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  Book One of the Annwn Ryu Cycle
   Chapter VII
   "Challenge Met"

Cayanne led Stryfe into the warmly-lit kitchen, and immediately set to gathering a series of fruits and a few vegetables, while indicating a chair with her free hand.
  "Dis a real drink." she said, grinning over her shoulder at him.
  "What, may I ask, is in it?"
  The girl glanced back. "Secret recipe." was the only reply, but so mischievous was her expression that he raised an eyebrow in reply.
  There was the distinctive sound of a blender, ice being poured, and a whining creak as the old machine struggled with the concoction.
  After a few seconds, she came back with two glasses filled with something that looked like a cross between liquid bubblegum and fresh algae.
  Stryfe looked down at it as if he expected it to suddenly leap for his throat.
  Cayanne turned the other chair around and sat down next to him, shoving a straw in his then her own drink.
  "Don' tell me a big strong mutant like ya is afraid of a little smoothie?" she asked, eyes innocently wide.
  He returned her gaze, trying for a cold look and unaware of how far it failed. "Certainly not."
  "Good den. Drink up!" And she popped the straw in her mouth.
  Stryfe's expression was bland as he followed suit - until the first taste hit his tounge. It was almost comical how startled pleasure at something so simple as a drink flickered briefly on his face.
  "Good, oui?"
  "Quite...unusual." he managed, taking another large swallow.
  "Don' tell me subtlety is onna yer many gifts?" She grinned up at him.
  They stared at one another.
  She was clearly waiting for him to begin.
  He frowned, stirring the straw about in the glass, deep in thought.
  "It is...a very complex situation." he finally said.
  Cayanne nodded understanding.
  Stryfe took a few more moments, then began. "I was created, not born." His eyes flickered briefly with strong emotion, then icy nothingless, then back to something deep and open, in one brief moment. "I am a clone, created in case my dear brother did not survive." The bitterness did not show, save in the ice of his voice.
  "Dat de only reason?" asked the girl, resting a hand lightly on his.
  He stared at her. Then, almost harshly, "What other reason could there be?"
  "Maybe your Papa and Mama want you too."
  Stryfe snorted, unconsciously waving one hand dismissively. "I was abandoned to function as a back-up plan, no more, no less." His eyes were shadowed. "Abandoned to be raised by Apocalypse."
  "He de one wit' the big mouth and snotty attitude?" 
  Her companion stared at her. "I have never heard him described in that manner." he replied, a trifle startled.
  "Maybe you need hear dat, den. I read about him in de database." Her gaze turned secretive. "But you not tell anyone, bien? Dey not know I go lookin' for stuff."
  Stryfe brought one hand up to the back of his neck, rubbing absent-mindedly.
  "He reared me to be a conqueror." stated the future-born mutant, flatly.
  She cocked her head. "Ya mean he used ya?" her voice was thoughtful.
  "It seems so." His hand clenched under her's. "I was to be his next - heir."
  "Dat not sound like a good thing."
   "No. He would have required my body, not my - self."
  "Oh. Dat sound like him." she nodded, sagely.
  "What do you mean?" A slight tremor of emotion pierced his normally smooth, expressionless voice.
  "Guy not even know himself, so he t'ink it okay to run roughshod over any'ne to get his way. Sound like he clingin' to his survival, not want admit he's scared o' bitin' the bullet, same as ever'one else."
  He stared.
  She stared back, popping her eyes comically wide.
  "He use you, bounce everyone all ov'r de place, nearly kill ever'one - you maybe got left behind same reason lot o' kids do."
  "And what reason is that?" Stryfe's eyes were narrowed dangerously.
  "'Cause dey just happen'd to get born." She shrugged. "Take look on de street one day. You find a thousand kids just as lost and 'bandoned as you. 'Cept they don't got super-powers or nuthin' to save dem." Her gaze tipped upwards, meeting him. "You not 'bandoned. 'Bandoned people don't get 'membered. Dey just get forgot, which is a lot worse. You ever t'ink maybe you go lookin' for fights maybe 'cause you feelin' just as lost?"
  His whole body stiffened, head coming up to regard her with deadly calm. "I was left in a hellhole to be raised by a madman. That hardly compares!" he snapped.
  "No?" Her gaze held his, unwavering and full of fire. "You lissen, Mr. I-Am-De-Only-Alone-Person-Out-Dere-Who-Got-'Bandoned. I know girl once dat lived t'ru a hell. You t'ink dere only one?" She waved an arm, eyes burning. "No. Her own - père - he certainly no Papa, make her pregnant. Den he throw her out for his new girlfriend. She eleven years old. You unnerstand words? Eleven. She on de street two years, have a baby to take care of. She work de streets. Family - ma famille - take in. Too late for her. She have - what is word now? - AIDS." Her gaze did not relent, and again, for some reason, he could not look away. "She die. Slow. Baby, he live. Where home for baby? With family. But he have no mama to raise him. You understand? Not abandoned. She die. He alone. Cruel world, kind people. People make choices. World just is." The girl's gaze was thoughtful. "You not born to die, or to be 'bandoned, Rafe. Just born. Not matter how. Just born." Her voice brooked no argument. "And you get hurt. Left alone. Dat terrible t'ing, oui? But den you choose be alone. Dat your choice. You make," She struggled for the words. "You make circle. Now, are you 'lone 'cause of bein' left, or 'lone 'cause you make it be?"
  Stryfe's voice was completely without emotion. "Does it matter?"
  She stared up into his eyes. "Dunno. I jus' another mutant in dis joint, Rafe. Nothin' special, no good power." Her shrug was self-depreciating. "Jus' listen. An' I listen'. You got choice. I stay yer friend. If ya want?"
  There. She had done it again. Caught him off-guard. It was an open, willing vulnerability. He could choose, walk away or remain.
  He leaned back in the chair and stared at her. "Your powers include...?" he left it hanging, while his hand, very awkwardly, tightened on her's.
  "Dunno." she shrugged. "Not sure. Not matter much. I here for Papa, he ask, I come."
  Stryfe's entire world was teetering dangerously in his mind. On either side, lurked madness, terror. But he felt - strangely enough - no rage at words he would at one time have found the height of insolence, only a kind of distant ache.
  Cayanne, for her part, held his hand gently. "Jus' in case ya haven't noticed, you not alone no more."

