Dasyatidae

Disclaimers: Marvel owns everyone, but really should be stripped of custody after turning Peter into a raging drama queen who fulfills every dippy gay stereotype and has a completely self-contradictory backstory. Nonetheless, he's still theirs to hire out. As for the rest, any similarities to actual locations in New York City are, as always, completely intentional.

"This is the last call for the 11:07 train to New Haven, first stop Stamford, boarding on Track Twenty-Seven. The last call for Stamford, Noroton Heights, Darien, Rowayton, South Norwalk, East Norwalk..."

The station names fade into the general bustle as Peter walks up the ramp and towards the westernmost exit of Grand Central Terminal. Being careful not to use too much force on the ancient swinging door, he moves quickly and seamlessly into the pedestrian traffic along 42nd Street.

A few minutes after eleven in the morning and midtown is still midtown. Even in this interlude between the morning rush on the trains just concluded and the lunchtime rush on the streets yet to begin, the streets are full of people. The crowds aren't thick enough to have to fight through, but they are at capacity.

The broad sidewalks are made narrower by a sandwich of humanity, all engaged in activities they shouldn't be. On one side office workers lean against the buildings clutching cigarettes, huddling for warmth as they stand in shirtsleeves (despite the February chill) uncomfortably obeying the city ordinances that all but prohibit smoking in public buildings. On the other side bootlegged CDs and videos, souvenirs, toys, fake Oakley sunglasses and Rolex watches are being hawked on card tables and out of briefcases by entrepreneurs calling out their wares in various accents.

Peter negotiates the middle passage, between the stink of the cigarettes and the cacophony of difficult-to-decipher sales pitches, as he heads west. The bright winter sun breaks through as he waits on the corner of Fifth Avenue for the light to change and Peter's glad for the sunglasses he thought to bring even though the sky was overcast and gray when Scott drove him to the station earlier this morning.

There's more room to move west of Fifth. There are fewer hawkers - though no fewer determined smokers - and the tourists are along the curb, busy aiming their cameras south to capture the Library and Bryant Park for posterity. The sun is out for real now and despite the glasses Peter has to squint as he passes over the white stone sidewalk (limestone? Marble?) that the WR Grace company has had put in. Bobby would love the Grace Building, a forty-something story building with a front façade shaped like a ski jump. Peter makes a mental note not to bring Bobby here lest he be tempted to try it out after business hours.

He's vaguely aware that they've screwed around with the Sixth Avenue subways, but it's not until he swipes his Metrocard through the turnstile that Peter is aware of the extent of the mess the MTA has made.  Casually, so as not to appear a tourist, he looks at the oversized map as he waits on the downtown platform. He used to be able to get there from here, but now it looks like he's going to have to take whatever comes first down to 34th and then negotiate the messy transfer to the Q there.  

The Q is an express, but it's a long trip from midtown and by the time Peter's walking down the step of the elevated train towards Brighton Beach Avenue, it's after noon. He could have taken a car and made the trip in an hour or so. Down through the Bronx, over the Whitestone into Queens and onto the Cross-Island that becomes the Belt once it hits Brooklyn and Peter could have slept in this morning and still been in Brighton before lunch.

Jean had given him crap about it when he turned down the Professor's offer of car use over dinner the previous evening. Hank had called him a chicken afraid to face traffic on the Major Deegan and Bobby had wondered why on earth anyone who could drive wouldn't. Scott, as is often the case, had gotten closer to the truth and offered to let Peter borrow the bike he'd bought and refurbished on his own. When Peter declined, Scott instead asked which train he was taking and told Peter to be ready twenty minutes beforehand.

Before Peter was first brought to America, he knew of Brighton Beach. Everyone in Russia - even in Siberia - knew of Brighton Beach. Little Odessa. It used to be a Jewish neighborhood, but all of the Yiddish signs are long gone, replaced by Cyrillic script announcing newspapers, meat, fresh fruit, or the best blini outside your grandmother's kitchen. The Russian Jews here now, unlike their Polish, German, and (yes) Russian predecessors of days gone by, are not as identifiable. They shop in the regular stores, dress in regular clothes, and live secular lives.

There are a few of the old guard Jews still around, Peter knows, but they're all elderly. They putter down the streets in pastel sweatsuits and accessorized by canes and Guyanese 'home health care aides' (moonlighting nurses and just-dropped-out-of-school-kids you wouldn't want taking care of your pet, let alone your parent) in white pants and nurse's shoes. They cause chaos in the markets because the seniors can't hear too well and neither the Guyanese aide nor the Russian clerk can understand each other's English.

Above him, the elevated tracks hang a sharp right, following the traffic, and the squeal of a Manhattan-bound train pulling out of the station drowns out the honking of cars in the complicated intersection. Russians in Brighton Beach drive no better than Russians back home and Peter knows to keep his eyes wide open even as he crosses with the light.

He's unconcerned about getting recognized by anyone in the Business. The image inducer has turned his hair blond and his features more western-Russian, taken away his strong forehead and replaced it with something more (Peter thinks) Georgian. Peter hates the look, just as he hates having to hide any other aspect of his identity, but knows it is necessary if he wants to come here. His massive size has stayed, more or less. Simple conservation of space says that you can't convince the person next to you that you weight a hundred pounds less than you do. Image inducers only work on sight, not touch.

The famous (Professor X says) Brighton Beach Baths are gone, razed awaiting a condo complex, and the only landmark recognizable to the Jewish population of yore is Mrs. Stahls, across the street from where Peter is now standing. Of course, the place is now manned by Hispanics, but the knishes are still the best in the city. The best in the world, probably. Peter knows that the kasha ones are traditional, but he's eaten enough buckwheat in his lifetime and, once inside the tiny shop, splits his order between potato and broccoli, throwing in a cabbage just because. He's not really planning on sharing the extras - except for Scott, who will get a potato one because Peter thinks he needs to know that the saffron-yellow machine-pressed pockets of mashed potato that they sell at Madison Square Garden are not the real thing. The knishes would be a waste on all of the others. Hank, Logan, and Bobby are too indiscriminate about food, Jean would give him a lesson on offering starches to women, and Ororo subsists solely on takeout and comfort food. The Professor gets one only if he asks.

