Notes: Events here take place in Japan, on the eve of the scenes in issue #7. In the classic comics, Ororo's room was in the attic. I'm well aware that Dani's personality is less serious here than in the original comics, but the personalities of all Ultimate characters are different and I just imbued her with a bit of Indi'n humor. As for Storm and Cyclops, take a look at the panels during the autograph signing in issue #7; notice how they keep track of one another in the crowd (verbal exchange or no), and that they only ever call each other by first name in this issue. No idea if that was intentional or accidental, but I love it when the comic neatly dove-tales with something I'm working on. Serendipity.
"You spent how much? On a goddamn dress?" I must have heard the figure wrong.
Ro flinched at my tone, but barreled on. "It's a Stella McCartney. VH-1 called her the designer of the year. And it's not a dress, it's a pantsuit. Do you like it?" She held it up so I could see, not that I knew shit about fashion, or could tell the colors. It looked like a long purple-red-pink jacket over a black dress to me, though I knew (because Peter had told me) that it was brilliant blue-washed raw silk, like an aurora borealis, with gold batik accents. The cut would flatter her hips. At least it wasn't that high-fashion weird crap I'd seen actors too often wear to award ceremonies.
But fifteen thousand dollars? I wasn't sure if I was more shocked that three pounds of cut cloth could command that much, or more furious that she'd spent it. "I don't give a flying fuck what VH-1 says, or if that dress - pantsuit, whatever - was designed by the goddess Venus herself. Nobody sane pays that kind of money for clothes."
"It's a designer suit, Cyke," Peter said from where he was flipping through a magazine on the suite couch. "It's a one of a kind - of course it cost an arm and a leg. And Xavier approved."
"Fuck," I muttered and stalked off into the bathroom, slammed the door. I wasn't sure why I was so angry about it. The professor threw around money on a regular basis like it grew on trees, which for him, it may as well have, and not just because he'd inherited several hundred million. He got a sick kick out of securing donations for his private institute with a little telepathic tweak from groups especially noted for hating mutants - like the Friends of Humanity. I thinkk even Senator Kelly had donated something as a tax write-off. I should probably laugh that Kelly had bought Ororo a fancy pantsuit, but I couldn't find it amusing, and not because I cared jack shit about Kelly, or even that Xavier was tampering with people's heads. The pantsuit bugged me for the same reason hotels like the Heritage bugged me. It was an obscene waste of money.
And your Mustang wasn't?, my conscience asked.
Not to mention that each of our uniforms had cost close to ten-thousand, when one figured in the specialized cloaking electronics which threw off Sentinels, plus communication devices and the other nifty gadgets that Hank so loved to come up with like some mutant version of James Bond's Q. But all that was to further the professor's dream.
And so was the pantsuit, albeit in a different way. This entire trip was about making a positive public impression.
And that was what had made me truly angry. I didn't belong here, regardless of my status as field leader of the X-Men. I hated this kind of smile-for-the-camera press, even while I knew it was necessary. But couldn't the professor have picked someone better equipped for social niceties?
And I was angry, too, that he'd sent Peter, Ororo, and I together. Without Hank. Or Jean. His excuse had been that Hank was still recovering, and Jean was needed to monitor him, but that was just an excuse and I knew it. He hadn't hesitated to send Hank into battle against Magneto. At least Ro was no happier than I was. Half the time in the past month since we'd returned from Nashville, I hadn't known whether I was coming or going - but I always knew it the minute Ororo walked into a room, as if I'd acquired an additional sense. Once, I'd had it for Jean. Now, my eyes followed white hair, and it was a good thing my visor concealed a multitude of sins, including that of coveting my best friend's girl. But she'd been mine first.
Not that Henry knew. I think he was the only one who didn't, barring Bobby who wasn't even around. Dani knew, more or less, because she'd been there. The professor knew because he'd lifted it out of Ororo's head, and Jean had her suspicions for much the same reason. Peter knew, too, because Ro had told him, which annoyed me but I couldn't resent her for it. She'd needed to talk to someone, and knowing that Peter was gay made me a good deal more sanguine about their friendship, even if it made me less comfortable around him - but that was my problem, not his, stemming from my previous experiences, not from anything Peter had ever done or intimated.