  When Jean Grey sent her mind idly wandering, she never expected it to bump into the cold distance of....
!" she gasped, aloud, bringing her husband instantly awake.

   Cayanne turned reflexively when Cyclops, Jean, and a man she didn't know all struggled past one another - the door became a rather tight fit - followed closely by Hank and Professor Xavier.
  "Stryfe!" growled Scott, his visor blazing with contained energy.
  "Non!" cried the girl, launching herself to stand between her teacher and friend.
  Stryfe's normally smooth voice held an undeniable tone of bitterness. "I should have known this would be the answer." he spat, hands coming down to rest on Cayanne's thin shoulders. "So be it."
  And with a nearly-silent sound of inrushing air, the two were gone.

  Cayanne felt the world come back together, and stared around in unabashed curiosity. It seemed to be a simple townhouse, well-decorated. But on closer examination - and a glance outside the window - she realized that it was a military base. The silence and stillness made her realize it was likely an abandoned one.
  "Dis yer place, Rafe?" she asked, looking up at him.
  "For the time being, yes." he replied, one hand still on her shoulder.
  "Not much o' a home, dis joint." the girl observed, falling in step with him.
  "It provides me with my needs."
  "Most o' dem, I t'ink." she replied, looking around at the Spartan austerity.
  He nodded serenely.
  "What we do now?"
  Stryfe realized abruptly he had no idea.