Deciding to come back later to get the rest of the items on his shopping list, Peter tucks the bag of knishes into his backpack and heads across Brighton Beach Avenue and down Brighton 11th Street to the boardwalk.

It may be February and there may be a stiff wind blowing in off the Atlantic, but the boardwalk isn't empty. Even here, near the end. Peter goes over to the railing and looks out onto the gray-blue waves. In the summer, when the beach is full of sunning Soviets (it looks like a lobster fest, Peter recalls with a smile - there aren't that many people from his part of the world who can tan), you can see boats going to and fro. Here in winter, there's not even a seagull.

There isn't much of a view to the left - a little bit of beach (the end of the boardwalk is Brighton 14th) before the ridge of rocks that separates blue-collar Brighton Beach from the more upscale Manhattan Beach. You can't get over the rocks and going around them isn't something anyone does. Peter went to Manhattan Beach once, with a couple of the guys. It was the same water, same sand, same low-flying plane with a banner for the local car dealership flying overhead, but it felt different. The homes that border Manhattan Beach are private ones, nice ones that are owned and not rented and probably go back a generation or two without getting sold. The only residences that border Brighton Beach are apartment houses, temporary stops for the latest new immigrants before they move on.  

Peter isn't sure whether to count himself as having moved on or not. Moving on implies you've found a new home and, despite all appearances, Peter isn't sure he has. Not since Siberia. He considers his room in the Xavier mansion as a dormitory. It is where he sleeps, where he keeps his things, but it is not home. The Xavier mansion is part military barracks, part boarding school, part halfway house, part cult compound. But is it part home? And if it isn't, does it really matter?

 A sudden gust of wind reminds Peter that while his blood is thick like any Siberian peasant's should be, it's still cold out. He turns and moves back behind the benches and starts the slow walk southwest along the boardwalk.

There are benches and a few Parks Department trailers, one of which is a portable restroom. In the warmer weather there would be men playing dominoes and a few playing chess, but the tables are empty today.

This isn't a commercial boardwalk, at least not here. There are no carnival stands shuttered for the winter, no games, no hot dog stands. Further down there will be restaurant fronts (massive places with fancy French names despite the purely Russian cuisine), their outdoor seating all folded away. But it's February and so the air remains clear of cigarette smoke as Peter strolls by the café that his boss probably still sits in all day, every day, as he awaits payments and business visitors.

The only people out on the boardwalk today are a few pensioners and... Peter smiles broadly.  Sergei Ivanovich is still here.

Sergei Ivanovich - Peter doesn't know his last name - is a man in his seventies who marches up and down this part of the boardwalk every day rain or shine, winter cold or summer heat. He marches in full Red Army uniform, complete with medals and pins. The uniform is always immaculate and so is Sergei Ivanovich - his hair is perfectly short and in place, his face clean-shaven, and he marches in perfect cadence with his eyes straight ahead. Back and forth. Peter doesn't know if he does it all day, but in all of the time that he's been here in Brighton (which is all the time he's been here in America), so has Sergei Ivanovich.

Peter pulls out his wallet and takes out a twenty as the elderly man comes into closer view. Sergei Ivanovich has a daughter who is old enough to be Peter's mother who works in one of the salons on Brighton Beach Avenue. He's never seen her, but Vuva used to talk about her, how she'd come out to the boardwalk at sunset and try to collect her father. She's divorced and has kids and Peter knows that Sergei Ivanovich isn't drawing a pension either here or at home. So he walks up to the elderly soldier and greets him as his grandfather used to tell him he greeted soldiers back before the Bolsheviks came and ruined everything. And he slips the twenty into the breast pocket before Sergei Ivanovich can clasp his hand warmly and tell him that he's only doing his duty.

There is a subway stop between Brighton Beach and Coney Island, 8th Street. Peter has always imagined that station, two blocks northish from the boardwalk, as the dividing line. White Brighton Beach and Black Coney Island.

In the summer, it's easy to see where the line is. On one side are old men playing cards and smoking unfiltered cigarettes. They are either retirees or mob bosses, relaxing from a lifetime of working or relaxing while they work.

On the other are small posses of black teenagers who sit on the backs of the benches with their feet on the seats. They don't work, at least they don't work at anything that precludes them from sitting out all day and night every day. Regardless of the heat, they all wear their uniform (jeans six sizes too large with the crotch coming almost to their knees, similarly oversized jersey of some team in any sport, and sun visors upside down and with the brim at a ninety-degree angle from where it should be were it on properly) as they smoke menthols and talk to each other in loud voices and a dialect that nobody in Brighton Beach can quite understand. Ororo says they call it ebonics, but she wrinkles her nose indelicately when she does so and Peter's not sure if it's at the term or its necessity.

The two groups hate each other and there are occasional skirmishes. The cops usually have a cruiser parked nearby in the summer, when tempers flare along with the heat. It's rarely business-related, at least Peter's business.

On their rare turns at handing out discipline to those who would trespass on Boris's turf (a Russian hockey player, someone on one of the local professional teams, was mugged during a winter stroll on the boardwalk with his wife and their baby and his mother), Vuva would tell Peter that the blacks fight with everyone - the Russians at one end of the boardwalk and the Italians on the other.

But the Coney Island kids aren't organized, aren't in it as a profession and the trouble they make is more of an inconvenience than a threat. They commit petty theft, mostly, because they are just bored and uncivilized. Now that Peter's living in suburbia he can see the similarities between how his old bosses  treat the posses and how Xavier's groundskeeper treats the raccoons and deer that traipse through the estate's property.

The Russian community here as a whole hates their black neighbors, but Peter's always been of a slightly different mind. He doesn't hate them for who they are, he just looks down on them for what they've let themselves become. There's nothing keeping those kids on the boardwalk benches except their own laziness - the same reason it took eighty years to get rid of the Communists.