Now, I leaned up against the fancy marble counter and tried to get my head together, rubbed at my brow with my thumb. I could feel one of my headaches coming on, and I still had that stupid banquet yet this evening. More networking and X-Men On Display for the paparazzi.
Colossus banged on the door. "You coming out of there any time soon or do I have to go knock on the neighbor's door and ask to use their restroom?"
"Fine." I yanked the door open. "It's yours." And I tried to slip past, but Peter grabbed my arm before I could. "What?" I snarled.
"Ro just left to take the pantsuit back. That's the real reason I knocked. I thought you might want to go after her and stop her."
"Why? She ought to take it back! If we're wearing our uniforms tomorrow, she should, too."
"I agree, but we have a dinner tonight and the professor expressly ordered us not to wear uniforms to that. Seems the ideal venue for her new outfit, don't you think?"
"She brought a fancy dress. Two of them, as I recall. Either would be good enough to impress our hosts."
"Scott, she got that pantsuit today to impress you."
"She'll impress me more if she returns it." I didn't bother to say that I shouldn't be the man she was working so hard to impress.
He let out a snort. "You only say that because you haven't seen her in it. Now go stop her before she catches a cab."
So I found myself out at the brass elevators, cursing hotels with forty-four floors. I wasn't taking the stairs that far. By the time I got downstairs, Ro was already on the sidewalk, trying to flag down a taxi in the crazy Tokyo traffic. I could have called out her name, but instead walked up behind to catch her wrist and pull her arm down. Any excuse to touch her. "Keep the dress."
She jumped, and automatically corrected, "Pantsuit. It's a pantsuit."
"Yeah, and it was 'Rome wasn't built in day,' too. Now which one of us is being fucking anal about every little detail?"
That made her smile.
"Keep it," I said again. "I want to see you wear it." And I did. "Tomorrow, you ought to wear the uniform, but tonight, we have a banquet. The professor's making me wear a goddamn tuxedo. I should at least get to enjoy the scenery."
A tiny smile tugged at her mouth. "I'll wear it for you."
And then we just stood there, not quite looking at each other. I still held her wrist and she slid her hand up to clasp mine, twine our fingers, and at that moment, I didn't give a damn that we were sharing a street with several thousand Japanese and other visitors. "Let's go get something to eat," I suggested impulsively.
She gave me an amused look out from under improbable black lashes that didn't match her hair. "We're going to be eating in just a few ours. And I have this." She held up the covered hanger.
I took it out of her hand. "That's what a concierge is for, and we can get coffee instead of food."
"We can get a coffee in the hotel."
"I want to go somewhere away from here," I said, and she nodded, understanding. "Wait for me." And I took the dress back inside, had a staff person run it up to the room with a message for Peter. We'd be back in an hour or so. He could make of that whatever the hell he wanted.
She was waiting for me, arms crossed under her breasts, street wind from the funnel of high-rises whipping her white hair all around her like fine webbing. The hair, dark skin and height set her apart from milling Japanese like a wet dream of 1001 Arabian Nights. She smiled when she saw me and held out a hand; that simple gesture sent a shiver of exhilaration through my gut and I gripped her fingers - my rationale that I didn't want to lose her in the crush of crowd. But for a while, I could pretend she was mine. Certainly the Japanese who saw us assumed it, probably because we couldn't stop grinning at each other. We'd managed to escape our keepers, and walked at random down busy streets, wound up at one of the ubiquitous Tokyo Starbucks.
The shop was small and bursting with people so that Ororo's back was pushed up against my front while we stood in line. Without thinking, I put my arms around her shoulders - which was an astonishingly stupid idea, but she laid her own arms over mine and we didn't say a word, didn't even look at each other because if we did, we'd have to acknowledge that this wasn't right. As long as we didn't speak, this could be a private, shared fantasy, and Hank didn't have to know.
Finally, we were forced to move forward and separate. I covered our discomfiture by making her read me the menu. In the twelve days I'd spent watching over Dani, I'd wasted some hours on the Internet, looking for pointers on how to teach remedial reading and writing to adults, and since I'd bought the Mustang, Ro and I had met at night in the privacy of her attic retreat for me to tutor her where no one else could know. It'd been a test of our self-restraint, but teaching her to read was genuinely all we'd done. Behaving was easier when we shared a roof with Hank. Being half a world away made temptation too strong.