  Gambit was on the verge of hitting someone over the head. Hard. With a very heavy object. Repeatedly.
  "He just take her?!" he demanded, voice rising with his outrage.
  "Easy, Gumbo." said Logan, who had re-appeared only a few minutes after Stryfe had vanished.
  "Easy?!! Easy??!! " Gambit's voice was shaking with his fury. "Dat maniac, he have Gambit's daughter!!! Êtes-vous hors de votre ESPRIT?!!"
  Scott jumped in with, "We'll find him. And we'll rescue Cayanne...."
  Jean was concentrating, struggling to reach the young Cajun telepathically, while they argued.
  Marie had her hand on Gambit's shoulder, her own expression fierce. "We have to get her back! Ahm not gonna stand by and let Stryfe hurt her!" she added, voice tense with anger.
Cayanne "heard" the emotion - fear/anger/questioning - as it touched her mind.
 Cayanne! It's Jean! Where are you? What happened?
was her simple reply. And she was. The drab military-issue tan-white was now hidden under a light blue, and she regarded her work with some pride. A little paint, some furniture moving, and a bit of imagination had transformed the soulless room into an inviting haven. Now if she could just find some books...
  Êtes-vous tout droit?  Où êtes-vous? The emotion-voice was her father's.
  Rafe's place. What de matter wit de others? He come to talk and dey nearly attack him! Her own tones were a bit annoyed.
  There was a long silence.
  Cayanne, he dangerous. Gambit sent back. He...
  He alone in a really ugly room right now. Been paintin'. He talkin' to someone.  Dey argue. I figure, not my business.
Jean's voice re-entered the conversation. We're on our way, sweetheart!
  Well, dis time try talk before shoot!

"He hasn't hurt her." said Jean, her expressive eyes sympathetic as she rested a hand on Gambit's arm. "In fact, she seems to have the run of his - base."
  Scott stared at her. "What is he up to?" he asked, more to himself than anyone.
  Cayanne found the kitchen almost by accident. It was old, most of the equipment was rusty, but she made due as best she could. It took some searching, but she found the makings of a salad in the noisy, yellowed refrigerator. Though she had to climb up on the dingy counter, the girl found some old glasses - marked with "US Marine Corps" - and a set of slightly bent silverware.
  A rat stared out at her from it's hiding place far back in the corner, and she left it a piece of cheese.
  Then she set out to find Stryfe.
  Unable to locate him, Cayanne put both hands to her mouth and roared, "SOUP'S ON!"
  He appeared moments later, clad in a t-shirt and sweatpants, eliciting a chuckle from his young companion. In those clothes, he looked so normal.
"Food." she said, around the cheddar currently in her mouth.
  Stryfe's expression was nothing short of amazement. "You made lunch?" he blurted out, staring at the salads on the table.
  "More like supper, gettin' late." she observed, grinning. "Now be a good boy an' eat up. Dis place not exactly have a big selection."

  "Stryfe's base is in Alabama." said Jean, rubbing her temples absently. "Cayanne is all right..."
  "Gambit want to know why Stryfe take her." said the tall Cajun, from where he stood. If not for Marie standing directly behind him, he would have bolted for the door and started out to find his daughter on his own.
  Xavier's expression was thoughtful. "I sensed no hostility toward her from Stryfe...." he began.
  "He's up to something." said Scott, pausing in his pacing. "He always is."

  Stryfe looked over the battered cards in his hand and regarded the girl across from him expressionlessly.
  "I call." he said, dryly.
  "Flush!" responded Cayanne, gleefully slapping her own cards down on the table. Picking up the pencil next to her right hand, she tapped the tip lightly on her lower lip, then grinned impishly. "Dat upwards o' two thousand you owe me now, Rafe. Wanna play again, or we settle now?"
  He lifted an eyebrow in reply, trying to appear unconcerned. In truth, he was curious as to what she would demand in payment of the debt.
  "Lessee...." she considered. "We say, you owe me a favor, dat one half. Bien?"
  "Done." Stryfe waved his hand dismissively.
  "Other half, you pay now. We go dance." Cayanne completed, rubbing her hands together.
  Stryfe's mouth actually fell open a centimeter. "What?" he demanded, hands on the table.
  "You know how to dance?" her expression was gleeful.
  "It - was never considered an important skill." admitted the older mutant.
  "Is important." Cayanne emphasized her comment with a sharp, chopping gesture. "I teach you, here. Den we go. Have fun." She indicated the newly-painted walls. "Dis place get old after a while."
  Scott was positive Stryfe was planning something. He had finally sought out Nathan, who had finally woke from an exhausted slumber. A quick explanation had his son on his feet and scowling.
  "I don't know why Stryfe took her, but it will fall to us to get her back." Cable stated, as they entered Xavier's office. "He will never give up something he believes is his."
  "Cayanne not property." growled Gambit, restrained only by Marie's gentle grip.
  "No. She isn't." Cable replied, earning him a glance from the distraught Cajun.

