Anyway, I wanted to do something special for the rewind challenge, but couldn't think of a fic for every challenge. Then I remember you can write a fic made out of connected drabbles, and so this came into being.
Title: A Different Spring
Disclaimer: Marvel owns it all!
Challenge: Rewind, Boom!
Pairing/Characters: Nightcrawler ( Kurt Wagner ), Shadowcat ( Kitty Pryde ), The Punisher ( Frank Castle ).
Rating: NC-17. Sex and violence; neither are frequent, but they're there.
Wordcount: *drum-roll* 100/100/200/200/300/300/200/300/100/100/5
Summary: After mutant terrorists strike New York and anti-mutant riots make the city lawless, and the lives of Kurt Wagner and Frank Castle cross in a way neither of them had expected. When Kurt disappears, Kitty Pryde takes it on herself to get him back.
Author's Notes: This fic is a little odd: some slash, some angst, some action, some hurt/comfort - it's a blend. The Punisher is a little bit AU here, as is, to a lesser extent, Kurt. Written in a mad rush without a Beta, so please forgive any typos! Any comments or feedback are much appreciated.
March 18th: 2:14PM
Five million people ride the subway each day; a restless pulse of humanity flowing in and through a city of eighteen million souls, give or take a few. Fate would be taking a few that day.
Most people who heard the first blast looked up, or towards Manhattan.
There were no buildings this time, just plumes of smoke.
Many thought of their family and loved ones, and most got to see them at the end of the day.
Too many words are needed for moments like these.
This time, just one would do.
"I'd like to know what you make of this."
J. Jonah Jameson hit play on his answering machine, and a cool, electronic voice filled the room:
"By the time you hear this, six of New York's busiest subway stations will have been destroyed. The posthuman community is here to stay, America, and if you want peace and safety for this country and the world, you would best if you complied with our demands..."
By the time the recording ended, the only sound in the room filled with reporters was the slow, steady tintintabulation of Jameson's coffee spoon.
"I should go with you."
Kurt Wagner looked at his date.
"You wouldn't say that if I wasn't wearing an image inducer," he thought, putting on his coat to leave. She was a nice girl - "very open-minded" her ad read - but when the word mutant had suddenly become synonymous with the deaths of eight hundred New Yorkers, he was best off leaving her in the dark.
"I can look after myself; I've lived in this city for quite some time now, and this isn't the worst thing that has happened by far."
"At least take a cab. I've heard there's riots and..." She trailed off, not wanting to see a potential Mr. Right become a newspaper statistic but unsure how to get him to where-ever he needed to be.
"I'll see you next Friday, okay?"
She nodded, and by the time she turned to say goodbye he'd closed the door and gone.
"So," she thought, "he's a bit of a risk taker. That's fine, I can manage. Love on a rollercoaster and all."
She sat down and sighed.
"Better than the last guy: he'd been a mutant..."
Frank Castle watched the restless crowd from a rooftop.
The poor neighborhoods were the worst; violence is easier when you have nothing to lose, but even the white-collar neighborhoods had a few well-mannered protestors. This was one of the calmer neighborhoods: so far nothing more than a crowd gathered around a man with a megaphone, but from the sound of it, it wouldn't end there.
The speech, half-drowned by the sounds of the city, drifted up from below:
"The fires that have been set this day will not go out. Everything - everything - that's good in this city has been built and kept up by humans-"
A cheer from the crowd blotted his voice out.
"...Here, Jersey, California, Pakistan; it doesn't matter where your from, who your parents are, what color your skin is, today, you will take a stand as a New Yorker, as a human, and most of all, as someone will not sit down, roll over, and take a kicking from some mutie bastards who want to replace you!"
The sun began to sink behind the rooftops. There'd be blood here, no doubt, but The Punisher had bigger fish to fry.
Kurt put his cell phone away; he wouldn't make it back to Xavier's tonight. He'd been given the address of a mutant safe-house half a mile from where he was; the mansion was having too many of its own problems after the terrorist message had been broadcast, and Kurt was the only X-man in the city proper. He was on his own tonight.
The chill of the evening set in as the March twilight fled from the sky. He'd already passed six groups of protesters, and was making his way through another. The speeches were all the same - mutant hatred, the bombings, calls for action - but the crowds changed with the neighborhood. One was pretty much a gang of thugs looking for any fight; another was a crowd of middle-aged and old people looking worried. The latter would leave once the violence of the night started in earnest. Kurt never forgot the look of genuine concern in the eyes of an eighty-something woman who'd stopped him as he passed by that soap-box hypnotized crowd.
"Please, son, give him a listen," she'd said, pointing to the speaker, "It's young people like you who are our only hope against the kind he's talking about."
He was getting nearer to his destination now; only six blocks to go. There were no crowds in this neighborhood, just a few young men that were walking to where he'd come from.
Two men across the street stopped and stared at Kurt, quickly joined by a third and fourth. He quickened his pace, but they'd already changed direction and crossed the street.
