Still Life
Textual Poaching Alert: Everyone here belongs to Marvel. Fox rented them, I didn't. No profit sought or achieved.

Piotr had taken his medium-sized sketchpad (the largest of the surviving ones), his box of pencils (dug out of the debris of his room by an eager-to-please Paige), and a towel to sit upon and had gone to Ms. Munro's garden, the one the children knew not to follow him into. Certainly not after the Great Gardenia Trampling.

He had felt a little guilty as he had settled down on one of the narrow walkways, the elegant purple flowers to his left climbing up their trellis well above him, the sea of white daffodils to his right rustling quietly. Guilty at abandoning the children, most of who still trailed after him like a comet's tail during the day and piled on to his bed at night until he shooed them away so he'd have room to sleep. Guilty at wanting to sit in beauty and sunshine and silence when others were mourning and the evidence of the destruction of lives and property was still impossible to avoid. Guilty at feeling what he was feeling even if he had not been there with them.

But then he had started to sketch, not even knowing what he would draw as the pencil first hit paper, his hand moving almost of its own accord as lines and curves appeared. It was a flower, to his lack of surprise, but not one of the kinds in this garden. Perhaps it was something he had seen in Ms. Munro's greenhouse or perhaps it was purely a figment of his imagination.

The petals had the delicate elegance of roses, but differed in their taper and he switched to a softer lead so that he could use his fingertip to smudge a line to show the shape of the stem. He preferred stippling for this sort of sketch, but he didn't feel the patience within him for that. Not today.

The flower got a mate, this time lying down so that the bloom faced the viewer, and he wondered if he hadn't created some mutant variation on a rose after all. But the stem had no thorns. Beauty without a price.

The wrongness of it bothered him. There was nothing without a price. Not now. And he found himself drawing yet another flower, this one dying, with petals dropped gracefully to an unseen ground. Beauty, like everything else good, was impermanent. Pain, sorrow, hatred... those were permanent. And hope, although he was never quite sure whether hope was a virtue or an elaborate hoax. The Professor had said he was too young to be that cynical when he had said that in the course of a discussion about literature.

He wondered what the Professor thought now, as he wheeled himself around the mansion supervising the last of the cleanup and put on his brave face so that nobody could see how much he hurt. Mr. Summers had his glasses to hide behind and his duty to distract him, but the Professor had no mask to call upon and the guilt hung about him almost like a cloud if you looked closely. Two of his students - Dr. Grey and John - were lost to him, one to death and the other to his philosophical rival, and yet he could not mourn because the rest of his students still needed him to be their guiding light.

Piotr felt mildly ashamed at what he considered to be a lack of depth of feelings on his own part. He grieved for Dr. Grey's loss, obviously, but not as much as some of the others did. Certainly not Mr. Summers and not Logan, the mysterious stranger who seemed to trail complexities in his wake the way Piotr did children.

Dr. Grey had been kind to him, Piotr remembered, a little distant but she was a little distant with all of the students, even the ones she had known longest like Marie and Bobby and Kitty and John. It wasn't the kind of aloofness that went with dislike, more the sort of an adult who had never really had to deal with children. She was quick with a smile, but the smile was always a private one. She had sat for a portrait for him once, early on in his time at the school, and he had tried to reflect that. A Mona Lisa smile. Piotr hoped Mr. Summers knew where the drawing was now.

While Dr. Grey's loss was universally mourned within the group, the feelings about John's departure - defection- were mixed. Marie and Bobby were greatly saddened, the adults more pragmatically so, and the younger children were frankly relieved because there had always been something... disturbing about John. Unsettling. The way he'd flick his lighter all the time, a constant reminder of the danger he presented - a danger John was not above using as an implied threat. John had never acted like he had cared about anyone but himself and the younger children had sensed that, somehow, as if they knew that he was not only not their protector, but also could be an adversary. And now he was.

