Chapter Six (A)
Jubilee snuffled into her pillow in a sleepy sort of way, and pulled the blanket over her head. One of the nicest things about this road trip, she reflected muzzily, was that she didn't have to get up until she wanted to. She could just stay snuggled up in bed until she was good and ready to face the outside world, whether that took until lunchtime or not. Just hovering happily in the warm spot between asleep and awake...until she had to go to the bathroom, anyway.
She pried herself out of bed, and stumbled to the bathroom. Glancing over at Jono, she smiled a little. He was in Cute Sleeping Position Number Four - curled up at the bottom of the bed on top of the blankets, with the loose ends from the upper end of the bed pulled down around him. Jono, she had learned after sharing a hotel room with him for four nights now (cheaper and safer for all concerned, he had insisted), anyway, Jono liked to get the most possible mileage out of any given bed.
Once in the bathroom, with the most urgent business attended to, she stared blearily into the mirror. Hum. Hair looks like something out of a horror flick. Eyes all puffy. Pillow marks on cheek. Nightshirt on back-to-front. Hum. She yawned, and strolled back into the bedroom, scratching her nose and wondering whether a McMuffin was what she wanted・for・breakfast・
There had been some rather significant changes to the room while she'd been answering the call.
Like, for example, the cake. It was sitting in the middle of the table. A small, chocolate-icing-covered, one-person cake with Happy Birthday written on it in slightly smudgy white icing and a burning candle shaped like a fifteen plonked carefully if rather awkwardly in the middle. There was a largish parcel sitting next to it, inexpertly wrapped in blue paper with fireworks on it.
Jono was pretending to still be asleep. However, since he was lying relatively straight in bed, with his head on the pillow, and no extremities hanging off the sides, Jubilee knew this immediately for a filthy lie. She looked at the cake and present, then back at him. Sternly, she fought off a sudden attack of teariness and reached over to yank the pillow out from under his head.
He sat up, looking not so much sleepy as rather anxious. Jubilee pointed at the small birthday display. "Was that you?" Jono meekly shook his head. She grinned at him. "Liar." He nodded penitently.
Jubilee sat down on his bed and hugged him tightly. "Thanks, dude," she said, her voice muffled in his shoulder. He hugged her back, patting her hair gently, then pointed at the candle, which was starting to melt onto the cake.
She sniffled a bit, and leaned over. **I wish・ I wish・ ** she frowned, biting her lip. "Jono・" He rubbed her back gently, crinkling reassuringly. She closed her eyes and blew. **I wish・ I wish that I never have to see Wolverine or Shadowcat ever again.** Then she smiled, and reached eagerly for her present.
Usually when she got presents, Jubilee simple tore into them, shredding the paper in her hurry to see what was inside. This time, though, she turned it over and methodically pried away the tape that held it together. For some reason, she felt as though this present was somehow special. Folding the paper back, all she could see at first was an expanse of rich, deep purple-blue. Pulling it out of the paper, she stared as her jaw dropped slightly.
It was a leather coat, similar in cut to Jono's own. Unlike his, however, this one was almost as soft as suede, and dyed the colour of the evening sky. As she held it up, she noticed silver threads as thin as cobwebs glittering across the back. Turning it slightly, she gasped as a sinuous, graceful Eastern Dragon picked out in silver leapt out at her, only to vanish again as the light shifted.
"Wow・" she breathed, rubbing a fold of it against her cheek. It had that new-leather smell, mingled with a faint scent of jasmine incense, and she inhaled deeply before she held it up again to admire the glittering dragon.
Jono breathed a mental sigh of relief. He hadn't been quite sure how she'd take the coat. She could have decided that he was trying to 'control' her in some way - and lord knew the gel had every reason to be paranoid about THAT - or just that he was butting in where he wasn't wanted.
He hadn't actually intended to buy her anything as potentially symbolic as a new jacket, but the colour had caught his eye, and once he'd seen it there had been no going back. It had been love at first sight. The beautiful, unusual colour and the sudden glints of silver had combined in way so irresistably reminiscent of Jubilee that he'd plowed right through the crowd and siezed it mere inches ahead of a pushy blonde, who'd actually tried to take it away from him, saying in a snaky tone that it wasn't his size. Jono, not one to be pushed around so easily, had held on to it like grim death, and gotten the upper hand by the simple expident of kicking her bags across the aisle and running away while her back was turned. She'd beaten him to the matching boots, unfortunately, but since he didn't know what size Jubilee's feet were anyway, he was inclined to be philosophical about that.
He crinkled a little as she hugged the coat to her like a child with a new toy. It looked like the gamble had paid off, anyway.
