R'Hul dared me to write a story where Toad was happy the whole time. I think this is close enough. Must maintain some sense of realism, after all. Thanks as usual to Jedimom for ideas and feedback. And yes, I know I'm moving farther and farther away from X-Men canon with every new story in this series. Some day I'll actually read the X-Men comic books and go, "Ooh, did I have it wrong!" But for now, I'm having fun.
"Come on in. Your sister's out back with Hannah." He looks up at the bruise on my forehead. "Sorry about that."
"Eh, you were just doing your job," I shrug. "But you guys shouldn't have tried to stop us last night."
"You were breaking the law, and the police aren't exactly equipped to deal with your gang," he retorted.
"We'd gotten a reliable tip that they were experimenting on mutants in there!"
"You should have gone to the authorities, rather than taking matters into your own hands."
"Like they would have done anything fast enough."
"We'll never gain the respect of the mainstream if people like you keep circumventing the law."
"We won't survive if people like you keep sitting with your thumbs up your arses while we get stepped on."
"Besides, your tip was wrong. There was no evidence of any mutant experimentation. You should have done more research."
"And run the risk that a mutant was being tortured? No thanks. Besides, Magneto paid for all the damage."
"That's besides the point."
Wolverine walks up and shoots us both this strange look. "You two are just like Wile E. Coyote and that sheepdog."
We both glare at him.
He shrugs and walks on. I still don't like spending time around him. Not after what he did to Mystique. She forgives him, and intellectually, I guess I do too, but my gut still roils whenever I see him. But then again, I also give Storm a pretty wide berth if I run across her, and Jean Grey doesn't seem excited to see me here either, although she does pretty well around me most of the time.
Everything about my being here is weird. The kids at the school apparently have no clue what to think about me. I mean, at least once a month, the X-Men get called out to stop me and the others from doing something they disapprove of. And the law usually disapproves too. But then I show up during the day to visit my sister and play with my niece. My sister, their teacher. My niece, their littlest mutant. Some of the students just stare, but others actually talk to me. The freakiest-looking ones are the most friendly, although I'm definitely the freakiest thing here, if you don't count Hannah. Which I don't, because she's so damned cute.
And Magneto...he didn't take me back for months after I told him what I'd done. Mystique said she wouldn't work for him either, in solidarity, but I convinced her not to do that. I didn't want to hurt the cause. But eventually Magneto took me back. Apparently, he thinks I have useful skills. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud when he told me that. Magneto admitting that he needed me: it was amusing turnabout. He and the professor and I got together, and we all agreed that my visits to the school would be totally neutral. I wouldn't spy or steal or sabotage when I was there, and they wouldn't try and snatch information on the Brotherhood's plans from my brain. After all, the two of them manage to hang out without jeopardizing either of their side's plans.
I walk the familiar path through the mansion and out to the back lawn. A group of kids is playing basketball, and one of them calls my name and pitches the ball at me. Her shot's wide, though, so I snag the ball with my tongue before grabbing it with my hands, then jumping up to slam-dunk it.
"Whoa! You were, like, twenty feet from the basket!" one of them gushes.
I just grin and keep heading for my sister, who's standing under my favorite oak tree, staring up at the branches. "I'm beginning to see the wisdom of a tether," she says, arms crossed. "Fourteen months old and she's climbing trees."
I follow her gaze, and see Kitty steadily climbing to try and retrieve Hannah, who's gotten up impressively high. But Hannah's fast, and she's already moving to another branch. "Hannah, stay still," Kitty sighs.
"Need an assist?" I ask.
She looks down, clearly exasperated. "Thanks."
Hannah may be fast, but I'm faster. I race up and intercept her before she switches branches again. "That's my girl," I say, scooping her up.
"Mor'mer!" she giggles and wraps her arms around my neck.
God, I love this girl.
"Hey, who's that?" I ask, pointing at her shirt.
