Actions

Work Header

Focus

Chapter Text

The crumpled dollar bill felt almost velvety in her pocket. It was a lifeline, likely the only way she would eat that day or that week.

She stopped counting the days that way. It was easier to just let them happen. Every night that she watched the sun set from the pier was another night no one found her cold and stiff in the street.

She shivered as another icy draft slithered beneath her collar. Among the meager belongings that had disappeared from her worn backpack, her scarf was the most dear. The pack seemed to grow lighter every other week.

She dispatched the second cupcake from a pack of Hostess that morning; a woman in a long, expensive-looking trench coat pressed it into her hands on her way out of a nearby AM/PM where she bought her piping hot coffee. The woman’s eyes were soft, uncharacteristic of a New York native, home of fast-walking women who wore their purses beneath their coats. Ororo’s mother, N’Dare, always called that the mark of a woman who lived in the city. Before she could mumble more than a thank-you, the woman was off. Her sturdy boots clop-clopped down the pavement and down a subway shaft.

She heard the low moan of foghorns in the mist. The scent was clean off the harbor, a welcome change. Ororo hated the murky stench of low tide as much as the odors from the subway.

Her hair began to creep out from her shabby ponytail in coarse tendrils. They whipped against her face and stuck to the corners of her mouth. She knew she looked like hell.

*

 

Remy was burned out.

Uninspired. That was the word that was on the tip of his tongue, but he wouldn’t admit it.

How else could he explain this slump?

He fled the warm interior of his loft; it began to feel sterile and oppressive. Faces stared out at him from nearly two dozen frames. He still felt lonely.

He didn’t feel like a drink. Not today. Remy fingered his keys in his pocket, fiddling with his six-month, one-year and five-year tags.

He took a walk in the mist and wind. The breeze was cold but not strong enough to clear the fog away.

The buildings resembled trees, half-obscured and gray, tall and unswaying. Some were businesses, some were residences, but none of them looked like home. Remy missed southern hospitality and the bayou. But Remy tucked that part of himself on the shelf.

He’d grown as a photographer. He no longer created and shaped what he saw in his lens. His photos shaped him. Five fashion magazines confirmed this. Every downtown bus drove by with his work plastered on the side.

What Remy craved wasn’t what he had. Ansel Adams had his waterfalls. Remy wanted his muse.

He wanted to create a star.

Remy people-watched by the pier. A hot dog warmed his hands. He ate it in decadent, large bites, savoring the tang of brown mustard and dill relish.

Belladonna wouldn’t have kissed him with hot dog breath. She never touched them. She hardly touched anything.

She hardly touched Remy. Three years found them suffering boredom and bed death. They were both jaded, damaged goods. No one else could put up with them; that was their mutual rationale. Neither Remy nor Bella had balls enough to disprove it.

He chucked the hot dog’s paper cradle in the green trash barrel and shrugged more deeply into his peacoat. More of the harbor’s denizens milled around in search of coffee and the morning paper.

In a world where order was defined by disorder and people didn’t walk, so much as bustle or rush, Remy’s artist’s eye found the element that didn’t fit.

She sat still. Stock still, watching the world go by, passing her by. People-watching, like him.

Her hair frequently escaped her ponytail. She scraped it from her face with long, wasted fingers.

Remy’s hands fumbled in his bag of their own volition. He scrambled to his feet before he knew what he was doing.

In seconds he prowled the pier. Very few people heeded him or his expensive Nikon as he stalked and crouched.

Ororo sighed at a flock of filthy pigeons and toyed with her watch. The strap’s fake leather was cracked, scratching her wrist.

Click.

She yawned with a languorous stretch.

Click.

A hangnail that bothered her all morning smarted. She bit it. It still felt raw.

She peered around. Remy froze, then pretended to look lost. She imagined that someone was watching her, most likely.

Her hair. It was driving her nuts.

Her hair elastic was a lost cause. She was tired of it, anyway.

Ororo released her hair in a flowing banner of white. The wind claimed it, whipping it off her face, then back down. Slowly, over and over, it fluttered and lifted.

Her expression was rapturous.

Remy captured it, frame after frame. His mouth was dry. Despite the cold his hands grew clammy.

She was fragile, and so vulnerable. He guessed she was younger than him. Her blue eyes still held something ancient.

Blue. He bargained that even in black and white, that pure, clear shade would pronounce itself.

She stood, breaking the spell.

Just for a moment.

She was tall, willowy, easily standing about six feet. Her clothing was shabby and thin; she dressed in random layers. Her jacket was a flimsy windbreaker, topping a hooded sweatshirt faded so far from black it was gray. Equally gray leggings peeked out from the threadbare knees of her jeans.

Doc Martens. Old school. They were a practical choice but destroyed the “waify” quality she wore like a cloak.

She shook off the stiffness from sitting so long in the cold. She peered around, looking resigned.

Remy realized she didn’t just have “nowhere to be.” She had nowhere to go.

He capped the lens of his camera and tucked it away, now precious cargo.

But he followed her, having time on his hands. That was a rare privilege. His day planner was devoid of meetings, shoots, facials or lunch appointments.

Her walk was graceful, despite the horrible shoes. Her hair continued to wave and flutter in the breeze. She was too thin, not emaciated, but she would benefit from a few hot meals. Cassandra, Remy’s least favorite agent, would scoff at the concept of a woman being “too thin.” She’d say the beauty drifting through the crowd before him was a “work in progress.”

Remy waded among the people buffeting him from all sides, attempting to keep up with her. He followed that unique white hair, waiting for any opportunity to get another shot.

He cursed. She was gone. How the heck did that happen?

He stood in place a moment, agape. Slowly he turned in a circle, watching for her.

No joy.

His stomach sank in disappointment. In hindsight, as he headed toward the street to hail a cab, he realized it was just as well. Yeah, like he really believed that. What would he have even said to her. Hey, beautiful, wanna hold still while I take some pictures of you, even though I’m a complete stranger?

He could have fed her, maybe plied her with a cup of hot coffee or given her his gloves. Something. Anything, for a chance to get more shots.

The street was just as crowded as the pier. The sky was darkening from charcoal gray to black. Remy stamped his feet to warm them up a bit while he flagged down a taxi about five cars back.

He suddenly felt a shift in the people around him. Felt, heard footsteps hurrying away from him.

“What the…merde!” His bag’s strap was jostled lightly on his shoulder, as though someone had pulled on it.

His white-haired Mona Lisa was beating feet with his camera!

Chapter Text

Remy’s feet complained in his hard, Italian leather shoes as he pounded the pavement. His lungs burned with the rush of cold air. He had no time for apologies or to excuse himself as he chased his subject through the crowd. He left behind a trail of fuck-offs and one-fingered salutes. In typical big-city fashion, no one helped him.

She was fast and slippery, something that surprised him. She’d seemed so delicate!

It became life and death to get that camera back.

“Damn it!” he roared. “Get back here wi’ dat! C’mon, now!”

He was gaining on her. Ororo felt a cramp in her side as she stumbled off a curb but regained her footing. A yellow cab nearly missed her and blasted his horn at her retreating back.

“What, ya think yer the only one in the street? Crazy bitch!” The driver watched her flight with more annoyance than concern. “Hey!” He leaned on his horn again as the tall, skinny guy in the expensive black coat followed her across the crosswalk at a dead run.

“Damn,” he muttered. “What’d ya do ta piss him off, darlin’?” His curiosity was cut short; the cars behind him gave him the same treatment, blaring and honking at him until he realized the traffic ahead was moving again. Logan grumbled obscenities under his breath and stubbed out his cigarette. He gladly moved along, but the sight of that chick taking off so fast nagged at him.

She did what Remy hoped and broke away from the tide of people on the pavement.

She chose a back alley between two huge brownstones. Fetid water splashed up on her calves as she ran, chilling her, but she clutched her prize to her chest. She prayed she wouldn’t drop it.

She wagered the camera must at least be worth a couple of hundred dollars. She calculated two, maybe three nights at a tiny dive of a motel down the road from the docks. Or at the very least, some hot food. She’d settle for either one. And a long hot bath.

Remy rounded the corner, pushing himself to keep up with her. He thanked his personal trainer for being so hard on him five days a week. She was a treadmill sadist, draining him of buckets of sweat and leaning on the incline button to make him work.

She knew she could lose him. There was a fence up ahead with a gap just wide enough to wriggle her way through; that would certainly hold him up, if she played her cards right.

“C’mon!” Remy shouted. “Dis is bullshit, petit! Get back here wi’ dat!”

“Not on your life,” she hissed to herself. The camera was her meal ticket, at least for a while. He wouldn’t take it from her. Everyone had something they wanted to take from her.

“Dat ain’t yers!” he cried. His lungs burned and his throat felt raw from shouting at her over several city blocks. She reached the fence and slammed herself at it, wedging herself painfully between the large gap in the links.

Fate wasn’t on her side.

She felt the fence shudder and clink around her in one, two, three shakes before two size eleven feet thudded onto the gravel before her. She felt herself grabbed roughly as he yanked her the rest of the way through the fence.

Whoullff…OW!” He slammed her back against the side of the brownstone. Her heart hammered in her ears and her throat was raw.

Her captor’s hair was tousled and wild, his slightly long and very metrosexual style ruined from his jaunt. His nostrils flared and his broad chest heaved like a bellows.