His lack of bigotry has nothing to do with being a mutant; Peter had known of his mutation long before he had ever seen a black person. He's firmly in the nurture camp in the nature-versus-nurture debate and thinks that if one of the fourteen-year-olds carrying their baby around were to give the child to a Russian grandmother to raise, the kid would grow up just like his former associate Dmitri (one of the few of Boris's boys who was born and raised in America) did. And Peter's not sure if that would be such an improvement except that they'd be quieter in public and would have a job.

Nature versus nurture. Magneto versus Xavier. Peter's not sure whether Xavier's any less dangerous than Magneto was. He likes the idea of being able to live without fear of Sentinels and lynch mobs, but harbors a secret worry that he's reliving his great-grandfather's life - Lenin was supposed to free people from living in fear, too.

Peter didn't join Magneto not out of fear that Boris would come and get him, but instead because Boris, at least, played by a set of rules. Magneto had no sense of fair play and Peter believes in honor among thieves. And Xavier, with his telepathy, does not require any more fair play than that which his own personal code of ethics demands. As they all saw with Scott.

Peter doesn't like Charles Xavier very much. And he certainly doesn't trust him. But as with Boris and with Vitali before him, Peter knows that trust is generally overrated. The problem is that Xavier isn't predictable, either. Peter can't quite get his motives... no, that's not true. He can't quite get how far Xavier is willing to go to accomplish his goals. Magneto was predictable - he'd do anything to anyone to get his way. Xavier...

A near-collision with a jogger shakes Peter out of his thoughts. The boardwalk is the only relatively open space around, and so the joggers are omnipresent, whatever the season. He mutters an apology to the scrawny woman already yards past him and chides himself for losing track of his surroundings.

Peter passes by the small group of young black men sitting on the park benches, their sun visors exchanged for ski caps and their basketball jerseys poking out from under puffy black down jackets. The seasons may change, but they do not. They talk in their dialect and smoke, obviously impressed by each other's words and deeds (if the whoops and hollers are any indication) even though all they do is sit around all day. Peter's not sure where they get the news to keep each other so entertained.

They make rude comments about the jogger and the teenaged black girl walking past them in the opposite direction of Peter, but they say nothing to or about him. Size matters, Peter knows, and while he may now look like an ineffectual tourist from the Black Sea, he's still got fifty pounds of muscle on any of them and they understand that.  He nonetheless makes sure not to break his stride because they also understand that any show of fear is cause to pounce. Six versus one more than makes up for any strength difference unless Peter wants to reveal his identity as Colossus and he doesn't want to do that. Even if he doesn't feel he owes it to Xavier, Peter feels some sense of responsibility towards Scott and the others. The X-Men don't engage in lowly street fights.

What do the X-Men do? Apart from pander to people's fears of extinction, that is. [Peter thought Magneto was right about that part, at least. There should be no shame in being who you are. Peter's just not too keen on assuming that the right to world dominion comes with the x-factor.]  

At his most cynical, Peter thinks that the X-Men are a kind of domesticated pack of beasts, like dogs or cats or the next generation of predators-turned-house-pet. See, they will fetch the stick and save the world and won't eat the baby. Xavier could teach them to do new tricks to keep the population amused, amazed, and (most importantly) with their hands off the button that would create more Sentinels. Whoring them out to save the unidentified mutant minority of the country by saving the human majority. A noble end justifying questionable means.

His opinion hasn't changed much since they got back from Finland and Weapon X. What difference was there between being hunted down and killed by American Sentinels and being treated like disposable beasts by Weapon X? But he's a little less bitter about it now. Still cynical, but it's hard to be bitter when you volunteer.

The revelation was an ugly one as he stood waiting for that train to crash into him near Nepal and it was reinforced while sitting in a cell with a very terrified Bobby Drake. 'Nobody else should have to go through this.'

Peter has killed, tortured, assaulted in many different fashions, and generally spent the last several years doing things that his parents never raised him to do. He is not an innocent. He is a criminal and were he not an agnostic, he'd be a sinner too. There is a core part of him that is good, this he knows. But he cannot hide from the rest of himself.

All of this makes him perfect for the X-Men. Forcing him to be a do-gooder, a trick pony, keeps him from doing less pleasant things like breaking the knuckles of the shopkeepers on Ocean Parkway who try to stiff Boris of his protection money. It appeals to that part of him that is still decent while making use of the skills he has learned by being ruthless. An acceptable penance for the non-believer.

But what of the others? Why should every mutant be forced to take sides? Why should Bobby Drake's options be the X-Men, the Brotherhood, or Weapon X and not include 'go back to Long Island and live a normal life'? There is no compulsory military service in America and no longer any draft (although Scott made much of his having to sign up for Selective Service upon registering to vote the other month) and the war for mutant rights should have its noncombatants.

America is the land where you can do what you want. You have the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to be apathetic. [And here Peter snorts to himself. Apathy is not usually a good trait, but the right to it is a good thing. In his youth, if you didn't want to go cheer the army displays or celebrate Lenin's birthday, there would be someone who noticed you weren't there and then came the repercussions.] Not having had a choice when he was young enough to make one, not having a choice now that he is wise enough to understand the difference, Peter would not take it from anyone else. People stayed home from the Civil Rights marches, even if they later reaped the benefits of it. Not everyone has what it takes to fight and not everyone should. But there should be no punishment for that.

The stucco wall to Peter's right is starting to grow in height and is also now decorated with large metal fish. Only a few, about as tastefully done as can be managed with the medium and the locale. He follows the wall to its end and makes a right, letting the steep slope of the sidewalk (concrete after so much boardwalk lumber feels different, so much less give under his bulk) guide him down until he gets to the ticket booth.

The Aquarium. Peter fell in love with the place when he first arrived in America and would visit when he could, much to the ridicule of his associates (who would rather be watching the slow undulations of a stripper than that of a tiger shark). He likes to watch fish, admits that he can get almost hypnotized watching them swim back and forth. Watching fish brings him peace and reminds him that you can be happy with not much at all if all you want is not much. Peter knows that he is not completely free of the sweet seduction of complacency, but also knows that there is a difference between finding happiness with the present and limiting your ambitions, which is how it sounded to Ororo the one time he tried to explain it to her. It is more about simplifying your needs.