"Kermit!" she cries, all smiles. The Kermit stuff was Rogue's idea. She thought it would be good for Hannah to have a green role model. She can't go anywhere near Hannah herself, because there's just no way to tell a toddler with a prehensile tongue to keep away from exposed skin. So instead she showers her with Kermit gifts from afar. I feel bad for Rogue. In a way, she's freakier than me. I can tell she'd really love to spend time with Hannah. But there's no telling how badly a toddler could get hurt by touching her for just a second.
She giggles again, and puts her palm on mine, laughing as our hands snag together. Pattycake is a physical impossibility for the two of us, but when she hits that age, the other kids will take care of that for her.
'Course, when she hits that age, she'll probably be more interested in what's happening outside the walls of this place. My sister's not looking forward to that conversation. But I am working on it for her. I am finding safe places outside those walls.
Oddly enough, I have Wolverine to thank for that.
I was having my usual argument with Cyclops when I said something about it still not being possible for someone like me to go out without being made fun of. Wolverine walked over and asked, "When was the last time you tried?"
"Three years ago, if you don't count Halloween."
"So try again." I must have shot him a look, because he shrugged and said, "Hey, I hear things are getting better now that the anti-discrimination law is in place. Give it a shot."
He looked at me like I was an idiot. "Um, I look normal."
"So make yourself up like me. Walk into a Burger King looking like this and order a meal. If you do it, I'll do it."
He clearly thought about it for a minute, then said, "Deal."
So he did. He told me which one he'd be going to, and Mystique hung out and watched. Apparently, he was very no-nonsense. He just walked up to the counter, ordered his food, and snarled at them when they gaped. Apparently, the manager tried to throw him out, but he recited from memory the exact text of the mutant anti-discrimination law, accompanied by another snarl, and they just handed him the food and kept out of his way as he sat at a booth and ate. Mystique said she nearly peed herself from trying not to laugh.
I was waiting at the mansion when he got back. "So?" I asked.
"You're right. It's a pain in the ass going out like this. Burger was good, though." He stuck his pinky in his ear and twisted it around. "Damned makeup itches."
"Well, it's nice to hear one of you say I'm right for a change," I said with an ungracious smile. "So, my turn tomorrow."
"Nah, you don't have to do this. You're right," Wolverine replied.
"No, a deal's a deal. I'm doing it."
"Suit yourself." He snarled, twisting his finger harder. "I have to go wash this shit off before I go insane."
I drove to another Burger King the very next day, walked in, and the first person I saw was that cabbie from Halloween a couple of years ago. "I knew that wasn't a costume!" he said with a huge grin. "How've you been doing?"
"Not bad," I shrugged.
"Hey, congratulations on that anti-discrimination law. It's about time. Come on, let me buy you lunch to celebrate."
"You don't need to do that," I protested.
"Hey, it's no problem. My son's the manager of this restaurant. It's a free lunch," he replied with a wink before putting his arm around my shoulders and walking me up to the counter.
I guess I occasionally have dumb luck. I'd picked a Burger King in a black neighborhood, and just about everyone there was cool with the green guy. He introduced me to his son and to a few of his friends, and I actually spend time with them every now and then. One of them owns a bar, and he'll kick out anyone who takes issue with me being there. And a couple of them have kids Hannah's age. As soon as she's old enough to keep her tongue to herself, we're going to introduce them. Maybe take them to the neighborhood playground. I guess these folks are just close enough in time to when they had to fight for civil rights that they're more likely to accept us. Well, that's my theory, at least.
The things I do for this girl. "Hey cutie," I say, pushing up her Kermit shirt and blowing raspberries on her belly. God, I love her laugh.
"Are you two ever coming down?" my sister asks.
"You wanna go down?" I ask.
"Okay, we'll jump."
I look down, and Jean Grey is standing next to my sister. Heh. I grab hold of Hannah and launch myself out of the tree, landing less than a foot away from Grey. She startles back amusingly, and Agnes shoots me a dirty look. I can't help it. Sometimes my mean streak needs to come out to play. Especially after that telekinetic bitch-slap she gave me last night. Left my ears ringing for hours.