“What,” he panted,” d’ya think yer doin’? Huh?” She struggled in his grip, but he didn’t relent.

“Nononooooo!” she wailed as he pried the camera from her cold hands. “Don’t. Please don’t!”

“Bullshit,” he hissed. “Know what happens in this city when ya take sumthin’ that ain’t yers?”

“The cops look the other way, asshole!” she informed him haughtily. Her voice was full of bravado she didn’t feel. Ororo felt the prick of tears in her eyes, but she jutted her chin in defiance. “Let go of me!” Her fists found him repeatedly. A harsh laugh burst from his lips.

“Gimme a break.” They continued to struggle. Remy was too angry to notice how the cold rush of air during their run colored her cheeks and made her spill of white hair even more wanton. Bits of it clung to her lips. “I don’ b’lieve dis,” he said incredulously. “Ya were gonna take off wit’ Remy’s camera dat he bought wit’ his own hard-earned money.”

“You’ve got plenty,” she countered. “Let GO!”

“Yeah, ya’d like dat, wouldn’t ya, petit?”

“You’ve got it back!”

“So I’m s’posed ta just let ya run off, eh? Live ta thieve anudder day, eh?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about anyway, you sonofabitch!” She struck him again.

He’d had it. Remy jerked her close enough that his hot breath steamed her face.

“Ya picked da wrong man ta rip off! What, were ya gonna sell dis fer some blow? Or crank? D’ya know how much dis camera’s worth?”

“I don’t know,” she muttered.

“Huh?” he pressed, shouting in her ear as she twisted her face away from his. His grip on her wrist hurt. “More money dan yer ever gonna see in yer lifetime, cher!”

“What, does that make you feel big? You feel important, shoving me around and rubbing my nose in it? You have money. That must be nice.”

“Yeah. It is.” Guilt pulled at him as he continued to take in her pitiful appearance. She shivered from the cold as the endorphins from running faded away. Her full, ripe mouth looked uncomfortably chapped, her lower lip slightly cracked. It looked like it hurt. “It’s called havin’ a job and gettin’ yer shit together. C’mon!’

“No! I’m got going with you!”

“Why, ya got somewhere else ya’ve gotta be?” Remy said with a shrug. “Huh?”

“You can’t-“

“Oh, yeah, I can. You’ve got a date with Westchester PD.” He dragged her behind him, back through the fence. She cursed and struggled, trying to twist away from him.

Ororo was so tired. Her face was so defeated.

“Don’ hafta worry ‘bout money anymore in lockup.”

“You…bastard.” Her voice was choked. He was just getting warmed up as he pulled her through the alley.

“Ain’t like yer missin’ out on anything, goin’ ta jail. It’s warm. Ya get ta eat fer free, at taxpayers’ expense. Three squares an’ a roof.”

“I hate you,” she hissed, sparking back to life. She had no gloves on and her nails were half-broken and overgrown.

She dug them into the back of his neck. Remy roared in pain.

“I’m doin’ ya a favor!”

“Keep telling yourself that!’

“What were ya even gonna do with my camera! It ain’t a toy! Dis is how I make my livin’!”

“What, taking pictures of pigeons?” Remy suppressed a snort. She dove for him again with her clawlike nails. He slapped her hands away; he was that close to slapping her pointe blank.

“Pigeons,” he spat. “Keep them hands t’yerself, petit.”

“Quit calling me that!”

“Fine. Howsabout Inmate Thirteen, Cell Block E?”

This time he was caught off-guard. As he shuffled them down the alley, she managed to go limp, forcing him to stop.

“What-“

CLANG

He never saw the trash can lid coming. Ororo grunted with the effort of swinging it as hard as she could.

Home run. Pain exploded across his cheekbone. Remy’s ears rang.

She wrenched her wrist from his grasp and rushed off, debating whether to try to grab the camera first.

Remy shared the same indecision as he finally shoved his camera back into his case. Face throbbing, he took off after her, knapsack slapping his back the entire way.

His chase was short. Ororo stumbled into a pothole of cold slush. She pitched forward and landed face first in the grit.

Damn it damn it damn it damn it… Her breath choked out in a sob. She heard footfalls stopping short just above her.

Great. Now he’d have her arrested for theft AND assault…

For the first time in her young life, despite the thanklessness of her existence, the trial to just keep going, and the futility in hanging on to hope:

Ororo wished she were dead. Never more before than today.

“Think yer clever, huh?” Her breathing was ragged. She closed her eyes and didn’t try to get back up.

That gave him pause. “Gonna make me drag ya again?”

She shook her head, refusing to look up at him.

She was just so tired.

“Ya wouldn’t have gotten anything close ta what it was worth anyway, cher. Not at the local pawn shops. Wasted effort, anyway.”

“You think?” she rasped. “I’m good at those.” She began to push herself up, wincing at the pain in the heels of her hands. She’d scraped them raw trying to catch herself.

“Huh?”

“It’s a waste, everything’s a waste,” she insisted raggedly as she sat up. He reached for her arm. She slapped his hand away.

“Ain’t my problem. Tell it to a judge.”

“You think sending me to jail will make things so much better? Get a thief off the streets?”

“How’d ya end up on the streets, anyway?”

“It’s none of your business.” She tried to stand.

His firm hand on her shoulder stopped her. “Let go of me!”

“Where d’ya think yer going? Ya didn’t answer my question.”

“No, really, genius?”

“Damn.” It was a waste.

She was beautiful, more striking than half the women who graced the glossy covers at the newsstand. But she was a non-entity, no resources, not even a home address.

Guilt nagged him again. Her blue eyes shone with anger and the threat of tears.

His earlier musings at the dock came back to him. He could have fed her, maybe plied her with a cup of hot coffee or given her his gloves. Something. Anything, for a chance to get more shots.

Yet here he was, threatening to press charges against her.

“Pigeons,” he muttered, shaking his head.

“What?”

“You thought I was taking pictures of pigeons.”

“I don’t care.”

“Course ya don’t.

“Why should I?” But her jaw wasn’t as firmly set. Her blue eyes flitted to his knapsack, then away again.

“G’wan. Get up a sec.”

“I’m not making it easy for you.”

“Think yer bad? Little mama, I could toss yer bony ass over my shoulder before ya even blink. When’s the last time ya ate?”

“What’s it to you?”

“Not gonna budge an inch, huh? Big and bad. Strong, silent type.”

“Fuck you.” The corner of his mouth quirked.

If he wasn’t being such an asshole, she just might be inclined to notice how broad his mouth was, how sharp the notch was in his upper lip. His jaw held a hint of five o’clock shadow. He eyed her, catching how she checked him out. She glanced away.

She turned back to watch him as he removed the camera from his pack.

It was digital. Ororo instantly, guiltily revised her estimate of its worth.

Thousands. He’d had to have paid three, maybe four gees for it, let alone what he laid out for the hard, black leather case. The digital display flashed “Nikon” as he powered it on.

She felt slightly sick. She understood why he’d been willing to chase her ass through traffic, slightly over a mile in the dark cold. Shit.

He panned through the menu, clicking on the option he wanted. “There’s yer pigeons,” he told her. “G’wan ahead, look, petit.”

Her eyes swung reluctantly toward the tiny viewing screen. He toggled the view, zooming in on the first frame.

It was her.

She’d been right before; she looked like hell. Her hair was a jacked-up mess.

Her eyes looked haunted, her cheeks more gaunt than she realized, literally seeing them through someone else’s eyes.

“Yer a good subject,” he admitted. “Memorable.”

“Big deal. All you want is my mug shot.”

“Yer own business if ya want ta be on a wanted poster, petit.”

“I told you to quit calling me that.” She sat in numb awe on an old crate as he continued to pan through the frames.

He’d taken three dozen. Her eyes widened at the number of files in the display.

How long had the sonofabitch been watching her?

“What were you doing, stalking me?”

“Naw. Just people-watchin’. Told ya, dis is how Remy makes his livin’.”

“Who?”

“Remy.”

“That’s…you?”

“Dat’s me.”

“You talk weird.”

“An’ ya’ve got a real mouth on ya, cher. Yer mama nevah wash yer mouth out wit’ soap for usin’ hard words like dat?”

“No,” she whispered bitterly.

The photos burned her.

The photos were well-shot, that much she wouldn’t argue. But the subject…she couldn’t swallow the sight of herself in her pitiful clothes and tangled hair.

In some of the photos, it looked like he caught her enjoying a personal joke; in others, she appeared to have lost her best friend. Pensive. Irritated. Bored. Sad. Tired. Desperate. He’d caught her entire range of emotions in pixels.

“Get rid of them.”

“Uh-uh.”

“You heard me. I said throw them out.”

“I never throw anything away.”

“You can’t do anything with those,” she argued.

“Says who?”

“Me. Maybe…maybe I don’t want some strange guy to have pictures of me laying around!”

“Don’t matter. Yer goin’ ta jail.”

“Not if I cry rape first.” She didn’t know how the words jumped out of her mouth. She ran with it. “The cops will think you’re some sicko. You have pictures of me. You grabbed me.”

“Cher, Remy has one helluva headache, not only from tryin’ ta get my camera back, but from yer wicked left. Cops ain’t gonna think ya can’t defend yerself. Might book ya fer assault.” He stood and began to walk away. She stared openmouthed.

“What? Wait! Get back here. You can’t take those.”

“Sure can.” He had the gall to begin whistling a tune. His strides were long and swift.

