Rating is PG-13.
It's 23,001 words long.
Thanks to everyone on #subcafe for letting
me spam, cheering me along, and helping me with wording, most especially
Indi-cuz for letting me bounce lots of ideas off her, giving me some great
ideas, and letting me know when I was about to go cheesy or Mary-Sueish,
and thanks to Drea-cuz for thwacking me with the Stick of Redemption to
shake the words loose. Thanks to DE, Icy, Kossie and Joannie for reading
it and offering good advice when I got stuck.
She was cold. It didn't seem like all that long ago when she hadn't been, but now the cold went all the way through. The thin, ragged blanket she had didn't warm her much, although it did help to block the wind somewhat. Little ice particles, whipped by the wind, burned against her face. She wrapped the blanket tighter around her shoulders as she walked down towards C.B.'s alley. If C.B. was there, maybe she could get a little warmer. She coughed, a deep hoarse bark which doubled her over and left her out of breath for a moment.
"C.B.?" she called, leaning around the corner into the alley. "You back there? C.B?"
"C.B. ain't here," a gruff voice finally answered. "She left 'bout a half hour ago." The glow of a match flared in the dark back of the alley, followed by a puff of blue smoke. "Ruky, you can't keep comin' round here like this. C.B. can only do so much."
She sidled into the alley for protection from the wind even as disappointment flooded her face. "But Vin, I'm・
He cut her off, dismissively finishing her sentence for her. "・so cold, I know. C.B. can't help you. G'wan, get out of here."
"Can I at least have a cigarette?" she asked plaintively.
"Have the rest of the pack, for all I care," Vin spat, tossing it to her. As wrapped up as she was in the blanket, she couldn't get a hand out to catch it in time, and it landed at her feet. Blushing, she picked it up and looked inside, then tucked the pack of cigarettes into the waistband of her jeans. Three left - but three was better than none. She strangely felt like being somewhere-- no, anywhere else, then realized that the feeling of #leave here now# surged from Vin.
Ruky turned and trudged out of C.B.'s alley before Vin's "suggestion" became any stronger. The wind picked up, and she shivered. She'd hoped the mutant would share some of the warmth she seemed to have in abundance, but no luck. Maybe if C.B. was there when Vin wasn't・But Vin was always in the alley. With no legs, he found it difficult to leave, though his limited telepathy let him escape the dark confines.
C.B. was not a telepath. She could store warmth in herself and then transfer it to another person. An hour of sunlight a day, even the weak winter sun, would keep her comfortable in a t-shirt while other people were bundled up. However, it took a lot out of her to share her warmth- it usually left her just as cold as the person she was helping. Because she wanted to help everyone, Vin had begun to turn people away for her, conserving her strength. In return, she got him the things he needed.
She'd met C.B. nearly six months ago, when she'd first gotten to New York. The kind woman, old enough to be her mother, had given her her first real meal in a week. Ruky had wolfed it down so fast that she nearly vomited it all back up again. When it had started to get cold, C.B. had warmed her up. And now・now that luxury was no longer an option.
Ruky stopped at a corner newsstand, inspected and picked at the peeling layers of years of different colored paints, and convinced the girl behind the counter to give her a matchbook. As she left, she could hear the voices rise. "I know I'm not supposed to give them away, but I just wanted to get her out of here!"
"Who needs 'em! Especially those homeless ones. Cart 'em out of the city! Send 'em over to New Jersey!"
That last was met with hearty laughter. Ruky smirked a bit and carefully lit a cigarette, hunching over the match as it flared and went out. Gray. The whole city was gray, she thought to herself. The gray snow covered gray buildings, gray people, and gray lives. Gray ashes fluttered to the gray ground when she flicked her cigarette. By the time she'd gotten to her usual corner, she'd smoked it down to the filter. Pulling the blanket a little tighter and her hat a little lower around her ears, she flopped to the gum-spotted sidewalk, just out of the way of all the people walking by. The chill from the sidewalk seeped up and into her bones, and her head nodded down to her chest.
Remy shivered as inconspicuously as possible and wondered, not for the first time, if Logan was impervious to the cold. "Can' we walk a bit faster, homme?" he suggested, speeding up his own pace a bit.
"Quit'cher bitchin', Cajun," was the reply. "We ain't got too far left to go. Car's only another three blocks." Then again, Logan was wearing three layers of flannel shirts, flannel-lined jeans, and thick wool socks. Remy jammed his hands into the lined pockets of his leather jacket, doubting that they'd ever thaw out enough to be nimble again. Logan was in a foul mood, he reflected, but that was to be expected. The person they were supposed to meet had never arrived, and they'd waited nearly an hour in the cold before finally giving up. "Chuck ain't gonna be too happy with us, ya know."
"Remy know, mon ami, but it ain' our fault, is it? Hey, look dere!" He pointed and instantly regretted taking his hand out of his pocket.
"Hey, watch it!" A sharply dressed young man shouted from down the block, angrily snapping his cell phone shut. "You can't just be sticking your legs out into the middle of the street like that! I nearly fell!" He drew back his foot to kick the object of his berating. In an instant, the two X-Men were on him.
"What you t'ink you doin', henh?" Remy asked as Logan pulled the man back by the scruff of his neck. "You jus' go 'round kickin' everyt'ing you trip over?"
The hatred in the man's eyes was evident as he screamed, "Look at her! Mutie freak, just lyin' in the street. She deserves it! She deserves to be kicked! She deserves to be kicked out of this city!" His face became redder with each word, and a small droplet of spit hovered for a second in the air before landing on Logan's shirt.
A low growl rumbled from Logan's throat as a set of claws *snikt*'d out against the man's cheek. "What was that about 'mutie freaks'?" His lip curled with the scent of the man's fear. "Get outta here," he ordered, "and hope you don't run inta me again." Logan let go of his collar, shoving him away disdainfully. When he'd recovered his balance, he scrambled to safety, yelling easily ignored threats only when he was across the street.
Remy squatted down on the sidewalk to see if the girl was all right. She'd backed into a corner of the nearest doorway and was shivering under a ratty blanket. He helped her to sit up, winced as she broke into a fit of coughing, then sighed as he took his jacket off and draped it over her shoulders. "Everyt'ing's ok now," he tried to reassure her, ignoring Logan trying to gesture for him to get up and leave the girl alone," we gon' get you warm an' inside." He kept talking as he pulled her to her feet. "What's your name, petite?"
"Ruky," she answered shyly, trying not to stare at his eyes and failing. As she made eye contact with him, he noticed her pupils were slitted like a cat's. She was indeed a mutant, then. Her attacker hadn't been just saying it as an insult.
"That's it?" Logan asked, warily looking up and down the street. The young man had stalked away, brushing himself off with too much dignity, and the few bystanders had wandered off now that the excitement was over. "That's your whole name?"
"It・it's short for Rukhana," she grimaced, "but I never liked it much." Logan gave a brief nod, perhaps a response to her name, or to himself that the street was clear. Ruky looked down at the sidewalk, wondering why these two men were helping her. They didn't look like the sort who would help strangers for no reason - the shorter one especially looked like he'd rather be anywhere else - and it wasn't the first time she'd been kicked at. She tugged the borrowed jacket closer to herself and shivered. I don't think they would have kicked that guy's ass if they didn't mean well. What was he saying about 'warm and inside?' Suddenly confident, she looked up. "What's your names?"
"I'm Logan," said Logan without moving, "and this here's Remy."
Remy grinned and put his hand on Ruky's shoulder. "'Ave you noticed, it's freezing out here?" he remarked conversationally, reaching his other hand around her to extract a pair of sunglasses from the jacket's pocket. He slid them up his nose with one finger. "Dere's a deli real close. We could go dere, non?" Practically pushing Ruky in front of him, he started walking. Logan followed with a scowl on his face.
The closest deli was only a half-block away. A buzzing, flickering neon sign next to the doorway proclaimed it to have the best sandwiches on the block. Remy steered Ruky inside, closely followed by Logan. The balding man behind the counter looked up at when the bells hanging from the door jingled, and immediately met the trio with angry stares. He waved his hands frantically, sputtered something in a foreign language, then quickly disappeared into the back room.
"What're you doing, bringing *her* in here?" The manager emerged, slamming the "Employees Only" door behind him. "Can't you read?" He angrily gestured at a stained, poorly spelled sign hanging above the door which read, "We do not serve Freeks of Nature heer. Go to Grenich Villige insted."
"My money's just as green as anyone else's, bub," Logan growled out of principle, slapping a twenty onto the counter. "I don't care what yer sign says. Gimme a ham 'n cheese sandwich, mayo, no mustard. And a large coffee, black. Whadd'ya want, Cajun?"
If he had to take his frustrations out on someone, he figured it was better to take them out on a complete stranger rather than a teammate. Remy's happy-go-lucky farce was really starting to get on his nerves. He had nothing against this girl, but the Cajun seemed to be deliberately rubbing him the wrong way. Or maybe this just wasn't his day. He shrugged and surrendered to the inevitable. If Remy wanted to adopt an orphan, Logan wasn't going to let it become his problem. He'd taken so many young girls under his wing, so many who had worked their way into his heart. Well, this one wouldn't, he promised himself, trying not to look at her.
"Oh, not'ing for me," Remy answered nonchalantly, ignoring the protests coming from behind the counter, "but I t'ink she's hungry. How 'bout・ he looked at Ruky, then up to the menu board hanging on the wall, "a deluxe cold cut san'wich, extra cheese, everyt'ing on it, and a large-"
"Milk," she interrupted, then blushed. "If that's ok."
"It's all ok, kid," Logan turned to say, making sure to glare at Remy before turning back to see that the sandwiches were being made. A faint noise caught his attention, and he looked down to see a small cat emerging curiously from behind the counter, tail held high. Ruky knelt to pet it, crooning softly, and it purred as she gently scratched behind its ears.
"Petit chat, he like you," Remy commented.
"Yeah, that's the problem! All the cats, 'they like her.'" The manager looked up from making the second sandwich, mimicking Remy. "They follow her. Watch." His prejudice put aside in the name of showing off, he popped open a pint carton of milk and handed it across the counter to Remy, who bent down curiously and gave it to Ruky.
As she took the first long gulps, a chorus of mew's and miaou's sounded. The manager of the deli hopped up onto the counter. "You might wanna get outta the way," he suggested with not a hint of a smile. Logan and Remy moved warily towards the wall.
"What the hell're you doin'?" Logan grumbled as quietly as he could. "We ain't got enough orphans already?"
He got a shrug and a sweetly innocent look in return. "Chuck won' 'member dat we din' meet de guy, if we bring him a new studen'."
"Yeah. That's what *you* think. Awright, it's worth a shot." The soft spot in his heart was giving off twinges. She looked so lonely and lost that he couldn't help but feel he should do something more than just buy her a sandwich.
A black-and-white nose appeared at the edge of the door, followed by the rest of the cat, which padded over to Ruky, sat down next to her, and miaou'd plaintively. She poured a drop of milk into the palm of her hand, which the cat quickly lapped up. Three more cats bounded in. An orange one leaped to Ruky's shoulder; the other two sat in front of her. She cocked her head as if she was a cat herself, and the first cat moved away a bit to groom itself. Five more cats trotted through the door.
"You see?" shrieked the manager, forgetting that he was the one who'd given her the milk in the first place. "Get her out of here before those animals ruin me!"
"Dat's prob'ly a good idea," Remy murmured to Logan. "Don' forget de san'wiches." Several more cats sauntered in, tails waving high.
"This always happens?" Logan calmly asked the manager as he retrieved their lunches. "Cats always followin' her?"
"Don't ask me. I just own the place. I don't allow them freaks in here. Now get *out*, all of you!" The manager's voice had risen at least an octave. Logan left the twenty on the counter, nodded brusquely to Remy, and walked through the door.
Remy knelt down by Ruky. "C'mon, petite, it's time t'go." She stood, drained the last of the milk, and tossed the empty carton into the garbage can that stood by the door. Most of the cats left with her, disappearing into alleys or under cars. Some stayed in the deli, miaou'ing plaintively at the manager. When he told the story to his wife later that evening, he would swear that he'd heard them ask in plain English, "Mrrr mllk!"
Logan stomped out of the deli, turned left, and headed for the car. He ignored Remy hurrying after him, ignored the girl who followed. He wasn't sure how he felt about being a rescue squad for homeless girls. What did that damn Cajun think he was doing? It wasn't enough that he had fully-grown women hanging on him everywhere he went, now he had to stop and adopt an orphan from the street? Chuck wasn't going to fall for the subterfuge. On the other hand, she was sort of endearing, in a wistful sort of way. He'd just decided that it was probably a good idea to take her back to the mansion when Remy shouted his name.
"Logan!" Remy called. "Hey! Stop! Arretez-vous! Logan!"
"What do you want, Cajun?" He paused with the key in the door.
"Logan. We need to talk about dis right now. Listen," Remy lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "She 'asn't got a place to go! We can' jus' let her stay here, non?"
"Fine," Logan retorted, not nearly as angrily as it sounded, "but don't ya try to put any of the blame on me when somethin' goes wrong. Ya know it will. Somethin' *always* goes wrong." He swung into the driver's seat. "Get in, the both of ya." Hesitantly, Ruky climbed into the backseat through the door that Remy held open for her. Almost before Remy had gotten into his own seat, Logan was gunning the engine. "Let's see・I can take the GW Bridge over to Jersey, then head up・no, that'll be nasty this time o' day. FDR won't be much better, but we're nearly there anyway."
The truck swerved out into the road, narrowly avoiding a few yellow cabs. Ignoring the short amber light, Logan punched the gas and shot out onto the FDR. Ruky unwrapped the sandwich that Remy handed her and tore into it, swallowing half-chewed chunks of bread and meat without stopping to breathe.