"Can I help you...?"
By the time he realized his image inducer had malfunctioned, the first blows were upon him.
A first, Kurt was only aware of a black numbness; a hazy, liminal awareness of his own existence. Drop by drop, his memory of the previous evening returned, and surge of dull pain filled his body.
At least he could rule out heaven.
He hesitated in opening his eyes; if he was in hostile territory, the last thing he wanted to do was draw attention to himself.
He listened to his surroundings. Not a hospital; too quiet by far. There'd be the footsteps of doctors and nurses; the breathing of other patients. There were no sounds here.
Suddenly, he caught it; breathing. Quiet, but it was there; someone was in the room with him.
He went over his memories of the previous night carefully. Before he could either try to fight back or teleport someone had knocked him unconscious.
No, those thugs weren't organized enough to try to take him prisoner, and seemed as intent on killing him as they'd be if he'd been the bomber himself. Someone else then. Maybe someone from the safe house had rescued him?
A sharp foreboding entered into his mind and broke his internal speculation. As slowly and quietly as his battered condition would allow, he followed the small of his back with one hand to its inevitable conclusion.
A wave a relief swept through him: his tail was still there. Feeling a little more confident and intact, he ventured to open one eye, and then another.
An apartment. Good; promising so far. Now the big part.
Turning his head and tracing the faded wallpaper with his eyes, he silently turned to look at his mysterious company.
He abruptly turned back to face towards the ceiling. The face of Frank Castle could never be called a comforting sight...
March 19th: 7:35AM
A solitary beam of morning sunlight forced its way through the blinds, a search-light creeping through the darkened room as the world spun its eastward course.
Kurt woke to the dull sound of a man's foot-steps entering the room, and felt a glass pressed to his lips.
Kurt opened his eyes and looked questioningly at Frank.
"It's just water."
Kurt swallowed; if this man had wanted him dead, he'd had plenty of time to make that happen.
"And a bit of morphine."
Kurt scowled slightly.
"You'll be grateful for it; those punks cut you up pretty bad before I found you."
Frank went to leave, but paused as Kurt spoke for the first time.
"I thank you for your concern-"
With a wince, Kurt forced himself to sit up; his body felt like one giant bruise.
"-but there are some people who are expecting me. They might be... worried."
Frank pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and read out an address.
"Yes, there." Kurt said, hesitantly.
"Around 3AM last night, armed gunmen broke into that apartment and killed every living thing inside. Get some rest."
Frank closed the door behind him.
One night had completely changed the street below: the bomb that had gone off in this neighborhood had been purely human, and had looted its way through street after street once violence and greed overwhelmed any titular cause.
The scratchy monologue of a radio shouted its way through the shell of a broken storefront:
"Due to the current state of widespread violence, the government has been warning people to stay home, at least for today, preferably for two if they can manage it, but a surprising number of people are going out anyway; we'll hear more about that later."
"In other news, the mutant terrorist group going by the name "The Posthuman Liberation Front" still has not been identified, and with the body-count nearing nine-hundred and still no named suspects, people across the country are starting to point the finger at our government for not doing enough to curb mutant activities."
"Joining us now is-"
The voice cut off as someone turned it to another station.
Frank walked on and began to scroll through the numbers on Kurt's cell phone until he found what he was looking for.
Almost instantly, a woman's voice answered the ring.
"Oh thank God, you would not believe how glad am to hear from you! I thought you were dead. Where are you?"
A nervous tone entered her voice.
"This isn't Kurt."
Frank was regretting phoning already.
"Who is this? What have you done with Kurt!?"
"I haven't done anything with him; he's fine."
"Who is this?" She reiterated icily.
"Could you get me someone who's in charge?"
"How dare you-"
Frank cut her off: having one mutant to deal with was bad enough at a time like this, let alone a team of them.
Kitty Pryde slammed down the receiver.
Not now. Not when the mansion was empty bar her, Peter, Hank, and a few scared kids. Not when the mansion was under siege from every anti-mutant protest group in the state and the state wasn't that far from joining their side. Not...
She stopped herself as flashes of the morning news bled trough her mind anew.
No: it had to be now, and whether it was with forty X-men or all by herself, she was going to get Kurt out of there and make that son of a bitch pay.
The sweat ran down Kurt's face.
People rarely understood just how much effort teleportation took. Imagine trying to force your whole body into a foul-smelling soda bottle, and you'd be just halfway towards understanding what, for Kurt, was an everyday procedure. Only its brevity made it bearable.
A puff of smoke filled the room, but Kurt had only moved himself an inch.
"At least I didn't black out... this time."
The crushing wave of pain and nausea started to fade.
No, he wouldn't make it back this way; no point in sending them a corpse.
Despite - or perhaps in part due to - his banale surroundings, Kurt was growing frustrated at his confinement and dubious savior.
"Can I contact my friends?"
"I don't know, can you?" Frank said, not entirely sure himself of the X-Men's capabilities.