  Cayanne had insisted on going out to buy some music, pointing out that the sophisticated radio equipment Stryfe used was flat. As in emotionless and without the vibrancy needed to dance to it.
  Stryfe was reluctant to let her leave the base, but in the end, he agreed to teleport her to Birmingham.
  "I give a holler when done." she commented, tapping the side of her head.
  "Take these." Stryfe handed her a pair of sunglasses, which she took reluctantly.
  "Cayanne not ashamed of her eyes." she said, staring up at him. "But understand why - not to be noticed, oui?"
  She sighed, slipping the eyewear over her unique gaze. "Okay. I all incognito. Beam me down, Scotty!" the girl said, grinning.
  Stryfe was not sure he understood the reference, but he did understand the intent.
  Reluctantly, he sent the girl on her way.

  Jean's mouth fell open, eyes widening, and everyone turned to regard her with alarm.
  "No...he sent her into town, on an errand..." she began.
  "An errand?" Cable made it sound like an alien thing. "Stryfe?"
  "I felt the teleport. Cayanne enjoys it."

  Cayanne arrived in a restroom stall, triggering a battle to restrain laughter. It was a good, private place to "land", but the comedic opportunities were endless.
  She opened the door, smiling innocently at the frazzled mother trying to hang onto a pair of squirming toddlers, and exited the facility, walked down the hallway, and made a left.
  The mall was busy at the moment, people hurrying from store to store, and Cayanne had to dodge around people as she made her way to the mall map.
  Drawing her finger down the outline of corridors, she found Blockbuster's, but another music store, Ashland's, caught her eye. It was past the Food Court and near a fountain, so she set off at a cheerful stride, arriving at her destination five minutes later.
  Browsing, she found several good prospects, tossing them absently into a hand-basket she found at the entrance.
  "Lord of the Dance" and "Feet of Flames" were two she decided on, adding an album with the original "Lord of the Dance" by an Gaelic group. She picked up the first CD she found by "Happy Hardcore", three zydeco CDs by groups she had known well in New Orleans, two classical CDs (Wagner and Debussy) and last but not least a final selection by a jazz group (also from New Orleans).
  She also found copies of the videos "Lord of the Dance" and "Feet of Flames", and even one of "Riverdance: Live from New York", which she could not resist.
  Finding a decent CD player took some searching, but she finally found a "boom box" style that came with a portable CD player (free - ha!), and hoisted it to her shoulder.
  She also picked up a black leather gym-bag, four t-shirts (one for Rafe, of Don Daertha from Lord of the Dance), two pairs of shorts, and a keyring with an anarchy logo.
  Grinning to herself, she dragged her loot up to the counter, finding a button-down shirt covered with painted flames and a stunning example of a Japanese five-toed dragon and a sweatshirt with a fiery anarchy symbol, tossing them in as the bored teen-aged clerk rang her up.
  Chewing his gum frantically, he got out, "That'll be $284.64." He stared down his nose at her, expecting that she would start putting things back at that price.
  Instead, Cayanne pulled out her old leather wallet, counting out twenty-four twenties and a five, then flipping the container shut and returning it to it's hiding place in her trenchcoat.
  The older teen grumbled as he handed over her purchases, acting almost as if he was disappointed.
  Waving jauntily, the girl turned and left. Outside, she spotted a bookstore, and with an internal yell of delight, scooted across the corridor to reader's paradise - Barnes and Noble.

  Stryfe was, despite his best efforts to deny it, becoming worried. Cayanne had been gone almost three hours, and he knew well the way sudden danger could arise.
  Reaching out mentally, careful to not invade, he found her gleefully absorbed in book selecting.
  He looked around him absently, as though seeking his own library.
  Then decided to give her another hour or so.