Ruky sat uncomfortably in the back seat and flinched every time Logan switched lanes without signaling. The silence grew heavier. She stared out the window at the sun setting over the water as they crossed the Triborough Bridge onto the Bruckner Expressway, not wanting to risk saying anything. It suddenly occurred to her that she'd gotten into a truck with two strange men, one who looked vaguely devilish and the other who looked as if he could tear the steering wheel off the truck as easily as he was driving it. At least it was warmer - Remy had turned the heat on and was holding his hands over one of the vents. Ruky cautiously cleared her throat, but got no response from the front seat.
"You scarin' de petite," Remy said quietly.
"Think I don't know that?" Logan muttered to himself, too quiet for anyone to hear, and wrinkled his nose. She's so helpless, he reminded himself. Needs someone to take care of her. Why's it gotta be me all the time?
Remy finally turned around. "Y'all right back dere?" he asked. "Dat san'wich gone?" Not only was the sandwich gone, he noted, but there were no crumbs. The only answer he got was a quick scared blink of large green eyes. "Don' worry, hehn? We takin' you to ・ He cut off, stifling a yelp, when Logan kicked at him.
"We got a place for lost mutants," Logan said, not unkindly, as he merged onto the Hutchinson River Parkway. "In Westchester." The truck leaned through the sharp turns at 70 mph, swerving around slower cars. Ruky, who hadn't seen a healthy tree in nearly six months, stared out the window at the abundance of them, even though they had no leaves at this time of year.
"What sort of place?" she finally asked.
"A school, mostly," was the reply.
Remy added, "Sometimes we take in mutants who can' control dere powers yet, or who 'aven't got anywhere else to go." He judiciously left out the parts about evil villains, fighting, and danger. "You can learn 'bout what you got, how t'use it."
"I see," said Ruky. "So, um, why me? "
Logan raised one eyebrow, looked at the girl in the rearview mirror. "You a mutant?"
"You able to control what you can do?"
"You got anywhere else t'go?"
"Congrats, kid, you've won first prize." Logan turned his attention back to driving.
Full and warm, Ruky dozed in the back seat. "Ya know we can't rescue every homeless mutant out there," Logan grumbled quietly so he wouldn't wake the girl.
"Non, but dis one we could. How could we not? We don' know how strong her powers are. Did you see how many cats dere were?"
"Cats." In one word, Logan managed to infer a world of contempt for felines. "What the hell is that gonna do fer us? We're gonna be fightin' Sentinels or somethin' and she's gonna pop open a quart o' milk and sic *kittens* on 'em?"
"We can leave it up to de professor. Let him talk to her. If he says she goes, den she goes. Why not give her de chance?"
"Great. The 'everyone deserves a chance' speech." Logan rolled his eyes. "Is that what they fed to you, too?"
"Sometimes I wonder, Logan, whose side are you on?"
"My side, Cajun. My side." And this girl's, he added to himself.
It was nearly dark when Ruky woke up to see large gates sliding noiselessly open. "We 'ave arrived," Remy announced. "Dis is de mansion." He gestured up the long driveway, watching her eyes widen.
"And everyone here is a mutant?" Ruky asked.
"Yep. Hop out of the truck. You can meet Chuck・er, Professor Xavier," Logan said, slamming his own door. Ruky cautiously slid out of the truck and looked around the huge garage. There were at least fifteen cars of all types, and over there in the corner, was that a・yes, it was. Even covered over, she knew the shape of an airplane when she saw it. Her two benefactors were holding the door open for her, and so with a twinge of unease she stopped staring and followed them inside.
A long hallway and an elevator ride later, Logan was rapping his knuckles on a heavy wooden door. Although no sound came from within, he flinched a bit, then shook his head and went in, gesturing to Remy and Ruky that they should follow. "Chuck, I've told you how many times, stay out of・ he cut off, noticing that Professor X was on the phone, his back to the door.
"Yes, yes, of course・No, not until later・ Very well then. Goodbye." He turned his hoverchair around. "I apologize, Logan. I know how much you dislike telepathy. However, that was quite an important phone call, and I could not interrupt it."
Logan grimaced. "Guess that's ok."
"Sit down, all three of you." Professor X already had a very good idea of what was going on. The girl was a little bit too skinny and filthy to be one of Remy's usual dates, not to mention the fact that she looked like she was about to run and hide. Remy looked like a cat who'd swallowed a canary and still had a feather or two stuck to his whiskers. "Let's start with you," he said, pointing to Remy and leaning back a bit in his chair.
"Well, we were walkin' down de street on de way back to de car, and we see dis girl 'bout to get kicked by some guy. So we t'rew him 'cross de street an' bought her a san'wich, den when she open de milk all dese cats, dey show up and start miaouing. We figure dat since ever'one call her a mutant, an' she can call all dese cats from de middle o' nowhere, dat she might be a mutant. An' her eyes are kinda different, so dat makes it much more likely dat she could be a mutant. So we brought her here."
Professor X nodded slowly throughout the recitation, then turned to Ruky. "What is your name? And are you a mutant?" She could only look wide-eyed at him. Her pupils, which had been round, snapped closed into slits.
"Her name is Ruky," Remy rescued her. "And, well, *are* you a mutant?"
Ruky nodded assent, then found her voice. "I- I think so." At an encouraging nod from the professor, she continued. "A few years ago I noticed that cats, well, liked me. Y'know, like I could pet people's mean cats, strays came up to me for food, stuff like that. I could sorta tell what they were thinking, too, if they were hungry or happy or pissed off at something that happened the day before. And then, after a while, I could make 'em do what I wanted."
"Umm.. sometimes I can pick up on dogs, too, but not as much, really. And I can tell you that there're four cats on the grounds, and one of them's gonna have kittens when it warms up a little. And the eye-thing, too." She looked down at her hands folded in her lap so that no one would stare at her eyes. People always stared. But Remy's eyes were stranger than her own, and they weren't staring at him... She started to look up hopefully, then thought, They're probably just used to his eyes. She focused on her fingernails.
The professor looked pensive. "Remy, why don't you take your young friend on a nickel tour of the grounds. Show her the school." #And whatever you do, *don't* show her the 'good stuff.' Take her to the kitchen first. Be back in ten minutes.# A nearly imperceptible nod let him know his message had gotten across, and the two left the room.
"Now, Logan," he continued after they were alone, "You don't think this is a good idea?"
"Damn straight I don't, Chuck," Logan snarled, sitting forward in his chair. "We're a school for the 'gifted,' not a halfway house for homeless mutants. Can we afford ta take in every one we find? An' I don't mean money, Chuck."
"No, I didn't think you did. Let me put it this way, and that will be the end of the debate. *You* were a homeless mutant. Remy was. Scott was. Rogue was. And now this girl Ruky is. How can we turn her away, having taken in so many? We don't know how strongly her powers may unfold or what she is capable of. I sense in her a great strength that she doesn't even know is there. But it is, Logan." Professor Xavier leaned back in his hoverchair with a sigh. "Would you have me give her a dinner and a shower, and you can leave her back on the street where you found her?"
Logan grimaced and visibly calmed down. "Naw, guess not."
"You know, Logan, you're broadcasting," the professor bluffed.
His expression didn't change. "Am I?" he asked. "What am I broadcasting?"
Xavier raised one eyebrow. "You're only angry on the outside, Logan."
"And on the inside?"
"On the inside, you're frightened that you might actually begin to like this young girl," the professor bluffed, pulling from what he'd seen Logan do with Jubilee, completely unable to read the other man's mind. "That you'll become her father figure. I think I'll ask you to train her," he added. "She will need to learn to defend herself."
Logan stood up and stretched insolently. "I've had enough of this. Guess I'll see ya later, Chuck. I'm gonna go down ta Harry's."
"Please try to compose yourself while you are out, Logan. Your emotions are・distressing."
"Sure, Chuck." Logan opened the door. Remy was saying cheerfully, "An' dis is de hall where we started, and dat's dat!" Ruky looked a bit shell-shocked.
Logan slid past them. "I'm goin' ta Harry's, Cajun. Mebbe we can catch up later."
Remy nodded, then headed through the still-open door into the professor's office, gesturing to Ruky to follow. "Have a seat, Ruky," Professor Xavier said. "Remy, you may go. I will speak with you later, I'm sure." #Don't go too far. We're going to meet in the kitchen soon.# Ruky watched Remy head back towards the door, a little worried. He'd been lots of fun on the tour of the mansion, and she was certainly a little less scared. Now that he was gone, and she was alone with the professor, her nervousness had returned. She comforted herself by thinking that he couldn't get too far in his chair, and wished for something to fidget with.
"How much do you know about mutants, Ruky?" he asked as the door quietly slid shut. His voice was calm and relaxing.
"Um, not too much, really. I - I'm not sure."
"Well, I'm a mutant. Do I look different than anyone else, aside from the fact that I'm in this chair?" He glided out from behind the desk and gestured at his hoverchair.
"No. No, you don't."
"But Remy is a mutant, and he looks a little different. And there are other mutants who look quite different. You see, each mutation is unique."
"So, what can you do?"
#I'm a telepath,# the professor said without moving his lips. She gasped and clapped her hand to her head.
"You - I heard you - in my head, I mean - how did you do that?"
"It's my mutation," he said aloud. "I can speak to people in their heads or read their thoughts."
Half nervous and half curious, and without really wanting to know the answer, she asked, "Can you tell what I'm thinking right now?"
"Yes. Or, to be more specific, I could, if I looked. But I wouldn't look unless you asked me to. Your mind should be private." It should be, he thought, but you're leaking all over the place. He couldn't count how many white lies he'd had to tell as a result of his telepathy.
"What am I thinking about?" she demanded, trying to blank her mind as completely as possible.
"You're trying not to think about anything," he said, winking at her. "But right on top is a memory of a sandwich, and you're wondering if there could be any more sandwiches in your future. You're wondering what's going to happen to you and where you really are. Let me assure you, you're in good hands." He sent soothing thoughts her way, and the slight panic he'd felt died down. "There are ways of keeping a telepath from reading your thoughts. If you stay here, we can teach them to you."
"You'd・you'd teach me?" A hunger of a different sort had crept into her voice.
"Of course. We are a school, after all. That is, if you want to stay. If you don't, we'd understand."
Ruky thought for half a second. "I'd like to stay here. And I'd like to learn."
"We have a lot of people who live here. Would you like to meet them?" He could sense her getting nervous again. "We can get together in the kitchen." She nodded.
#X-Men, meeting in the kitchen, out of uniform! Jean, put up a pot of coffee; we're going to need it.#
#Sure thing. What's going on?# Jean's mental voice sounded a bit distracted.
#You'll see in a moment.#
"What's up?" Bobby "Iceman" Drake swung his chair around backwards, then flopped into it. "It's not anyone's birthday, is it? I wouldn't want to forget anyone's birthday."
"Bobby, the birthday list is posted on the bulletin board in the rec room, where it's been for the past three years." Scott was not in the mood for anything. He'd rented Casablanca, one of Jean's favorite movies, and had just been settling down on the couch with her when the professor had called. Then he smiled at Jean and visibly relaxed as she mentally ticked off for him what they'd do as soon as the meeting was over. He wished, not for the first time, that she could see him winking suggestively at her.
"Lighten up, Cyke," Jubilee chirped, cracking her gum. "Don'tcha 'member what Bobby gotcha for yer birthday last year? You wouldn't want 'im to forget for this year, would'ja?"
Even if he'd been fortunate enough to forget the heart-printed boxer shorts, he would never forget the look on Jean's face when she'd noticed that each "heart" was actually a carefully trimmed condom wrapper, pinned onto the shorts. The catcalls of "try them on!" would ring in his memory for a good while to come. He banished the memory back to the realm of "embarrassing things I wish had never happened," and tried to change the subject. "Bobby, the answer is, I'm not sure why Professor Xavier wanted us to meet in the kitchen."
"Coffee, anyone?" Jean smiled as the pot stopped dripping.
"Me, please," Scott answered.
"Me, too," said Jubilee. "And can we have cookies to go with it?" Without waiting for an answer, she bounded out of her chair and opened the tall pantry.
"What's goin' on?" Rogue asked as she entered the kitchen and sat down next to Scott.
"No one knows," Bobby grinned, "It's the professor's big secret. Maybe he's coming out of the closet or something."
"Yah, that's about as likely to happen as *you* comin' out, Bobby," Jubilee snickered. Bobby blushed. "Just kiddin'. Honest!"
"What is the reason behind the laughter?" Hank McCoy asked as he entered the kitchen. "And to what do I owe the pleasure of freshly-brewed coffee? I heard the professor's summons, but I do not know the reasoning behind it." Jean handed him a large mug which he gravely accepted.
Remy swaggered in and poured himself a cup of coffee, then diluted it with lots of cream and sugar. Directly after him, Storm gracefully entered and seated herself, smiling hello to Jean and declining her offer of coffee.
"Do you guys know what's goin' on?" Jubilee asked them, half-heartedly attempting to hide a pile of cookies behind her arm. She'd carefully wadded her gum on the underside of the table for later consumption.
"I do not know, child, but if the professor has called us together, there must be an important reason."
"And there is," Professor Xavier announced as he maneuvered his hoverchair into the kitchen. "Jean, would you mind pouring me a cup of that coffee? It smells delicious." He waited until everyone had settled before continuing. "Remy and Logan were in the city today on an errand, and they happened to meet up with a young girl. Her name is Ruky, and she is a mutant. I have offered her a place here, and I expect you to fall back into your teaching roles." He held up his hand for silence. "Ruky, come into the kitchen, please."
Embarrassed to be the center of attention, Ruky trudged into the kitchen. Surrounded by all this wealth, she'd had a good chance to notice that she hadn't bathed in a while, was too skinny, and was dressed in the rattiest clothes she was sure these people had ever seen. Her hat jammed on her head, threads from her torn jeans dangling nearly to the floor, she hung her head and waited for someone to say something.
"I am sure that another student will be a welcome addition to the mansion," Storm remarked softly.
"Ah wondah what she can do," Rogue murmured to Scott. "Hope it's somethin' useful."
"Hope so," was Scott's reply.
"Perhaps she will have an inclination for the medical arts," Hank mused.
"Did you guys, like, give her a room yet, or are you just gonna stare and talk about her all night?" Jubilee's remark silenced everyone.