She got coffee and I got hot chocolate with whipped cream, then we found a spot in a corner at the window bar. The bar was nearly the only seating in the place, and had but one free stool; I let her take it, and leaned into the counter beside her. We watched the crowds swarm past beyond glass. Twenty-seven million people going about their lives, each with his own loves and hates and secret desires. I wondered how many were mutants?
"Do you ever look at people," she asked softly in my ear, "and try to guess who else is like you?" As if she'd followed my thoughts. Jean reads my mind, but Ro understands it.
"Sometimes," I whispered back.
"I'll miss Dani," she said after a minute, blowing on her coffee to cool it. By the time we returned from Japan, Dani would be back in Montana. I still wasn't happy about that. I'd told the girl I was going to call her once a week. She'd told me I was an over-protective worrywart. I probably was, but I was still going to call her. "It was nice to have another woman around," Ro added.
"There's Jean," I said.
She just glared at me, and I couldn't quite kill the smirk behind a sip of chocolate. I shouldn't bait her, especially since I found their mutual antipathy more annoying than amusing. Jean and I had slipped back into our comfortable familiarity. She was like the old red sweatshirt I'd had since the orphanage; I put her on when I needed to feel safe. I just didn't need to know where she was all the time any more, didn't haunt her hallway, or try to finagle seats at supper so that I sat next to her. And Ro had been right about her. Now, Jean always left a seat for me at her side. Often I took it. Sometimes I didn't. But I wasn't sure that I was completely over her, even if I was fairly sure that I didn't love her. The real question was whether I loved Ororo - or was she just my newest obsession? Would I recognize love if I felt it, or did someone have to hurt me to get my attention?
Now, Ororo nudged me with an elbow. "Come on, you'll miss Dani, too. Admit it."
"Who said I was denying it? Who'll do a dance to make my car go now?"
Ro burst out laughing. She, Hank, Dani and I had been working on the Mustang in the garage once, trying to get the carburetor timed right so it'd quit skipping and chugging after I'd turned the engine off. But we'd had little luck, and Hank and I had become progressively more irritated with each other until I'd made some crack about needing magic instead of ape-man the mechanic. Dani had run over to dip her fingers in some grease, then smear a line across her cheekbones and nose, three on forehead and chin, and had proceeded to dance around the car in native fashion, chanting, "Hey ya-hey-ya, ya-hey, hey-o."
Finally, Hank had asked, "Is this little performance supposed to accomplish something, or are you trying to make it rain in the garage so we'll pack up and go inside?"
Dani had stopped to grin like an imp. "It's not a rain dance. It's a make-the-car-go dance."
And I'd started to laugh at the sight of Dani with my car grease all over her face, dancing me out of my funk. Ororo and Hank had laughed to see me laugh like that, and pretty soon we were all four just howling.
And that pretty much summed up Dani's place on the team. For a girl who made one's worst nightmares real, she had a talent for keeping the peace.
Now, Ro sighed. "So we lose our jester and get back a Wolverine. Not much of a trade."
"Don't remind me," I muttered. "Too bad Bobby didn't return before she left. He'd like her."
"Bobby? Why, Scott, you're a closet romantic. And Dani's a year older than Bobby." Neither of us remarked on the fact that a year couldn't begin to cover the vast difference in their experiences. It was hard for me to believe that Dani was barely sixteen.
"So?" I said now. "You're a year older than me."
"Well, yeah, but you're eighteen going on thirty. And I don't think it's a whole year anyway. When's your birthday?"
"Day after tomorrow."
She spit coffee out her nose all over the glass. "What?"
I shrugged. "I think it's my birthday anyway, but everything before the accident is so muddled, I'm not sure. Maybe it was my brother's birthday."
"You have a brother?"
"Had." I frowned down at my mug. "He's dead, too. They told me, at the orphanage, that I have no living relatives."
"So who else knows it's your birthday?"
"The professor. Jean."
She studied my profile. "So you get to do Japanese national television as a birthday present."
That made her smile, and she finished her coffee in a single swallow. "Let's go back. We need to get ready for tonight."
"How long does it take you to get ready? The banquet doesn't start for another four hours. Even you can't spend that long in the bathroom, Ororo."
