuzzy wrist with a frantic, desperate strength.

"I'm trying to open a portal back to Earth 816," Rowena called out, her long hair flying out behind her as she fell, "but I'm having some difficulty. I think the proximity to the parasite, along with the effects of Twyla's powers, has drained the batteries."

"Then you'd better think up some other way to get us out of here, and quick," Darkholme pointed out. "Look behind you."

Twyla turned her head, and shrieked. The parasite had sent out five long tentacles of thick, swirling light, their energy crackling in the thick atmosphere as they headed straight for them. Marta, Kurt, and Darkholme suddenly felt horribly light-headed as the tentacles began to absorb their life energy, even from that distance.

Just then, there was a muffled FIZZT below them and a small, shaky portal opened in mid-air.

"Gott sei Dank," Kurt gasped, squeezing Marti's wrist even tighter.

"It won't last long," Rowena shouted over the sudden rush of roaring wind, reaching out to grab the arm of Twyla's shirt with one hand and Darkholme's lashing tail with the other. "You are going to have to teleport us through or we'll never make it!"

Kurt and Darkholme nodded, and focused their full attention on the grounds of Xavier's mansion just barely visible beyond the portal. There were two almost simultaneous BAMFs, then the five of them were suddenly tumbling onto the short, cool grass.

The portal snapped shut behind them with a strange, fizzling sound, quite unlike its usual SHAZZP, the wind instantly vanishing, along with the immediate threat.

Marta sat up slowly, looking around with wide, green eyes as she struggled to catch her breath.

"Well," she panted, laughing a little as she looked over at her exhausted father. "Looks like we made it!"

The End