His computer screen saver is fish-themed and the fish tank in his room at the mansion is his most treasured possession. Only Scott is allowed to help feed the fish, although Bobby would be allowed to if he were ever to ask. But he doesn't. Bobby is fifteen and all about independence and defining himself and those are ideals that are incompatible with fish swimming around in tanks.  

Peter used to have a membership to the Aquarium because it's not cheap to get in (and, unlike the museums the entry fee isn't 'suggested') and the membership is the price of only four visits. Today, he pays for his ticket and picks up a membership brochure. You can get into the Bronx Zoo for free on the same membership card and while he never really bothered back when he was living in Brooklyn, the Zoo is close enough to the mansion to make it reasonable. And with all of the free guest passes they throw in with the membership, he can take any of the gang who wants to go. Ororo would like it, Peter knows, and he hasn't spent a lot of time with her since Henry. [Contrary to popular sentiment, Peter doesn't begrudge Henry his time with Ororo. Instead he'd just really like them to get past that phase in the relationship where they can't spend any time with anyone but each other.]

Time with the gang... friends but not friends, more than coworkers and less than cohort. Peter has occasionally wondered if he would be friends with any of them were it not for their shared purpose. And then he reminds himself that were it not for their shared purpose, he'd be in such different circumstances that it's almost a moot question to ask. The truth is that he is a happier person now and the other X-Men are not incidental to that.

Peter avoids a mother and her stroller and her two children and heads straight for the stingrays. He feels a certain envy watching them, always has. They are so large and so graceful and manage to look so happy and harmless despite their size and the threat they possess. Skills he'd like to cultivate. Jean says that you can go swimming with them down in the Caribbean and Peter would like to do that some day. Not with Jean, however.

He isn't sure why he dislikes Jean the way he does. Suspects it has something to do with being uneasy around her. Nobody ever says anything, but Jean's telepathic manners are wanting. She accidentally-on-purpose skims everyone's surface thoughts much too often for it to be a simple lack of control on her part. And then she will take umbrage if she finds mental shields in place. Telepaths never think anyone else should have secrets. Only them. She is perfect for Xavier that way. Too perfect in a way that occasionally makes Peter suspicious, but not so much so that he'd do anything about it.

To Peter, Jean is one part sage and one part spoiled child, too old for her age and at the same time too immature. Early on in their acquaintance Peter was at a loss to identify the reasons, but he has since settled on a pet theory: almost all of her life experiences are by proxy - plucked out of the minds of others and not lived through personally. She has known neither grief nor love except through another's eyes and, as Peter has told Bobby on more than one occasion, there is no substitute for having gone through it. You cannot read the Cliff Notes and understand the book as it was meant to be understood.

Jean has the arrogance and the knowledge of the head of Mount Sinai's Thoracic Surgery department, but she never had to spend years learning the body intimately from the inside out, never had to spend thirty-six hour shifts on a ward, never had her heart pound when the Code beeper went off, never had to offer condolences to a next of kin. She has come by all this knowledge without its labor - and without learning the emotions that comes with it. She has the cream without ever having learned to care for the cow (as Peter's grandparents would put it). The moves, but not the motives. The technically perfect dancer whose performance is nonetheless soulless. A golem, after a fashion.

Peter's not sure how much of this is Jean's fault. He supposes telepathy to be like being handed the keys to the perfect candy store and it must be human nature to eat too much. The question is not why would Jean ignore basic etiquette to seek out as many minds as possible to taste. It is why she would not. Why not learn heart surgery and how to figure skate and how to tell if the torch for the crème brûlé is too hot? Why not maximize the wonders of your gift if you will not hurt anyone in the process?

But, Peter has come to decide, it is not as simple as that. As any parent teaches their toddler not to take food off of everyone else's plate, so Peter expects Xavier to curtail Jean's curiosity. But he doesn't. Quite the contrary. He encourages Jean and that, to Peter, is a cause for disquiet.

Peter feels that Jean must learn to live as a human being before she can learn to live as a telepath and he realizes that she will not accept that lesson from anyone else but another telepath. But if Xavier is unwilling to teach her, then who will?

Far away from the prying minds at the mansion, Peter can wonder about these things. Living with Jean is not easy, especially for the individuals of their particular group. With the notable exception of Bobby, all of the X-Men have had to develop heightened social instincts - Peter, Ororo, and Logan from their criminal backgrounds, Hank from his abusive one, and Scott from an amalgam of the two that he absolutely refuses to talk about despite Peter's best (and most selflessly-aimed) attempts to engage him in such discussions.

Regardless of provenance, all of their motley band have very sensitive fight-or-flight triggers that Jean's inconstancy dances blithely over; her reaction to any given situation cannot be predicted with any regularity. It is as if her emotions are reflected in a fun-house mirror - her empathy is too skinny, her pride too fat, her anger too tall, her joy too short - and you never know which reflection you will be facing. They are all flawed reflections because they are underdeveloped. Or perhaps atrophied. So she will act as Xavier's sage confidante and then she will behave as a child when it comes to Wolverine's and Scott's affections and while it is confusing to everyone else, it is all perfectly consistent within Jean.

Part of Peter is saddened by this, just as he is saddened by Bobby's rapidly fleeing childhood and by what has happened to Hank. This is a dangerous job that they do, but to not mourn its casualties is to have already lost the war. But part of Peter, the all-too-human part of him, simply gets irritated with Jean because she forgets with annoying convenience that the authority with which she speaks isn't her own.

Peter knows that at the heart of it Jean is not a bad person. She does nothing out of maliciousness and with rare exception her intentions are good. But for every good intention, there is another step towards hell. This, too, Peter knows too well - the blood-soaked money he earned as an indentured servant to the mafia went back home to help feed his family, but it was no cleaner for its noble ends.

Jean learned surgery to save Hank; she picked up the crème brûlé because Scott likes it. And she used those delicate skills to help Xavier tamper with unsuspecting minds - notably Bobby's after the boy spoke indiscreetly to his girlfriend. Perhaps Jean helps Xavier still; Peter has his suspicions and none of them were allayed after Scott tacitly confirmed that Jean had told him of Xavier entering Bobby's mind without permission.