"I need to wash my hair and it'll easily take those four hours to dry."
"Four hours to dry your hair?" But I finished my hot chocolate and followed her out.
"Pitfall of long hair," she called over her shoulder as she pushed the door open. "And no I'm not going to cut it off, even if it's not very practical in a fight."
"I'd never suggest such a thing." I joined her on the sidewalk. "In fact, I wouldn't speak to you for a month if you cut it."
"What? You don't think I'd look good with a punk mohawk?"
"Don't you dare!" I tugged at the hair in question but she pulled free, then reached down to find my hand again, lace her fingers with mine and we took the long way back to the hotel. She let me go when we were in sight of it. "Jilah," I said - the first time I'd dared to use that name since Nashville, but she stopped me with a finger on my lips.
"Don't." she said, and we went up so she could wash her
"I'm not uptight," I lied.
Peter rolled his eyes, then held up his bottle. Sam Adams. "You sure you don't want a beer?"
"I don't drink." I'd been clean almost two years. I wasn't wrecking it now because I felt stupid in a tuxedo. I liked my life. "And you shouldn't be drinking, either. You're not twenty-one yet."
"I'm Russian. My blood's fifty percent vodka. And just what'd you share with the professor on the deck when you got back from the Savage Land, if that wasn't a bottle of bubbly?"
"I had three sips." And I probably shouldn't have taken those, but I hadn't wanted to insult him, had wondered if it was some kind of test. "I don't want a beer," I reiterated and sipped my iced tea, studied the room full of people, most of whom were at least four or five inches shorter than me. Poor Peter stood out like the Eiffel Tower. Not that he cared; he was in his element chatting up the Japanese, and had come to join me lurking in corners, trying to disappear into the wine wallpaper (at least, it was wine to me), only to lure me out there with him.
"Where's Storm?" he asked now.
I nodded towards the dance floor.
I shrugged. She'd made a bee-line for it as soon as she'd seen it, without even pausing at the buffet tables to eat. Colossus and I had been left to make polite small-talk until I'd found a way to extricate myself and leave him to bask in the attention. On the dance floor, Storm, too, had enjoyed a steady stream of admirers. That didn't bother me at all. It gave me an excuse to watch her move in that dress. Pantsuit. Whatever. It wasn't worth fifteen thousand dollars, but it was worth something. It led the eye on a path from the line of shoulder over the swell of breast across the hollow of stomach to the curve of hip. Her body in black played peek-a-boo through artful slits in raw blue silk that hung almost to her ankles, more like a cape than a jacket, and her unbound hair curled down her back like a waterfall. Our African Rapunzel. Half the men there - maybe more than half - wanted to be her prince and scale it. But I was the only one who'd been covered by it, slept in it, breathed it. She'd eventually get tired of her tower prison and climb down to me, then I'd sleep in it again.
Funny, that I could be so certain of that, but I was. Once I'd gotten past the anger, and the confusion, I'd understood exactly why Ororo would doubt herself and bolt like an antelope the minute she'd realized that Xavier had set us up. The whole thing bothered me less only because I knew the professor better. I had my suspicions that my choice to join Magneto in the Savage Land hadn't been entirely my own. I'd been the perfect double-agent because I hadn't thought I was one. But the professor had told Ororo the truth about the matter of Nashville. Our little love affair was too small in the grand scheme of things for him to invest a concentrated effort. He'd thrown us together in a car because he'd known us both well enough - advantage of telepathy - to havee a pretty good idea what would happen if we were left alone together for a few days. The situation had been arranged, but the feelings were real. I might not be entirely sure what name to hang on those feelings, but they were real, and they were mutual, and for the first time in my life, I felt confident that someone wanted me purely for myself.
And for that, I could almost forgive Xavier for sending me to Magneto.
"Are you really going to stand here all night?" Peter asked me now.
"I will if I can get away with it," I replied.
I hadn't moved my eyes from Ororo, but in my peripheral vision, I could see him shake his head. "I'm going back out, to talk to people. Like we're supposed to do."
"Be my guest."
He took about five steps, then turned to say, "Why don't you just go ask her dance?"
"Because I don't dance. I'm happy to watch."
"Don't drink, don't dance . . . . God, you're as bad as a Baptist."