Piotr was philosophical about John's departure. He had always thought it was imminent - John just didn't play well with others - and couldn't imagine a way it could have gone well. All of the older students knew about 'the team', the quasi-military-style base beneath the school, and aspired to join its ranks. But while Bobby and Marie had hoped to earn their right to a uniform, John had always talked about it with a sense of entitlement - he was a terrifically strong pyrokinetic and how could they not take him? And he was right and it would have gone badly. Perhaps not as badly as John working for Magneto, but...

Personally, Piotr would not miss John. There were four of them of an age - Piotr was only a year or so older than the other three - and if Bobby and Marie were too wrapped up in each other to notice him, John had no such excuse. John was the one who chose, sometimes ostentatiously so, to be a third wheel on the Bobby-Marie bicycle than talk to him. And, after a while, Piotr hadn't minded, especially after John had started calling him 'the Duke', after John Wayne. It wasn't meant to be a compliment, but instead a dig at how when Piotr tried to work on eliminating his Russian accent when he spoke English, he tended to speak very slowly and to flatten out some of his syllables. The others had told him to stop, but John never had, and would instead greet Piotr by making his hands into pistols and drawing them out of imaginary holsters and shooting at him.

"You should not forget about the... knopse," a voice said from behind his shoulder and Piotr turned his head towards it, immediately transforming into organic steel. It would not have been a reaction he would have had before last week, before the attack, but now... He immediately transformed back to flesh once he realized who it was, though. The newest arrival, the blue man, who promptly disappeared from behind Piotr's right shoulder and appeared in front of him. "Die knopse... I don't know the right English word. Before it is a blossom."

"A bud. A flower bud," Piotr offered, trying not to wrinkle his nose at the smell of sulfur. He hadn't known the word, either, until the Professor had made him learn it as part of their deal - anything Piotr wanted to draw or paint, he had to know the English word for. It had seemed a silly deal - Piotr was basically fluent in English. But certain words had thrown him. 'Puppy' being the most notorious. English was an arbitrary language. French had been much easier to learn.

"Ja, a bud." The teleporting blue man sat back on his haunches even as he pointed to the flower on Piotr's sketchpad with one large, fat finger. "Guten tag. I didn't mean to startle you. I didn't think that anyone would be out here. The children, they go everywhere, but they don't go here."

"They aren't allowed without permission," Piotr explained with a wry smile. "They are a menace to the flowers."

"Mmm," the man agreed. "I do not think we have been introduced yet. I am Kurt Wagner, but in the Munich Circus, I was known as the Incredible Nightcrawler." He waved his arm expansively and Piotr couldn't help but smile.

"I am Piotr Nikolayevich Rasputin," he replied holding out his hand to shake. It was, firmly, and Piotr noticed that Kurt only had two fingers and a thumb. It must make writing quite difficult and drawing next to impossible. He suppressed a shudder at a life without drawing.

"Ah! The one they call Colossus!" Kurt exclaimed, clapping his hands with glee. "The Pied Piper of the school. Piotr. 'Upon this rock I shall build my church.' You are the foundation for the children, so they say. The one who sheltered them from the storm. You have earned their faith and devotion, then. Good, good."

Piotr sighed, embarrassed. He didn't know who had been saying such things. "I did what I had to do. I wish that I had been able to do more..."

"There is no greater task than securing the safety of the future," Kurt said seriously, the smile gone. "We all did our part and our part was all that we could do. The rest is in hands much greater than our own."

Piotr could only nod. He was vaguely religious, the product of parents who had taken the opportunity of the fall of the Communists to return to the Russian Orthodox Church. Piotr wasn't sure of his own beliefs, knew that they were still soft and moldable and unfinished, but had found a local Russian church near Salem Center because the prayers and the smell of incense reminded him of home and his family. All through the night, that night, he had prayed as they had run to the safehouse. And his prayers had been answered.

"May I see your drawings?" Kurt asked, gesturing with one finger towards the sketchpad. Piotr handed it over and Kurt opened it to the beginning, pausing over each page before turning it with surprising dexterity. "You are very talented. Very talented. Are you studying to be an artist?"

Piotr shrugged his uncertainty. "I am taking a class at a local college, but I don't think that I should aspire to be an artist. An architect, perhaps. Something useful that will earn a living."