"As far as I can guess," - a hint of suspicion entered his voice, justified but unanswered by Frank's expression - "those men took everything I had."
Frank didn't plan on leaving him the wiser. This man was more than just a waste of time; he was a risk.
Frank shook is head; "friends" could be anyone.
"I see," Kurt continued with a certain coolness "I am a prisoner."
"The door's right there. You're free to go."
A surge of anger pulsed through Kurt, energizing his battered form. With as much dignity as any man who's clothing consists sheets pulled around his waist can muster, he started towards the door, step by agonizing step.
Frank watched the puppet-like performance in silence.
Kurt clung on to the door handle, stabilizing himself against the weight of the door and breathing heavily in an attempt to combat his dizziness. The delicate balance quickly unraveled, both literally and figuratively, as Kurt turned the handle. A loud thump filled the room as Kurt slipped to the ground, swearing internally for wearing himself out via his earlier attempts at teleportation.
"What do you know about The Posthuman Liberation Front?" Frank asked, ignoring the situation in front of him.
The biggest terrorist event in seven years had triggered off the biggest riot in history, and no-one could even put a face to it.
"What...? Oh, you mean those terrorists who... it was yesterday? The bombings?"
Frank nodded, and Kurt continued.
"Nothing. They're new to me, though," Kurt sighed, "knowing how things are for the X-Men, I would not be surprised if I know of them soon. That is, if I get back to them..."
Frank weighed the options in his mind. He could be lying; many of the X-men had been terrorists or criminals at one time in their careers. If so, this was the perfect time to force the truth out of him; but, If he was telling the truth, all he'd win by pressing the issue was a few new enemies.
Frank stood up and put a hand out towards Kurt.
Kurt stared at it a few seconds before understanding the meaning of the gesture. Grabbing a hold of it, he let himself be pulled up to standing position by Frank, and staggered quickly over to his bed before collapsing once again.
"You wouldn't have lasted a minute out there, anyway." Frank said, as Kurt folded the sheets over himself. Though the truth of the statement was evident, Kurt's pride stung a little.
If Frank couldn't find the mutant threat, then he might as well track down the human one.
"Does the name Ivan Rosencreutz mean anything to you?"
March 22nd: 10:56PM
Maybe the mutant wasn't so useless after all.
A month prior to the subway bombings, an anti-mutant terrorist group that styled itself a "humanist vigilante group" broke into the Xavier Institute, intent on obtaining information on mutants residing in the United States. Most of them were caught, but three of them had escaped, including their ringleader, Ivan Rosencreutz.
Information about every mutant in the North-East was out and the hands of people who had used it, under the cover of a city in chaos, to murder every mutant who wasn't rich or fast enough to get away.
No, the crowds that gathered that night hadn't been spontaneous. The anti-mutant sentiment that had slowly grown over the years had been watered and fed by hundreds of little "human interest" groups like this one, and their own little armies had long been ready when the terrorist starting gun had been fired.
Frank stopped his car outside the closed factory, the unseasonable frozen slush crunching under weight of his boots. Pausing, he looked up at the factory's charcoal outline, silhouetted against the umber of the night sky.
Someone wouldn't be walking out of there tonight.
"Are you sure this is the right address?" Kitty said, looking at the map of the area.
Peter turned to her.
"This is the address the man gave me. Do you not trust him?"
"I do, I just had something a little... different in mind."
Kitty looked up at decaying factory plastered with a peeling forty-year-old sign of a smiling baby. "Best-Clean Baby Foods," it read. Somehow, the enormity of whatever criminals were inside faded in light of it.
The chill of the night hit her as she stepped out of the car.
"Let's get Kurt."
From the shadows, Frank listened to the four men talk. One was Ivan Rosencreutz; another he recognized as the speaker from the rally he'd seen after the bombings; the two others he didn't recognize.
"I think we should do it again." The first man said.
"And, I keep telling you, we can't. We don't have the resources." The second said irritably. "And if we do it again, there's a bigger chance of people finding out and turning against us."
The man from the rally nodded his head in agreement.
"Public relations is our strong point. People may not know about us, but they love us; they agree with us. If that goes, we've lost."
"Yeah, the public just loves looters," the first said sarcastically, knowing he'd lost the point.
The man from the rally turned to Ivan Rosencreutz.
"Well, what do you think? We're running out of targets; we've made New York a mutant free town."
All three turned to Ivan, an expectant look in their faces.
"I think you guys might be forgetting about the big target."
They stared uncomprehendingly.
He sighed, leaning back in his chair.
"The Xavier Institute..."
"I knew it. He's not here."
Peter caught up with her.
"Well, it might not be this group who-"
"Who else could it be?" She interrupted. "These are the people who shot their way through every mutant safe-house in the city, including the one Kurt was planning on staying at. If... if Kurt's still alive, they'll have him."
Peter avoided her glance.
"And if he's not?"