"I play cards at least. Want to try a game of poker, when we get back to the hotel?"
"Forget it, Cyclops. I've heard about your talent for calculating probabilities in your head. I also watched you make five-thousand dollars at four pool halls in seven hours. I am not an idiot."
I finally turned away from watching Ororo, and grinned at him. "I never said you were. And Peter - thanks for that night."
He shrugged. "Playing bodyguard for you while you cleaned up at pool was a lot more fun than selling illegal arms to Hammas fanatics." And he headed back out to mingle with the Japanese.
When I returned my attention to the dance floor, Ororo was gone, which made me straighten up and scan the room for her. Molded-glass flute-light chandeliers glowed down on the white lines of banquet tables burdened with industrial, covered steel bain-maries. Servers stood guard over these while people flitted everywhere, social butterflies trying to see and be seen. Finally, I caught sight of Ro weaving her way towards me. She had to pause every ten steps to answer questions or shake hands. Her smile was about as genuine as a used-car dealer's.
When she reached my side, she caught my hand in hers and tugged me out towards the floor. "What are you doing?" I asked, digging in my heels.
She quit tugging, said softly, "Stop staring at me like you're starving and I'm fillet mignon; come dance with me instead."
"I'm doing no such thing."
"It's a slow song, Scott." And it was; "The Flame" by Cheap Trick. "Dancing slow isn't hard."
"I don't dance."
"Sure you can."
"Ororo! I don't dance!"
People nearby were watching us now, some amused, some curious, some speculative. A few paparazzi took our picture. God knew what absurdity the trash mags would spin out of the two of us apparently quarreling at a banquet. I didn't want to cause a scene, and dammit, Ororo knew that - was counting on it. "I'll teach you,"" she said in a low voice. "You're teaching me to read, I'll teach you to dance."
Sighing, I let her lead me out to the floor. People made space for us. I hated it, to be the center of attention like this, to have others stare at me. It dredged up memories of dancing for the pleasure of strangers, or doing other things while they got off, watching me.
"Put your arm around my waist like this," she whispered, calling me back to the present as she positioned my arm where it should go.
I beat her to the punch with the rest, caught her free hand in mine. "I know how to dance, Ro."
"I thought you said you didn't?"
"I said I didn't dance. I didn't say I didn't know how. I have a basic idea. But if I step on your feet, I'm not apologizing. You dragged me out here."
She just smiled and tilted her hips forward against mine, distracting me thoroughly, the little minx. Then she shifted away again and began to move, like liquid in my arms, her eyes on my face. I had a much harder time, too conscious of the crowd. "Relax," she whispered into my ear.
"There are people watching!"
"Forget the people."
"I can't forget the people!"
"Forget the people, Scott. Close your eyes."
"No way. I'll bump into someone."
"No, you won't; I'll keep you from doing that. Close your eyes and feel my body move. Feel the music in the floor, let it run up through the soles of your feet and into your bones."
I shut my eyes as she ordered and let my other senses reach out. Touch. The silk of her jacket was cool and smooth under the pads of my fingers, her hair warm over the backs of my hands. Smell. The air was dry, and I could pick up spicy traces of leftover chicken curry, and the sweat of too many people at too close a proximity in uncomfortable clothing. Sound. The slow pulse-pound of the song's base line thudded through me.
I wanna run to you, I wanna call,Ro's palm trailed down from my shoulder to rest against the center of my chest. Her voice was hypnotic, rich with a trace of accent, and her breath puffed against my earlobe. "Feel how the music settles here where my hand is - the beat like a heartbeat. Slow and steady. Thump, thump, tha-dump." She patted it out in time against my sternum. "Feel it from your toes to the tips of your fingers, breathe with it. Let it pull you inside out. The music is everything. The music is blood. The music is sex. The music is food. The music is life. Everything. It's all that exists, as deep as the earth, as eternal as the desert. Feel it move through your veins and shiver your belly. Let it take your body where it wants you to go."
I'm going crazy, I'm losing sleep.And I was doing it. I was dancing. She'd laid her head against my shoulder so she could speak into my ear as we moved to the music. "See?" she asked. "When you let in the music, you can feel your way into living, Cyclops."
Again, I am a shameless feedback slut.
Tell me you love me if you want me to write more; it's the only pay I