  Cayanne could never resist a good read. She had picked up another hand-basket - handy things, those - and was rampaging through the store with glee. Even the tellers could not resist a smile at the girl's obvious enthusiasm.
  She had picked up an anthology of William Shakespeare, two books on Japanese, a copy of "The Prince" by Machiavelli (her own copy had long ago fallen apart from reading), a copy of "A Book of Five Rings" bound in leather, an excellent - if somewhat expensive - copy of "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, also in leather, a compilation of the Marquis de Sade (he had always seemed to be forbidden reading, which raised her curiosity), a book and card set on the tarot (the dragons on the cards caught her eye), four books on mythology (Irish, Voudoun, Japanese, and Egyptian), three books on ancient languages, two books on human anatomy (one for artists), a book of compiled information that was supposedly required of "every well-informed citizen", two books on computer graphics, two on computer programming, one on the Internet, and several on a variety of subjects before even reaching the fiction section.
  In science fiction, she picked out two by Isaac Asimov, a compilation by Anne MacCaffery of her "Dragonriders of Pern" novels, and two by Mercedes Lackey. Then she moved on to pick up the "Henry Potter" series and a leather-bound copy of "The Chronicles of Narnia", by C.S. Lewis.
  She also found a leather backpack embossed with a dragon that simply could not be passed up, and finally made her way up to the counter, snagging a series of computer and graphics magazines on her way.
  "That's an entire library, dear." smiled the clerk, looking over her glasses at the grinning teen-ager.
  "Good investment." replied Cayanne, cheerfully. "I rather read a book den do a lotta stuff."
  The older woman chuckled. "That's an excellent attitude. I bet you do well in school. That's $305.09, dear." she looked a bit concerned.
  Cayanne again withdrew her wallet, scowling when she realized she was nine cents short. Brightening, she handed the woman the money, replaced the wallet, and dug in her pocket until she found the coins from her last purchase. She pushed a dime onto the counter, and the cashier smiled, passing her the huge bag.
  "Have a wonderful day, dear!"
  "You too." replied the teen-ager, hefting her bags.

   Cayanne made a last stop in a rather small electronics store called Sandeger's. The prices were reasonable, and she managed to scour out a nice speaker set, a small technician's toolkit in an imitation-leather case, and finally a VCR. Admittedly not the best in the world, she checked the Sony carefully, making sure she could repair it if it decided to be difficult.
  Finally, she chose some wire and a small soldering set and made her way to the front.
  Digging in her inside pocket, she found the money-clip she kept secured there and waited for the total.
  "That's $201.01." said the man, wearily. "Cash or charge?"
  "Cash." said Cayanne, immediately, counting out the money and handing it over. "Not trust credit cards much."
 When Stryfe sensed Cayanne's mental touch, he was - though he would likely never admit it - immensely relieved. He reached out, teleporting her - and a considerable weight! - back into the base.
  He could not help but stare as she began to unload her loot.
  "Got ya a t-shirt." she commented, happily, as she resurfaced with the videos. "And a VCR."
  The Blackbird was among the fastest aircraft on the planet, and the trip from the Institute to Alabama was far quicker than normal transit could have hoped to accomplish.
  The entire time, Gambit was uncharacteristically quiet. Marie sat next to him, hand in his, her expression worried.
  Jean kept glancing back at them, compassion and concern in her eyes, as Scott handled piloting the jet.
  Logan was slouched in the seat, a frown on his face, clearly as concerned as the others, though his eyes were dark with inner disquiet. He glanced up at Scott once, then back at Gambit, who stared through him with a haunted gaze.
   It was erieely still and silent, the time marked only by the near-silent hum of the engine.