Kurt chuckled. "You can take the boy out of Russia but you cannot take the Russia out of the boy. Practical to the last, no matter what. Me, I am Bavarian. We believe having a good time in life is more important than being useful. It is why we produce good beer, good music, good priests, and let others be serious."

The sketchpad was handed back.

"I think it is important that you add a flower bud to your drawing," Kurt said, all seriousness again. He pointed to the largest block of white space on the page. "To remember renewal. For every night's darkness, there is a dawn. Here, in this school, it is night. I think you must help - we all must help - remember that the dawn will come. It will take longer for Cyclops... Scott... than for the children, but it will come. We must have faith that it will come."

Piotr nodded, understanding even if he was not sure he was ready to believe. His faith in the divine might be stronger for what happened last week, but his faith in humanity was badly shaken.

Nevertheless, he began the draw the bud.

"How long have you been at this school?" Kurt asked after Piotr had finally found a silhouette he was happy with.

"Almost five months," Piotr replied.

"And the children, they have taken to you so quickly?" Kurt sounded a little envious, Piotr thought, and looked up. More curious than envious, he supposed.

"I am..." he trailed off, trying to find a way to explain the niche he fit at the school. An adult without the expectations of an adult, someone who had no real authority to demand anything of them. And because he didn't pretend to any power, the kids had granted it to him. He treated them like the little brothers and sisters he had left behind (although at home it was only one older brother and a younger sister) and listened to them. In return, they listened to him. "I am friend to them."

"You are a very good friend to them," Kurt agreed solemnly.

They sat in silence then, Piotr working on his drawing and Kurt doing whatever it was that he was doing.

After the pair of buds, each in slightly different states of preparedness to blossom, was finished, Piotr looked up. Kurt's eyes were closed, although Piotr didn't think he was asleep. Hoping that Kurt wouldn't take offense, Piotr quietly flipped the page on his sketchpad and began to outline the form of the man sitting across from him.

At some point Kurt had finally sat down, legs crossed Indian-style (another expression Piotr had had to have explained to him) and his hands resting in his lap. Eyes closed, face pointed towards heaven, and a gentle smile that Piotr couldn't resist the temptation to draw as beatific. The children were a little scared of Kurt, mostly because he was a strange looking stranger arriving at a bad time and because an early version of the story of what happened had been boiled down to Dr. Grey dying to save Kurt, the man who had tried to kill the President.

"Ach! Had I known that you would draw me, I would have chosen a more appropriate pose," Kurt half-cried out, startling Piotr.

BAMF!

Kurt was now in a one-handed handstand, his tail curled elegantly towards the ground.

BAMF!

He was now lying on his side, like a model.

BAMF!

And now Kurt was back to sitting precisely as he had been.

This time, Piotr did wrinkle his nose at the smell. "You do not mind me drawing you?"

Kurt laughed. "Nein. I am a performer. I am used to doing quadruple somersaults with flash cameras going off in my eyes and spotlights making me blind. Surely I can submit to this."

And so Piotr sketched, moving from the silhouette to the gentle folds of Kurt's shirt at the elbows and the details of the collar before taking a deep breath and beginning on the beautiful, horrible scars. Piotr knew the designs, knew what they were supposed to symbolize, but he had never seen anyone who had actually committed to the practice before. It was a way of showing how the greatest sin can be turned into a blessing at the hand of the Lord, but it had seemed like something only fanatics did, this ritual disfigurement. But it wasn't disfigurement on Kurt and Kurt wasn't a fanatic. Piotr reproduced the patterns carefully.

"What was it like, when they came?" Kurt asked quietly.

Piotr looked up from where he had been shading in Kurt's shirt.

"It was quiet. They were special operations people, not regular army," he replied, willing his grip to remain gentle on the pencil despite the rush of anger. "I was just a little child when the Communists got run out of power, but I remember a little, remember the stories that my parents and the others used to tell about the KGB coming in the night. It wasn't like that at all. They were dressed like they were invading a country, all of their guns drawn... Teresa - Siryn - woke everyone up with her scream. They shot the children without warning. Tranquilizer darts for them, at least. They shot bullets at me because I was not thought a child."