Remy had already made up his mind. On the one hand, jail would almost be a kindness. She was cold, no doubt hungry, and had nowhere to go.

He felt an odd sense of relief and amusement when she began to follow him. “Wait. Don’t.”

“Got what I came for. Ain’t gonna press charges,” he shrugged.

“You…ass!”

“You’re welcome.”

“You can’t do this.” She dogged his feet onto the open street. He continued to whistle. Passerby looked amused at the sight of the statuesque woman chasing the aloof-looking, handsome man down the pavement.

“S’a free country.”

“Well, those pictures aren’t free! You didn’t ask me for my permission. I have rights!” she shouted after him.

“Why, ya suddenly have ownership of yer likeness? A copyright? That’s cute, petit.” Anger boiled beneath her skin, making Ororo’s scalp feel tight. “Gonna arrest me next for lookin’ at ya?”

“Ooo!”

“Don’ know ‘bout you, but Remy’s starving. Ain’t gonna keep me out here arguin’ wit’ ya all night ‘bout whether I can take photos of whatever I want. Maybe ya were just the background, petit. Remember, ya said I was just shooting pigeons.”

“Bastard.” She kept following him as he resumed his pace after the walk light flashed at the intersection.

“Ya gonna chase me all night?”

He turned abruptly around the corner into a crowded diner. She stopped just as sharply. Remy turned when her presence behind him disappeared. He watched her through the glass-paned door. The words “Ruby’s” separated them, painted in red script.

He saw her vulnerability in the way she stood. He understood immediately.

She doesn’t think she belongs in here. They stared at each other for several long moments. The traffic rumbled in her ears while another cold blast of wind sent her hair flying around her. Customers buffeted each of them as they worked their way inside, wanting the two strangers to get out of the way.

He crossed the threshold first and reached for her hand. Hesitantly she took it and let him guide her inside. She looked numb and confused.

Her face was wreathed in relief at the first wave of warm air as they entered the dark lobby. The light over the cashier’s desk was dim, throwing a yellow glow over the skill crane game’s homely stuffed prizes and two gumball machines. The enticing smell of fried potatoes and hamburgers made Ororo’s stomach twist and growl at the same time.

“How many?” barked the hostess as she grabbed two menus.

“Two.”

“Counter, table or booth?”

“Whatever ya’ve got.”

“You tell me,” she snapped, nodding to the dining room.

“Booth.” The look of exhaustion on Ororo’s face made up his mind.

“Fine. C’mon.”

They followed her brisk gait to a booth by the window. Remy waited for Ororo to sit first. The hostess tossed their menus onto the table.

“Your server’s on her way with your water.”

“Thanks,” Ororo mumbled. She shivered and rubbed her hands, blowing on her stiff fingers.

“Ya need gloves,” Remy said.

“No, really? Let me run right out and take care of that.”

Remy sighed as he took off his coat. He unwound his long muffler and shucked his leather gloves, tucking them into his pocket. His skin tingled from being back where it was warm. Ororo leaned back in her seat and looked…rapturous. Remy guessed it was due to the warmth, too.

“It smells good. Too good.”

“Order whatever ya want.”

“You buying?”

“Well, duh, petit.”

“If I tell you my name, will you quit calling me that?’

“Maybe.”

“No. Please. That’s the only way I’ll tell you, if you promise.”

“Scout’s honor, den, cher.”

“Sheesh. You weren’t a Scout, I bet.”

“Were you?” He had her there.

“It’s Ororo,” she said flatly.

He grunted in surprise. It was different and unfamiliar. Yet it suited her. She just wasn’t a Tiffany, Heather or Crystal.

Her hair was indeed a blazing white under the bright dining room lamps, and her eyes were definitely that blue. Two or three different shades, he mused to himself; deep violet flecks and sapphire mingled with cornflower. She watched him, irritated.

“Do you always stare at people like that?”

“Part of my job.”

“Sure it is.” She toyed with the packets of sugar and nervously peeled the wrapper from her straw, tearing it to bits.

“I ain’t gonna do anything with the pictures. Not yet. Sometimes I take some pictures just for pleasure. I have print work that I sell as commercial stock, though.”

“Stock?”

“Just nice pictures that people use for stuff like newsletters and graphics and print ads.”

“Oh.” Then she frowned. “No one would want the ones you took of me. I look like shit.”

Remy chuckled. “Might not end up in a Victoria’s Secret catalog, but sometimes, photographers like art-quality photos of interesting subjects.”

“I’m interesting,” she said flatly.

“Memorable,” Remy shrugged, holding out his hands. Their server thunked down two waters.

“Coffee?”

“Definitely,” Remy said. Ororo looked torn.

“Um, do you…have hot cocoa?” She eyed Remy for permission. He nodded.

“G’head, cher. Get her what she wants.”

“One cocoa. Coffee comes with a refill. Lemme know when you know what you wanna eat.” Their server attended the same finishing school as their hostess.

The words in the menu swam before Ororo’s eyes. She mentally devoured every picture of fat-laden entrees on each page.

“Whaddya feel like eatin’?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Tell ya what. Pick two that ya think ya want. Ya can’t make up yer mind, I’ll order one of yer choices, and ya get the other.”

Remy sat in amusement twenty minutes later, tearing apart a chicken strip. He wasn’t even hungry for the appetizer platter that was her second choice, but it had a little of everything, the perfect dish for the girl who couldn’t make up her mind.

In the meantime, Ororo diligently inhaled a cheeseburger dripping with sauce. She caught a crumb of bacon before it could fall back to the plate and crammed it into her mouth.

“Good?”

“Mmmph-hmmm. Mmm.”

“Right. Don’t interrupt a woman while she’s eatin’.”

“Want that cheese stick?”

“Nope. Never touch ‘em.” His trainer would kill him if he tried.

It was the cheapest model’s fee he’d ever paid for some of the most striking shots.

Chapter Text

Remy watched Ororo as she dragged out the process of dragging the last remnants of her cold fries through the puddle of ketchup on her plate. He brooded with a sense of foreboding.

Dinner was over. And Ororo still had no place to go.

She sensed his worry; it was etched on her face, too.

“Um…thanks. Y’know, for dinner. It was nice.”

Oui, cher. De rien.

“Oh, uh, okay.”

“Welcome, petit.” His eyes crinkled.

They were tired eyes. Ororo had a better chance to appreciate them after an hour of conversation punctuated by repeated requests for him to excuse her. She just couldn’t stop eating, and every question that he asked found her with her mouth full. Remy’s eyes were so dark they were black, pupils barely visible. They were full of intelligence and sly humor, the kind that whispered that he was laughing at you and with you. He leaned back and drummed long, manicured fingers on the table.

That was their only defect, in Ororo’s opinion. His hands themselves were the kind she liked. She noticed these things. His fingers were long and slender but had thick knuckles. He had broad palms and the backs were covered with dark hair. They looked like man’s hands, despite the buffed cuticles.

“So, I guess…”

“It’s getting late,” he yawned apologetically. His button-down black dress shirt strained across his chest as he stretched. Ororo was filled with dread.

“I know-“

“I’m heading home, petit.”

“Okay,” she murmured sullenly. Ororo already felt cold again, just thinking of walking back into the windy chill. She didn’t want to get rid of the lazy warmth that seeped into her bones over the course of their meal.

She hated feeling so far adrift.

Remy went through the motions of shrugging back into his coat. He nodded at the waitress, who buzzed their table and smacked the check in front of him.

It was like a death knell.

Remy reached for his thick, brown leather wallet and began peeling off bills. Ororo was surprised that he carried that much cash with him. He tucked a five and a twenty into the small black folio with their check and laid it aside. Ororo watched him despondently as he stood.

He surprised her, crossing to her side of the booth and hovering over her.

“Here.”

“What-?”

“Take it.”

He reached for her hand; this time, obviously, his grip wasn’t harsh, but she silently enjoyed his gentle touch. Remy tucked a small wad of bills into her palm and curled her fingers around it. “Don’t lose that.”

“Remy…I can…I can pay you back, you don’t have to do this!”

“No ya can’t yet, petit, and yes, I do.”

No. This wasn’t what she wanted. Resentment battled with relief. The money seemed to heat up in her hand.

A hotel. A hot bath. Maybe a couple of meals.

He pitied her.

Ororo felt sick.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, but she dragged her eyes away from his in shame.

They left the diner, both unsettled but resigned. Once they were outside they diverged. Ororo was too proud to look back, to hope. Her fingers toyed with the wad of cash in her pocket, even as she tried not to think of how briefly it would last.

Remy felt no qualms about watching her walk away. Once again, her gait was graceful and long, painting her a queen among peasants.

The sight pulled at him and wouldn’t leave him alone, even as he turned to hail a cab. One pulled quickly to the curb, making him feel relieved, but he still felt riddled with guilt and concern.

Where is she going to sleep? Tonight? Tomorrow? It’s so cold tonight. She’s so thin, hardly has anything to wear…

His voice burst from his chest.

“ORORO!”

“Where ya headed?” The cab driver was nonplussed and impatient. He tossed out a stubbed out cigarette butt and leaned out his window. Remy glanced at him, then back after Ororo. She’d heard him and stopped.

“Hold up, homme, I need a sec…Ororo! C’mon, chere!”

“That yer girlfriend?”

“Pfft,” Remy tossed back, irritated.