"I can't think that. I refuse to. If-"
The ring of nearby gunfire stopped her from continuing, and they began to carefully move towards its origin.
A bloody scene presented itself once Kitty and Peter found the origin of the gunfire.
Three unknown dead men surrounded an old steel table, and a fourth appeared to be about to join them through the hands of a man both of them recognized: Frank Castle.
Frank pressed his gun to the brow-ridge of Ivan Rosencreutz.
"How many scumbags like you do I have to shoot to get some information?"
"What... what... what do you want... to know?"
Ivan's voice was more tremor than speech as he avoided looking at his fallen compatriots.
"Who's been helping you with this? I know you haven't been working alone."
Holding his position, Frank looked to see Kitty Pryde aiming a gun towards him.
"And you'd be Miss Pryde. Correct? Before you begin to think about shooting me, maybe you should have a listen to what _Ivan_ here has done to a few of your friends."
A face from the previous month's break-in merged with the terror-struck form in front of her as her memory connected the two.
She turned to Peter and found mutual recognition.
"So I see you three _have_ met before. Tell them, Ivan."
Ivan mumbled something incoherent.
"Since you don't feel like talking, I'll tell them then.
"You've seen the pictures in the papers. You, of all people in this city know what happened that night. You might even know them by name. Have they had their funerals yet, Ms. Pryde? Have you met their parents; their children? How would do you like to know it was planned, by these men, maybe even around this very table."
A slight tremor of rage passed over Kitty, but only Peter noticed.
"Mr. Castle, I've made this choice a thousand times, and every time it's been the same. Drop the gun."
Frank held her glance.
"You think you're the better shot?"
"I think Peter here is made of steel, and I'm made of air. I'd take our chances."
A moment of tension ebbed and waned, and Frank Castle turned his back to the two mutants, his footsteps retreating down the hallway.
"He's all yours, Ms. Pryde, but there won't be a next time."
He'd lost his chance for this night, but there'd be others, and Ivan Rosencreutz would be seeing him again.
March 23rd: 12:26AM
A light rain pattered on the roof of the car, melting the slush; Spring was reaffirming itself.
Kitty thought through the events of the night. There'd be trouble from this, no doubt about it, and she never felt comfortable being on the other side of the law. And, after everything that had happened that night, after all that risk, what did they get? Nothing: no Kurt. Not even a trace of Kurt. This "Ivan" didn't even know who Kurt was.
Suddenly, it hit her like a ton of bricks.
"Peter, turn the car around: The Punisher has Kurt!"
March 24th: 1:15PM
Kurt looked at the half dismantled radio in front of him.
He'd weighed his options; while Frank seemed to mean him no harm, there was no way of getting out of New York without his or others help, and neither seemed likely. If he tried the neighbors, the best thing he could for was a slammed door: police had stopped patrolling days ago, and whatever tenuous law-enforcement that existed here had vanished after the first night of riots.
Kurt picked up a spare screw. He wished he'd payed more attention when they'd taught him this; he'd taken it apart and put back together five times, and the _best_ result had been a radio stuck on a Golden Oldies station.
Giving up, he turned the half opened radio to a news station.
"-and the current debate is whether to get the military involved; local politicians say no, but the national government has been calling the current state of chaos an "economic" disaster"-"
Kurt changed stations.
"-asking our audience today about what they think should be done about mutants. Has the threat simply become to too hot for America to-"
He turned it off with a sigh.
March 25th: 6:24PM
"We've been at this all day."
Kitty looked at Peter; they both needed some rest.
"We'll stop after this one last lead."
"Kitty, you know... you know I want to find Kurt as much as you do."
She nodded; she already knew where this was going.
"Could it just be a coincidence that his voice-"
"It's not; it's him. I know."
Kitty said it in a way that could force even reality to change its mind.
"I believe you," Peter said, half-stifling a yawn, "I just don't understand why."
"Neither do I," thought Kitty.
March 26th: 11:02AM
Frank dropped a black bundle on the floor.
Kurt picked up the formless cloth and looked it over.
"This place isn't safe anymore: people have been on my trail for the last few days, and they're getting too close for comfort. We're heading across town, this town just killed its mutants, and you're blue. Clear enough for you? Good."
Kurt nodded distractedly, trying to figure out how to put the strange garment on.
"I'm to be a... ninja?" He said, putting an arm in.
"No, a Muslim."
"Female, to be exact."
Kitty put down the binoculars.
Peter looked out the car window and down the street.
"Looks like he's with someone."
Kitty checked again, and caught the shadowy figure of an Arab woman ducking into the car with Frank.
"So, Mr. Castle; bringing along a friend? Let's see where you two will take us."
Peter started the car.
By the eighth block, they knew Frank had spotted them; he was better than them at this game. The civility of the pursuit quickly faded: a missed red light, a sharp left turn, and the chase was on.