She clears her throat and composes herself as Hannah crawls out of my arms and starts climbing across my shoulders like I were a set of monkey bars. "I was hoping to speak to you," she says. "I'd like to run a test on you, if you don't mind."
"What kind of test?"
She looks up at Hannah. "Doesn't it bother you when she climbs on your head?"
"Nah." I kind of like it, actually, although right now I'm wishing she were barefoot. She's got a sneaker in my ear.
"Okay." She looks doubtful, but I could care less. "I was wondering if you'd let me try to freeze off a couple of your warts. Hannah looks like she's about to start sprouting one, and Agnes would really like to spare her those if possible. But before I do anything to her, I want to try it on you to see if they'll stay off, or if they'll grow back. I don't want to put a toddler through an unpleasant treatment if it's not going to work."
I shrug. "Yeah, sure."
"You don't mind?"
"Is now all right?"
I look over at Agnes, who says, "She needs a bath anyway. I'll clean her up while you go off with Jean."
"Now's all right, then," I say, and reach up to pull Hannah off my head. "I'll be back after your bath, okay sweetie?" I push up her shirt, hold her upside down, blow another raspberry on her belly, then hand her over to Agnes.
We head back to the mansion, and as soon as Hannah sees I'm walking off in different direction, she snags my wrist with her tongue. "Hannah," I chide, walking back over to her, unwrapping it as I go. "You can't do that. You know that."
"No," she pouts.
"I'll be back sweetie. I promise."
I give her a kiss on the forehead, and Agnes puts a finger over Hannah's lips. "No tongue," she says. Hannah's still pouting, but she obeys. "Good girl."
"She's learning so fast," Grey says as we get on the elevator. "And the professor's been helping."
"Yeah, Agnes told me. You really think it's a good idea to let someone poke around in her head, though? She's so young."
"Well, most fourteen-month-olds don't have prehensile tongues twice the length of their bodies."
"Yeah, there is that."
The elevator opens, and we head silently down the hall to her medical bay. It's weird being back down here. I mean, I've been here a few times so Grey could run tests to get a baseline to compare Hannah to, but I still can't help but remember sitting in vigil by Mystique here. She gestures to a table and says, "Just sit down and let me take a couple of pictures first. Have you ever had these looked at by a doctor?"
"Right, let me just take a look." She starts poking and squeezing at the largest one on my forehead. "Does this hurt?"
"Not really. Feels a little funny."
"Hmm." She steps back and bites her lip. "I think I should try smaller ones. I'm not sure what I had in mind will work on one that big."
"Do whatever you have to do if it'll help Hannah."
"Right." She turns, picks up a small canister and a camera, and says, "I'm going to take off the one over your eyebrow and the one by your nose. This is liquid nitrogen. It might sting some, but it shouldn't hurt. Don't pick at the scabs. They should fall off by themselves in a few days."
"If you're doing two, shouldn't I pick at one? Hannah will."
"We were going to put band-aids over hers."
"Oh. Okay then."
"Good point, though. I'll bandage the one over your eyebrow so we can see if that makes any difference."
She sets the liquid nitrogen down, focuses the camera on my face, and I try not to fidget. I hate having my picture taken. I sat for one picture with Agnes and Hannah, but I felt like I was going to throw up the whole time. So Rogue keeps sneaking up on us when we're together and taking candid shots on her digital camera. She's really good. I usually don't know she was there until she hands me the photo a few hours later. My room in Mystique's house is covered with her photos. It's so nice to have a room of my own for the first time in my life. It's not a bedroom. Mystique and I sleep in the same bed in her room. It's just...mine. And it's not a hole in the wall of a cave, or a closet, or some spot in an abandoned building that I'm calling my own. It's a real civilized room, with four walls, a ceiling, a floor, two windows, electricity, a nice carpet, a computer, a desk, a sofa, and tons of pictures of Hannah.