[In the end, Bobby was reduced to confused tears after getting verbally dressed down by both the girl in question (whose mind was only scrubbed of knowledge of the school while Bobby's was stripped of details both of the incident as well as of the girl herself) and then by his mother for his lack of gallantry. Peter confronted Scott who confronted Jean who felt genuinely bad about the whole episode now that she had seen the consequences. But it was Peter's shirt that was wet with Bobby's tears, so while he does not hate Jean, he cannot like her, either.]

Whatever role Jean has in making the decisions to tamper with another's consciousness - and Scott implied that she has some - Peter thinks that she should be either offering up alternatives or pointing out the consequences that Xavier himself hadn't thought about. That Peter often finds that Xavier doesn't think about.

On the whole, Xavier is far too much the general for Peter's tastes - he thinks of the glory of victory in battle but forgets that every victory has a price in the blood of his own soldiers. And while Peter knows that foot soldiers can't argue with generals, he has his concerns that his field commander cannot stand alone. Peter knows that Scott already takes each cut and scrape suffered by the team far too personally. But Scott's 'defection' showed that Xavier is playing from a different set of rules. It had not crossed Scott's mind (pun not intended) -- nor anyone else's -- that Xavier would use them as tools instead of seeking them out as partners, even as unequal ones. Which brings Peter back to his earlier thoughts on how Xavier is unpredictable and leaves his wondering if Xavier is not consciously training Jean to follow suit.

Peter knows that Scott wishes he would give Jean more slack - she's acting out of ignorance, not anything more sinister. Sins of omission as opposed to sins of commission. But Scott will bend over backwards to give Jean the benefit of the doubt, will forgive her almost anything just so she'll stay as close to him as she does.

Scott intrigues Peter in a way the others don't, in a way that Peter knows that even Bobby won't once he's old enough to develop complexities. It is not a sexual interest -- that had been a memorable conversation, taking place only after Scott had gotten over his initial strong reaction  - although were Scott inclined... But he's not and Peter sees him solely as a friend.

("You're not..."  "Not unless you're interested." "I'm not... no offense." "None taken." "You can just... turn it off like that?" "Of course. Can't you?" "I guess, but..." "But what? I'm not broken, merely wired differently." "I know that, but... I don't share a shower with Jean and Ororo." "We've been teammates for how many months already? I've done all of the ogling I'm going to do. Which wasn't much." "Gee, thanks." "It wasn't meant as a personal critique." "I'll get over it." "You're not an unattractive guy." "Peter, please?" "What? Jean can tell you that she thinks you're cute." "You think I'm cute?" "I said that I thought you were not unattractive." "Isn't that the same thing?" "It could be. It could also be damning by faint praise." "So which is it?" "Do you really want to know?" "Let's change the topic." "How about them Rangers?")

In terms of Jean, Peter thinks Scott is taken advantage of by her. Jean takes comfort in knowing that Scott adores her in a much purer way than the Wolverine does. Scott is there when Jean has a headache or when she is miserable or when she gets the rare attack of conscience and then he disappears when it comes to what he needs in return. Scott says that isn't true, that it is his choice not to make any demands, that he gets satisfaction in being there for her and his ego gets a boost that it's still him that she turns to despite a house full of people - including Logan.

There are times when Peter wonders if Scott only continues to pine after Jean because she's the only one around. Scott can't lament not being with Ororo because theoretically he could have her if he wanted to and Hank knows this. And Scott's not the type to use anyone else's insecurities to ease his own way.  

But the rest of the time Peter thinks that Scott is just protecting his own fragile heart. Scott is a lot needier than he lets on and Peter doesn't know if Jean can handle that. He also doesn't know if she would take that into consideration before trying. And so he worries what would happen should she do so and fail. Alternatively, Peter is sure that should Jean succeed, they would be a well-balanced pair - her ego and his id.

The silence of the hallway is shattered by the growing wave of noise that Peter knows too well is the sound of an approaching class on a field trip. The aquarium is crawling with them and Peter knows he'll have to move from space to space to avoid them. He bids the stingrays a silent farewell and does so.

Across from the stingrays is a dark room filled with tanks of various fish from different climates. It is a soothing room, at once dark and mysterious and brilliant in the riotous, colorful beauty of the fish. In the tank closest to the entrance a school of tiny purple-and-yellow fish dart back and forth in perfect formation, doing drills almost. Their very own Danger Room, Peter jokes to himself. Moving in perfect formation does not take much thought. Fish can do it, soldiers can do it, the X-Men can certainly do it. Most of the time, at least. Last week Scott had called them all a bunch of drunken salmon fighting downstream after a spectacularly botched drill that had left Hank hanging from the ceiling and Bobby in a puddle of melted ice.  

Bobby Drake - part team mascot, part mutant ideal. Disgustingly normal in almost every way that matters, Bobby is, Peter suspects, the secret envy of the rest of the X-Men. Bobby loves being considered mature enough to hang out with the older kids (perhaps, Peter thinks, too much so) but is absolutely not above throwing his hands up in frustration at the ways of older teenagers and young adults and going off to play with his X-Box. It is a sign of joyous normality when one of the others gets frustrated with Bobby's occasionally juvenile ways and storms off demanding that Bobby "grow up."

Even if Bobby can occasionally annoy him with his questions and there are moments when Peter wishes Bobby were old enough to reciprocate the favor of unburdening problems, Peter enjoys his company and is appreciative of the fact that Bobby has implicitly made him his favorite. (Although Peter knows it really comes down to either him or Scott - Ororo and Hank are harder to split apart than an atom and Bobby's more scared of Jean than Peter is - and Scott is actively disinclined to take on a little brother.) Peter misses his family and Bobby seems to have adopted him.  

The class - or is it another? - is progressing into the room Peter's in now, so he heads off towards the alcove with the sea horses at the other end. For some reason, the golden dragon sea horses remind him of Ororo -- elegant in flight, even if they are occasionally floating sideways. Peter and Ororo were close once and it's not just Hank who has come between them. When they were all brought together as the X-Men, it was Ororo who hung out in the back of the group and muttered sarcastic asides to Peter. Now, she's much more subdued... domesticated, almost, like a wild horse since broken to the saddle. And while Scott is inclined to think that it is a combination of her trying to be what Henry wants and the leftover trauma from Weapon X, Peter isn't so sure.