"How do women see out of these... contraptions?" Kurt said, pulling at the tiny gauze window from which he viewed the world. As he sat back in his seat, the keyhole view disappeared under a slump of cloth.
He turned to where he assumed Frank was.
"Who do you think these people are?"
"Half of New York wants me dead; I'm not going to stick around to find out. Probably some of Ivan's thugs. A couple of your friends stopped me from taking care of him, so the word's out I'm not friendly to their cause."
The two X-men stared at the back of an old Toyota.
"I can't believe we lost them." Kitty said, half-wishing she could vaporize the line of traffic blocking their way. They'd almost been tailgating Frank before _this_ cut them off.
"It's OK Kitty, we'll find him again."
"Peter, they can't be more than six blocks from here! I'm not going to just let this go. I-"
An odd look entered her eyes.
"-I've got an idea."
She turned to Peter.
"How much are you willing to risk to get Kurt back?"
"They're catching up with us? I thought you said-"
"I thought so too." Frank replied. "Looks like traffic jams aren't what they used to be."
Frank hit a sharp turn and Kurt's head thumped against the window.
"Enough!" Kurt said, tearing the cloth away from his face. "I'd rather be shot than live another second in this thing!"
Frank looked in the rear-view mirror.
"You just might get a chance to do both."
Kurt paused a second, and began looking the glove compartment.
"Do you have a map?"
"Is now the time to be doing a little sightseeing?"
Finding one, Kurt ignored Frank and slammed the compartment shut.
"How close are we?"
"To where we're going? Half a mile."
Kurt watched the alleyways fly past.
"I've got an idea, but you're going to have to trust me."
Frank didn't reply, and silently focused on the road.
"Where can we crash?"
Frank gave him a sharp glance.
"Your suicide is your business, not mine."
"I may not - thanks in part to you - look like one, but I am a very much a Catholic. We don't do that."
Peter breathed deeply.
"Tell me don't have to do that again."
Kitty Pryde looked through her binoculars.
"Nope. Straight ahead from here."
Peter sulked a little.
"I hope we didn't leave any exhaust in their living rooms. Or bedrooms. Or dining-"
"They'll be fine. A ghost car drives through their living room? They'll be talking about it for the rest of their lives. Besides, I phased us through: you just did the driving."
Suddenly, the air was filled with the metallic screeching of breaks as the car they were following stopped by a one-way alley.
"Why should I trust you?" Frank said, his foot ready but undecided at the gas pedal.
"Because I owe you a debt." Kurt replied, keeping his eyes on the approaching vehicle.
"That's a good reason not to trust someone."
Kurt watched the car slowly approach.
The car stopped.
A door began opening.
He turned to Frank, the stillness of the car apparent.
Frank pushed the gas pedal down.
"Are you sure you sure you can do this?"
Kurt stared thoughtfully at the brick wall rushing towards them. In the very last second, he spoke.
The moment Kitty reached the alley a din of crushed steel and broken glass filled the air.
Peter came and stood beside her.
"I knew this was a bad idea! Do-."
He felt a few droplets fall on his face; the fine mist of the day had thickened to a light rain.
"-don't you think we should help?"
Kitty shook her head slightly, and began walking towards the wreckage.
"Let's find out just what we're looking at."
Kitty stopped short of the driver's window and took a deep breath.
Time to face the music.
Somewhere Else, At The Exact Same Time...
Frank felt a tremendous crushing sensation, and his lungs filled with the scent of burnt matches. After a split second fall, the ground hit him like a punch.
As the smoke cleared, the rooftop began to come into focus: they were ten stories up.
He turned around to look for Kurt, and found him lying face down a feet away.
With a grunt, Kurt turned himself over.
"I landed on my feet," Kurt said, wiping the grit off his clothes, "I merely didn't stay on them."
The chill rain began to soak into the remains of his baggy clothing.
"I should be better than this," he thought, meaning it in both senses of the term.
After several attempts to get up, he gave up, and turned to Frank.
"How far are we from where we're going?"
"Two blocks." said Frank, looking at the disheveled mutant.
"Need a little help?"
Limping, Kurt got to his feet.
"My dignity is worth a little pain. After all, it only hurts in one leg-"
Kurt felt his balance start to collapse.
"-but... a shoulder _might_ be appropriate."
Slowly, they made it towards the exit.
"I'm not usually like this..."
The rain increased to a downpour as Kitty and Peter quietly drove North.
Peter was the first to break the silence.
"We can keep looking, if you want to."
Kitty shook her head.
"Something weird is going on, and at least... we know he's alive."
The image of the empty car crash swirled around in her mind. The entire search had merely given her mountain of unanswerable questions, and a few bad sights that would return to her years later in nightmares.
She picked up her cell and dialed the mansion.
"Hank... when are Scott and Emma coming back?"
Kurt took in his surroundings.
"This is much more like what I'd expected of..."
"Yes." Kurt said, stretching himself out on the bed.
This place was entirely unlike the last. Where as the other apartment could have belonged to anyone, no-one would have mistaken these rooms for a middle-class home.