"Jubilee is right," Jean said as she stood up and gestured everyone to silence. "Ruky, please excuse us. We've been very rude. Would you like a cup of coffee?
"No thank you," Ruky said, her eyes wide. "I・I umm・
"All right," Jean tried to save the conversation, "Then why don't you have a seat at the table here, and we can all introduce ourselves. Then we'll get you set up with a room."
Ruky sat down as requested and tried to remember everyone's name and what they could do. She blushed when Bobby made a small ice sculpture to demonstrate his powers and shuddered when Scott melted it, then finally laughed as Storm created a miniature tornado to vacuum up the water and deposit it in the sink.
"And, pray tell, what does your mutation entail?" Hank asked.
"I can・I don't know how to describe it. I can, well, feel cats. Not pet them, I mean, I can tell what they're thinking, or how they feel, and sometimes I can make them do what I want. Sometimes they just follow me," she finished, leaving out her phsysical mutations.
"How interesting!" Storm exclaimed.
"Indeed," said Professor X. "We will be teaching her to control and expand those powers so that they will be more useful."
"Ah wanna know what good that'll do," Rogue muttered to Scott, low enough that no one else could hear.
"Useful?" Bobby asked. "What use will it be to us?"
"Will she be joining the team?" Scott asked before Bobby could continue, his brow furrowed with concern. "I don't-"
The professor cut him off. "At this point, Scott, the answer is no. We will be teaching her the basics: how to defend herself, the usual school subjects for someone of her age, and of course, about her mutant abilities.
"Ruky," he continued, "What we haven't yet discussed is the other reason we have this school・
Nearly an hour later, after being regaled by tales of the X-Men's adventures, successes, and failures, Storm and Jubilee showed Ruky to her new room. "Tomorrow we can go shopping," Jubilee announced, "and get you some new clothes, and a haircut, and maybe some boots, and definitely-"
"Tomorrow is another day, Jubilee," Storm stopped the barrage of words easily. Goodnight, Ruky. Sleep well. I hope you enjoy your stay here. If you need anything at all, do not hesitate to ask any of us. There is an intercom on the wall over there." Storm glided out of the room, followed by Jubilee.
Ruky sighed in relief. It was good to be alone again for a while. She looked longingly at the bed, then decided to take a shower first. It had been so long since she'd been clean, she couldn't stand the thought of staying dirty one more moment. She'd just pulled off her sneakers when there was a knock at the door. "Yes? Who is it?"
"It's me, Jubilee. I, um, have something for you." Ruky padded over to the door and opened it to find Jubilee holding out a gigantic t-shirt. "I thought ya might need somethin' to sleep in. You can have it."
"Um, thanks," said Ruky, unsure of how to take this generosity.
"Don't worry 'bout it. I got more. 'Sides, we're goin' shopping tomorrow! See ya then!" Jubilee dashed off down the hallway. Ruky shut the door and went back into the room, looking around as she got undressed. It was simply furnished, just a bed, dresser and desk. The walls were painted a bland shade of beige, and the windows had miniblinds to cover them, but no curtains. In the bathroom, she discovered a full-size tub, and didn't hesitate to leap in. The hot water felt so good beating down on her that for a while she just stood there and let it run. When it gave hints of cooling down, a full forty minutes later, she realized that she'd better start soaping up. Fortunately, there was a half-full bottle of liquid soap, most likely from the previous tenant. She started at her head, as she always did, scritching vigorously behind her ears, and worked her way down. When she got to her tail, she took an extra few moments to work the kinks out. It had been tucked down her pants leg for nearly a week now, and the fur looked positively flattened.
Ruky still wasn't quite sure if she wanted all these people to know about her physical mutations. She supposed that they'd find out eventually. Seeing the doctor had helped to ease her mind about their tolerance levels. He was easily the largest, bluest man she'd ever seen. She thought about that as she scrubbed herself dry with a towel that had been hanging on the rack, then pulled Jubilee's t-shirt on over her head. It came down to her knees.
Just as she was climbing into bed, another knock came at the door. "Just a second," she called, and debated pulling her pants back on. "Who is it?"
"Jus' wan' say g'night, chere!" was the reply. She quickly dismissed the pants as being too filthy to wear again, shrugged, and opened the door. Remy grinned as he came in, then looked confused. "You din' tell me you had a tail," he said nonchalantly, trying not to be obvious about staring.
"Yeah, well, I・ she stuttered.
"C'n I see?" Hesitantly, her tail flicked out from behind her. "C'n I・what does it feel like?"
"Like a tail," she smirked, still embarrassed. He held one hand out; she laid her tail into it and he very gently felt the last few inches of it.
"Feels like a cat's tail," he commented, "jus' bigger." He examined the tail carefully. It was nearly as long as her legs, a tawny color with a white tip.
"Yep," she agreed, and flicked it out of his hands again.
"Hey! What'd you do dat for?"
"Cats don't like their tails pulled," she reminded him.
"Oh. Well, yeah, guess so. Anyway, I came t' say g'night."
"C'n I come in an' talk? It's too early f'r me t'be goin' t'bed."
She shrugged. "Sure, I guess so."
Remy came the rest of the way in the room, silently shutting the door behind him, and folded himself onto a chair. "C'n I ask you a question?"
"Is the question, 'how did you end up sitting by yourself on a cold sidewalk in the middle of Manhattan?'" she asked in return, rolling her eyes. "Simple. Not too many people want a daughter with a tail who's followed by *cats* half the time. Doesn't seem too unreasonable, does it? Or are you so used to the all-accepting school here that you wouldn't understand?"
"Chere, 'm pretty new here m'self. B'lieve me, Remy know 'bout not bein' wanted." His eyes blazed. "Don' imagine dat dis is heaven, 'specially when y' first get here. But dey pretty nice, most o' de time. Ever'one got dere own probl'ms here. You gon' fin' dat out soon." A wry smile took the sting out of his words.
"Oh yeah?" she challenged. "Tell me."
"Well, f'r starters, dere's・"
Ruky woke up to a sharp knocking at her door. She couldn't remember when Remy had left or when she'd fallen asleep. "Mmrrrrph," she said, and rolled over into her pillow. The knocking didn't stop.
"Hey! Wake up! We're going to the mall, 'member?"
"Mrrrrrm," Ruky complained, hauling herself out of bed and staggering to the door. Bleary-eyed, she yanked it open. "Mmph?"
"Man, you are *not* a morning person," Jubilee declared. "Bobby said he'd drive us to the mall, and he wants to go soon so he can get back soon. So you better get ready. I, um, borrowed some clothes for you." She thrust a flannel shirt and pair of jeans out. "These oughta fit, I think." Her jaw dropped and she craned her neck around. "Is that, like, a・tail?"
"Yep, it's a tail." Somewhere in the conversation of the night before, Remy had convinced her that there was nothing wrong with having a tail, and that it was more likely to be seen as a cool addition rather than an embarrassing drawback. Besides, the sooner everyone saw it, the sooner everyone would get used to it. She curled the tail around her leg and grinned at Jubilee. "Those pants have a cutout for it?"
"Um, no, but I think we could, like, get a pair of scissors, and・
"Never mind. Watch this." She pulled the jeans on. Fortunately, they were baggy enough that no one would notice if one leg seemed a little thicker than the other.
"This is so cool!" Jubilee proclaimed. "I'll take you to the best stores. Trust me, I know which ones are which." She kept talking as Ruky finished dressing, then led her down the hallway to the kitchen. "You want breakfast?" A loud rumble from Ruky's stomach answered yes. "'k. We've got・ here she threw open cabinets and announced their contents. "Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Pebbles, Froot Loops, Bran Chex-" here she shuddered as if to ward off the inevitable neccessity of bran. "-cream of wheat, farina, wheatina, oatmeal, yogurt, milk, O.J., eggs, cheese, whadd'ya want or I'll keep going, some sausages, leftover macaroni salad, some unidentifiable green fuzzy yucky stuff・
"I'll have some Froot Loops," Ruky interrupted. "If that's ok, I mean."
"A'course it's ok! You *live* here, you eat the food." Jubilee poured a heaping bowlful of the brightly-colored stuff and set it on the table. "Sit. Eat."
"I c'n feel m'teef rodting," Ruky mumbled through a mouthful of cereal, "an' it feelsh wongerful."
"It's not a wonderful thing to have your teeth rot," Dr. McCoy said as he walked in. "Speaking of which, I'd like to give you a few brief medical examinations today, just to make sure that you took no long-term ill from being, er, on the streets, as it were."
"Sure, yah, Hank, just not now," Jubilee intervened. "We're going to the mall in five minutes. Hey, what are you doing up so early?"
"Early?" the doctor asked, a bit confused. "I was under the impression that the hour was quite advanced."
"He stays up 'til all hours in his lab," Jubilee confided quietly to Ruky as she served Hank a cup of coffee. "Sometimes he doesn't come out for days."
"It's all in the name of progress," Hank said. "Ruky, please have Jubilee show you the way to the medlab when you return from your acquisitionary expedition." Having drained his coffee, he thanked them and swung out of the room.
"Sure, Hank, no prob." Jubilee said to the doctor's back, then stuck her head out of the kitchen door. "Bob-BEE! Hey, popsicle! C'mon, we're ready!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. The things I get drafted into doing," Bobby mock-complained. "Which car do you girls want to take?"
"I donno, how 'bout the Jeep?" Jubilee shrugged, then asked, "Jeep ok with you, Ruky?"
"Sure, why not?" She'd finished her cereal and stood up, holding the bowl. "Where should I put this?"
"Toss it in the sink, we'll take care of it later. Let's go already!" Bobby said.
"C'mon, Bobby, you know you're glad to get out of the house," Jubilee taunted. "That way you don't have to do any more chores."
Jubilee was right, Bobby reflected a few moments later as he steered the Jeep out of the garage. It had been his turn to vacuum out the rec room, a nightmare of an experience considering that Jubilee had been spending most of her time there, watching TV and eating junk food. Of course, he fully expected to be lectured by Scott later for not being responsible enough to do his chores before going to the mall. Then again, this new girl had nothing to wear, so he could claim he was being even more responsible by making sure she didn't have to wear borrowed clothes any longer. That flannel shirt was the right length for her, but it was about three times too wide, and he had a pretty good idea that Jubilee had "borrowed" it from Logan. And the jeans・he knew that the latest fashions were for wide-legged pants, but this was taking it a bit far. He regretfully chalked it up to being too old to feel so young, and pulled into a parking spot. The girls had cheerfully chattered away the whole ride - at least, Jubilee had - and they hadn't noticed they'd arrived.
"Hey, we're here!" Jubilee crowed. "C'mon, let's go!" She grabbed both Ruky's and Bobby's hands and dragged them across the parking lot. "We've got shopping to do!"
Five hours and several hundred dollars later, Bobby and Ruky were dragging Jubilee in the opposite direction. Ruky had lost a bit of her shyness while traipsing through the shops - acting like a carefree girl had made her feel a bit like one. And her new clothes had come close to making her feel like a new person. She'd never realized that it might be good to be a mutant, but when Bobby had kept her soda cold for her while she was trying on clothes, she'd been grateful. And when Jubilee had promised her a fireworks display "as soon as it was dark enough," she'd felt like she belonged. At least, just a little bit.
Although Jubilee hadn't completely forgotten that she'd promised to take Ruky down to see Dr. McCoy, she could sense that her new friend wasn't entirely thrilled at the prospect of an exam. Ruky wasn't mentioning it, so Jubilee decided not to as well, even though the occasional fit of coughing didn't sound good at all. However, only a few minutes after they'd returned to the mansion, Hank was on the intercom to Ruky's room.
"・ap tap・this on? Ah, yes, so it is. Er-hrm," he cleared his throat, "Will our new student please report to the Medlab as previously promised?"
Ruky looked up from pulling on a pair of sweatpants. Jubilee had demanded a fashion show from her, even though she'd tried on all the clothes in the mall and even though the sweatpants were only for sleeping in. "Sounds like he means it, huh?" she asked.
"Yeah, he tends to mean things like that, and he doesn't forget. C'mon, I'll take you down there," Jubilee said. "The hallways down there are confusing, to say the least."
"Thanks," Ruky replied, a little dazed by how fast everything happened around her new home. She followed Jubilee down a few flights of stairs and around a maze of hallways until she was completely lost.
"I'll catch up with ya later," Jubilee said almost as soon as they reached the medlab door. "I've got a few things to take care of, then I'm scheduled for a workout. Don't worry, Hank won't bite." Ruky watched Jubilee bounce away, then knocked. At a confirmation to enter, she walked into the medlab, surprised at how sci-fi it looked.
"Good afternoon," the doctor greeted her, looking up from his computer terminal. "I appreciate your timely arrival. Please, don't be frightened." Wanting to stay within the realm of tact, he gently added, "Have you been through a standard physical examination before?"
That last sentence broke through Ruky's composure, and she erupted into giggles. Gasping for breath, she managed to say through her hysterics, "Of course I have! I・I・ She couldn't contain herself and began laughing again.
Dr. McCoy looked confused. "If I may ask," he said, leaning back in his chair, "exactly how long were you, er・
"Well, I've been in New York about six months. Before that I was in Philadelphia."
"And before that?"
"Working my way up the east coast. Started in Virginia, headed up through D.C. and Baltimore."
"So in Virginia, you-"
"Lived with my parents," she finished his sentence. "A nice, normal, mutant-free life." At his encouraging looks, she continued. "When I told my father that Sheba - that was my cat - was sick, he wanted to know how I knew, but I couldn't tell him. How could I have explained that I *felt* her sickness? So we took her to the vet, and I almost passed out from the pain. Every animal there was hurt in some way or another. When I came in they all wanted me to hold them. They tried to claw out of their cages. Some that were on leashes leaped into my arms. The vet said she'd never seen anything like it. Then my father accused me of being a mutant, right there in the lobby. I was covered in cats and dogs, and all he could think of was that I was a mutant. And, well, I left."
Hank noted her forced calm and changed the subject. "Is that the extent of your mutation?"