Back outside in the still-bright sunshine, Peter tries to visit the walruses, but they are dozing and he's seen enough sleeping fat mammals with big teeth in his prior life as an enforcer - they all look like Boris, even down to the moustache.

Instead he notices that the penguin area for once isn't overrun with small children, so his wanders over there. These penguins aren't the large, beautiful ones he remembers seeing in Moscow once nor are they the little puffins. They are small and bray like donkeys (hence the nickname, according to the placard, of "jackass penguins") and flap their wings as if they were annoyed and waddle around and, if the article he read the other month was correct, engage in public sex. It was an article on gay penguins - Jean had sent it to all of their email accounts (except Bobby's, although Bobby eventually read it). Peter assumes Jean knows because Jean pries, but she has never said anything about it. And the article was genuinely amusing enough that Peter doesn't think Jean was trying to make a point.

In general, Peter is quiet about his sexuality. Mostly this is because he is undecided about how to deal with it. He is not undecided about his preferences (the Kinsey scale is flawed, but Peter considers himself a five). Instead he wonders how to integrate those preferences into his social life. He doesn't want to make a big deal of it - heterosexuals don't go around with a sign on their chest proclaiming their orientation - but at the same time, he doesn't want to have to deny himself happiness just to keep his story consistent.

Before the X-Men, Peter was comfortably in the closet in many ways - which part of 'illegal alien mutant gay mafia enforcer' was worse than the others? He hid his status from the government, his preferences from his work associates, and all of the above when he'd take the D train to West Fourth Street and walk over to the West Village and the bars on Christopher Street where he'd be picked up by men who were more interested in his youth and willingness than in his green card or genetics.

In theory, with all of the other reasons to be closeted now gone - the Professor got him a passport, the Wolverine got him freedom from Boris - there should be nothing stopping Peter from just coming out. But it's not that simple and Peter wants to think everything through because this isn't something you can just take back. And, whether he likes it or not, he will have to deal with it with Bobby on several levels.

Scott and Ororo know because it came up during a bullshit session in Japan. Ororo was neither surprised nor upset, but Scott initially didn't handle the news well.  (It was, in hindsight, a reaction that had very little to do with Peter and everything to do with the past Scott keeps shrouded in darkness. Scott later apologized for the reaction, not the mystery.) Peter suspects the house telepaths know, but Bobby is clueless and Peter knows that Ororo has not told Hank. Logan... if he knows, then he's not saying.

There is a mutual respect between the two - Peter doesn't think Logan would go chase down Boris on his own if there wasn't - but they really don't have anything in common besides a mutual love of hockey and the X-Men. Peter wishes they did, but occasionally thinks better of it. He doesn't know why he lets himself think of Logan - and the tiny voice in the back of his head tells him it's for the same reason he thinks Scott chases Jean. Comfort in unavailability seasoned with just a taste of the possible - Logan's done just about everything else there is to do, it only stands to reason...  

The schoolchildren are back and they seem to have replicated themselves... apparently the whale show has just ended and they are all spilling out into the main areas. The squealing and yelling have multiplied fourfold, at least, and Peter wishes for them all to go back to their buses or off to the horseshoe crabs. Instead, they seem to be headed straight for the seals and the penguins and Peter wades through the tagged-and-ticketed sea of elementary schoolers to head back to the exotic fish room.

Inside, he returns to the side of the room he didn't get to visit on his earlier flight from the children. There is a tank that is two windows wide, full of an impressive assortment of fish and coral. It is meant to recreate the waters off of Australia from the sand at the bottom to the bright light streaming down into the tank from above. There is a fascinating blue-and-silver-and-yellow fish that swims slowly back and forth and pausing in front of Peter as if it knew it was being watched. It is a solid fish, not one of those slim, dainty examples that people always imagine when they think of exotic fish. Peter squints to find the picture of the fish on the placard and is pleased to know that it isn't an exotic fish. It is a proletariat fish, removed from its natural environment and looking rare only because it is displaced. "I know exactly how you feel," he tells the fish, who makes another slow trip around the tank, gracefully avoiding the smaller, quicker ones that dart in and out of its path.

Peter watches the other fish in this extra-large tank. The tiny pink ones that slide through the water at a brisk pace, rushing around as if they were on a mission; the green ones that the placard says are related to the pink ones and move just as purposefully on their own path; the delicate black pair that seem to swim at an angle to let the light hit their vibrant yellow-and-red stripe. But still his eyes go back to that solitary blue fish, wandering to and fro and observing everything and wondering what he is doing in a tank full of fancy fish.

The moment is broken as the door to the outside is slammed shut by a maintenance worker who has the decency to look apologetic as Peter watches her. Turning back to the tank, Peter holds up his watch to check the time. It is after three and the children are gone, but he must go soon too if he wants to walk back to Golden Key.

A pause by the door to re-fasten his coat and put on his sunglasses and Peter heads outside, walking quickly to where the back end of the killer whale tank is visible. The whales are relaxing, having finished their shows for the day, and move aimlessly and slowly in their tank. Peter has always detested trained-animal shows - dolphins, whales, the lions at the circus. Hates them even more now that he is in one of them. Saying a quiet word of sympathy to the whales, Peter heads back towards the entrance, allowing himself a few moments to watch the stingrays once more before heading out the front gate and back towards the boardwalk.

It is after school now and there are a few more people on the boardwalk, although not that many considering the cold weather. Peter follows the path he traveled before only until he gets back to the Russian part of the boardwalk, at which point he takes the first exit off, walking down the ramp and up the side street and back to Brighton Beach Avenue.

There is only residential housing for the first few blocks, the noise of children screaming in Brighton Russian (half standard Russian, part English, and part Russglish - English words turned into Russian ones through adding appropriate endings; Peter could barely understand it when he first arrived, but now can speak it fluently) competing with the elevated train overhead.