“Sure were chasin’ her before,” he remarked. This time Remy’s black eyes pinned him, but before he could cut him down, Ororo’s voice carried over the wind.

“You have to go,” she told him curtly as she tugged a lock of hair away from her mouth that was caught there in the breeze.

“Not wid’out you, petit. C’mon. Let’s go.” She shook her head incredulously.

“C’MON!” the cab driver blared. “Look, buddy, I’ve got a long night ahead of me, and I get my fares from people who actually climb in my cab and have somewhere they need ta go. I can’t just park here all night.”

“Didn’t ask you,” Remy snapped. “Gonna get ya a good fare, mec. Don’ get yer panties in a twist. ORORO!”

“Do us both a favor, sweetheart, and get in the damned car!” Remy was about to kill him, but he decided he had a better chance with two against one.

She must have agreed with him. Ororo loped over, head tilted down.

Remy held the door open for her, and she climbed reluctantly inside.

“Where are we going?” she murmured.

“Yer comin’ wit’ me.”

“Didn’t answer her question,” their driver remarked snidely.

“Park Avenue and Twentieth,” Remy added. The driver shrugged and pulled away from the curb, starting the meter.

The cab’s upholstery smelled slightly stale, barely masked by an air freshening pine tree hanging from the rearview mirror. Ororo also caught the stench of tobacco and wrinkled her nose. But the interior was warm, and she settled back deeply into her seat.

Remy’s knee bumped hers. She jerked away. He sighed. She was all nerves, despite spending the past hour with him.

The ride was smooth. Ororo silently watched the street lamps and headlights whizzing by in the dark; seeing them from the back of a car was a welcome change from huddling in a doorway or on a park bench.

“So what was that chase all about earlier, eh?” Ororo caught the cabbie’s gaze through the mirror. His eyes were dark and sly, narrowed as they raked over her. She didn’t enjoy his scrutiny, too used to that look from every other face she saw in the street.

“Maybe it’s none of your business,” she snapped.

“Whoa-ho, ‘kay, darlin’, don’t hafta be that way,” he said, holding up one hand in supplication. “Looked like he had ya on the run! Saw ya runnin’ on those long legs, sweetheart, like ya owed him rent!”

“Hey,” Remy muttered. “She gets it. Maybe ya wanna just drive, neh?” Remy couldn’t decide why he did it, but his hand reached for hers, clasping it. Their driver caught the gesture and grunted low in amusement.

“Whaddever, bub. No more lover’s spats, eh?” He said nothing else as they turned down Remy’s street and cruised the last six blocks. Ororo was tired, lulled into a stupor by the purring engine and soft seat. She also took a strange comfort in the strong hand gripping hers.

She felt safe.

He paid the driver the hefty fare and a tip small enough to make his point. He peered at the driver’s certification tucked into the flap of his window visor.

Howlett, James L. He turned and craned himself around his seat and watched them climb out. As the light inside clicked on, Ororo saw his face more clearly.

He was an older man, she guessed about late forties. She supposed he was almost good-looking, more rugged, definitely not pretty. Even from where she was standing, he didn’t look very tall, and he was built like a tank.

His eyes were bold, raking over her. She instantly hated him.

“Get in from the cold,” he advised them, directing it more toward her. “Ya look like this wind’s gonna blow ya away.”

“Thanks for your concern,” she tsked in disgust as Remy slammed the door.

“Thanks, mec,” he offered civilly before he took her elbow. They trotted up the steps of the large brownstone and disappeared inside. Neither of them heeded their driver as he took off, shaking his head in amusement.

“Where are we?” she asked numbly, barely feeling her feet thump down the hall toward the elevator.

“Where d’ya t’ink? Remy lives here, chere.”

“Wow,” she murmured. He punched the button for the top floor. “Is it nice?”

“You tell me.” The thrum of the elevator beneath her was a shock, it had been so long…

The hallway was dimly lit upstairs. Remy’s hand was gentle at the small of her back as he led them five doors down. He fumbled with his keys while her eyes darted furtively around, hoping no one was laying in wait. He caught her face.

“Take it easy.”

“I know,” she protested, but she still looked worried. He unlocked the door and ushered her inside. “Stay here. Don’t hurt yerself walkin’ around in de dark, chere.” He deadbolted the door behind them and left her in the pitch-black foyer while his feet thumped away. Then the room filled with stark yellow light.

She gasped.

His apartment was huge. She was agog, eyes hungrily gobbling up the furnishings and décor, the shining hardwood floors and tall windows.

“It’s…so nice,” she told him. He was taking off his coat and hanging it over a large leather recliner. “Did you take all these?” She nodded to the framed photographs, reverently touching the edge of a brass frame.

“Oui.” His smile was lopsided. “Whaddya t’ink?”

“Wow,” she repeated.

“Sounds like ya like ‘em, den,” he huffed. She hugged herself and stepped back. She still looked adrift. “Make yerself at home.”

“Okay.” Easier said than done. She unzipped her jacket but didn’t take it off. She approached his kitchen counter, which separated it from the dining room, leaning against it warily.

“That ain’t comfortable. I meant siddown.”

“Um…what….I mean, why did you bring me here?”

“Ya looked like ya had nowhere ta go. Thought ya figured that out by now.”

“I know…but, why? Why did you bring me to your place?”

“Want a hotel instead?”

“It would have been okay-“

“Still an option, petit. Look, an’ don’ take dis de wrong way, but Remy ain’t usually in de habit of bringing women he’s just met into his home. Dis be his safe place. Call it his Fortress of Solitude, if ya want, petit. So wit’ dat bein’ said, consider it a rare privilege an’ take it for what it’s worth. All I ask is dat ya respect him. When ya leave, ya only leave wit’ what ya brought wit’ ya.” He nodded to her backpack. “Set that over dere.” She obeyed, placing it behind a dining room chair for safekeeping.

“You didn’t have to do this.” He watched her and sighed.

“Oui, petit. Yes Remy did.”

He crossed the room and headed for her. She looked almost frightened.

“Take dat off.”

“What?”

“C’mon…” He reached for her arm, meaning to help her out of her jacket. She flinched. “C’mon, now! Make yerself at home, I just said so! I have de heat turned on, it’s gettin’ nice an’ toasty in here, pretty soon yer gonna roast!”

“I-I can do it, leave me alone,” she hissed, backing away from him again, but she hugged herself more tightly.

“Okay, petit,” he shrugged, then walked away. Ororo watched him walk away, no less wary. She heard him moving around down the hallway and hesitantly took off her windbreaker. She followed it with her sweatshirt. As she pulled it over her head, she sniffed it in disgust. She hoped he had a laundry machine in his apartment somewhere.

He found her sitting on his couch, looking exhausted and still shell-shocked. Remy was the one who was surprised, however, as he had the chance to really look at her.

She was wan and thin, even more than he’d assumed before. She wore a simple long-sleeved, dingy white cotton jersey. Even wearing the leggings beneath her jeans, her legs were narrow, tapered columns, making her appear almost coltish. Through the open buttoned collar of her henley, he could see her sharp collarbones and long, slender neck.

She looked vulnerable. He nearly went to her, but he stopped his feet. Her reaction when he reached for her coat gave him pause.

“Where did ya stay before?”

“Around. Wherever.”

“That all ya have?” he said, meaning her pack.

“Pretty much. Less than what I had before. I have to travel light.”

“Damn.” He rummaged around in the kitchen for mugs. She heard their ceramic clink and running water. Ororo felt drowsy but still wary. Nevertheless, she enjoyed her surroundings.

“I was in a shelter for a while.”

“What happened?”

“It didn’t work out.”

“They have the ones for women only.”

“Some women aren’t so nice,” she informed him soberly. He stared at her as he dropped tea bags into the cups.

“M’sorry.”

“Me, too.”

“So this is it. Ya couldn’t find work?”

“I tried. Sometimes I did. Small stuff. Odd jobs. Some of it didn’t pan out. None of it lasted long. I don’t even have an address, or a phone number where they can reach me.”

“No family?”

“Not anymore.”

“What happened? D’ya mind Remy askin’?”

“No.” She sighed. “My mom and dad died. And my foster parents kicked me out when my foster dad came to my room one night.” Remy was appalled.

“Who did ya tell? Den what?”

“Nothing. I had nowhere to go. My foster mom didn’t like me, and it was the last straw when her husband climbed on top of me. It was my fault.”

Anger bubbled in his veins. He pushed it down and brought out their cups and two tiny trivets. “Here, petit. Warm up.”

“Thank you.” It was some fancy minty, chamomile, green crap like she always saw people ordering in Starbucks. It smelled better than it tasted. Ororo sugared hers generously while he drank his straight.

“I was seventeen. I was almost out of the system anyway, and she told the agency that I was a delinquent. That I’d seduced her husband and been promiscuous.” She swallowed. “That I was no good.”

“Dey didn’t believe ya?”

“Of course not. That was that.”

“Ya had no friends at school?”

“I fell off their radar. I didn’t even know what to tell them. I hardly had any friends, I couldn’t invite anyone over before, anyway, and I never got to go out. It wasn’t worth the time for anyone to try to be my friend.”

“So this has been it. This is how ya live.”

“This is my life,” she told him bluntly. “Take it or leave it.” She took a gulp of her tea. He watched the long line of her throat as she swallowed; Remy’s eyes dilated.

He listened, rapt, as she poured out a life of trials and sadness that he’d never witnessed and couldn’t comprehend. At times she laughed. At times she pushed back tears, trying to play it off that her eyes just itched, even when her voice shook.