"Umm, no. I do have this." She fished her tail out from where it had once again been tucked down the leg of her sweatpants, and waved the white tip of it at him.
"When did that appendage first make an appearance? Was it a natal condition, or did it develop in adolescence?"
Ruky cracked a grin. "Just like boobs, it appeared overnight. No, seriously, I wasn't born with it. It grew in about three days, fur and all. I'd been rollerblading the day before - fell down and thought I'd broken my tailbone. Coupl'a days later, I turned around and looked in the mirror, and I had a tail! Had to keep it hidden, though, kinda put a few kinks into it." She unconsciously smoothed down the cowlicked fur.
"And did you notice a dramatic increase in your affinity with felines at the same time?"
"Kinda, yeah. I'd always liked animals, but this was something extra. Everybody knows people that cats like, so I could hide it pretty well. No one knew I could practically talk to them."
Hank was circling Ruky almost like a vulture, too interested now to hold still, and asked, "Would you mind the standard physical?"
"Of course not," she answered, rolling her eyes. "No big deal."
Forty minutes later, she was given a tentative bill of clean health. Hank had inspected her up and down, spending significant time on her eyes and X-raying her tail. "That cough worries me," Hank said. "I want you to take these pills with breakfast and dinner for the next two weeks. If it doesn't start to get better, alert me." He patted her on the back, maybe a little too hard. She began to cough again, grimacing at the taste in her mouth. "Perhaps you should take the first of the antibiotics right now."
She did, then looked up at him, still not entirely comfortable with a blue furry doctor. "Um・I don't know how to get back to my room."
"Ah, that situation is easily remedied. I will personally escort you. I assume that you will not mind a brief stop in the kitchen?"
"Course not. Hey, um, what time is it?"
"Either snack time, lunch time, or tea time," the doctor answered. "Do you like Twinkies?"
It was around 4:30, Ruky figured, by how dark it had gotten. One thing she could never stand about winter was how early it got dark. She stood in an empty hallway and tried to figure out how to get ・well, anywhere. It was so easy to get lost! Dr. McCoy had left her in the kitchen, saying that he had some work to attend to in his lab, and she'd started walking from there. "All right," she said to the ceiling, "I'll go that way." Ruky started walking and was soon relieved that she could smell dinner cooking. She followed the faint scent as it got stronger, and was soon assailed by a nose-full of paprika as she came back to the kitchen.
"'Allo, petite!" Remy greeted her, exaggerating his accent. "D'you like ze Cazjon cookeeng?" He wriggled his eyebrows at her and puffed up his chest. "Remy can measure ze spices wizzout ze measjurin' cups・voila!" He poured some salt into his hand and dramatically tossed it into a huge pot of boiling water, then became more serious. "How you likin' your first day, petite? Dey tired you out yet?"
Ruky nodded and slumped into a chair. "I've been running all day. First the mall with Jubilee, then Dr. McCoy got his paws on me." She slowly shook her head. "If it's like this all the time, I won't be able to keep up."
"Sure y'will! Y'just gotta start workin' out like de rest of us, neh? Dey show you de Danger Room yet?"
"Danger Room?" She tried to hide a smile. "Why is it so dangerous?"
"You jus' gon' have t'see f' y'rself! Remy will take you dere, after dinner. Got a time slot r'served." He casually dumped several pounds of pasta into the boiling water and set up a frying pan on another burner, then turned to a cutting board. The unmistakable smell of fresh garlic and onions permeated the kitchen.
"What're you making?"
"Gotta wait 'n see・real Cajun cookin', not like what y'get in dese restaurants aroun' here. M'specialty." He tested the heat of the frying pan, shook his head no. "D'you cook?"
"Not really," she replied. "I can make simple things, but nothing too big. Um, your water's boiling over." Remy casually slapped a cover on the huge pot, nearly big enough to be called a cauldron. "I'm pretty good at omelettes, except the flipping over part. That's when they break," she said ruefully, then watched as he flicked some cold water at the frying pan. "Why'd you do that?"
"If de water jumps," he explained, "de pot is hot 'nough. You see not'ing happen? Watch now." He flicked some more cold water into the pan, and it sizzled away immediately. "Now de pot is hot, we gon' add de garlic and de onions. Dis gon' be good, I guar-un-tee." He liberally poured olive oil into the pan, then scraped the chopped garlic and onions in. "You gon' like dis. It won' take long for dese," he explained, "so we gon' put dem aside for de moment. De pasta is soft. You wan' drain it?" He handed her a set of potholders and pointed to the colander already in the sink.
Tentatively, Ruky grabbed the pot's handles and walked over to the sink. I'm not going to drop this, I'm not going to drop this, she repeated to herself. She flinched back as the steam rose up, but managed to get most of the pasta in the strainer.
"Got dat? Good. Now, we pour dis sauce in de pot." He suited actions to words. "Den we put de crab in, and de lobster, and de shrimp. And de rest of de sauce. And dis garlic and onion." He grabbed spices seemingly at random and shook them into the pot. "Stir, simmer, wait, an' eat. Gon' be good."
"It smells good," she admitted. "I've never had anything like it."
"Remy de best cook o' de X-Men," he proclaimed, "but sometimes dey want blan' food. Dat's when I let Scott do de cooking. We take turns, but some cook better, some cook, well, worse."
"Who's the second-best cook?" she teased him.
"Lemme t'ink. D'pends what you wan'. You wan' meat an' potatoes, talk to Logan. You wan' a seven-course banquet, ask Jean. Scott is de best guy f'r makin' toast wit' butter."
"Logan can cook?" Ruky looked at him disbelievingly. "No way."
"Yep. Wait 'til tomorrow. It's his turn. Hey," he changed the subject, "did de prof talk to you 'bout training yet?"
"Um, no. I thought I was just gonna be taking classes? Like normal high school stuff?"
"Well sure, petite, you gotta learn dat sorta stuff. I meant de good stuff, like learning t'use your powers, an' workin' out, getting' strong. Gotta be able t'keep up 'round here." He remembered that Ruky wasn't going to be joining the team, and sidestepped a bit. "You don' look too strong. We gon' have to work on dat. You wan' come wit' me, after dinner. I'll show you what y'gotta do."
"Thanks!" she said, glad that someone was looking out for her. "Um, I think I'm gonna go take a nap before dinner. Today's been exhausting already."
"Sleep well, petite. Remy make sure y'get woken up in time t'eat." He turned back to the stove as she left the kitchen.
Ruky meandered down the hallway in a different direction than the one she'd come from. "Bet I'll figure this place out eventually," she muttered as she passed the kitchen again. Completely turned around, she found herself at the entrance to the rec room. Surprised to find it empty, she sighed and flopped onto a couch. Within moments she was asleep.
"Hey!" Bobby poked at the sleeping girl. "Wake up!"
"Hrrrm?" Ruky asked. "Wha'?"
"It's dinner time," Bobby explained. "I got sent to wake you up. C'mon, let's eat!"
Dinner seemed like the most delicious thing Ruky had ever put in her mouth. When she regretfully laid down her fork, too full to eat any more, Remy beamed at her, "See? Tol' you dis was gon' be good. We wait 'bout an hour, den we go exercise." She groaned, unable to think of even moving, let alone working out.
"Remy," interjected the professor, "I understand that you will be showing Ruky the Danger Room?"
"Yep," he replied. "Gon' put some muscle on her."
Logan's eyebrows went down. "Thought I was gonna be the one t'train 'er."
The professor smoothly ended the brewing argument before it started. "Remy will start her on an aerobics regimen, Logan. You can teach her the martial arts, if you like."
Feeling that he'd somehow been tricked into something, Logan nodded brusquely. "First thing in the morning, then," he said to Ruky. "I'll come get ya."
"Ruky," the professor added, "I'd like to get you on a schedule as soon as possible, so you will know what each day will be like. I imagine you're feeling a bit overwhelmed. Let's meet tomorrow, after lunch, and discuss it."
She gratefully nodded at him, then stood to clear her place.
"Non, sit down, petite. You help Remy cook, you don' have t'clear," Remy winked at her. A sudden wave of belonging rushed over her. For the first time, she felt like the people she was with were on the same side as she was, and she didn't quite know how to take it.
"You're all being so・nice," Ruky stammered as she sat down, feeling that that was completely inadequate. "I don't know what to do to make it up to you・ she trailed off.
"Well, ya could do the dishes," suggested Rogue, whose night it was to wash up. "Ah'm just kiddin', sugah. Ah know it's mah turn." She stood and began to clear the table.
Ruky stood nervously in the center of the Danger Room, wiping her hands on her sweatpants. She'd just watched exercise equipment appear out of thin air. "How does it hold you up?" she asked.
"Don' worry, it does. After a while, y'forget dat it's not real." Remy demonstrated, swinging idly from a set of rings, then landing easily on the rubber-padded floor. "Where t'start, where t'start," he chanted.
"How 'bout dat one?" Ruky pointed to a cross-trainer, unconsciously mimicking Remy's accent, then reminding herself sternly not to. Five minutes later, she was sweaty and panting. "This・isn't・exercise," she managed to say, "this・is・torture!"
"C'mon, dis is easy!" said Remy, trotting next to her on a treadmill. He reached over and lowered the resistance on her machine for her, then sped his own up. After fifteen minutes of running, he stepped off and leaned over. "Y'wan' stop now?"
"Yes," she gasped. She'd gradually slowed down her pace to a slow walk, but still hadn't caught her breath. "Maybe it's time to quit smoking," she suggested.
Remy seemed to produce a cigarette out of thin air. "Maybe y'just need t'exercise more," he said. "We don' all heal like Logan, but we jus' don' seem t'get hurt as bad. Want one?"
"Please," she said, then went wide-eyed when he lit both cigarettes with the tip of his finger. "Wait a minute. We can smoke inside?"
"Not really," he admitted, "but de fans in here keep de smell from getting' out to the rest of de house. It's gotta be, ot'erwise we'd all smell de sweat, tu comprends?"
"What was that last bit?" she asked, taking a long drag of her first cigarette of the day, savoring the smoke and exhaling noisily.
"Means, 'do you understand'. You don' know any French? Education been sadly lackin'." He looked up at the ceiling. "C'n I have an ashtray in here?" One materialized next to him, and he tapped ash into it.
"Je ne parles pas Francais bien," she mangled.
Remy flinched. "No, you don'. Don' worry. You gon' start takin' classes soon. Dey make you take leas' one ot'er language. Hey," he changed the subject, "Lemme show you de rest of de equipmen', so you know nex' time you come in here." He walked her around the room, pointing out which machinery worked which muscles. "De schedule is on de door. All y'gotta do is write your name in when y'wan' come work out."
"It doesn't seem so dangerous," she said.
"Heh. Watch dis." He stubbed his cigarette out and gestured for her to do the same, then walked her up to the control room. "Load program Gambit three-zero-four." Below them, the workout room shimmered and was replaced by a city. Broken walls crumbled into piles of rock in the streets, and the sky was a roiling shade of green. Soldiers marched in formation, guns at the ready. "De safeties make dis a good place to train, rather dan de real t'ing. De room won' let us get hurt too bad."
"I see," said Ruky thoughtfully, wondering just what she'd really gotten herself into. Everyone might be nice, but she hadn't seen them in this light before. "And you gotta・you kill all the soldiers in this one, right?"
"Remy try jus' to get dem out of de way, or sneak aroun' dem.," he explained, "but sometimes y'jus' can' help it. If you don' get dem, dey get you."
"I see," she said again, then quickly changed the subject. "So, um, is there anything good on TV tonight?" The question stood out sharply against the background of war, but Remy overlooked that to answer.
"Donno, petite, but dere's a card game startin' in," he looked at his watch, "half an hour. Jus' enough time to shower and change. D'you play cards?"
"Not much," she answered, smiling, "but I'd like to play. Hey, let me ask you a question," she said as they strolled towards the door. "Is Logan really as grouchy as he's pretending to be?"
"Nah," Remy dismissed his teammate's grumpiness with a flourished wave of a hand. "He's jus' a little・gruff." He nodded sagely as if convincing himself he'd chosen the right word. "He's ok, once y'get used t'him. You'll see. He c'n be y'partner for de card game."
"What game are we gonna play?" she asked cheerfully.
"It's usually poker. Sometimes Hearts or Spades, 'pends on how many people wan' play."
"I can play Spades," she offered. "I learned it last year."
"Spades it is, den. C'mon, don' wan' be late." He pointed her in the right direction. "You 'member how to get back to de rec room?" She nodded yes and dashed off.
"Five," Scott offered.
"Two," Logan spat, looking disgustedly at his cards.
"Three," Remy looked as if he was hesitant.
"Two? All you have is two?" Ruky looked across the table at Logan, who'd reluctantly agreed to partner with her for the game.
"Yeah," he admitted, pointing at the backs of the cards. "One here, and one there. Two."
She'd never played Spades with partners before. "Four," she said. "I think I've got four in here."
"Right, that's six for us, and eight for them," Logan scribbled. "Someone's getting set this hand. Scott, you're up." He lit a cigar, ignoring the disapproving looks. "What? It's a card game."
Scott had a great poker face, Ruky thought as the tricks went down. She groaned as he trumped her last-ditch ace. "Aw, man. I should'a bid three, not four."
"Little late for that now, ain't it," Logan grumbled. "Scott, it's your deal. Eighty-one to negative sixty."
"What are we playing to?" Scott asked, shuffling the cards and offering them to Ruky, who split the deck and handed it back.
"500 sound good?" Remy suggested, his eyes twinkling as he gathered his cards together without looking. "Dat should let y'catch up."
"We'll set you on this hand," Logan promised. "It's my bid, huh? Four."
"Three." Remy folded and re-fanned his cards.
"Two this time," Ruky grinned.
"That leaves four for me? I'll bid three, then," Scott said.
"Six to six," Logan wrote, then tossed the three of clubs onto the table. "I don't want the lead." Scott took the bait and led with the ace of clubs on the next trick, only to be trumped. Logan gave Ruky a meaningful look which she quickly deciphered, and when she got the lead she fed clubs to her partner.