The entire apartment was underground; a basement refitted to suit the very peculiar needs of its tenant the impression of an armory storehouse was unmistakable, and only the furniture hinted otherwise.
"Try to get some sleep while I'm gone: there's only one bed."
Frank stripped off his soaked clothes.
He'd had no luck that night: the anti-mutant riots had died down to a dull murmur in press, and finding leads to bombers seemed all but hopeless. If either groups were planning something, they were being damn cagey about it.
He glanced at the blue mutant occupying his bed.
Sound asleep, by looks of it, but he needed the sleep as much as Kurt did.
He went to wake him up, but stopped as he drew near. The bed was _almost_ big enough for two, and Kurt was a little smaller than him.
Feeling the weariness of the day on his shoulders, he slid into bed beside him, and turned off the light.
After minute or two after drifting towards sleep's sweet umber, a sensation jolted him awake: _something_ was creeping up his leg.
Instinctively, he reached for his gun, halting as he realized what is was: a tail. Specifically, the tail of the man beside him.
"What do you think you're doing?" Frank said, keeping a level tone in his voice.
The tail stopped its upward slither, and two pools of light illuminated the darkness. A reproached look appeared in Kurt's eyes, but he neither answered Frank nor removed his tail.
After a minute silent but for the two men's breathing, the tail returned to its earlier course, the tip edging its way over Frank's testicles to its inevitable destination.
Frank let out a sharp breath as he felt the tail tighten its grip around his cock, its gentle rhythmic pulse massaging him to a firm erection.
Frank felt Kurt start to sit up.
"Save yourself the trouble," Frank said, putting a knee on either side of Kurt's head, "this one's coming to you."
"I just want to know what's happening to him right now." Kitty said, her worry overcoming her usual restraint around Emma.
Emma paused before responding, skimming Kitty's mind for basic information.
There was never any rest at the mansion; ten minutes off the plane and she was back on the job.
"Alright, alright; since you've lost him I may as well find him again."
She sat down, and began to reach out into the ether.
Kitty and Peter watched her face travel through a number of different expressions. First there was a genuinely puzzled, almost questioning look; then the slightest hint of an amused smile; finally, a wave of tiredness entered her features.
Her expression returning to her normal detachedness, and she stood up and began walking out of the room.
"What?" A flush of anger ran through Kitty's face "You're not going to tell us?"
Emma stopped and turned to her.
"Kurt is very much alive and in this state; whether he's well or not depends entirely on your definition of the term; he's healthy. Before I say anything more about him, I must speak with Scott."
Even after the initial shock had faded, Emma's words still rang in Kurt's head.
"...Kitty will you pick you up at 11:30. Don't be late, or early; the city is still dangerous."
She must have known; she _had_ to have known, and, by now, everyone must know. What would they be thinking at the mansion? The very thought tired him, though his mind was far from sleep.
Slowly, with his mind rushing through a hundred thoughts and memories, he made his way to the door.
A firm hand on his shoulder stopped his progress.
"Just so you know: your friends aren't necessarily _my_ friends. If you lead them back here," - Frank held his gaze intensely - "I'll do what I have to to protect myself."
Kurt nodded and reached for the door.
"Thanks for... everything."
The door shut, and the empty silence of the apartment resumed its normal course.
Frank thought of what the area had looked like during the anti-mutant riots; there'd still been only a handful of arrests. Maybe he should keep an eye on-
The door reopened, and a now familiar blue face appeared.
"How can I find you again?"
"Kurt! Are you okay? I'm just so glad to see you again!"
Kitty hugged him, completely oblivious to the rain soaking into her clothes.
"I'm fine, let's..." - he glanced nervously at the darkened streets - "get out of here."
They got in the car, unaware of the shadowy presence of Frank watching them from the rooftops.
A steady monologue of curiosity and concern flowed out of Kitty as they drove towards Westchester County.
"What's... happened? If it's too soon, I won't ask..."
Kurt looked questioningly at her.
"Emma hasn't told you yet?"
"No, Emma hasn't said anything. I wish-"
She held off an unkind remark: now wasn't the time.
"I noticed you were limping a bit..."
"Yes," Kurt said, "I've had a few accidents."
"Caused by who? I know you: you don't just fall over."
"Rioters. And... landing in the wrong place."
"I wish I'd been there. They'd be sorry they even looked at you."
Kurt laughed a little.
"I'm sure they would, but I had a... guardian angel, if you will."
"Who?" Kitty said, thinking back to the night, "I thought all the mutants-"
"It wasn't a mutant, it was a human."
A moment silence passed between the two.
"That human wouldn't be _Frank Castle_, would it?" Kitty said.
A dark look passed over Kurt's face.
"So Emma has been saying-"
Kitty shook her head.
"Emma hasn't said squat. I got a call from him. It didn't end well."
She sighed, and the tension drained out of her voice.
"At least you got away from him."