By the time he reached for his tea again, it was stone cold and her voice was hoarse.

“I don’t know what to do,” she admitted finally. “I just don’t know…what to do.”

“Rest, petit,” he said numbly. “It’s okay.” He was up again, reluctant to leave her.

The smell of fabric softener tickled his nose as he opened up his linen pantry in the hall and fished out bedding and his spare pillow. His eyes drifted to a small eight by ten of Bella hanging beside the bathroom door. Her smile that day had been mischievous and knowing.

It held little appeal for him now. She was due to see him in the morning to “discuss things.” He wasn’t looking forward to it by any stretch.

When he came back, she was slumped over the arm of the couch, her long hair trailing over the side of her face and almost brushing the floor. Her breathing was deep and even. Remy stifled a laugh. Clearly, their chat was over.

“Damn, petit,” he muttered.

She didn’t move a muscle as he gently maneuvered her, stretching her long legs out on the couch and easing a pillow beneath her head. Nimbly his fingers untied her Docs and he tugged them off with some difficulty. She moaned in protest at the movements but didn’t wake up. Her socks were in just as pitiful a shape as the rest of her clothes; he made a mental note to offer her some of his, or even to pick some up from the pharmacy down the street in the morning. No matter what her future held, it would involve warm feet…

Despite himself, Remy’s methodical mind ticked off a laundry list of things to do the next day. Laundry itself was high on the list; he too caught the ripeness of her jacket, so he knew she would appreciate the chance to wash her meager things.

She moaned again, hugging herself in her sleep and burrowing further into the pillow. He laid a blanket over her and tucked it around her carefully, then added a second one for good measure. She sighed in contentment. Remy’s smile was satisfied. He stood over her for several moments, feeling a surge of protectiveness.

Her hair had tempted him too long. He scraped back a soft, thick handful of it from her face and tucked it behind her ear. She moaned and smacked her lips, leaning into his touch.

Remy turned off the lights in the hall and kitchen and retired to his room. He was worn out. His legs still ached slightly from his impromptu run and his face had begun to throb.

He snapped on the bathroom light and took a jaundiced look at himself. Sure enough, his cheek was puffy and had the beginnings of a wicked bruise. His lips were chapped from the wind outside. Remy began his nightly rituals, scrubbing with his face wash and using a moisturizer that Bella gave him for his birthday. He brushed and flossed his teeth and swished out his mouth with Listerine, grimacing at its sharp tang. He considered a shower but left it til morning.

He read by the low light of his small ginger jar lamp until his eyes grew heavy. He fell asleep with his book splayed over his chest.

He didn’t regret that Bella wasn’t there to warm the other side of his bed.

 

*

The low thud of the door woke Ororo the next morning.

“Unnngghh…” she moaned, rubbing her eyes before she’d even opened them. Her mouth tasted like paste.

She jerked in surprise, stunned to find herself tangled in a nest of blankets.

Warm. Safe. Inside.

All of these revelations washed over her as she stared around the opulent living room. So, it wasn’t a dream.

Remy swam into view, looking amused at her plight.

“How’d ya sleep?”

“F-fine,” she offered, hugging the pillow to her chest. She was grateful she was still wearing a bra beneath her shirt.

“Brought coffee,” he explained, nodding to the drink holder on the coffee table. Two sealed Starbucks cups gave off steam through their plastic spouts.

“Thanks,” she managed, but her eyes were still wide.

He looked fresh, skin still ruddy from the outdoors.

“M’gonna fix breakfast. Here.” He tossed her a folded towel. “Shower. Already finished mine.”

“A shower?”

“Yup.”

“Oh, God,” she cried, struggling free of the covers. Before he could react, she was up on her feet. Ororo flung herself at him, taking him by surprise.

“Oof!”

“Thank you,” she whimpered. Her thin arms embraced him so hard that he ached.

“Take it easy, chere,” he murmured, but his hands crept up to her lower back, gently rubbing it.

“Thank you,” she repeated. Her body shuddered against him. Her need and her relief pricked him.

Then her warmth and the weight of her pressing against him made him flush and tingle. A dangerous sensation swept over him, making the hairs stand up on his neck.

“Yer welcome, already. G’wan,” he nagged, disengaging himself from her grasp. Her eyes were flooded.

“You don’t understand. Thank you,” she emphasized.

“Take yer time,” he said softly. She clutched the towel against her and rushed off.

Finally!

She locked the door after her and yanked aside the shower curtain with a loud scrape of the rings. She flicked on the dials and pushed the shower stopper on the faucet. The spray hissed, rushing and smacking the file. Steam filled the room while Ororo undressed, glad to shuck the offending clothing.

She caught sight of herself in the mirror before she stepped into the tub. She was so gaunt. She noted with a brief sense of relief that her breasts hadn’t suffered, they were still relatively full and high, but the rest of her was too thin for comfort. She could feel her hipbones and her ribs were too visible for her taste. Ororo tsked and yanked the curtain shut behind her.

Weeks.

She felt like she washed the filth of the world from her skin, lathering her hair with great gobs of Remy’s herbal shampoo. Luxurious foam slithered over her skin and over her scalp; it felt decadent. The hot spray against her face was a benediction.

Remy helped himself to his coffee and snapped open the newspaper. He glanced at the sofa briefly, noting the rumpled blankets and the pillow that still held the impression of Ororo’s head. What next? Would she stay, or would she go? And if so, then where?

He lost interest in the paper. Remy set aside his coffee and rose, retrieving his camera from the counter. He turned it on and reviewed the shots of Ororo again.

They definitely had promise; he added a trip to his private studio and processing lab to his agenda for that morning. He wondered if Ororo would indulge him again, perhaps sit for him?

He scoffed at himself. Like the rest of her day was so busy?

There was something in her eyes that haunted him as he perused each shot. He could almost get lost in them, they were soulful and ancient and deep…

He shook himself.

A publisher had to see them. An agent had to see them. A couture house had to see them. He had to get Ororo out there.

More importantly, Ororo was fresh. She wasn’t just another pair of long legs or full lips. She wasn’t a breathing mannequin or a canvas for a stylist’s makeup. There was just something about her…

The crunch of a key in his front lock put the brakes on his train of thought. Ororo was still in the shower, and Remy was grateful.

“Remy?” Belladonna’s voice was bright, a change from the last time they spent any time together. “What’re you doin’, sugah?” She breezed inside and looped her arms around his waist.

“What’re ya doin’ here, petit?”

“What’m I doin’? Well, that’s a nice way t’greet me after I’ve been gone fer a few days.”

“Wasn’t expectin’ ya back fer a week.”

“I left a voice mail, didn’t ya get it?” She illustrated her point by punching the button on his answering machine.

Hi, Rem, it’s me. I’m takin’ an early plane back, they’re due ta get another four days of rain here. Ain’t much of a way ta spend a vacation. ‘Bye. She stared at him accusingly. “Didn’t miss me much if ya didn’t look fer my calls, did ya?”

“Figured ya were enjoyin’ yerself just fine.” He wouldn’t admit to her that he’d missed her in his bed at night, not even for the sex as much as her simple presence. When she slept, he could hold her. They weren’t fighting or accusing or pointing fingers. He was just breathing in the sweet smell of her hair and listening to her deep, even breathing, and he could pretend that things between them weren’t going down the toilet.

It wasn’t that she wasn’t beautiful, that he didn’t find her desirable. Belladonna Boudreaux had cool, clean, blonde good looks and a body that could stop traffic. The connection between them was frayed and strained, and Remy didn’t know anymore what to do about it.

“What are ya doin’ today? Looks like ya’ve already been out.” Remy had already hung up his coat, but he still had his shoes on his feet. She turned her face toward the hall. “Is someone in yer shower?” Unease washed over him.

Shit. He had no explanation ready for her at all.

“What’re ya plannin’ on doin’ today, Bella?” She looked annoyed.

“Was my question too complicated, Remy?”

“Non,” he shrugged. A disturbing energy gathered between them. Bella’s hint of a smile evaporated.

“What’s goin’ on?”

“Why’s anyt’in’ gotta be goin’ on?”

“Who’s here this early in de mornin’ takin’ a shower? Dey can’t visit after takin’ one in dere own place?” Remy tightened his lips and sighed deeply. How much of Ororo’s story could he give her?

Ororo deserved her dignity, yet Bella deserved some explanation.

Or did she?

Indecision warred within him with guilt. He still cared for Bella, or cared about her, but there was such a wall between them. It was like knowing the peanut butter jar was empty, but you kept sticking your finger inside to scrape for the last taste before buying a new jar. Their differences had begun to outweigh everything they had in common. He felt her resentment more in recent months as she began to spend more time out of town, even when she wasn’t on a shoot. And Remy had begun to spend more time alone, needing to get away from…something.

Ororo took the choice out of his hands. The shower shut off abruptly.

“Maybe ya wanna come back later, Bella, when ya aren’t catchin’ anyone indisposed. If ya want, I can make breakfast.” Normally that was a quick save; Remy was a good cook, while Bella kept nothing in her fridge except for nonfat yogurt and bagged salad.

“I always come over early, petit. Sometimes earlier than dis.” She folded her arms and cocked her head. “Who am I catchin’ indisposed?”

“C’mon, Bell!”

“C’mon, nothin’.” Her voice was full of venom. It stung him.