"One-forty-one to・one," Logan figured after the hand was over. "Guess we'll set you next time. My deal." He shuffled, let Scott cut, and quickly dealt the cards.
It was well after midnight when Logan carried Ruky up the stairs to her room. More gently than she would have thought possible had she been awake, he tucked her into bed and slipped out into the hallway. "Guess I'll let her skip the workout tomorrow morning," he muttered as he walked towards his own room. "Let her get a little more used to the place."
It was after five o'clock by the time Jean was done with her evening jog. She'd showered and changed, and was curled up in the recliner watching the news.
"Jean! Jean!" Bobby called, peering into rooms as he jogged past them. "Where are you?"
"In here," Jean resigned herself to missing the rest of her tv show and beckoned Bobby into the rec room. "What's the matter, Bobby?"
"You would not believe what I just saw," Bobby panted between hiccups of laughter.
Patiently, and fully expecting a practical joke, Jean answered, "What did you just see?"
"Cats. Lots and lots of cats."
Before Jean could answer, there was a roar from downstairs. "What's going on?" Bobby asked. Again he didn't wait for an answer, but dashed out of the room to see for himself. Jean shook her head, unfolded herself from the recliner, and followed at a more leisurely pace.
Remy looked over the railing into the front entrance below and grinned. "Oh-oh," he murmured to himself. "Hope dey don' blame Remy for bringin' dis girl home." He backed off silently and headed away from the commotion in the foyer, slipping out through a window.
Cable was literally covered in cats. Old tomcats, little kittens, cats of all colors and sizes clung to his hair and clothes. Only his techno-organic arm was free, and he was using it to remove cats from himself, not quite as gently as he could have. Cats streamed in through the open door of the mansion. For each cat that he removed, there were three more to take their place. A large orange cat dangled its tail in Cable's face, and he sneezed violently, dislodging several of his attackers.
Domino leaned against the wall, convulsed in laughter and occasionally slapping Logan on the shoulder. Each time Cable looked her way, she tried - and failed - to put on a serious face. Logan watched with an amused air.
"Flonqing cats," Cable muttered grimly, then sneezed twice more. He bellowed, "Call them off! Whose are they? Call them OFF-choo!" His left eye flared, and a few cats dropped off of him, but they were quickly replaced.
A small noise came from the corner, and the cats suddenly stopped. Half of them disappeared through the door as quickly as they'd arrived. Some of the cats sat on the floor and groomed themselves as if nothing had happened, while others inspected the intricate wallpaper. One small tabby padded over to the corner and curled up next to Ruky, purring as if to comfort her. A mostly white cat sauntered over to Domino, tail held high, and twined around her ankles.
"If visiting your family is going to be this much fun, Nate, we'll have to come more often," Dom said, with only a smile to hint of how hard she'd been laughing before. She leaned down, picked up the white cat, and propped it up against her chest, gently rubbing under its chin. It purred obligingly.
"I could set up a Danger Room program for ya," suggested Logan, grinning toothily, "if ya think ya need practice against this, ah, new enemy."
Cable glared first at his partner, then at Logan, then at Ruky, who flinched even further back against the wall. Her little tabby bared its teeth and hissed. "What the flonq is going on?" Cable asked, slightly calmer and just a bit incredulous. "Were those all yours?"
"I don't know," Ruky whispered, in awe of the huge man towering over her, even if he did look a little silly wiping his dripping nose with his sleeve. "That's never happened before. Not like that."
Xavier navigated his hoverchair around the remaining cats. He'd heard Cable's bellow and sneezes, and had seen Remy slipping out of the mansion through a back window. Leave it to Gambit to disappear when there's a problem, he thought wryly. "Ruky," he asked, using a stern enough tone that even Logan stopped grinning, "did you call all these cats here?"
"No. Yes・kinda?" she offered hopefully. "I mean, I didn't do it on purpose."
"What happened, then?"
"I got scared," she said, looking pointedly away from Cable, who was rubbing futilely at his eyes, "and then they were here." There was no doubt what she spoke of as three matching black kittens began a game of tag around the professor's hoverchair. She hissed at them, and they turned to look curiously at her before scampering outside.
"They came to protect you." It was half a question, half its own answer.
"I guess so." Ruky cringed further into the corner. "Am I in trouble?" The tabby turned its stare to the professor, then looked repentant as Ruky hauled it around and glared at it.
"No, of course not," the professor softened his voice, "but this only reinforces the need for you to begin training as soon as possible. This is the sort of incident that we cannot have happening. You can get up now," he added. He was used to looking up at people when he spoke to them, not staring down at them huddled into a corner. She clambered to her feet, her face red, then bent down to pick up the tabby cat.
"My eyes itch," Cable complained to Domino, rubbing at them.
"Gives a whole new meaning to that old phrase of yours, doesn't it? But 'itch your eyes' just doesn't have the same ring to it. I never knew you were allergic to cats."
"Neither did I," he said, giving Ruky a last squinting scowl as he stalked off.
Dom grinned at Logan, then followed her partner. "Maybe we can go get a beer later?" she tossed over her shoulder as she walked away.
Logan nodded, "It'll be good ta catch up with ya," and cheerfully headed away in the opposite direction.
"Ruky," Professor X brought her attention back to him, "there are altogether too many cats in my foyer. Tell them to leave, but keep one here."
Her face fell. "I don't know how," she wailed. "I don't know how I made them come here in the first place!"
The professor softened his voice a bit, making it almost a sing-song tone. "Stay calm. Concentrate on just one cat. Can you feel just one cat a time?"
"I・yes. I can."
"What is that cat feeling right now?"
"Can you make it feel as if there's something very interesting outside?"
Nothing happened. "She's of the opinion that there's nothing as interesting as the pattern of your floor tiles. Not in that many words. Wait-" Ruky closed her eyes to concentrate harder. Thirty seconds went by. The professor was about to interrupt her, although he could feel the intense amount of concentration she was putting into emptying the foyer. Concentration meant little if it didn't - or couldn't - provide results. Suddenly half a dozen cats took off at a full-speed run. The rest of their compatriots looked at each other curiously, and trotted after them to see why. The little tabby that Ruky was still cradling chirruped at her and pretended to sleep as Ruky exhaled a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding, sagging back against the wall.
"What did you do?" Professor X asked, not sure if he really wanted to know.
Ruky felt much more comfortable now that she'd managed to empty the place of cats, and more than a little proud of how she'd done it. "Well, I figured that since they'd come because they thought I was in danger, I should let them know that I'd be in just as much danger if they stayed. So they left. I told five of them, and the rest followed, actually."
"Did you tell them in words? How, specifically, did you do it?"
"Oh. I just kinda thought really hard about me being in danger and surrounded by cats, and then about me being safe with the cats running away from me. They never really caught onto a spoken language," she told him. "They think in, like, images and concepts."
"So they only left because they were concerned about your safety," the professor mused, "and not because they had something better to do."
"Right. I tried getting them interested in going just, y'know, for the sake of going, but they wouldn't leave as long as I was in danger. So I changed the danger, and they left."
"You changed the・ he repeated slowly, steepling his fingers. "Ruky, why don't you come with me to the Danger Room. See if you can get that cat to follow us." He pointed to the little tabby, who'd demanded to be put down and was now sitting at Ruky's feet, tail curled around her legs. "I'd like you to practice making the cats do things in a more, ah, contained environment."
She followed the professor's hoverchair down the hall, looking over her shoulder and thinking, "Please follow us! I'll just die if you sit there and don't follow us!" to the cat.
"Have you been up to the control room yet?" Professor X asked, not looking back to make sure Ruky was behind him.
"Yeah, Remy showed it to me when we were exercising," she said hesitantly. "He showed me one of his training programs. The, uh, sky was green in it."
"The Danger Room is an ideal place to train," he answered as the door to the control room hissed open. "It is almost exactly like a real fight, but the safety measures that were installed will prevent grave injuries." Ruky realized that Remy must have been quoting the professor before, because they'd said almost exactly the same thing. "Here is where we can program in as many variables as we need," he said, showing her the panel. His fingers tapped out a beat on the controls. "An obstacle course would be suitable for this exercise, I believe. There. Now, let's go inside, and we shall see what you and this cat can do together."
On the floor of the Danger Room, Ruky sat down with the little tabby and made it look her in the eyes. "Cats usually don't like eye contact," she distractedly explained to the professor as she held the cat up to her face, "because they only stare at what they're hunting. It's a threat for a person to stare at a cat like this, but she thinks I'm a cat too. It's different."
"Why are you making it look at you?" Professor X asked. "It obviously doesn't want to."
"I'm trying," she answered, "to - hey, come back here! - to make some kind of a - hold still! - connection with her, so maybe she'll listen - hey!" The cat squirmed in her hands, but she only stared more intensely. Suddenly, the cat tipped its head to one side and chirruped. Ruky felt as if she'd left her body - she could see herself, holding herself. She was the cat, and she was the girl. Black and white cat vision blurred with color human vision. The room spun, and she was lying on the floor, gasping for air. The cat gently tapped at her nose with a paw, and the professor had moved his chair closer to her, ready to get on the intercom with Dr. McCoy.
"Are you all right?" he asked, genuine concern in his voice.
Sitting up, she answered, "I think・yeah, I'm ok." Her forehead wrinkled and she grimaced a bit. "Ooooh!" The secondary input was dizzying. She wasn't used to being so close to the ground, or to seeing in black and white. And the focus was way off, sharp in the center of her vision but blurrier to the top and bottom. Ruky shook her head, and her vision settled. Slightly sharper, she noticed, and that wasn't all. She could hear the hum of the ventilation system, smell the cigarette smoke from the day before. Her ears involuntarily twitched forward as the professor spoke.
"I can see・wait." She squinted her eyes shut, and could see through the cat's eyes in her mind. Vague thoughts, not her own, became known to her. A feeling of coiled muscles, strength, and the memories of long-gone generations. A feeling of surprise came over her - the cat exploring her mind.
#No memories, you - learn self? Howso?#
#No, I have no instincts,# Ruky answered carefully. #I'm human, not a cat.#
The tabby cocked her head to one side. #You cat, you. Mindfeel like.#
#My name is Ruky, cat.# It was hard for her to follow the cat's thoughts. They came in bursts of images and emotions, rather than in words.
#Rukycatfriend, you mindcat. Look two-leg, but feel mindcat. Name is--# A feeling of lying content in a meadow, sun shining warm, full of fieldmice.
#The man there, he wants to help me with you. Friend. Go to him?#
The tabby leaped from the floor in front of her face to the professor's lap, clambered up his chest, and patted him on the cheek, miaouing at him. He awkwardly stroked down the cat's back. "Does she have a name?"
"She does," Ruky answered, "but it's not something you can say. It's more of a・I don't know what to call it."
The professor made a suggestion, his brows furrowed as he tried to understand. "A mental name?"
"Yeah, like that. C'mere, cat." #Come back?# The tabby obediently hopped off the professor and sauntered to her. "Best translation would be, um, Sundozer, I guess. Can I call you Sundozer, cat?" she asked. Professor X didn't notice any response from the cat, but Ruky said, "All right, then, Sundozer it is."
"Ruky," the professor began, "I'd like to ask a favor of you. You can say no, if you like." At her nod, he continued. "I'd like to look inside your mind when you're communicating with the cat. I may be able to see how you do it, and help you control it better."
"Sounds ok," she answered. "What do I do?"
"Just talk to it, and I'll watch." His voice was calm and dignified, and she wondered how he always sounded like he knew exactly what he was doing. There was no way he'd ever dealt with anything like this before, she told herself.
#Hey, um, Sunny. Are you listening?#
#Here, Rukycatfriend.# Sundozer tilted her head to one side. #What needyou need?#
#What do I need?# she repeated. #Man wants to see you-me-talk. Conversation.# Already she was falling into the ease of the mindspeech. Single words melted into concepts.
Sundozer was getting better at communicating, too. #You-me talk, man watch. See? He not understand. You Rukycat, he man only man.# They both looked at the professor for confirmation.
His eyebrows drawn together pensively, Xavier finally spoke disapprovingly. "It would appear to me that you have formed some kind of psi-link with the cat. I can see that you are communicating in some fashion, but I am not sure how." He could see a connection between them, actually, pulsating faintly and rapidly growing stronger. Beats of light flashed back and forth. "Do you share feelings and emotions, or simply thoughts?"
Ruky and Sundozer looked at each other, then both scratched behind their left ears. "I guess feelings," she laughed, trying to break the tension a little. It didn't work.
"I don't see this as a good thing, Ruky," he tried to tell her, jabbing a finger in the air for emphasis. "You forced a link on an animal, something that cannot possibly comprehend us, and-" Suddenly Sunny's fur was raised, her tail fluffed, and she was hissing maniacally. "What's wrong with her?"
#Notforce! Want! Rukycatfriend, why man mad? What say he?#
#He *said*,# she emphasized the proper word, #that you don't understand humans or what the link between us is.#
#Not understand, ptah!# Sunny's tail flicked irritably back and forth. Professor X backed his hoverchair up slightly. #I make link, not you. All cats have.#
#You mad at me?# Ruky asked, her mind-voice small.
#Not mad, Rukykitten.#
"What does she say, Ruky?" the professor demanded.
"She says that she's the one who formed the link, not me. She is・upset that you would think she doesn't understand. And she says that all cats have this link, but I'm not sure what she means."
Sundozer turned tail on both the professor and Ruky and stalked to the door. #Out. Now.#
"And she wants to go out," Ruky added. "I'd better go." Ignoring the look on the professor's face, she trotted to the door, which opened for her, and went out. Xavier stayed in the Danger Room for a few minutes further.
"So the cat formed the link," he muttered to himself. "Well, now what?" The door hissed aside, and he slowly went down the hall to his office. He had paperwork to take care of.
Logan waved the tired waitress over to the table. "We need two more beers and four more scotches," he told her. "Single malt this time, please, and you can clear these away." He gestured to the steadily growing collection of empty bottles.