Jubilee tugged the coat on over her nightshirt and looked down at herself. A smller dragon twisted itself into a complex knot right over her heart, glittering faintly. **Very nice・ Very VERY nice.** She dashed back into the bathroom to look in the mirror. Unfastened, the coat sparkled and swirled around her legs in a most satisfactory way. Buttoned and belted, it added a good two years to her age. Probably three with a bit of makeup.
Jubilee beamed at the mirror, then suddenly frowned. "Hey... I've got, like, NOTHING to wear with a coat like this!" She pouted. "Jono, I don't got anything to wear with it!"
Without bothering to sit up, Jono help up a shiny golden credit-card and waved it enticingly. He crinkled at her as her eyes brightened, and pointed to himself, then at her, and made a little walking movement with his fingers.
Jubilee gave him a rather bemused look. "You WANNA go shoppin' with me?" He nodded. "It could take a while." He indicated his absolute willingness to spend the entire day following her around. "An' I'm gonna ask ya what ya think of stuff." He gave her a thumbs up. "An' I'm gonna drag ya inta, like, a couple dozen stores." He shrugged philosophically and gave her the thumbs up again.
"Yeah, well・" Jubilee grabbed her bag and vanished into the bathroom. "We'll see how chipper ya are in a few hours, 'sunshine'."
* * *
"Whaddya think of these?" Jubilee held up two pairs of jeans. One was buttercup yellow, the other fire-engine red. "Which ones?"
Jono pointed firmly at the red pair. She frowned. "Why?" He drove an imaginary car for a moment, the brushed his leg off. "Oh. They'll get dirty, right." He shaded his eyes, blinking rapidly, then lost control of an imaginary car, ending up lying on the floor at her feet. He looked soulfully up at her, clutching an imaginary broken arm. Jubilee giggled, reaching down to help him up. "Okay, okay, the yellow ones go back on the shelf. Yer a nut, Jono."
He nodded brightly, crinkling at her. She smiled back, handing him the jeans, as well as a few other pairs she'd liked the look of. "You hang onto them while I go look for some shirts, okay?" He nodded, trailing after her like a very large, very black Labrador.
**Not a bad birthday, so far.** Jubilee picked up a neon green t-shirt, then shook her head and put it back down again. **Cake and pancakes fer breakfast, and a morning of non-stop shopping. Not only that, Jono must be the only guy in the universe who'll actually give an opinion on clothes. A REAL opinion, not just nodding at everything.** She held up a pale yellow top with an orange geometric pattern on the front. Jono gave it an assessing look, and wavered a hand uncertainly. Jubilee looked at it, then added it to the growing pile in his arms.
Jono immediately staggered melodramatically, behaving for all the world as if she was stacking his arms full of bricks. She giggled. "Two more, and I'll start tryin' stuff on, okay?" He nodded, and pointed at a black shirt on the next rack. "I dunno, dude・ black's more your kinda thing. Still・" She picked it up. It was smooth and silky, with a little shimmer on the fabric. And it would definitely be a tight fit. "It's pretty, but・" She blushed a little. "Doncha think it's・ you know・ a bit much fer me? I mean, I ain't exactly Betsy. Heck, I ain't even Monet." She sighed. "I should BE so lucky."
Jono shook his head, and pointed insistently at the shirt, giving her a thumbs up and an inquiring look. Jubilee looked down at the smooth, soft fabric again. "Well・ I'll try it on, but if it makes me look like a twig I ain't comin' out."
Jono beamed proudly at her. "Yeah, yeah・" She grabbed a t-shirt and hauled him in the direction of the change-rooms. "Now, I want an honest opinion on every single one, okay?" she insisted, taking the pile of clothes out of his arms.
He nodded, plunking himself down on a handy chair and folding his hands in his lap. She smiled at him. "You stay there. I'll be right out."
Ten minutes later, she'd gone through everything except a pair of dark blue jeans and the black top. She debated simply going out in a different shirt and telling him the black one didn't fit. He was hardly going to argue with her. Knowing Jono, he'd just take her word for it and let the subject drop. A perfect out. On the other hand, if she lied to him, she'd feel like total crap all day・ she sighed, and pulled it over her head.
And stared into the mirror. **Wow. That looks・pretty damn good, actually.** The shimmer on the fabric definitely made the most of what she had, and that was more than was usually evident, the flattening effect of spandex being what it was. She shimmied into the tight jeans and looked again. **Hel-LO, hot-stuff!** she crowed silently, turning to the side to look some more. So she wasn't in the same league as Jean or Betsy or Rogue or pretty much every X-Woman in existence - in this outfit she looked good. **DEFinitely not a kid.** She scowled for a moment as a gruff voice intruded on her mind, calling her 'kid' and lying to her all the time. **Not a kid, old man. And you can just get the hell out of my head and my life.** She turned and stomped out of the changing room, planting her hands on her hips and glaring at Jono. "Well?" She felt a little bad about being so crabby with him, but not so much that she was going to calm down.