As if on cue, Ororo padded into view, looking surprisingly regal in her tee shirt and a towel wrapped like a sarong around her hips. A second one was wrapped in a turban atop her head, obscuring all but a few dripping tendrils of her hair.

“Oh. Oops. I didn’t know you had company?”

“Likewise, chere,” Bella commented dryly. “Hi. I’m Belladonna.” Ororo came forward sheepishly after chucking her folded pants on the couch.

“I’m Ororo.” Then something dawned on her. “Wait…Belladonna Boudraux?” The corners of Bella’s mouth lifted slightly, but her eyes still pinned Ororo. “I see your face everywhere! Wow!”

“Probably sick of it, huh?” Remy smothered a tsk. She launched into self-deprecating remarks to hide a swollen ego and fish for compliments, and it grew worse when she was annoyed. She released Ororo’s hand and stepped back. “Guess I’ll let ya get back ta…whatever it is ya were doin’.”

“Oh…nothing. Please. Don’t let me interrupt your visit, I won’t get in the way. I figured Remy was going to be busy this morning, and I didn’t plan to stick around long.” Ororo glanced hopefully at Remy, yet he could tell she was trying to pacify him. And Belladonna.

“Busy mornin’, huh?” She peered back at Remy. “Have a late night?”

“Non. I sawed logs as soon as my head hit de pillow, Bell.” Ororo, in the meantime, was scooping up a different change of clothes and making her escape.

“It was nice to meet you, Belladonna. I know you probably want to spend time together, so I’ll just clean up and skedaddle.” It was almost laughable. Ororo had to know how it looked.

“Why d’you hafta go anywhere? Stay! Ain’t like ya wore out yer welcome already, and Remy here believes in extendin’ his hospitality ta overnight guests.”

“Um…I don’t like waiting to wear out my welcome, anyway. I’ve done that before.” This time she glanced at Remy, and he felt a pang of frustration. His eyes softened as he realize what she meant. “I’m going to get dressed.”

“Don’t hurry on my account.” If she noticed Ororo’s shabby clothing as she disappeared, she said nothing.

All she saw was a tall drink of water with blue eyes stepping out of her boyfriend’s shower. That said enough.

“Still nothin’ else t’say, huh? She’s gonna ‘skedaddle’? She don’ hafta do that. I ain’t stayin’.”

“Ya don’ hafta go. She said she’s takin’ off, and ya wanna leave? Why waste de trip here, Bella?”

“Because I kinda feel redundant.”

“Well, don’t.” Belladonna brooded, staring at the rumpled covers. She took a different tack.

“Ya gave her de couch?”

“She was just glad ta have a roof over her head, petit.”

“Wait…what?”

“It’s a long story, Bell, but it ain’t my story ta tell.” Her blue-gray eyes were filled with confusion, and her irritation started to dissipate.

“Why couldn’t ya say so?”

“T’ink about why she didn’t say so, sweetie,” he suggested flatly.

Ororo came back out, this time fully dressed in jeans that were faded to a nondescript gray, with fewer holes than her last pair. Remy was folding up her blankets and laying them neatly at one end of the couch, unsure of whether to wash them yet. The question wanted to jump from his lips. Ororo’s hair was still damp, springing into ringlets. Remy could see Bella staring at her with the same awe he’d felt, seeing the long white mass for the first time.

“Damn. That’s some hair ya got, girl.”

“It is what it is.” She fished a rubber band out of her pack and looped it around her waves, leaving it in a simple ponytail.

“Why don’tcha stick around fer breakfast?” This time he directed the question at Ororo.

“That’s okay. I’m fine. I’ll take the coffee, though.” She shrugged into her sweatshirt and jacket from the day before. Remy still wished she had something warmer, wanting to offer her one of his spare coats or a thicker sweater. He decided to take a subtler tack.

“Don’ head out wit’ wet hair, petit. Here.” He retrieved a knitted wool cap and tossed it to her. Ororo took it with a grateful smile.

“You won’t miss it?”

“Wear it in health, petit.”

Ororo tugged it on, enjoying the warmth over her ears, a definite improvement from her baseball cap. She tucked the last of her meager possessions into her pack and headed for the door.

“It was nice meeting you,” she offered Bella.

“Where are ya goin’?” Bella asked quietly.

“Out and about. It’s a nice day.” The sky was actually just a brighter shade of gray outside from what Ororo could see from the tall windows, but that was fine with her.
“Remy? Thank you.”

“Sure,” he said, nodding.

“Goodbye.” She strode to the door, deftly undoing the deadbolts.

“Ororo-“

“Enjoy your breakfast.” She was gone in a blink. Remy stared at door, clenching and opening his fists at his sides. He had to go after her.

“Go,” Bella said aloud.

“She-“

“Go, Rem.” Bella buttoned her coat and took her purse from his dining table. “I ain’t gonna stand here waitin’ fer ya ta tell me what happened last night or how she ended up here, but I get de impression that yer gonna lose track of her once she leaves dis buildin’.” Her words fell on deaf ears. Remy was grabbing up his keys, coat and a different hat and hurrying out the door.

“Ya can stick around or let yerself out, Bell.” She listened to the door slam and shook her head.

“I know m’way out, Rem,” she told his empty apartment.

*

Ororo knew the deal.

Only one queen bee can live in a hive. Her mother’s words came back to her, remembering her decision to move herself and her daughter out of her grandmother’s house. N’Dare Munroe’s mother-in-law had never seen eye to eye with her, and it grew worse after Ororo’s father, David, grew sick. Yet she stayed under her roof for several months, paying meager rent to allay the feelings of putting the older woman “out of her way.” Their frequent enmity couldn’t be helped, even if it was counterproductive. Both women loved David so much, and they stumbled over each other, trying to make the best decisions regarding his well-being.

So Ororo easily understood the territorial look in Belladonna’s eyes when she first came dripping from Remy’s bathroom, no doubt looking like an interloper-slash-homewrecker. Sure, rumpled blankets on a couch were different than wrinkled sheets on a bed, but it still didn’t look good. Ororo didn’t like fireworks, and she wasn’t sticking around for the show.

She heard Remy’s words and felt a hint of resentment. She was just glad ta have a roof over her head, petit. Even though it was true, it pricked her. Ororo had her pride, even if she didn’t have anything else.

She still had the cash he’d given her in her pocket. That would get her subway fare, even though she hated the dark, stinking tunnels. The crush of people made her feel claustrophobic, but there was no help for it. Ororo wasn’t familiar with Remy’s side of town. At least close to the park and the harbor, she knew all of the places she could squat.

Remy made it into the street on swift feet. He felt unapologetic about leaving Bella behind; guilt might hit him later, but he had other things on his mind. He scanned the street, looking down both ends before realizing she would leave the same direction she came.

He headed past Nineteenth Street, then Eighteenth, almost running. Passerby peeked at him briefly and stepped out of his way.

There. The tunnel. Remy saw a hint of white hair hanging below a familiar dark cap, descending the stairs.

“Petit!” he shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth, not caring about people’s stares. “ORORO!”

He ran this time. She was growing lost in the milling crowd. Remy pushed and shoved his way down the sticky, stained concrete steps, buffeted on every side. She didn’t hear his cries as she reached the bottom and headed for the turnstiles.

Ororo didn’t stop as she checked the street map of stops before heading to the fare booth. She decided it wouldn’t help to buy a few rides’ worth of tokens, just in case. She was fifth in line when she spied the vending machine across the aisle. Her mouth watered for a Snickers bar. Ororo sipped her coffee, grimacing at the sharp French roast. Still, it kept her warm.

“Petit! Ororo! C’mere!” She was startled to hear her name, and that distinctive accent.

She whipped her head around, not seeing anyone at first, just a line of people behind her. The woman directly behind her snapped, “Move up!” Ororo obeyed, but turned back seconds later at another call.

“Ororo, don’ go yet, chere!” Her gut clenched in confusion.

Didn’t he have a gorgeous supermodel to go home to?

She heard curses and grumbles behind her, just as she reached the token booth.

“Can I help you?”

“Here, however many this will buy,” Ororo said, sliding over a ten. The woman’s long, killer red nails snapped up the bill and she began counting out brass-colored tokens mechanically, eager to be done with the morning rush of passengers so she could have a break.

A firm hand clapped over Ororo’s shoulder.

“Look, I’m getting out of the way in a sec,” Ororo wanted to tell the woman behind her.

“Tell that to this asshole, then,” the woman retorted, and Ororo was shocked to see Remy’s dark eyes boring into hers.

“Ma’am? Here, take your tokens,” the booth worker told her impatiently. Ororo couldn’t win.

“Come home wit’ me, petit.”

“Why?” He stared at her like she broke wind.

“Whaddya mean, why? C’mon!”

“Your tokens!”

“My tokens,” Ororo repeated. “Thank you,” she told her grittily. She scooped them out of the slot in the window and crammed them into her jacket pocket, planning to move them into the front one of her jeans when she had a moment. Ororo had picked enough pockets herself not to make herself a mark.

Suddenly she was jerked out of line and guided toward the opposing turnstile. “Hey!’

“Let’s go.”

“I’ve got a train to catch in three minutes, Remy!”

“Don’ have to.”

“Um…yes, I do,” she told him, as if he were dense.

“Non. Ya don’t. Ya didn’t hafta leave.”

“Your girlfriend might beg to differ.”