"Okay, here goes. Close your eyes." She puts one hand on my chin and then there's the weirdest sensation over my eyebrow. I can hear the squirting, but it takes a few seconds for me to actually feel it. I can't tell if it's cold or if it burns. "Okay, now the one by your nose." Yeah, definitely weird. But if it'll help Hannah, I'll do it.
"That should do it," she says, and I open my eyes again. "Here," she says, handing me a mirror.
"They look smaller."
She puts a small bandage on the one over my eyebrow. "They're hardened, hopefully down to the root. Remember, don't pick at them."
"Change the bandage daily, and let me know how long the scabs take to fall off," she says, writing down notes on a clipboard. "I'll want to examine them every time you visit, just to keep track of how the areas look. Hopefully we'll know within a few months if they're going to start growing back. If they don't, I can take the rest of them off for you too, although I'll probably need to do minor surgery on that one on your forehead."
"You don't need to..."
"It's no trouble," she interjects. "Look, I may have problems with your politics, but you're a great uncle to Hannah." She pauses, tapping her pen on the rim of the clipboard, then asks, "So if Magneto asked you to choose between Hannah and the Brotherhood, what would you choose?"
"Hannah," I say without hesitation.
"Read my mind if you want. I'd choose Hannah."
"Would you join us?"
"Even though Hannah lives with us?"
"This is the best place for her, but as you put it, I have problems with your politics. I might, however, work for the school. You know, if you needed someone."
"But only if Magneto made you choose between the Brotherhood and Hannah."
She puts down her clipboard and says, "Fair enough. I just thought I'd ask. Oh, while I've got you here, could I get a sample of your slime?"
"Not on your life," I retort. "Not until you actually need it."
"Well, if I could start studying it now..."
"Then I'd have one less weapon in my arsenal," I reply with a grin. "You don't need to worry about this for Hannah for another ten years yet."
"Can't blame me for trying," she shrugs. "Oh, did I thank you for filling our gas tank with slime last night?"
"It was no trouble at all," I say, grin growing wider, as I hop off the table. "Why don't you just study that?"
"I tried. I couldn't get a clean sample. It was too well mixed with the gasoline," she sighed. "Really gummed up the works when Scott tried starting the car."
"I'm surprised he didn't say anything to me about it," I say as we head back for the elevator.
"Are you kidding? He's thrilled. He gets to crawl around under the car and rebuild everything you fouled up."
"You people are weird."
"I'm normal. Scott's weird."
She leaves me at the elevator, and I step on alone. They trust me when I'm here. It's the weirdest thing. Actually, it's not. The weirdest thing is that I'm actually trustworthy. I pop off on the main floor and head for my sister's suite, passing a couple of the kids along the way. These are a couple of the starers. No time to stare back. I knock on the door, then step in. "Hey kiddo!" I say as I catch my niece's eye. "All clean?"
"Mor'mer!" she squeals and runs over.
I put my hands down in front of me, palms facing hers, and ask, "Ready?"
She reaches up and puts her palms on mine and goes, "Yeah!"
I shift my hands just so. Need to make sure the angle's right. Yep, got it. I can feel the catch. "Up we go!" I say as I pull her up, using only the adhesion of our hands. Scared the crap out of Agnes the first time I tried it, but it works. There's no way I'm dropping her. Besides, I'd catch her with my tongue before she hit the ground if she managed to wiggle loose.
We pull our hands apart, and she starts climbing on my head again. She's in socks, so it's a little more comfortable than earlier. "I just got an email from home," my sister says as she walks in. "Mum and Dad are asking if you and Mystique are going to get married."
I roll my eyes. "They ask that every week. Have you explained to them the part about us being criminals?"
"Repeatedly. They're not buying it. Besides, all it does is produce a long-winded email from Mum where she whinges at length about how you never would have ended up this way if only she'd kept you and raised you herself."
"Yeah, if she'd raised me herself, she probably would have become a criminal on my behalf," I snort. She's become a hell of a pro-mutant crusader in the UK. Some of her tactics put ACT-UP to shame.