Eventually the commercial concerns take over and Peter dodges senior citizens and a few mothers pushing tank-like strollers as they go in and out of the butchers and the bakery and the fruit store and the tiny general purpose market that sells the American food that their children demand to be fed. Peter stops to buy the Russian language daily as well as yesterday's Moscow paper and he feels strangely removed - he doesn't do any food shopping anymore and wonders how great the price difference is between here and the Walbaums supermarket right outside of Salem Center. It's got to be vast, but not as vast as the Food Emporium that Peter knows supplies the mansion's larder.

Peter has never liked supermarkets. They overwhelm him. Who needs sixteen varieties of ketchup to choose from? He had never seen one before coming to Moscow en route to America and Vitali - Boris's chief lieutenant back in Russia, charged with finding likely candidates for employment - had loved to make fun of the rube whose jaw would drop at big city grandeur. Of course, in Moscow, the shelves were almost always empty - one week there would be cans of soup, the next week there would be no soup but there would be meat. The first one he went to in America - an A&P on Kings Highway - was almost beyond his belief. But, Peter will admit easily to anyone who asks, a lot of America was beyond his belief.

The knish he ate was a long time ago, so Peter stops at one of the tiny restaurants that he knows is owned by one of Boris's rivals. All of the signs are in Russian and the cashier assumes Peter understands it as she tells him to go find a seat he likes. When the waiter comes, Peter orders a large portion of pelmeni with sour cream. The young man (still older than Peter by a few years) is obviously newer to the country than Peter is, his skin almost translucent where it isn't marred by pockmarks and his pale blond hair cut in a blatantly unfashionable style that here in Brighton can only be accomplished at one of the barber shops that seemingly cater to the just-off-the-boat crowd - those who don't realize that six dollars is not so much of a bargain that they can't afford to go to someone who knows what they're doing.

The waiter makes no spare conversation and brings out the basket of bread and plate of butter with all of the grace of someone who is used to not getting much in the way of a tip and has given up hoping that the next customer will be the exception. Peter breaks off a large chunk of the fresh, doughy bread and slathers it with enough salty butter that he knows Scott would be in spasm were he to see it. Without asking, the waiter brings him a glass of tea drawn from the giant (Japanese-made) samovar along the back wall and sets it down next to the paper Peter has opened up. When he returns with the steaming bowl filled with the dumplings, the waiter merely clears his throat so Peter will move the paper and then goes off to refill the tea glass.

Pelmeni is comfort food. Every dining establishment has it and nobody ever thinks anyone can make it as well as their mother or grandmother can. The ones served here are better than the ones he used to get at the restaurant three blocks up that Boris's soldiers were allowed to frequent- the dough is soft enough to yield to Peter's fork, the filling tasty enough to not be wiped out by the creamy blandness of the sour cream - but Peter is unwilling to grant them favored status. Give his grandmother access to the superior quality of ingredients available so readily in America and she could make a diner cry. If the cashier asks, then Peter will, however, admit that they are better than his mother's.

Soon enough Peter has paid his bill and moved on, sunglasses on the top of his head as he makes his way under the last few blocks shaded by the elevated train. He slips them back onto his face as he crosses in front of Mrs. Stahl's again and he escapes the shadow of the V and Q. From here, it's two blocks to Golden Key. It wasn't the best of the Russian markets that Peter used to frequent, but it isn't that bad.

The store is cramped. Short, stocky grandmothers in babushkas and the same coats they had worn standing on line for food when Khrushchev was taking office carry plastic baskets in the crook of one elbow and their other shopping in the other for balance. Even without the shoppers, there is no space. Every available corner has been filled to overflowing with imported foodstuffs and then an island of tinned vegetables and jars of sorrel soup and borsht has been created in the middle of the too-small interior.

There is a window in the front of the shop where in the summer you can stand on line outside and pick up your bread or pay for your fruit without having to come inside, but that's not an option on this cold, bright afternoon.

Before even picking up a basket, Peter grabs a pair of clear plastic bags and heads for the wall of chocolate. Two dozen varieties of individually wrapped treasures, each roughly the size of the miniature candy bars that overran the mansion at Halloween. These, however, Peter will eat (he finds American chocolate too sweet and gooey). These treats are vastly different from American chocolates, differing in their consistency and the taste of the chocolate and the fillings - raisins, liqueurs, nuts, stiff jelly, chocolate mousses, sweet mysterious fillings that Peter can't identify and doesn't care - as well as in the brightly colored wrappings and silly names written in Russian that Peter will have to translate for the others. He knows that Bobby will be delightfully immature about Clumsy Bears.

He fills up one bag with a wide variety of the less foreign kinds for everyone else and a separate bag with his own personal favorites. Bags in tow, he then goes for a basket and picks out items that he either can't get at the gourmet food store in Salem Center or simply refuses to pay the exorbitant mark-up to get locally. A couple of tins of fish eggs, a honey cake, a quart container of potato stew and another of smoked fish, a few packages of freeze-dried soup, a box of the hard candies his great-uncle used to treat him with, and a loaf of bread. The line moves quickly and the white-coated women behind the registers bark out commands to the customers in clipped Russian to assure a smooth transaction. Peter's purchases are packed efficiently into paper bags loaded into plastic ones and it's not long until he's excusing himself past the next wave of grandmothers armed with baskets and back out into the street.

The Manhattan-bound Q is almost empty - it is the very start of the rush hour and the bulk of the commuters are coming into Brooklyn instead of leaving it - so Peter can place his purchases on the seats next to him and re-arrange the contents of his backpack to reduce the two shopping bags to one. Task accomplished, he opens up one of the bags of chocolates and takes out a Stratosphera, his favorite kind, and, biting down, tucks the space-themed blue wrapper into the now-empty shopping bag.

Changing at Atlantic Avenue, Peter picks up the 4 train to Grand Central Terminal, dumping the empty shopping bag in a trash can as he enters onto the main concourse. It's now the height of the evening rush and Peter must adjust his walking pace accordingly, moving with purpose towards the center of the concourse where he can see the board for the New Haven Line and read off the track number for the train that makes all stops to Stamford all without breaking stride.

Commuter trains are more comfortable and more civilized than the subways (the latter of which, Peter was shocked to find out, were not the graffiti-riddled horrors that he had seen in the movies), but they are not built for people of Peter's size. He can sit in the seats, but he doesn't share them well - at least not the three-seaters.