Jono looked up, clapped his hand to where his heart would have been, and fell off his chair in a tangle of bags from previous stops. Jubilee's lips twitched, but she didn't smile. "Good or not?" she demanded, folding her arms.
Jono gave her two thumbs up, eyeing her admiringly. She chuckled, doing a small pirouette. "You like it?" He nodded. "Me too." She looked at her reflection in the big mirror on the wall. "Definitely getting THIS outfit."
* * *
After a leisurely lunch, they decided against travelling that day, and wandered around for a while. Jono was obviously going all out to do whatever she wanted to do, Jubilee thought. He'd taken her shopping, he'd bought her icecream, generally spoiled her rotten, and when she'd started to get quiet, he hadn't tried to cheer her up or talk her out of it. Instead, he's steered her towards a small park and sat down with her under a tree, waiting patiently while she brooded.
Jubilee leaned back against the trunk of the tree, and looked at her companion assessingly. Jono was currently lying on his back on the grass beside her, eyes closed and hands folded across his stomach. A small ant was trekking across his arm.
She watched it for a moment, then reached out to lightly flick it into the grass. "Jono?" She looked down at him, her blue eyes cloudy. "Why are you doin' this? All of this?"
He opened his eyes, and looked up at her. Crinkling slightly, he poked her gently in the stomach. Jubilee smiled a little, then shook her head. "For me, right. But why?"
He sat up, and looked at her gravely. She stared back, with unconsciously pleading eyes. **Poor gel・ ** He reached out and gently took her hand, tracing a smile onto her palm. **I don't want anythin' from ya, gel, I promise. I ain't lookin' ta be a father, or a mentor, or anything else to yer.** More than ever before he wished he could still 'speak'. But he couldn't, so he would have to explain it as best he could without words.
Jono stood up, straightening into the posture he used to signal the fact that he was about to communicate. Jubilee nodded automatically, looking up at him and squinting a little in the sun. "Go ahead, dude."
He reached down to pat her head patronisingly. Before she could express her indignation, he pointed at himself and shook his head. Then he straightened up and shook a reproving finger at her. Again, he pointed to himself, and shook his head. Next, he knelt before her, pressing his hand to his heart. Shake. Finally, he struck a classic muscle-man pose, flexing his arm and looking as tough as he could. and put a protective hand on her shoulder. Then, shaking his head once again, he sat down beside her.
Gazing soberly at her, he reached out and clasped her wrist in a warrior's handshake, squeezing lightly. Then he folded her small hand into both of his large ones and just looked at her.
Jubilee bit her lip and looked down at their clasped hands. Several times over the last few days she had thought to wonder why she always found it so easy to translate Jono's gestures into words. Somehow, she just always seemed to know what he wanted to say. Now she knew.
It wasn't a mentor thing, or a teacher thing, or a hero thing, or even a romantic thing. It was just what he had said it was. **Because you're my friend, and I love you** Simple as that. Perfectly understandable. Nothing strange about it at all.
She looked up at him, and smiled suddenly. The old, sparkling smile that she used to flash around all the time, and of which Jono had only seen pale echoes since That had happened. He crinkled at her in return, squeezing her hand.
Jubilee squeezed back and stood up, tugging him up with her. "C'mon, dude. Time ta get some shoes ta go with all that stuff." She tossed her head, flicking her short hair. "And we need ta find a charity bin somewhere, too."
Jono raised an eyebrow at her. She shrugged. "Well, we don't exactly got unlimited space in the car, Jono. I'm gonna hafta get rid of some of my old clothes, doncha think?" He nodded, looking a little uncertain. She ruffled his hair reassuringly. "Relax, Jono. I'm not gonna try and toss my entire life into the nearest Salvation Army bin or anything. I just wanna clear the way for some new gear, you know?"
He nodded again, ducking away from her hand. She giggled, and took advantage of his momentary imbalance to push him into a small fountain. Needless to say, that necessitated immediate retaliation. Unfortunately for Jono, he had to CATCH her first.
* * *
That night, Jubilee dreamed.
She was sitting in a garden. A number of tall, graceful trees stood about her, spreading their leaves and drinking in the sunshine. Several saplings stood among them, straining up towards the light, wanting their share. Some of the adult trees seemed to pull their own branches aside a little, letting the sun fall on the little ones. One or two held out their leaves greedily, blocking the light.
Her eyes were drawn to a smaller, sturdier looking tree, with a small sapling beside it. The older tree carefully held its branches aside so that the little one could get all the sunlight it wanted.
As Jubilee watched, the seasons seemed to change. Snow fell, and the adult tree leaned over the little tree, protecting it from the snow. Then, when the sun shone again, the older one would lean back and let the little tree photosynthesize to its heart's content.