“She came over. That didn’t mean ya couldn’t stay, Ororo.”

“She looked put out. And I didn’t want to put you out.”

“I have plenty of room. And I’ve got a whole fridge of food wantin’ someone ta eat it.”

“What about Bella?”

“She agreed that ya made a hasty exit when ya didn’t have to,” he said, making his case with a shrug.

“Remy… I appreciate what you did for me. It’s more than anyone’s done for me in a long time, but…”

“But what?” People rushed by the bickering pair, making them move farther toward the stairs heading back up to the street. Ororo’s determination to get to her train was waning slightly at the sight of daylight.

“But what are you doing? You don’t have to be nice to me. I’m not…I don’t…”

“Don’t what?”

“I don’t…you don’t get it…” Ororo’s voice filled with bitterness. “I’m not a charity case!”

“Hell, no, ya ain’t, toots!” Remy threw out his hands. “Did I say ya were?”

“It felt like it this morning. I heard you. And yeah, I was really glad to have a roof over my head. But I won’t pretend that I expect a repeat performance on your hospitality.”

“Maybe ya need ta expect more, den, petit.”

“What?”

“Come wit’ me.” Remy was tired of the smell of the tunnel and the grouchy passengers rushing around them with little regard to personal space.

“You don’t have to do anything else for me.”

“Ya haven’t eaten yet. Only thing I’m gonna do is put food in yer stomach, little girl.”

“Then that’s it. Nothing else,” she ordered.

“Shut up wit’ dat shit.”

Chapter Text

Logan hated Sunday mornings.

Sure, the fares were pretty good that day of the week, that time of day. On a good day, he got old timers going out to breakfast at IHOP for the early bird special or women coming home from church with their kids. Logan enjoyed seeing the clean-scrubbed kids looking excited when he pulled up to the curb, even though he would never admit it out loud. He merely growled at them to remember their seat belts and made faces at them through his rearview.

The flip side of these more agreeable fares was the Walk of Shamers. He knew the look of a passenger who could potentially throw up in his cab, hung over from a night of excess.

They always tried to make conversation with him. Sometimes, they told him tales that curled his hair of broken-up parties, lover’s spats, bar fights, trysts, alibis…you name it, Logan had heard it all. It was better, or worse, than Taxicab Confessions on HBO, back in the day.

Bachelor party survivors were a kick in the pants, or bridal shower escapees. He couldn’t count how many women showed up in his cab wearing condom veils or other such silly shit. All of them wanted “one last shebang.” In the back of his mind, Logan wondered Then why bother to get married at all? If they thought the fun was over once they tied the knot, they were better off not bothering at all. Logan’s views were cut and dried that way. They were walking down the aisle four to six hours later, after coming home smelling like oil, whipped cream and tequila shots?

His was an easy enough job, though. The lease on his cab was low and his tips were generous, living in the city. That didn’t mean he didn’t miss the open spaces and easygoing feel of his hometown, though. Logan missed hunting season and Memorial Day parades. The bustle of the city palled in comparison to living in a town small enough that everyone knew his name. He never felt that way until he left.

Logan stopped at a bakery and grabbed a coffee regular and old-fashioned donut. Despite eating junk food on the run and driving a car all day, he managed to stay in good shape with regular trips to a local boxing gym. Thanks to his short, compact stature, his buddies called him “Runt.” They could fuck off, as far as he was concerned, but they were decent guys, good for Pay-per-View fights at their favorite bar on Saturday night.

Barring nights where his girl wanted him to stay in, Logan did his own thing.

He enjoyed his snack and joe in his car, having fed the meter to ensure no interruptions. Logan listened to the Sixers game on the radio, tuning out the static as much as the old thing would allow.

The street was remarkably quiet. Logan people-watched, part of his job description.

He paused mid-sip when he spied a familiar couple.

They walked companionably. He guided her forward with his hand at the small of her back. He noticed in the light of day that she was nearly as tall as him and very slender. This time, she had her hair tucked up under a men’s winter hat, forcing him to really look at her face.

Were her eyes blue?

She glanced Logan’s way briefly, looking curious, as though he was familiar to her. He nodded briefly, saluting her with his cup. She didn’t pause, ignoring him as they hurried away. Okay, he snorted to himself, so he was chopped liver. She was the one having a lover’s spat before, or whatever it was.

*

 

Minutes later, they returned to Remy’s empty apartment. He divested himself of his coat and dumped his cold coffee. He tossed Ororo the remote.

“Wanna turn on de news?”

“Is that what you want?”

“If ya don’ mind, petit.”

“Remy? What…why do you talk like that?” He quirked a brow as he looked up over the edge of the refrigerator door.

“Like what, chere?”

“Where are you from?”

“New Awlins’,” he said as he piled several items on the counter. He moved around the kitchen swiftly, retrieving bowls and pans. Ororo turned up the volume on the news once she figured out how his fancy remote worked, one of those numbers with a hundred buttons that operated every appliance in his living room.

“Is that French you speak sometimes?”

“Oui, chere,” he said. She listened to the clatter of a whisk hitting a metal mixing bowl and the crack of several eggs.

Soon mouthwatering smells drifted from the kitchen. Ororo’s stomach growled.

“You’re killing me,” she told him.

“Wanna make de juice?” He thunked a can of orange concentrate on the counter. She obliged him, mixing a pitcher and setting the table. His plates were a simple white Noritake with a black rim, bachelor-style. Much of his home was black and white. He didn’t have many art prints, but he had one that she liked. It looked like a painting, spattered in strings and daubs in shades of charcoal gray, yellow, scarlet, black and white. Ororo could make out shapes within the paint, almost a collage of playing cards.

“Come an’ get it,” he said. She brought both their plates to the stove, and he ladled both of them generously with vegetable frittata, turkey sausage and fried red potatoes.

“This looks amazing.”

“Ya haven’t tasted yet.”

“I know it’s fantastic already.”

They ate companionably and listened to the news. For someone who clearly loved food, Remy was in good shape.

“My trainer’s gonna kill me if he finds out Remy ate starch fried in fat.”

“That’s the only way to eat starch.”

“Blasphemy. Ya haven’t tried Remy’s rice yet.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Add it to my to-do list,” she joked, even though the question hung in the air.

“What else have ya got planned?”

“You know. Take in the opera, shopping on Fifth Avenue.”

“How ‘bout goin’ wit’ me to de park, chere?”

“To do…what?”

“Me. You. My camera.” Ororo rolled her eyes.

“Sounds like a waste of time.”

“Non. It’s Remy’s job t’take pictures of beautiful women. Puts food on de table.”

“Guess people pay you a lot.”

“People do,” he huffed. “Now, anyway.”

“What’d you do before that?”

“Farted around in school. Graphics at Carnegie Mellon. Minored in photography. I liked that more.”

“Sounds expensive. Must’ve been nice.”

“How ‘bout you?”

“I never got to go to school.”

“No money?”

“No place to even live.” Sympathy washed over him.

“Sorry,” he told her.

“It’s okay.” She got up and began clearing the table. He watched her move around the kitchen easily, like she’d always been at home there. Ororo put the leftovers in plastic containers and scraped their plates into the disposal.

“Can ya do anything else with yer hair?”

“Not much to do with it.”

“I liked it down.”

“It’ll be a mess.”

“It’ll take a nice picture.”

“I still don’t see why you want to bother.”

“Because I t’ink ya have somethin’ special.”

“Guess you’ll have to enlighten me.”

“Yer not used ta someone givin’ ya a compliment?”

“I’m used to people taking from me.”

“Maybe that ain’t what I had in mine.”

She eyed him shrewdly. “I’m no model. I don’t have any training. I don’t act. I don’t know how to walk or pose or anything. What if the pictures suck?”

“You saw ‘em. What’d ya think?”

“They were all right.” Remy snorted.

“Gee, thanks.” He left the room abruptly. Ororo worried she’d wounded his ego, when she wanted to say I looked awful. You could do so much better than to take shots of me.

He came back with a handful of magazines under his arm. “C’mere.” He slapped them down on the table.

He pulled up a chair for her to sit down and flipped quickly to the middle of an issue of Vogue.

“Remy took dat one.” He flipped several more pages. “And dat spread.” He handed it to her before picking up another one. “And dis cover.”

“Wow,” she breathed, taking in the glossy pages with awe.

The girl on the cover was young and fresh; it was a copy of Seventeen, and the mood of the shot was playful. Her brown eyes had a certain twinkle and her pose was bold and confident.

“Kid’s only thirteen,” Remy said, tapping it. “Shoot was hard, cuz de kid was shy.”

“She doesn’t look like it.”

“Dat’s de point.”

“So could you make me look like that?” Ororo murmured, pointing to his spread. The photos were filmed at what looked like a club. The clothes were edgy and urban, and the models wore bold makeup and chunky gold jewelry. Physically they were flawless. When Ororo looked in the mirror, she still saw circles under her eyes and uncontrolled hair.

“Ain’t impossible. Got good raw material to work with.” Ororo froze at the sensation of fingers smoothing back a lock of her hair that came loose from her ponytail. “Ya’ve got perfect skin. How tall are ya, ‘bout five-nine, five-ten?”

“About a half an inch shy of six feet.” Her mouth went dry as he studied her bit by bit.

His fingertip traveled down her cheek.

“That’ll work ta yer advantage.” But he was caught up in her eyes, full of questions and more than a little wary.