"Sir, I think you may have had enough," she answered timidly. "There's a limit on-"
"No there ain't. Not fer me, at least. Ask Harry. An' while you're askin' him, could ya bring me two more beers an' four more scotches?"
Domino leaned back in her chair and finished the last of her beer in three long gulps. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she looked at the retreating waitress. "She new here?"
"Must be," Logan grumped. "Else she would'a known ta just bring me - ah, here we go." The waitress was back with the drinks. He helped her unload the tray and thanked her even as she timidly backed away. "What d'ya wanna drink to this time?"
"To seeing Nathan covered in cats," Dom laughed, raising one of the scotches. "I know you'll drink to that."
"A'course I will," he raised a glass in return. "An' I'll drink to it happenin' again!" He tossed the drink back and grinned toothily. "With that Ruky girl around, it just might. He had her scared half ta death."
"He scares a lot of people to death," she answered matter-of-factly. "What have you got against the girl?"
Logan followed the subject change, but took a long pull of his beer before answering. "Whadd'ya mean?"
"Oh, I got the whole story." Domino casually waved her hand in the air, then took a calculated pause to sip at her beer, just long enough to frustrate him. "Seems you didn't want to rescue a poor homeless girl from a life on the mean streets of the city."
"Who told you that?" he demanded.
"Ve haff our vays," she grinned. "Nathan found out from his father."
"And where'd Scott-no, never mind." He lit a cigar and puffed on it, thinking. "What's the point?"
Dom shrugged. "It just seems so out of character for you." He scowled, so she went on. "You're usually the one taking the young girls in-no, I don't mean like that. Calm down. I mean, you take them under your wing. Protect them. Train them. Look at Jubilee, or Kitty. How far would they have gotten without you?"
"Long speech fer you," he pointed out. "So what if I did help Jubes and Kitty out? Does that mean I have to help every girl that comes along?" He blew a smoke ring at the ceiling.
"I see through you, old man," she teased. "You just don't want to get, what's the word Hank used? Emotionally involved."
He slammed a fist onto the table. "I can damn well-! Oh. See what ya mean. She is kinda・
"Endearing?" she suggested before he could finish, raising an eyebrow for emphasis. He stuck his cigar back into his mouth. "Don't sulk. You look too much like Nathan when you do that. Look, I think you should give her a chance. I hear you're the one who, ah, tucked her into bed last night."
"So what if I did? Her room is in the same wing as mine." This time the smoke ring hit her in the face.
"You're getting defensive," she pointed out.
"I am, aren't I."
"Gonna be nicer?"
He scowled. "I suppose."
"Good. Let's have another drink." She slammed her other scotch down before he could answer, then stood. "I'm gonna go put some music on the jukebox."
"Ain't a woman in the world can drink like you," he said appreciatively, looking her up and down. "Want another one?"
"Damn straight," she said, winking as she walked away, "but tell 'em to leave the ice cubes out this time."
Scott hated when Jean called his name like that. It usually meant she was upset and wanted him to do something about it. "Juffa fec'mn," he tried to call through a mouthful of toothpaste. "Ptoo. Be right in." He carefully buttoned up his pajama shirt, examined his face in the mirror, and decided that his ears could do with a Q-tip or three.
It was hard to tell if you had any pimples when you saw everything through red glasses, Scott concluded. Then again, he could be thankful that he wasn't allergic to cats. If he'd had to rub his eyes・he cut off that train of thought and went back to the Q-tips.
"I said I was coming. Give me a moment." He flossed between each tooth, swiped at his nose with a tissue, and brushed his hair back. There. No point in postponing the inevitable even more. He carefully stepped out into the bedroom. Jean was lying in bed already, blankets pulled up to her neck, a magazine upside-down over her chest. She didn't look upset at all. "What's up?" he asked, trying to look innocent and succeeding, since he hadn't really done anything.
Jean broke into giggles. "I've been waiting for you to get out of the bathroom・how funny was the look on Cable's face? 'Get these flonqing cats off of me,' indeed!
Scott allowed himself to smile, then to laugh out loud with her. She wasn't mad at him, she wasn't upset at anything! Still, there was something that seemed off about her laughter that he couldn't quite place. "It was funny, wasn't it?"
"Yeah・ her giggles subsided. "Did you hear what Ruky did afterwards?"
Here it came, he thought, and leaned back against the dresser as casually as he could. "No, what happened?"
"After Cable got free of the cats, the professor took her and one cat to the Danger Room to practice a little more control. The cat and Ruky formed a psi-link, Scott."
"I didn't realize she was that powerful," he managed to say.
"She didn't initiate it! She says the cat claims to have made the link. Not only that, she says that all cats have a link like this with all other cats."
"Is it harmful to her or to us?" His tone was concerned. If this was a danger to the X-Men, it needed to be taken care of.
"I don't think so," she answered sarcastically, patting the bed for him to climb in next to her, then pulling the covers back. "We've just got another cat on the grounds, which is nothing new, and she'll take responsibility for it if anything happens."
"Such as coordinating an attack on Cable again?" Scott climbed into bed and snuggled up to Jean.
"Exactly. Or any one of the things that cats can do. Here, don't forget your goggles." She dangled the ruby quartz safety goggles that he wore at night from a slender finger.
"When have I ever?" he mock-complained, closing his eyes before letting her remove his glasses. As always, she gently kissed each of his eyelids before tying on the goggles, then pulled the chain on the bedside lamp. "Goodnight, Jean."
Ruky had let the cat out of the mansion and had followed it around in the woods for several hours. It had felt good to be alone again. She liked these people, and wanted to stay with them, but it had been months since she'd been so social.
Now she lay curled up in bed, Sundozer dozing behind her knees. She couldn't sleep. She could feel every cat on the grounds. Hunting, prowling, sleeping in a pile of leaves. Yowling, fighting, pouncing on a mouse. She'd never felt them this strongly before. Smells and sounds nearly overwhelmed her as well. Whiffs of the room's former occupants, the soap she'd used that morning, people walking in the hallways two stories below, the quiet hum of the ventilation system, all washed over her.
It was too much. She slipped from the bed, leaving Sundozer asleep, and padded over to the window. The fresh night air beckoned to her. Carefully, she raised the window. For the first time, she didn't shiver as the wind caressed her skin. She inhaled, smelling the night, and looked outside.
Fortunately, it was a dormer window, and the roof wasn't on too steep a slant. She stepped out onto the roof, then easily climbed to the top of the protruding window, straddled it, and leaned back against the roof. Taking a deep breath, she examined the stars. More here than in the city, for sure, but still less than in Virginia.
The call to be moving pulled at her again. "Sweatshirt," she muttered to herself. "It's gotta be 'bout freezing out." Then she realized that she wasn't cold. "Right then. How to get down? Ah-ha, a tree."
The tree proved to be farther than she could reach, and she didn't think that leaping for it would be the greatest of ideas. Stairs? Someone might notice and ask where she was going. Only one thing to do. She slid down the drainpipe, landing almost silently on the ground. It would have been completely silent had she not tripped on a hedge and rolled a few yards, caught off guard by a sudden scent.
On the roof with a warm blanket wrapped closely around himself, Remy watched her fall, pick herself up, and look around. "Petite's got a lot t'learn," he whispered. When she disappeared into the trees, he leaned back and lit a cigarette with the tip of one finger. "Gon' wait an' see. Somet'ing interestin' might happen." Ten minutes later, he still hadn't heard anything, so he leaned back on the roof and watched for shooting stars.
Ruky leaned against a tree. It smelled right, not like the inside of the mansion. Inside didn't smell badly, but it didn't smell natural, either. It smelled like people, and cleaning supplies, and last night's dinner. Outside, as cold as it was, smelled like trees, and soft pine needles on the ground, a random small animal, other cats, and something that she couldn't quite place.
Then it snapped into her mind - Logan was in the woods. She'd sneak up on him and surprise him. She tiptoed from tree to tree, trying to pinpoint exactly where he was. Suddenly she was flat on the ground, too much weight on top of her and not enough breath to scream. A voice growled, "What the-" and just as suddenly she was sitting up again.
Ruky was too shocked to yell at him, or even to say anything. She leaned against the nearest tree, tried to catch her breath, and looked at Logan as angrily as she could manage.
"What the hell're ya doin' out in the middle of the night, kid?" he demanded.
"I just・I couldn't stay inside," she weakly explained. "It was too, I donno, closed-in."
He cocked his head to one side and examined her face. "Heard you an' the cat had some kinda moment together." It was a statement, not a question, and it left her the option to not answer.
"Yeah," she answered anyway, "Sunny - the cat - said that all the other cats were linked together, and I might as well be a part of it."
"Anything change?" He sat back on his haunches and idly peeled the bark off a twig.
"Yeah," she said again, pulling out a cigarette from the pack she'd bought at the mall when Bobby hadn't been looking. Logan lit it for her, then lit a cigar of his own before flipping his lighter shut and tucking it back in his pocket. She wrinkled her nose at the smell. "Whoo, that's strong."
"Gonna tell me what happened?" Logan asked casually, flipping the twig over his shoulder and standing up. "C'mon, let's walk."
The story spilled out of her. "...And then the cat said that I hadn't done a thing, that she'd formed this link with me, and the professor is definitely mad at me, I think. And I can see things. And smell things, and hear things, and・it's just too much! Sunny's sleeping on the bed now, dreaming of a mouse. There's a cat that way," she pointed, "and there, and there, and down that way are a few more. Hey, don't you have some kinda superpowered nose or something? How do you deal with it?"
"Ya learn to tune things out, after a while," he answered after thinking for a moment. "Take in only what ya need, leave the rest. It ain't easy," he concluded.
"How?" she demanded, grinding the butt of her cigarette under her heel. Her eyes crossed and then refocused. "There's just so much of it!"
Logan sighed. "Have a seat, kid." He demonstrated by sitting crosslegged on the thick layer of pine needles that covered the ground. "Aren't you cold?" he asked, noticing for the first time that she wasn't wearing a coat.
"Not really. Thought I would be, but・ she shrugged.
"Suit yourself. Now, take a deep breath. What do you smell?"
She closed her eyes and took a breath, then another. "Pine trees."
She tilted her head and stuck her nose towards him. "No. I can smell you."
"What do I smell like?" This was one of those moments, Logan realized, when you recognize that an acquaintance with someone is moving on into a real relationship. He felt suddenly protective of her.
"Like cigars, and leather." He remembered wearing a leather vest earlier in the day, although he didn't have it on now. "And something else." She couldn't place it at first, but then her face reddened as she became conscious of what it was. "You smell・ wild. And you drank beer today," she said, wondering why she had a problem saying he smelled male. He was, after all. She was sure that she smelled female to him, and that he wouldn't be embarrassed about it, either.Suddenly bold, she blurted out, "What do I smell like?"
He was taken aback by the request, but sniffed at her anyway. "You smell like cigarettes, soap, and fresh-dyed denim." He left out that he could also smell that she was a little afraid and due to menstruate in the next few days. It didn't seem appropriate.
"Here's what I want you to do," he went on. "I want you to just feel what's around you. Don't move. In fact, close your eyes." He silently stood up and walked halfway around her and some distance away. "How far am I from you? If you reach your arm out, will it touch me?"
His voice sounded further away. She couldn't feel him standing close to her, but she reached her arm out to make sure. It didn't contact anything. "Where'd you go?" She opened her eyes to find him.
"C'mon," he growled, "ya didn't need ta look."
"You teaching me to use the Force?" she quipped.
To her relief, he laughed. "Just about. Watch this." He closed his eyes and walked around her. "Right now I'm behind ya. If I reach out my arm, the tip of my smallest finger will touch yer earlobe." He demonstrated, just barely brushing her ear, then came back to sit in front of her.
Incredulous, she asked, "How'd you do that?"
"I know how long my arm is, and I knew where ya were. Try it. If ya reach your arm all the way out, what could ya touch?"
"Do I need to close my eyes?" she asked apprehensively, and was answered with a shake of his head, no. She looked around. "I could probably reach your knees," she said, "and if I lean to the left, that tree there."
"Okay, so do it."
His knees were closer than she'd thought, and the tree further. "I'm never gonna get this," she muttered, standing up and starting to walk away. "Shouldn't have come outside."
"Hey!" Her head snapped up at the sudden change in his manner, and she turned around. "No one gets this right away. If ya don't practice you'll never get it at all." He'd taken just the right tone, challenging but not derogatory. "Sit back down," he gestured, speaking more calmly. "Take a deep breath. Feel the night."
"I didn't know you were like this," Ruky commented.
"Don't ever underestimate anyone," was the quick answer.
She finally relaxed, closed her eyes and tried to "feel the night," whatever that meant. All she could feel was the rough tree against her back and the pine cone which was unfortunately positioned under her leg. Stray thoughts from stray cats wandered through her mind like fog. The slight breeze caressed her bare arms, bringing her scents from farther away. Then something awoke in her. Ruky leaned forward, reaching out for something she couldn't define.
The world was pressing in on her still, but now she was reaching out with the same force. Suddenly she felt herself to be a part of everything in a completely new way. And just as suddenly, the feeling was gone.
She slapped her hands down on the ground next to her, breaking whatever was left of the spell. Logan looked at her curiously. "What happened?"
"I don't know! I felt something, and then it was gone."
"What kind of something?" His brow furrowed and he wondered if he was really capable of teaching her to see the world in the same way that he did.
She scowled as she tried to put into words what she had felt. "Everything was-- I could feel what you were talking about. Then it just stopped." A sudden feeling of emptiness washed over her.
"Start again. It takes practice."
Hours later, Logan finally let her go back inside, saying he felt like sleeping under the stars tonight. She felt amazing. The world which had been so overpowering to her earlier had opened up and let her in. When you're a baby, she thought to herself, everything is overwhelming because you haven't learned to let information in and process it. Then you learn to tune everything out and you become a blind and deaf adult. I just learned to tune everything in! She mentally said goodnight to a curious kitten halfway across the grounds.