Kurt almost responded, but decided against it. There'd be time for that later; right now, it was just good to be home.
March 27th: 3:30PM
"You asked to see me, Mr. Wagner?"
Kurt sat down and watched Emma sort through the paperwork of the morning.
"It's about last night." Kurt said, a certain unsteadiness in his voice.
Emma put down the papers, and turned her chair to face him.
"Kurt, I know where this is going, so I might as well stop it in its tracks.
"As you already know, I am a psychic. As obvious as this fact sounds, it seems a great many people are want to forget it. Being a psychic, I get to learn more about the inner workings of peoples minds than I'd care to.
"The X-Men are a very varied group. Among the best and brightest are the eccentrics, criminals, and madmen; often all combined in the same person. It is not my position to judge them, and only when they become a risk to others will I even mention their quirks.
"Whatever business you have with Frank Castle is yours, and yours alone. Neither myself - nor the X-Men - will be held to account for it.
Without bothering to wait for an answer, Emma returned to her work.
They never spoke of it again.
June 1st: 4:36PM
"I still can't believe you did that." Kitty said, as she and Kurt wandered through the grounds of the Xavier institute.
Kurt was already tired of the subject.
"He was about to kill you."
"You teleported his whole hand off."
"If I'd just taken the gun, he might have had another. It bought us time."
She sighed. "He was only a kid."
He stopped, and changed directions, leading her onwards.
"He wasn't just a kid. He was much older than you when you first came here, and most of all, he'd killed before. You know I don't like hurting people any more than you do, but these people... they want us dead. They'd shoot you, they'd shoot Peter; I know for sure they'd shoot me. They want us off the face of the Earth. These break-ins by anti-mutant groups are a sign of the times: the world has changed since we joined the X-Men."
"You've changed." She said, looking away.
The trees thinned out, and Kitty realized where they were.
Kurt gestured to a monument that had been completed a week before, commemorating the March 18th mutant massacre.
"In one night, all the free mutants in New York city were murdered. Think about what that means for us, Kitty. We're the last in the city. A tiny speck of a sanctuary, lost in a land that hates us."
Kitty leaned against the cool marble of the monument.
"We all know that. I'm sure there's not man or woman here who doesn't feel that from the first thing in the morning to the last minute at night. This isn't about us; this is about you.
"Sometimes," she continued, an edge built up in her voice, "Sometimes... I wish you'd never ran into him."
"Who?" Kurt said, perplexed.
"You know who. Did you think no-one noticed you sneaking off to the city? Did you think I couldn't make a wild guess as to who you'd been seeing?"
Kurt turned away from her, sensing her anger.
"You mean Frank."
"Yes." She said.
"If you wish him out of my life, then you wish me dead." He said with a cool solemnity.
"We've all saved each other's backs a dozen times; what makes that time and that man any different?"
"There's no use explaining the reasons of the heart." he said, walking back into the sun.
"He's made you violent," she said, giving up hope of influencing him.
All warmth fled Kurt's features.
"He hasn't made me anything. Yes, he's shown me a few tricks, but everything I've said or done has been said or done by me. If you don't like that, maybe it's me you don't like anymore."
Sitting in the shade of the monument, she watched him disappear back into the trees.
"Maybe I don't."
June 2nd: 7:21AM
Kitty woke up feeling cold, her dreams an unpleasant fog lingering in her consciousness.
She shook herself, and turned on the morning news, the dull droning of the presenter gradually bringing her to full consciousness.
"...What does this change in the law mean for you? Full details later. And now, more on the biggest story of the day, a suspect has finally emerged in the March 18th bombings. One Kurt Wagner has been named after newly recovered security video footage has shown him planting explosives at the site of the largest..."
Kitty picked up her phone.
"Please answer, Kurt... Please..."
Kurt looked at his phone, wondering whether to answer.
No. She'd want to do things the legal way; the legal way at a time when the whole country would like a scapegoat, and that scapegoat had just found an of-so-appropriate face.
The city was the best place to hide anyway: an image inducer was all it took to hide perfectly in a city of eighteen million.
He signaled across the roof to the last man in the city he trusted.
Frank approached him silently, the sun of the first hot-spell of the season glinting off his shades.
"You've got a minute. I'll give you that."
Kurt stared uncomprehendingly at Frank, the meaning of his words not fully sinking in.
"A minute until...?"
The penny dropped as Frank aimed a gun at Kurt's forehead.
"You believe the people in the news? You think I did that?"
"I've seen the footage; it's real. It shows a mutant who's image inducer is faulty; turning off and on. The mutant is you. You know what I do Kurt; you know my rules."
Kurt turned away from him, looking out to the city far below.
"I don't know anything anymore."
"You've got ten seconds... nine.."
"Kitty was right; things have changed." Kurt said, ignoring the count-down.
"I'm entirely alone."