"What I haven't told her is the part about you and Mystique not particularly being in love."
"Hannah, don't pick at that," I chide, moving her fingers away from my band-aid. "Here, let's play with your trucks." I tuck her under my arm and head over to the living room. She's just learned to make "vroom" noises. It's painfully cute.
Agnes follows us in, kicking back on the sofa, and asks, "So, why is it that you two aren't in love anyway?"
I "vroom" a truck across Hannah's head, then shrug and say, "She's the first person I ever dated. I thought I was in love, but I was just infatuated. I guess it's worn off. I mean, I still really love being with her, but I don't think it's a 'forever and ever' kind of thing. And she... She's a lot older than she looks, you know."
"Yeah, you told me. But why should that make a difference?"
"I'm just a kid to her. And she's not in any rush to settle down again. I guess she's done it before. She doesn't really like talking about her past."
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"No, actually. It doesn't. I'm happy."
"Oh, it's so nice to just lie back and relax. Hannah's such a handful. So, has she had any luck finding her son yet?"
"That's too bad. You'd think that it wouldn't be too hard to find someone blue and furry with three fingers and glowing yellow eyes."
"Mum and Dad couldn't find me, and I'm green and warty with a prehensile tongue and frog eyes."
"Although soon to be less warty," Agnes notes with a bob of her head.
"Fingers crossed. You know, sometimes Mystique thinks I hate her for doing to her son what my parents did to me, but I don't."
"I can understand it, though," Agnes says. "I mean, she's already a mutant. Abandoning a mutant baby is one thing if you're normal, but you'd think a mutant would know better. Especially one that's blue and scaly."
"She was young, she was alone, and she was trying to hide what she was," I shrug. "She couldn't hide with him in tow. I think she wanted him so she could try to be more normal. No more trucks?" Hannah crawls over and start banging a couple of blocks on her toy xylophone, singing something in a language only she understands.
Agnes winces and looks down at her watch. "Five minutes and I'm hiding the xylophone."
I just laugh. I don't care. It's just nice to see her so happy. I doubt I was ever that happy when I was her age. Having her is like having a second chance.
"So," Agnes says over the din. "You'll never guess what happened yesterday."
"What?" I ask, sliding across the floor to lean against the sofa.
Hannah puts down the blocks and crawls over to curl up in my lap, pull off her socks, and play with her toes.
"I came back from teaching English, expecting to find Bobby watching Hannah, but instead I find Wolverine sitting on the sofa with her in his lap, watching Sesame Street."
"Wolverine?" I'm having a really hard time picturing this. In fact, I'm not even sure I want to picture this.
"I wish I'd had a camera," she grins. "It was really darling."
"That's not a word I'd use."
"Please," she snorts. "I thought it was cute."
"So what happened to Bobby?" Hannah rests her body against my chest, and I curl an arm around her protectively.
"Oh, he'd just panicked because he'd turned around for a minute and Hannah had managed to crawl onto the ceiling. Wolverine heard him begging her to come down, so he came in and took over."
"How did he get her down?"
"He turned on the television and she crawled back down to watch."
"He stayed all the way through Sesame Street and Mister Rogers too," she grinned. "Told me to just relax for a while. So I took a nice bath and read a book."
I shake my head in disbelief. "I just can't picture him as a Sesame Street kind of guy."
"Oh, he was really into it," Agnes says. "He kept pointing at the screen, repeating things they said to try and get her to say a new word, and you should have seen him when Kermit came on."
"Kermit," Hannah mumbles.
I look down at her. She's looking sleepy. I lean down and kiss her on the head. "That's a girl."
"You know, I wonder if Wolverine had children," Agnes muses. "I'll bet he was a hell of a dad. You'd be a hell of a dad too."
"No, no kids for me," I retort. "Uncle's fine."
"You and Mystique haven't thought about it?"
"Not with this mutation running in our family. I love Hannah dearly, but life is not going to be easy for her."