  "Rafe, why you go to mansion?" asked Cayanne, pausing in chewing the now-buttered popcorn.
  Stryfe frowned, staring at the screen. Then finally, he said, "It is complex."
  "I not goin' anywhere."
  He sighed softly. "You are determined."
  "Onea my many charms. You not want say?" she looked up at her friend, meeting his gaze with a puzzled one.
  Stryfe shook his head. "It was - a dream."
  Cayanne nodded understanding, her expression encouraging.
  Stryfe's voice was calm and even, but emotion began to slowly leak into the normally cool voice. "I dreamed." He shrugged. "I never had such a luxury." He looked down at his young companion. "But it was unusual in another way. I dreamt that I and my - brother - were children, at a picnic. The sun was warm, there was a lake, cool and not overly deep. Nathan and I kept swimming to the other side, then racing back. We ate a watermelon, spat seeds at one another, and climbed a large old tree to leap into the deeper water. Our fa - Scott would swing us around, then let us fly into the water, but we dunked him under the water when he least expected it...."
  "Then we watched the clouds - and I woke up."
  "Not a bad dream."
  "I would not know. I do not - did not - dream."
  Cayanne grinned suddenly. "Maybe it time you started." she commented. "Dat Don Daertha." Cayanne pointed out the dark-haired, dark-eyed dancer as he led his evil legion onto the stage. Clad in black, he stared out over his minions with a smouldering gaze. "See? He  in control of dere movement, and his own. Not just de antithesis of de hero, de Lord o' de Dance, but his other side - de dark, mysterious, deadly lord of de underworld battling against one who interfered in his plans." She grinned. "But no Lord o' de Dance, life get boring for ol' Don Daertha. I t'ink he welcome de challenge."
  The teen-ager passed the popcorn she had scrounged to her companion, leaning back against the old sofa, grinning up at him.
  Stryfe glanced down at her, and a faint, almost new expression crossed his face - a slight smile.
  "Call de medic - yer face may fall off!" Cayanne's voice was filled with laughter, as she leaned over to give him a brief hug.
  It was then she felt  strange throbbing warm almost sensation in her mind, the distinctive signature of her very worried father - warmth/scent of smouldering embers/soothing presence that made her smile.
  "My Papa is here!" she told Stryfe, bolting up into a sitting position.
  "The X-Men." murmured her friend, eyes flickering with inner fire.

  "This way." growled Wolverine, pausing in the tunnel. He scented cinnamon and ice, and knew he was on the right trail.
  Cyclops was right behind him, with Gambit bringing up the rear. Jean and Rouge were floating above them, watching for any traps and/or minions that might attack.
   It was erieely silent, darkly distant.
   Wolverine saw nothing moving, and kept advancing silently, pausing occasionally to make sure Scott and Remy didn't fall behind.
  "X-Men." It was part epithet, part cold greeting.
  Logan noted the scentlessness and translucence of the speaker, and was immediately aware that it was a psychic projection.
  Remy's low curse was followed with Scott saying harshly, "Stryfe."
  The figure made a little mock-bow toward them. "Welcome to my humble home." he said, coldly. "To what do I owe the honor?"
  "Where Cayanne, damn you?" snarled Gambit, a glowing card in his hand.
  Logan picked up a distinctive scent and was opening his mouth to warn the others when a voice broke through Stryfe's tones.
  "Hi, guys!" Cayanne waved at them from the end of the hallway, a flashlight in her hand. "Sorry 'bout de light, blew de fuse a few minutes ago. Who knew VCR draw so much power?"
  Remy charged up to his daughter, wrapping his arms around her and lifting the startled girl off the ground.
  "AWK! Cnntbrth!" she got out, clearly indicating a lack of air.
  Gambit loosened his grip, but firmly stepped in front of the teen-ager, standing nose-to-nose with the Stryfe-image.
  "Rafe - hit dat left fuse, give a good wallop, think I fixed the lights!" called Cayanne, and a moment later the lights flickered on.
  Stryfe stepped around the corner, and everyone tensed - with the noticeable exception of the teen-ager, who bounded forward, grabbed the tall mutant's hand, and dragged him forward. "He want join up. We leave now?" she inquired, unaware of the fact the Scott was sputtering incoherently.
  Logan had straightened from his crouch, and wordlessly advanced to stand near the X-Men's discomfited leader.
  "He what?" asked Jean, setting down next to her distressed husband.
  Cayanne rolled her eyes in frustration, leaning back against the wall. "Stryfe not want to cause it. Strife I mean. He come to join up. You charge in, he leave. Well, we start over. Bein?"
  Scott stared at her. "We...Cayanne, this is not a game!" he managed.
  Cayanne laughed. "No. But we all go back t'gether. Bein?"
Remy had a protective arm around his daughter, and was staring at Stryfe uncertainly.
  Jean had a hand on Scott's shoulder as she stepped forward, staring into Stryfe's steady gaze, then back at Cayanne and finally back at her husband. Their expressions clearly showed their shared bond of love and understanding, then Scott looked back at Stryfe.
  Finally, "Logan?"
  The Canadian had out a trademark cigar and absently lit it, then shrugged expressively.
  Cayanne grinned. "Nathan gonna be surprised!" she crowed, triumphantly.

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