All of the trains at Grand Central leave in the same direction (north) and sit at the platform with their tail end closest to the concourse. Hoping for a seat, Peter walks towards the front of the train even though he will need to be towards the rear to be closer to the stairs at the Salem Center station.

There are no free two-seaters and the only available spots on the three-seaters are in the middles and Peter refuses to try to squeeze in to one of those - he has ridden Metro North often enough to pick up on commuter etiquette governing the fat and the tall. Instead, he backtracks towards the rear of the train and finds a spot by one of the doors to stand against. He puts his shopping bag on the floor next to him and his backpack on the floor behind his feet and presses himself up against the divider between the door vestibule and the seating area so that the other passengers can get past him in their quest for a seat. It is slightly inconvenient now to keep flattening himself against the Plexiglas-and-plastic-wood wall, but the doors will open up at every station on the other side, so it is a temporary annoyance and Peter, cognizant of the size of obstacle he presents, looks apologetic to those commuters not harried enough to avoid making eye contact with him as they brush past.

Checking his watch, Peter sends out a mental call to the mansion. While Peter is sure that either Jean or the Professor could probably hear him calling them regardless, they had a pre-arranged agreement that they would be 'listening' for him after six in the evening. Jean responds to his announcement of which train he's on and tells him that Hank and Ororo will be waiting at the station for him.

Six minutes later, the doors close and Peter re-arranges himself to lean slightly against them once he is sure that they will not re-open (he knows to wait for the tell-tale sign of the air brakes being deflated). The vestibule is full of commuters and the conductor will have a time of it passing through.

Free to doze until the ticket collector comes by, Peter tries to mentally tune out the chorus of cell phones that ring the minute the train clears the tunnel at 96th Street. He listens to the chatter and wonders if this is what telepathic noise is like - just loud enough to be annoying, no way to turn it off or ignore it. It is bad enough on the ride home - there is always the one person who talks too loud into their cell and is guaranteed to be having the most inappropriate or inane discussion, another's whose phone goes off every five minutes and plays some terrible version of a song that must have sounded precious in the store - and Peter can't begin to imagine what it must be like all day every day. There is a reason almost every telepath has spent time in a mental institution.

On a rush-hour train, it is not unheard of for the conductors to not be able to take everyone's ticket and when Peter hears "All tickets, please!" from the far end of the car as the train is pulling out of Mamaroneck, he knows it's going to be a close call. The train is seconds out of Salem Center by the time the collector has gotten to his end, but rather than fight through the queue of people waiting to exit at the station, the collector just waits and Peter puts his ticket back into his pocket as he disembarks.

The station platform is crowded with returning commuters and the parking lot is triple-parked with idling minivans and SUVs. The Xavier vehicle is easy to spot - Ororo is standing on the hood, waving cheerfully to Peter once she sees him, which is later than it might have otherwise been had Peter looked more like himself. He wades patiently through the sea of people and gets into the back seat of the SUV, greeting Hank and Ororo and switching off the image inducer before putting on his seatbelt.

This is not one of the nights that Xavier requests that they all eat dinner together, so Peter is dropped off at the mansion and Hank takes the image inducer and goes off with Ororo to that Italian restaurant in Rye that they all went to for Scott's birthday. Once inside, Peter heads to the kitchen and unpacks his shopping. Attached to the side of the refrigerator is a set of stickers to be used to identify food items that are not to be considered to be in common. Peter, for the sole reason that he was the last person to choose a design, has penguins (Ororo, who has a cloud-and-rainbow sticker, has offered to swap with him) and he affixes things as needed - he doubts the tins of fish eggs will be an issue. He plans to share and the identifying isn't meant to be exclusionary, but it will prevent either Bobby or Jean from waving items around and wailing about who would eat that stuff.

Bobby appears as Peter is putting the honey cake in the pile of desserts next to the toaster. He looks over what is left in the bag and, to Peter's utter lack of surprise, pulls out the bag of chocolates meant for general consumption. Peter tells him to put them in a bowl and asks him if he's eaten yet. Bobby tells him that he and Logan split a pizza earlier and makes a face as Peter mutters something about poor eating habits. Peter then asks if everyone else has eaten - it is after seven and all of the mansion's residents operate on a high metabolism - and Bobby says that Jean ate with the Professor but he thinks Scott is waiting for Peter. It takes another question for Bobby to report that Scott is probably watching the hockey game with Logan.

As he walks down the hall towards where he can hear the television blaring, Peter muses on how easily domestic things are at the mansion, how seemingly normal things can be here despite a swirling mass of tension that you don't need to be a telepath to see. That, perhaps, only the telepaths cannot see.

Both Scott and Logan look up at him as he enters the darkened room and make gestures of greeting - Logan grunts and Scott asks him how the fish are doing. Peter is amused at the two of them, each on their own couch as they try to 'play nice' without actually speaking to the other. It's a slow rapprochement for the two, one made slower both by Scott's unsureness of Logan's willingness to let him be the leader (as well as his own firm belief that any other situation is untenable) and their own complex feelings towards Jean.

Logan wasn't around during the previous evening's discussion of Peter's trip, so he has to ask now and is told. "No problems?" he asks and Peter knows exactly what he means and replies in the negative and hopes that the darkness hides any possible physical demonstration of his pleasure at Logan's concern. Such as a slightly goofy grin.

Scott's only a casual hockey fan - he mostly watches because Peter does - so he gets up now and asks if Peter's interested in dinner. It's been a few hours since the pelmeni, so Peter agrees and the two head back towards the kitchen. Bobby is gone - as are a few of the chocolates - and the two of them root through the fridge for supplies.

"These are the real ones?"

"Yeah."

"They look..."

"Like they were made by hand and not like a prop from Chicken Run."

"I can microwave them, right?"

"No. They'll turn into hockey pucks."

"Well, we're watching a hockey game... Joke, Peter. A joke."

"Do not joke with my dinner."

"You have no sense of humor,"

"Then I will cook the steaks."

"Give those back... See - I put them in the toaster. Now hand back the cow parts."


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