"Oh, Margaret got her tubes tied too," Agnes says. "She sent me an email about it yesterday. So you and Hannah are the only ones left who could conceivably pass this on."
"I should get a vasectomy one of these days. Too bad the only doctor I really know is Doctor Grey. I don't think I want her poking around my 'nads."
"Listen to you," Agnes says, playfully shoving my head. "'Nads.' You sound so American."
"I've lived here just about half my life!" I protest.
"Hannah's going to end up sounding like one of these bloody colonials too," Agnes jokes, then looks down in my lap. "She's asleep."
We sit there quietly with her for a few minutes, and I gently twirl one of her little green pigtails with my finger. Then Agnes says, "Let's put her to bed."
I very slowly stand up and then carry her to the bedroom. She's sleeping on a little mattress on the floor now. She started climbing out of her crib a few months ago, and Agnes absolutely refused to cover the top of the crib with bars, so she just put the crib mattress on the ground. She doesn't think Hannah's ready for a real bed yet, because she's afraid she'd roll out by accident. She still finds Hannah lying in a tangle of blankets on the floor by the mattress at least once a week. I gently lay her down, and she mumbles, "Mor'mer."
"Good night, sweet thing," I whisper, kissing her on the forehead, and then I hand her her little Kermit doll. She clutches it tightly and falls back asleep.
Agnes and I head out of her room, quietly closing the door behind us. "Do you want to stay for a bite to eat?" she asks.
"Nah, I'm going out with Mystique tonight. She's been more down than usual lately, so I'm hoping this might cheer her up a little. She's always impressed when I dress up."
"Well then, you go have a great time. But you know, I hate to bring this up..." She shifts her weight awkwardly. "I know she's been moody. If things get worse, you can move in with the two of us. We'd love to have you here."
"I can't," I say. "I mean, for starters, I'm willing to ride it out. But more importantly, I'd have to quit my work, and I don't want to do that. Not if I don't have to. I don't like the work these guys do here."
"They do good work with the children," Agnes counters.
"Yeah," I grin. "I can't argue with that."
"Thanks for bringing us here," she says, wrapping me in a strong hug. "I know how hard it was for you."
"It was the least I could do," I say, hugging her back. "I wanted Hannah to have the best life possible, and I knew this was the only way to do it."
She pulls back and kisses me on the cheek. "Say hello to Mystique for me, okay?"
"I will. Take care. See you soon."
As I head for the door, I hear a voice calling my name. I turn, and it's Rogue, running towards me. "I have something for you," she says, and hands me a picture frame. "I took this this afternoon."
It's a close-up of me and Hannah up in the tree. I'm pointing at her shirt, and she has a huge smile on her face. "This is beautiful," I say, running my fingers over the glass. How does she manage to take pictures of me where I don't look hideous? "Thank you so much."
"Here's a few more," she says, handing me an envelope. "I just really liked that one, so I enlarged it for you."
"Thanks. That was really nice of you."
"Oh, it was nothing," she says, putting on a smile that I'm not buying for a second.
"Hey, give her a year, year and a half, and you'll be able to get close to her again."
"Yeah," she sighs wistfully.
"Did I ever thank you for the Kermit thing? That was really nice."
"Oh, you probably did," she says dismissively, with that exaggerated emotion that teenagers do so well. "It just seemed natural."
"Hey, I have to go," I say apologetically. And I really am sorry. I like Rogue. Poor kid. I may have had it rough as a kid, but it's getting better for me every year. Her life just keeps getting worse. I mean, now that I know what it's like to be touched in kindness, I can't imagine living without it. But she's lost all that.
"Oh, sure. Glad you like the picture."
"I love it. Thanks."
And then I head out of the mansion and to my car. I look down at the picture again and can't help but smile. Things are going to be rough for Hannah in a few years, but right now, she's got a good life. And I helped her get it. And in return, she's given me the best fourteen months of my life.
God, I love that girl.
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