Frank shot into a cloud of smoke; Kurt was gone. He'd prepared himself for this, but somehow, it was almost a surprise. There's been a lost look in Kurt's eyes than almost seemed to calmly waiting for the bullet to pierce his skulls; as though he'd just wait for the end to come.
What Frank never learned was that Kurt almost had.
June 5th: 4:36AM
Sometimes, all you can do is pray.
Kurt felt the cool stone of the Cathedral floor under his knees, his eyes closed to the beauty of the cathedral itself.
Just five minutes of peace.
That's all he wanted. Just five minutes sanctuary from the endless chase. Five minutes alone with God.
It had been a long time since he'd been here; too long.
The steady footfall of boots broke the calm of dawn twilight. Kurt didn't open his eyes. He didn't have to; he already knew who it was: the man who had followed him for three days running.
"Good place to end it."
No place was safe; no place was sanctuary.
A surge of despair ran through Kurt's face.
"Just tell me. Was there ever anything between us?"
The shot rang into the thick cloud of smoke where Kurt had just been.
"Why do you think I'm having such a hard time doing this?"
But no-one was there to hear Frank's words.
Frank looked up at the stained glass; the first red rays of morning were feigning to add a glow to the Virgin's smile.
Kitty's mind was filled with an unusual restlessness, her sleep shallow and brief, and her days spent facing the storm that seemed to perpetually surround the Xavier Institute.
Crowds had been gathering for days outside, and the X-Men were being used as unwilling spokespeople for all mutants. And always, always the same question: where's Kurt Wagner.
Kitty hated it almost as much as the break-ins.
A thought struck Kitty out of the blue, and she dialed Hank.
"Hank, when the information on mutants in New York was stolen last February... did that include information on us?"
June 8th: 1:35PM
After a week in a nightmare, Kurt had finally lost Frank.
A tracking device; Kurt should have known. A tracking device that was now deep inside a freight-car full of cabbages heading to Maine.
Frank would be back, but for this moment, for this second, Kurt could breathe.
The woman running the cafe was friendly, sixty-something, and looked both. She sat down beside him; the tourist season on Long Island was just beginning to heat up, and he was the only one in the place.
"What brings you to Golden Beach?" She said, pouring him a fresh cup of coffee.
"I needed to get out of the city for a while." Kurt said, trying to hide his accent.
"I can not blame you in the least. I thought that city was crazy when I moved here thirty years ago, but now? You won't ever catch me heading west of Nassau."
Kurt nodded, and let the woman's monologue pour out of her.
"Troubled times. I thought the worst was over when they had the riots in the spring, but I've heard they're turning the whole city over looking for a mutant. Poor man, I would hate to be in his shoes right now."
Kurt looked carefully at her; some response seemed required.
"Doesn't he deserve what's coming to him?"
She looked thoughtful.
"You know, before the riots, I would have said that, but now, I'm not so sure.
"You see me and my sister talked all yesterday about it, and we came to the conclusion he was framed."
"What?" Kurt nearly spit out his coffee in surprise.
"See? That's city in you; you've got no time or space to think down there.
"It just makes sense, you know. Everybody's been going on about mutants like mad for the last twenty years, and the bombings? I think they sent people over the edge.
"Now here comes this mutant, blue - you've seen the pictures - and looking like the Devil himself. I mean, if I was going to pick anyone to set up, it'd be him. As for who really did it-"
A phone rang on the counter, and she picked it up.
"Really... On the news... Right now? I knew it!"
She put down the receiver.
"Well weren't we just talking about that! I told you that man wasn't guilty."
She turned on the TV.
Quickly the news came tumbling out: the bombings were organized by Ivan Rosencreutz's gang in an attempt to frame the mutant community, framing Kurt using an image inducer and DNA stolen from Xavier's.
The story ended with a clip of the X-Men giving a press conference.
Kitty was speaking.
"I just want people to know that we, as a team, never stopped believing that he was innocent."
Kurt took out his own image inducer.
"I think," he said, no longer hiding his accent, "I have something to show you."
June 11th: 4:56PM
Kurt heard footsteps behind him on the pier.
"Frank." He stated, without looking.
"I hope those cabbages didn't suffer too much when you put them out of their misery."
"I'm not going to apologize," Frank said, staring out to sea.
"I'm aware of that." Kurt said, not turning around to look.
"Ivan Rosenkreutz won't be bothering anyone again."
Kurt nodded, and payed attention to a seagull that had landed by his side.
"He will be in my prayers."
The sound of Frank's boots retreated.
"Frank," Kurt said, turning to him, "I do forgive-"
Two puffs of smoke and Kurt and Frank were half a mile off-shore.
"-but I don't forget."
Kurt reappeared on the pier, and looked out to the black blob floating far out in the water.
Kurt liked it in Golden Beach. It was green, it was cool, and it was away from New York. He'd back there soon enough, but for now, he had a week to himself. A week before the real apologies began; the apologies that needed to be said.
Now, for the first time in months, he could relax. Relax and watch Frank Castle swim ashore.