"I saw the destruction to your room," Kurt said by way of reply. The wall had required an electrician to repair the wires before it could be reboarded and replastered.  

"I am not a violent person, but..." Piotr trailed off in a sigh. "This is supposed to be America, da? This is where criminals can go free if they find a loophole. Not even a warning. They have to give criminals a warning, tell them their rights. Miranda Rule. We didn't even get that... We have fire drills here. Like any dormitory. And so instead of running outside, we ran to the secret pathway. I wanted to stay, but Logan told me to go and he was right. The children would have been alone."

And so you ran?" Kurt prompted after Piotr had trailed off, lost in the memory.

"Down the tunnel and out into the woods to the checkpoint, then wait for everyone we thought was coming, and then to the safehouse," Piotr confirmed. "It is about five kilometers and we were in our pajamas - most of the children didn't even have socks on - and some of them were too young to walk that far... I carried a few, Kitty and some of the others tried to help... But they were cold and stepping on wet ground and on sharp rocks and they were so scared. I was scared, too, that the soldiers would come after us - we could hear them in the distance. And it was almost dawn and getting light...

"But we made it. It was a crazy morning. Bandaging up feet and knees and making cocoa and trying to get them to sleep... By the afternoon, they were a lot better. Some of them had even taken naps. And then Ms. Munro - Storm - and Cyclops came in the evening... We didn't bring the children back here until most of the damage had been cleaned up."

Piotr picked up his pencil again and hoped Kurt took it as a sign that he didn't want to talk about it anymore. The sun had shifted since he had first come out here after lunch and it would soon drop behind the small forest of pine trees that made this a popular part of the grounds in the wintertime.

"They used a telepath on me," Kurt said quietly, so quietly that Piotr wasn't sure he heard anything. "An illusionist. The same one they used on the Professor. I... I am in love with a girl, someone I have known my entire life. And they used her image to seduce me into captivity. Amanda's image and my lust."

He touched a scar on his cheek and Piotr was sure that that was the mark that corresponded to repentance of that sin. Or at least one iteration of it.

"I was weak in so many ways," Kurt sighed and Piotr put his pencil down again. This was a confession of sorts and it would be rude not to give it the attention it deserved. "Weak in the flesh, weak in the heart that I would believe Margali capable of such thoughts. I am undeserving of her generosity and her love for me that I could so easily believe their lies."

"Have you spoken to them since?" Piotr asked. He knew Kurt would be staying at the school.

"I have," Kurt said, nodding sadly. "I apologized and yet they tried to apologize to me. They thought that they had done me wrong. It is why I cannot go back to them, to the circus. I cannot put them in danger by associating so openly with a mutant and I am not yet ready for their forgiveness. They do not understand the nature of my sins."

"Are you allowed to reject absolution?" Piotr asked curiously. He was aware of the protocols of his own faith; Roman Catholicism, however, was a strange beast and it could be different for them.

Kurt tilted his head thoughtfully and smiled, his teeth bright against his skin. "I need to properly accept my sins before I can accept forgiveness for them. Margali says that my favorite shirt is a hairshirt, but..." he trailed off with a shrug. "I will know when it is time. They are my family and I cannot stay away from them forever, even if that were my wish."

Piotr nodded and returned to his sketch. Kurt's tail seemed to move of its own accord, so Piotr took the liberty of showing it over Kurt's left shoulder, the spade tip tilted at the same angle as Kurt's face. Eventually, he got the point where another line would have been one too many and he turned the pad towards Kurt.

"This is lovely! Wonderful!" Kurt enthused, smiling broadly as his tail danced excitedly. "You flatter me. It just needs one little touch…" He grabbed the pencil out of Piotr's hand and, with dexterity Piotr wouldn't have thought possible, Kurt scribbled something and turned the pad back towards Piotr. He had autographed the sketch, right below where Piotr had written "The Incredible Nightcrawler" in neat print.

"And now it is finished."

***


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