Now, to get back inside. She tried climbing back up the drainpipe, but couldn't get a grip. The tree was still too far from her window. "Shit. What the hell do I do now?"
Ruky jumped when Remy spoke. "Y' can't climb dat, petite?"
"No, I can't," she growled back. She looked up to find him sitting easily on the dormer of her window.
"How you gon' get back in, den?" He laughed at her, not unkindly, but still taking amusment from her predicament.
"You're going to rescue me?" she suggested.
"Gon' watch you rescue y'self, maybe," Remy answered without moving. "If y' can' get up, you're gon' have t'go through de fron' door. Alarm gon' go off, gon' wake everyone up. Don' want dat, neh?"
She scowled. "How is Logan gonna get back inside, then?"
"He know de code for de alarm," Remy said. "You don'."
"Oh." Ruky mulled it over for a moment, not thinking to ask him if he could go downstairs and open the door for her. "How'm I gonna get back up, then?"
Remy lit a cigarette and blew a smoke ring. "Should'a thought'a dat when you climbed down." She gave him the saddest pair of puppy eyes she could manage. "Oh, awright." Ruky wasn't sure how he had done it, but he was suddenly in the tree and swinging down towards the ground.
"Y'know how t'climb trees?" he asked impatiently.
She looked up at the tree. It seemed easy to climb, with branches at regular intervals. "Yeah, but how're we gonna get from the tree to the roof? It's far."
"Like dis. Follow me. I'll go first. Watch how, den do it y'self." He reached up, grabbed the lowest branch and easily swung himself up onto it, then leaned down to give her a hand up. "Thought cats were s'posed t'be good at climbin'," he muttered, thinking his voice was low enough so she couldn't hear. "I'll show her how t'climb a tree. Remy LeBeau is de master of tree-climbin'."
She stood on the first branch and watched him make his way up, hugging the slightly damp tree so she wouldn't fall.
Three branches up, Remy looked down to make sure Ruky was watching him. Without paying enough attention, he stepped up onto the next branch and directly onto a patch of ice. His foot slipped out from under him and he tumbled to the ground. He landed rolling and was on his feet again quickly. "Merde!" he stifled a gasp as he stood up, holding his side and keeping his weight on one leg.
A window flew up, and Ruky cringed against the tree hoping not to be seen. "What's going on down there?" Scott barked.
"Not'ing," Remy called back, his voice strained. "Jus' climbin' dis tree, here."
"It doesn't look like you're climbing," Scott sighed pedantically. "It looks like you've fallen."
"Dere was ice," Remy justifed, glowering at Scott. Why wouldn't the man go back to bed?
Jean leaned out of the window behind her husband and rubbed her eyes sleepily as she looked outside. Then her brain registered what had happened and she began to giggle. As tired as she was, she couldn't stop laughing, and another window slid noisily open.
"Oh, mah gawd," Rogue got out before she started laughing.
Remy turned his glare at Rogue. "Jus' drop it, henh?" Muttering angrily, he limp-stalked away, still clutching his side. Rogue's window slammed shut, glass rattling in the frame. Jean's laughter suddenly cut off as Ruky poked her head around the side of the tree.
"Um, help?" She couldn't get down, and she was hesitant to go up after what had happened to Remy.
"What are you doing outside at this hour?" Scott harshly asked, but Jean didn't give Ruky a chance to answer him.
"Oh, honey, hold on," she called. "I'll get you down." Her head disappeared from the window.
Ruky looked up, then down. The ground seemed yards away. She clung to the trunk of the tree, wishing she'd never gone outside in the first place.
Shivering even through her thick robe, Jean hurriedly crossed the lawn of the mansion. What was that girl thinking? It was way after curfew, and she should have known better. Jean quickened her stride even more when she noticed Ruky didn't have a coat on. "Aren't you cold?" she asked when she reached the base of the tree.
"Not really," Ruky answered. "Donno why."
"OK. Let go of the trunk, and I'll float you down."
Ruky's eyes went wide. "No! I can't let go," she wailed, her arms firmly around the tree-trunk. "I'll fall."
Jean blew an exasperated sigh. "I won't let you fall, I promise. I could just lift you-" she started to demonstrate.
"Noooo!" Ruky yowled. "Don't do that! I'm gonna fall! I wanna get dowwwn!"
"We'll get you down," Jean promised without knowing how she was going to follow through. It would be so easy just to lift the girl out of the tree, but she was clinging so tightly. "Somehow," she added, then looked up to see Logan stomping out of the treeline, a scowl on his face and the butt end of a cigar clamped between his teeth. He didn't have a shirt on. Jean and Ruky both caught their breath.
"Cat stuck in a tree, huh?" he growled, inspecting how the branches of the tree came off the trunk. "Should'a known better, kid. Can ya get down to the next lower branch?" He tapped it to show her which one. She was only about ten feet off the ground, but he knew that it would look much higher to her. "Ya couldn't just float her down?" he asked Jean quietly.
"No. She wouldn't let go of the tree."
Ruky bent her left knee and stuck her right leg down as far as she dared, which wasn't far at all. "I can't reach!" Her voice had some panic in it now.
"Calm down," Logan said, his voice low. "You can do it." He talked her down to the lower branch, convincing her to sit on it. Jean watched, ready to hold her up if she slipped or lost her grip. "I'm right below ya, kid. You're only a few feet up. Lean forward, and I'll catch ya." He held his arms up.
Ruky looked down and saw a large comforting man, with no shirt on, waiting for her to jump out of a tree. She could smell that he was not angry, just patient, and remembered how patient he'd been with her in the woods only an hour before. He didn't seem worried. Besides, if she jumped, he'd hug her. That settled it in her mind. With no more hesitation, she leaned forward and pushed herself off the branch.
Logan caught her easily. She could feel the warmth of his large, rough hands through the t-shirt that she wore. She leaned against him as her feet finally touched ground, comforted by the wild smell of him. Her heart slowed its hammering against her ribs, and she looked up. "Um, th-thanks・ she stuttered weakly. "Guess I better get inside, huh."
"I'd say so!" Jean tried to match Logan's scowl. "It's way past curfew."
"I couldn't stay inside, I couldn't!" Ruky suddenly burst out. "It was so closed in, and there was so much outside. They were calling me, and I had to get out! And then・ she diplomatically skipped over just how long she'd been outside. "Then I couldn't get back in, and Remy said to climb the tree so I wouldn't set the alarm off by opening the door, and I was scared."
Jean lifted one eyebrow. "Remy told you to climb the tree? Then it serves him right that he fell," she muttered. Louder, she added, "We will definitely have a talk about this in the morning. For now, why don't you follow me inside. It's time for you to go to bed."
Ruky cast a despairing look at Logan as Jean led her away, but he stood impassively under the tree. As the huge front door of the mansion slammed shut, he disappeared again into the woods.
"No kidding?" Jubilee giggled, then reached for a handful of popcorn. "He really fell out of the tree?"
Ruky rolled over onto her stomach and laughed. She was lying on Jubilee's bed, and the two girls were making a half-hearted attempt to do homework. "Think he may have broken a rib or two on the way down, too. Or he was just tryin' to make it look bad."
"Nah, if he was showin' it, it must'a really hurt. Bobby's more likely to fake it than Remy is. So then what happened?"
Her tail flickered with laughter. "So there I am, stuck in the tree, and Remy's just getting up, when Scott sticks his head out the window!"
"Yes. And then Jean, and then Rogue. And they're all yelling, and I'm still up there in the tree. And then Jean came down, and she tried to, I donno, float me down or something, but I was so scared that I wouldn't let go of the trunk. Then Logan showed up and he got me down."
Jubilee's eyes narrowed. "Logan got you down?"
"Yeah," Ruky answered uncertainly. "I told you I was hangin' out with him in the woods, right? He must'a heard what was goin' on, 'cuz he just like showed up and held his arms out, and I jumped."
"Let me tell ya somethin'!" Jubilee shouted, surprising Ruky and overturning the bowl of popcorn as she leaped to her feet, jabbing one finger in the air. "Wolvie's *my* partner, d'ya hear, and I don't want you movin' in on him!"
"I'm not doing anything!" Ruky defended herself. "It's not my fault Logan happened to be there. I didn't do anything wrong!" Jubilee smelled fiercely jealous. "I went out in the woods, and he showed me some stuff."
Jubilee pointed at Ruky, her fireworks crackling at the tip of her index finger. "What'd he show you?!"
"Hey, calm down," Ruky took another tactic, hoping a calm voice would do the trick. "I didn't mean to get you upset. Look, here's what happened." She explained her adventure in the woods in detail, stressing that it had just been a learning experience and nothing else. Jubilee slowly calmed down. "You really like him, huh?"
"He's・he's like my dad," Jubilee weakly explained, "and maybe・oh, I donno." She veered away from the subject, righting the bowl and shoving a huge handful of popcorn into her mouth.
Ruky flicked her tail at her friend, tapping her lightly on the leg. "Tell ya what. I won't try to get between you and him, but I gotta hang out with him more. He dropped so much knowledge on me, I gotta know what else he can teach me!"
"Oh yeah, you got that thing for learning," Jubilee snorted.
"No, seriously!" Ruky sat up, folding her legs underneath herself. "Sundozer did something, I donno what. I still donno how to deal with it. It's like・like hundreds of people tryin' to get in my head, y'know? Except they're not people, they're cats. And every one of 'em has somethin' to say."
"So what's Logan have to do with it?"
Ruky stuck her tongue out. "Duh. Since he hears and smells, like, everything, I thought maybe he could teach me how to tune stuff out."
"Did he?" Jubilee gave up on picking out the last pieces of popcorn from the unpopped kernels and stuck a piece of gum in her mouth.
"No," Ruky rolled her eyes. "He taught me to tune stuff in・ Sundozer wandered into the room, sat down, and began to clean her whiskers. Ruky could faintly hear a commotion from downstairs. "Did'ja hear that?"
Jubilee cracked her gum. "Hear what?"
"Shhhhh! Listen." She snagged the small tabby and tucked her into the crook of one arm, then stood up and tiptoed to the door. "They're yelling."
"I don't hear a thing."
"Donno what happened yet. Wait a sec."
Sundozer wriggled to get down. #Didn't do, wasn't me.#
Jubilee bounced on her toes. "Let's go see what's up!"
"Let's not," Ruky said. "I already got yelled at this morning, and now Sunny's saying she didn't do it. What didn't you do, Sunny?"
#Not me!# An image of chopped meat flickered into Ruky's head and was gone just as quickly as Sundozer squirmed out of her arms and fell to the floor, landing lightly on her toes. She leaped up to the doorknob, hung by her front paws, and swung herself back and forth until the latch clicked open. Then Sundozer dashed down the hallway.
With the door open, Ruky and Jubilee could hear more clearly.
"Lookit this, Storm! Ah'm tellin' ya, this didn't happen by itself. Who'd want ta ruin mah dinner?"
"That's Rogue," Jubilee stage-whispered to Ruky. "It's her night for cooking."
Ruky rolled her eyes and whispered back, "Duh, and she's got that accent, too. I never would have guessed it was her without knowing it was her night to cook." She stuck her tongue out.
"Do not be upset, Rogue," Storm's cultured voice answered. "I will help you create another dinner, and I will find out how this happened. Now."
Pots and pans clattered as Rogue angrily started to put up another meal. Ruky heard Storm's footsteps on the stairs and quickly ducked back into the room, closing the door as quietly as she could. "Storm's coming!" she hissed at Jubilee. "What're we gonna do?" She looked around wildly, then stepped behind the open closet door.
"We?" Jubilee asked. "She's your cat. Aw, hell," she muttered as Storm rapped sharply on the door.
"Jubilation. Have you seen Ruky? I would like to speak with her. And do not lie to me."
Jubilee affected a wide-eyed, innocent look. "Why would I lie? She-"
"I'm here." Ruky stepped out from behind the closet door, head hanging.
"You may go, Jubilee," Storm said. Jubilee sidled past Storm and out of the room, dashing to the rec room and relative safety.
Storm looked down at Ruky, wondering how to begin. The girl was still so new to the school, and Storm didn't want to make her feel unwelcome, but she did need to know that this sort of behavior would not be tolerated, whether it had been Ruky or her cat that had ruined Rogue's dinner. "You do know why I am here," she began gently, hoping that Ruky would take the chance to apologize.
Ruky dropped her head even further, then looked up with a spark of defiance in her eyes. "I didn't do anything," she said, wanting to sound calm and adult.
Good, she has some spunk, Storm thought to herself. At least she is not whining like most teenagers. Out loud, she pointed out, "But you are responsible for your cat's behavior."
"Why? She's not mine."
Confused, but not letting it show on her face, Storm asked, "I was under the impression that you had adopted her? Taken her in?"
"No," Ruky scowled and looked rather like Logan as she tried to explain. "She adopted me. She's not my cat. I'm her person."
"How is that possible?" Storm asked, regretting the words as soon as they'd left her mouth. Practically anything was possible here, and she could see that Ruky was working her way into a teenage fit of righteousness. "Please try to calm down, Ruky. I am only trying to discover what has happened."
Ruky uncrossed her arms and put her hands on her hips, trying hard not to explode. "Like I said: I. Am. Not. Sunny's. Owner. I'm not responsible for what she does. I'm not the one who let her in the house today. Bobby did." That was true. Bobby had indeed opened the door to retrieve the morning papers that morning, and Sundozer had dashed into the house between his ankles.
Storm sighed. She hadn't wanted to get strict with her newest student. In fact, she'd hoped that Ruky would take more responsibility. Having given her that chance, she steeled herself and moved on. "Ruky, I am going to be very clear so that you cannot mistake my meaning." She paused for effect. "That cat is your responsibility, whether you claim her as your own or vice versa. While she is in this house, any damage she causes will be yours to repair, or you will find that she is no longer allowed to enter the house. You will also train her to avoid any more incidents." Storm looked pointedly in the direction of the kitchen, where Rogue was still clattering pans together, only slightly louder than necessary.
"Fine, I'll try," Ruky begrudgingly said, "but I can't guarantee anything, because-"
Storm cut her off. "Because she is not your cat, you are her person. Is that it?"