Even in the dream, Jubilee felt a moment's pride at remembering the term.
Slowly the little sapling grew into a young tree, still not as big as its parent, but able to manage alone. The older tree, meanwhile, had begun to lean a little away from the younger one. After a little while, Jubilee realized that this was because another, much smaller sapling was growing up on its other side. The big tree had turned its attention to the littlest tree, because the older sapling was gettting along by itself.
Several seasons seemed to pass, and the adult continued to shelter the smallest sapling from the bad weather, while allowing sunshine and rain to reach it unhindered. Jubilee smiled a little, thinking vaguly that it was nice that the tree was taking such good care of the baby one.
Then, instead of the light snows there had always been before, there came a blizzard. Several of the tallest trees lost limbs to the storm, and the tallest one was struck by lightning, riven nearly in two. Most of the saplings, in amongst the other trees, managed fine.
The shorter tree, with its two small companions, wasn't so lucky. Although the adult was old and very strong, the two saplings were not. The snow piled up around them, and the wind tugged at their branches. The older tree tried to spread its leafless branches over them, but it couldn't provide enough protection for both small trees. If it leaned over a little, it could protect one, but that would leave the other to take the full brunt of the storm.
Jubilee looked from one to the other. The older sapling stood between the shorter adult and the grove of taller ones. It was older, and much better established, with a good root system. It would be all right, she thought. The adult should protect the littler tree.
But it didn't. With a creak and a groan, it leaned over towards the older sapling, covering it with a tight network of branches.
The smallest tree stood a little apart from the others, utterly unprotected in the face of the storm. Jubilee nearly cried as she saw the wind tug at it, and the mixture of snow and hail beating on the thin branches and the small trunk. She wanted to go to it and shelter it with her coat, but she couldn't seem to move. She couldn't even close her eyes. All she could do was watch helplessly as the storm battered at the tiny, helpless tree.
Eventually, the storm was over. The adult tree and the older sapling huddled together, a little battered, but alive. The other trees and saplings had suffered only minor damage・ all but two.
The tallest tree, which had been struck by lighting in the first stage of the storm, was split almost all the way down to the roots. It wasn't quite dead, but it probably would be soon enough. Already it looked a little sad and lonely, the two halves of it leaning together as if trying to become one again.
The smallest tree was dead. The storm had torn it up by its small, shallow roots, and it lay already withering on the snow. The older tree, still leaning protectively over the bigger sapling, didn't seem to notice.
Jono woke up with a start. He unwrapped the blankets from around his head and sat up, listening intently. A moment later, he heard it again. A muffled whimper from Jubilee's bed.
He tossed back the covers and stood up, padding silently over to the other bed while silently blessing his always excellent night vision. Locating the small, huddled bump under the blankets that was Jubilee, he reached out to touch what he thought was its shoulder gently. The lump twitched, then started to cry.
He pried the blanket away and picked her up bodily, sitting down on her bed and settling her against his chest. Jubilee sobbed into his bandages, muttering incoherently that 'he' - and Jono could make a fair guess who 'he' was - had left her alone in the storm to die. Jono just hugged her as reassuringly as he could, stroking her hair and rocking her gently as she wept. There was nothing else to do, he knew. The most anyone could do for Jubilee right now was let her know that she wasn't alone.
Jono rested his cheek against her hair, letting her cry.
* * *
Over the next couple of weeks, they settled into a routine. They travelled slowly, often stopping for a day or two at a time to see the sights and get some exercise. Jono eventually convinced Jubilee that a little regular exercise wouldn't kill her, and soon they were doing a half-hour aerobics workout every morning, which combined fitness with entertainment, since Jono was utterly and irretrievable hopeless at it.
Jubilee often talked as they drove, about books, about music, about her life before the X-Men. The X-Men themselves she never mentioned. Sometimes she was silent, and they listened to the radio, and sometimes they just went without any sound at all but the growl of the engine. Jono seemed content to let her set the pace, listening to her when she talked, and respecting her silence when she didn't.
He never commented on Jubilee's mood swings, which grew less frequent as time passed, but which still happened often and without warning. He simply stuck to her like a gangly black burr, hugging her when she needed it and holding her hand even while he was driving if she got to looking too depressed. She had frequent nightmares, and he took those too in stride, appearing beside her bed as if conjured there by the first whimper. Often he ended up spending the rest of the night holding her while she cried or slept or stared blankly into space.
Jubilee often wondered how he managed on what at best averaged out to six hours sleep a night, but it never seemed to bother him. He was just・ there, soaking up her misery like a large black blotter. She doubted if she would have gotten even as far as she had without him. With him・ well, one day at a time.
End Part Six A