Deflated, Ruky softly answered, "Yeah."
"And, you do not want to say that you will do something - like train your cat - if you are not assured of success," Storm pointed out exactly how Ruky felt with amazing accuracy.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I said I'd try. Didn't I?"
"You will do more than try," Storm told her as she started to walk towards the door. She stopped, turned around, and put her hand up on the doorframe. "You will succeed." She turned again, headed downstairs to help Rogue with dinner.
"You will succeed," Ruky quietly mocked Storm's back, rolling her eyes again. Then she stomped off to find Jubilee - and Sundozer.
The train rocked and swayed its way into Penn Station. Ruky yawned to pop the pressure that was building in her ears while trying to look excited. It had only been a few weeks since she'd moved in with the X-Men, and she wasn't quite sure if she wanted to go back to the city. But Jubilee had begged to go shopping, saying that the little mall in Westchester just wasn't enough for her, and soon nearly everyone had come up with an excuse to make a day trip of it. Even Logan had decided to go, saying that he would keep an eye on things, since Scott and Jean hadn't come. Jean had convinced Scott, without much arm-twisting, to stay at home with her in the nearly-empty mansion. Dr. McCoy had been snoring gently on his keyboard when Jubilee had gone down to ask him if he wanted to come along. She had pulled a blanket over him and left him sleeping. Storm didn't like the city; the feeling of the buildings over her made her feel claustrophobic. And the professor, of course, had politely declined.
Hyperactive as ever, Jubilee bounced in her seat for most of the trip, occasionally leaping up to swing from the hand-railings. Remy leaned casually against a seatback, holding onto a pole with one hand and watching Rogue from behind his dark sunglasses. He'd really only come for her, anyway. Ruky pushed her own sunglasses up her nose, having no particular reason to want to show off her eyes, and watched the people on the platform as the train pulled into the station. If it hadn't been so obvious by the rocking of the train, she might have thought that she was holding still while the other people were moving.
The train squealed to a stop, and everyone stood up at once. Ruky wrapped her scarf securely around her neck and held onto the back of Bobby's jacket. After a mad rush to get off the train before the next crowd got on, a patient shuffle towards the escalators, and a slow ride up, they emerged into the dim winter morning.
The sounds and smells were as familiar to Ruky as if she'd lived there all her life, but now she saw things in a different light. She was no longer the hated and feared, no longer hungry or cold. She was with friends, and they cared.
"C'mon, kid!" Logan's growl carried no malice, and Ruky hurried to catch up to everyone, staring as she always had at the steps of the post office and wondering why no one ever sat there. Together they walked down to Times Square. Jubilee had insisted on walking, because there weren't any stores in a subway and she wanted to make the most of this trip.
Bobby groaned theatrically. "Jubes, that shirt looks exactly like the one in that store over there, but a different color. And both of them look just like the shirt you bought a block and a half ago. Look at something else for a change!"
Jubilee held the bright aqua shirt up to herself. Rhinestones sparkled in tiny hearts across the front. "You don't like it, Popsicle?" she asked, cracking her gum.
Rogue, the older and wiser shopper, interjected. "It's not that he doesn't like it, sugah, it's that he's seen it already. You want to impress a man, wear somethin' he's nevah seen befoah." She dragged out her accent and fluttered her eyelashes at Remy, who stared back at her. Rogue had dressed for the occasion in tight jeans and a winter jacket with a fur-trimmed hood, and looked like she'd fit in just fine at a fashion shoot.
"Aww, c'mon," Jubilee begged, "I just wanna get this one, and then we can go. Please?" She looked adoringly up at Logan, who shrugged.
"This is all on Chuck," he reminded her. "Buy it if it'll make ya happy." He walked her to the cashier, being careful not to let her set her mind on buying anything else, and paid for the shirt. "But you hafta carry it. And everything else ya bought."
"Can we go to Times Square now?" Bobby asked, and got a dirty look from Jubilee in return. "There's more stores there," he wheedled. "More shopping..." She picked up a shoe and threatened to throw it at him. "C'mon, Jubes. Let's go. No more stopping 'til we get there unless the world explodes."
Four blocks later, they began to hear the noise of a crowd. "Wonder what's going on," Ruky said without expecting to get an answer.
"Street fair, maybe?" Rogue suggested.
Logan stopped walking and sniffed at the air. "Worse'n that," he said. "Ruky, can you smell that?"
"I'm not-- wait." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "They're scared, Logan," she said quietly. "All the cats are scared."
"Of what, sugah?" Rogue asked. "What do y'all smell?"
Logan drew in another breath. "Smells like a mob. An angry, sweating, shouting mob."
Ruky tilted her head to one side. "They're coming here. If they're scared, why would they...? Wow," she breathed. "They're coming from all over." Her eyes brightened with anticipation.
"Aw, hell," Bobby muttered. "Why's this always have to happen when we just wanna relax, shop a bit, have a few beers? Let me guess. It's not just any mob, is it? It's the so-called Friends of Humanity, am I right?"
"Bet y'are," Logan grimaced. "I can smell 'em from here. Now, we got two choices. Either we can turn around and ignore it, or we can--"
Rogue cut him off. "We can't just leave. Ah, for one, am goin' to stay right here. If anything worse happens, Ah may be able to help. And so can you. We can't just walk away, Logan."
Logan snapped into command mode. "You're right. Ok, here's the plan. We'll split up into two groups. Don't leave your group unless it's absolutely necessary. I'll keep my eye on Jubes and Ruky. Remy, Rogue, Bobby, you stick together.
"My group will head around to the right," he continued, "and you guys head left. Try to keep the crowd calm. And stay outta trouble! When we get back ta Westchester, we'll give Chuck details. I wanna know who organized this, if anyone important's involved, and if there's any followup we'll need to do. Let's go!" He jerked his head to the right. Jubilee and Ruky fell in behind him as the other half of their group split off, shopping forgotten.
The crowd was still relatively calm, although a speaker on a podium about fifty yards away was rapidly inciting a riot. "Our city *must* be rid of the mutant menace!" he screamed, his face turning red. "Legislation *must* be passed to..." With each catchphrase he spat out, the horde roared its approval. "What we need to do is..." Logan stopped listening, having heard it all before.
"Hey! She's a mutant! I know she is!" Ruky suddenly found herself the target of a derogatory finger pointed right at her.
On the podium, the speaker was building into the climax of his speech. "We don't care about the color of your skin!" The noise swelled up like a wave. "We don't care what religion you are!" Half a dozen people converged on Ruky, trying to grab her away from Logan. "We don't care if you're rich or poor!" Logan kept his arm protectively around Ruky's shoulders, trusting Jubilee to stick with them. "We just don't want any mutants!" The noise was like the growling of a mad animal no longer human. Ruky could feel it rumble through her chest even as she trembled against Logan's comforting warmth. She silently called out for help, then shrieked out loud as someone grabbed her ankle and pulled.
#We here, Rukycat.#
In her attic, Storm was transplanting seedlings into bigger pots. As soon as it was warm enough, she would replant them all outside. She hummed happily as she worked, complimenting the plants on the sheen of their leaves and how much they'd grown since the last time she'd spent time with them. The doorbell rang, jolting her out of her reverie. "Who could that be?" Storm asked herself. She stood up, dusting her hands off, and went downstairs to find out.
She reached the landing above the foyer in time to see Professor Xavier opening the heavy wooden door. "Yes? Can I help you?" he asked. Storm hurried down the stairs to stand behind him, not knowing what to expect.
A tall, heavyset man stood on the wide stone doorstep, his wife a step behind him. Half a dozen police cars waited ominously in the driveway, lights spinning. "You have my daughter," the man accused. "You've kidnapped her. And I want her back!"
Professor Xavier made no motion. "I have not kidnapped anyone," he said, his voice loud enough to carry to the police. "Everyone who lives in my home is here of their own accord."
"How did my daughter get here, then!" he demanded.
His wife stepped forward and put her hand on his arm. She was a small woman, with short wavy hair and a sad smile. "Please, Lew. You catch more flies with honey," she said quietly, then addressed the professor with a soft southern accent. "I apologize, sir. Please, let me begin again. Our daughter ran away from home almost a year ago. Her name is Rukhana. She--"
"She's a mutant," Lew said bluntly.
"Please, Lew." It sounded as if it had been said many times before. "We heard from the police only a few days ago," she continued. "They said that she'd been seen in New York. A shopkeeper reported a theft and described her to the police, along with two men she was with at the time. Both men, according to their descriptions, live here. So you can see why we would think that you have our daughter."
"Your daughter," said the professor as the police stepped out of their cars, "was brought here by two of my teachers. You see, this is a school for the gifted. They found her on the streets, cold and hungry. They brought her here. We've kept her warm, fed, and safe. We've enrolled her in school and we are teaching her all she needs to know, both as a human being and as a mutant. She has told me on more than one occasion that she has no wish to return to her life with you." The last comment was aimed directly at Ruky's father.
Lew stepped into the foyer and leaned over the professor's hoverchair. "Listen, you freak, she's my daughter! I have every right to take her home! She's mine!" Froth glistened at the corners of his mouth, and he shook off his wife's restraining hand. "Let go of me! Now, where is she?" he demanded. "Where is my daughter?"
A cold-eyed officer strode across the lawn. "Lew, you'd better calm down. Your daughter is fine. But she wants to stay here."
"They have gone to the city for the day," Storm announced, unable to keep silent any longer. "They were going shopping for new clothes."
Before anyone could say anything else, Scott came dashing into the foyer. "Professor!" he called. "There's an--" He cut off, noticing the police. "What's going on?"
"Great. Another freak," Lew said, intentionally loud enough for all to hear. "What's the news, freak?"
Scott ignored him. "Professor, there was a Friends of Humanity rally going on in Times Square this afternoon. I think that there may have been trouble. Jean said she caught a flash of something through that cat, but couldn't get much else. They're on their way home."
"Good," Lew smirked, finally getting something his way. "I'll just wait right here until they do, and then I'll be happy to leave. *With* my daughter."
He didn't have long to wait. An uncomfortable fifteen minutes later, the Jeep came squealing up the driveway, stopping short before rear-ending one of the police cars. "What the hell is goin' on, Chuck?" Logan demanded. He rolled down but didn't get out of the car or stop the engine, and he gestured for everyone else to stay seated as well.
"These," Professor X gestured at the couple still standing on his front step, "are Ruky's parents. Her father wants her to come home with them."
"Is she in that car?" Lew demanded. "Rukhana, get out here right now!"
Ruky peered out from behind the safety of the tinted glass. "I should go," she said, "or he'll just keep on."
"You can't!" Jubilee cried. "You can't go back with him! Stay here!" Everyone else voiced agreement.
"I gotta get out of the car sometime," Ruky said fatalistically. "I have to pee, anyway." She opened the door and stepped out.
Lew strode over to her and snagged her by the back of her neck. "Come on, Rukhana. I'm taking you home."
Ruky shot a pleading look to the nearest police officer and immediately decided on her safest bet. She screamed like a two-year-old. "I don't wanna go with him! I wanna stay here! Don't make me go! I hate him!"
"If de petite don' wan' go," Remy slouched out of the car, "den you can' make her go. She old 'nough to stay if she wan' stay." Everyone else stepped out of the car as well, if only to see better, but it made an impression on the sergeant.
"My name is Sergeant Williams, Ruky. How old are you?" His gray eyes narrowed, taking in the struggle between the girl and her father.
"Sixteen last August," she told him, straining to get away from the hand on her neck.
"How'd you like to be an emancipated minor?" He bent down to look her in the face, then cocked his head up to stare at Lew. "That means you can go wherever you want. Your father can't make you go with him."
Lew tossed Ruky to the ground. "This is an outrage!" he shouted. "That's my daughter! You can't take her from me! I have rights!"
"Not if you think you have the right to treat her like that," the sergeant snapped, gesturing to where Ruky had fallen. Behind him, Ruky's mother began to cry. "I suggest you sign these." Sergeant Williams held out a clipboard. "They say that you sign over legal guardianship to Professor Xavier. Believe me, we've got a full report on you." As Lew took the clipboard, the sergeant rested his hand on the butt of his gun.
Ruky scrambled to her feet and dashed behind the professor's hoverchair. "What're those papers?" she whispered the question.
"They would make me your legal guardian," he answered. "I put in for them the same day that you and your cat formed the psi-link."
With the threat of the officers standing over him, Lew had no choice but to sign the papers. He did so with a flourish, then looked up at Sergeant Williams with hatred in his eyes. "You haven't heard the last of this," he threatened. "I'm calling my lawyer as soon as I get home. You have no right to do this!"
"C'mon, sir," a younger officer stepped forward. "It's time to go now." He led Lew to his car and held the door of the backseat open for him. Ruky's mother shot one last tearful glance at her daughter, then followed her husband. It seemed like an eternity before all the cars had left.
When they were gone, Professor Xavier turned to Logan. "I want a full report on the FOH rally before the end of the day," he said.
Logan nodded assent. "I'd like a beer first," he said. "It's been a rough day."
"Why don't we all go inside?" Bobby suggested. "I'm not cold, but I bet the rest of you are."
"New York has had swarms of gnats, mosquitos, and even killer bees," said the perfectly made-up news anchor, "but we've never had a swarm of cats before!" Her pretty eyebrows raised as she turned towards the camera. "John Phillips is live in Times Square with an update. John?"
"Yes, Kathy. Today started out like every other day for the Friends of Humanity. The anti-mutant group had gathered to rally in Times Square today, but things rapidly went astray - literally. Stray cats from all over Manhattan converged on the rally, causing chaos- but only minor injuries. The rally broke up soon after. In Times Square, I'm John Phillips. Back to you, Kathy."
"Did you do that?" Jean turned to Ruky, amazed, as a commercial came on.
Ruky blushed. "They only got angry when that guy started pulling on my leg," she said. "When he grabbed me, he got my leg *and* my tail." She waved that appendage, which was none the worse for wear. "And we all know, cats don't like having their tails pulled."