He was standing so close, hovering over her. She could smell his cologne. Ororo’s pulse sped up and she grew warm beneath his gaze. His hand went back to her hair, collecting her thick locks and tugging them over her shoulder. He took the liberty of running his fingers through it. Before she could protest, he unsnapped the beads of her elastic, releasing all of it.

“Don’t!”

“Looks better that way, chere.”

“I like it up.” She scooted back in her seat, edging away from him and getting up. She shook off the feel of his hands, but his touch lingered. For Remy, too, the spell was broken. He became brisk.

“Get’cher jacket.”

“This is a waste of time.”

“All ya’ve got is time. My time ta waste.” He gathered his camera and coat. “Leave yer hair down. Put on de hat if ya want.”

She didn’t admit that having her hair down and tucked beneath her jacket kept her neck warm. Remy felt anticipation coursing through him.

It was a perfect day.

He spent the next three hours cajoling her, baiting and nagging her, shot after shot. Some of the poses felt ridiculous. Remy liked a handful of shots he took of her throwing food to a flock of pigeons and flirting with a man’s dog, rumpling its ears. They went to a restaurant briefly. He teased her from behind her menu as she tried to hide from him.

“Ororo,” he sang.

“Get that out of my face,” she threatened, but she was enjoying herself. He snapped away, ignoring other patrons’ looks.

By the time they’d returned home, he had pictures of her on the steps of brownstones, in front of stores and churches, on benches and in front of the pier where they’d first met, if they could call it that. The sun was going down and Ororo was exhausted. Remy only stopped because the charge on his camera battery was dying.

She spent that night on his couch again. Remy took his misgivings to bed with him.

It was the calm before the storm.

Chapter Text

“Remy LeBeau! It’s been too damn long, baby!” Alison’s voice was shrill in her excitement. She trotted across the slick tile floor in ridiculously high, pink metallic Steve Maddens and molested him. “Give Mama some sugar.”

“Hey, petit. Whatcha got goin’ on?”

“I’ve always got it goin’ on.” She stared at the woman standing slightly behind him as she looked around her salon. “Who’s this?” she said accusingly.

“Hi.” Ororo gave her a small wave and looked her fill of the petite, bubbly fashion victim who left a huge pink lip print on Remy’s cheek.

“Oh, my sweet Lord, please don’t. Tell. Me. This. Is. Your hair.” Ali circled Ororo like a vulture on the scent of a dead buck, her heels clicking as she did a slow perusal. Without so much as a by-your-leave, she reached for Ororo’s hair, bunched beneath the collar of Remy’s borrowed spare coat. To Ororo’s credit, she wore it as well as he did due to her height and coloring, but the rest of her wardrobe was still a lost cause.

Carefully, Alison tugged the heavy mass of waves loose in thick handfuls. “I can’t believe this. How long have you been torturing this poor hair?” Alison made cooing noises over it, rubbing a handful of tendrils against her cheek, practically petting it like a wounded baby bird.

“Figured ya could still work wit’ it, chere. Ya love a challenge.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t,” she snapped, rolling her eyes at him. They were made up in smoky shadow and were a warm, golden hazel. They then beseeched Ororo. “So, c’mon. Do you trust me?”

“Um…”

“C’mon! Do you? You trust me, right? Do I look like a woman who can save this hair? Are you willing to put yourself in my capable hands?”

“She can’t wait.”

“Jubi, clear my book for the rest of the afternoon! I’m working through, I have a new project that needs my complete attention!” The Chinese receptionist at the desk cracked her gum and waved her hand dismissively, crossing off the rest of the day’s appointments in the book with a huge black ‘X.’

Ororo wasn’t through answering her first question. You trust me, right? The concept was as far from Ororo’s realm of experience as the moon. When had she ever been able to trust anybody?

Ororo bunched her hair and tugged it over one shoulder protectively while Alison began readying her style chair and station, nagging her assistant to sweep up the bits of hair and put her combs in the sterilizer. Jubi, or Jubilee, as her name tag claimed, came by and pressed a cup of coffee into her hair.

“You’re gonna be here a while. Take a load off. Here, we got People, Us Weekly, OK!, Redbook, we even got sudoku, NY Times crossword…” She plopped a stack of magazines on the counter beside the dryers.

“Remy t’inks ya gonna be fine, petit,” he told Ororo, noting how worried and subdued she seemed. “Y’okay?”

“Rem…she scares me.”

“She don’t bite, chere. Not unless ya don’ leave a tip. Den she gets a mite cranky. But don’ worry. Ali’s a lil’ ol’ pussycat.” Ororo remained unconvinced as Alison gave her assistant hell.

“Tell Sal down the street that I want a roast beef on rye, not that corned beef crap. And don’t let him use that light mayonnaise, either, my cholesterol’s practically in single digits, I want real fat. Got it? Real. Fat. And don’t forget my diet Pepsi.”

“But-“

“Have you ever seen me eat sugar? Have you? I think not. And here’s an extra buck, just because I like you, keeps you honest. Don’t take any wooden nickels, don’t talk to strangers, and be careful before you cross the street.” Alison gave her a swat on the hindquarters and shooed her out. Alison beamed as she came back, clapping her hands together.

“Get ready for the biggest change of your life, sweet pea.”

“Please don’t cut my hair!” Ororo blurted, then felt sick. Alison’s smile drooped.

“Aw, don’t be afraid.”

“Please, just…just wash it if you want, don’t do anything else!”

“You’ve got tons of hair, sweetheart. It has the potential to be incredible, but look, it’s damaged.” She tried to touch it again, but Ororo’s fist twisted it away and she turned from Ali, closing off her posture. Remy looked annoyed.

“We talked ‘bout dis in de cab, chere. Ain’ no big overhaul we talkin’ here, but Ali’s an artist. She’s been doin’ hair since she was old ‘nuff fo’ a trainin’ bra.”

“Earlier than that, if you count my Barbies,” she pointed out. She sat beside Ororo and leaned in toward her, reaching for the cool hand she had tucked in her lap.

“It’s just hair. It grows back,” Remy shrugged.

“Idiot,” Alison shot back. “Just ignore the big silly man, sweetie, he’s impaired. Humor him if you have to. The point I’m trying to make is, your hair is supposed to be your crowning glory, but you wear it. It doesn’t wear you. It should make a statement.” Her hand crept around her back, rubbing it. “You okay?”

Only when the soft Kleenex was pressed into her hand did Ororo feel the hot tears slipping down her cheek.

“Sorry,” she hissed, dabbing at her eyes. “It’s…just…it’s always been this way. I’ve always had long hair. It’s…”

She left the words unspoken. Remy felt sympathy welling in his gut. It’s all I have.

“It has emotional value. Like a security blanket. Someone you cared about felt strongly about your hair, too?”

“My mother,” Ororo admitted.

“I didn’t know, chere,” Remy murmured, kneeling before her and tugging her grip from her hair, holding her hand in his. “Gotta learn ta stop me before I jus’ blather on. ‘Specially ‘bout shit like haircuts, if it’s gonna make ya cry.”

“All right. Coffee. Take more of these.” Ali became brisk and efficient. “Then lunch. You look tired. Have you had anything to eat yet?”

“That was next on the agenda.”

“What is your agenda?” she demanded while she handed Ororo her cup and led her to the styling chair. Ororo obediently seated herself and finished wiping her eyes and nose.

“Got coupla appointments. One with Cass at one.”

“Ooh.” Ali made a face. Remy sighed.

“Need ta head ta my lab ta develop some shots, too.”

“Ooh!” Ali repeated, this time with much more enthusiasm. “Who are you shooting now?”

“You’re lookin’ at her,” Remy said, reaching out to Ororo. He kneaded her shoulder and began to help her out of her coat.

“Wow,” Ali said, impressed. “Can I see the shots when they’re done?”

“Ya know I’d never deny you, sweet thang.”

“That’s the secret to men like him, Ororo, you’ve got to beat ‘em into submission, let ‘em know their place,” she scoffed, smacking his rump. He caught her hand and kissed her knuckles. “Brat.”

“Give her de full treatment. Whateva’s gon’ make her camera-ready for more black an’ whites.”

“Will do. We’ll have fun.” She prodded Ororo, who watched them with amusement. “Tell ‘em we’ll have fun.”

“We’ll have fun,” she parroted dutifully.

“Den I’ll scat,” he promised. “Got my cell if ya two need anyt’in’, petite.”

He was gone. Ororo was left alone with a manic version of Frenchie from Grease.

“Shampoo. Deep protein treatment.” A huge black shroud was draped over Ororo and tied behind her neck. The bedraggled hair elastic was thrown in the garbage. “You’re never wearing one of those again. Get some decent hair clips if you want, I’ve got some great stuff behind the counter, but those rubber bands are the tool of the Devil. Understand?”

She nagged and pried over the next twenty minutes of having her hair lifted and studied. Alison took a wide-toothed comb and began to pick through it in an attempt to detangle it. “You’ve got about five different lengths going on in here. It’s actually pretty healthy, you’ve got a great scalp.”

“Thanks.” I guess…

“What’ve you been using to wash this?”

“Whatever I could get my hands on?”

“What does that mean? Please, tell me what that means. Are we talking Joico, Pantene, or Johnson’s Baby shampoo?”

“Soap. From whatever bathroom that I can find.” Ali paused mid-stroke with the comb hanging in the air. She eyed Ororo levelly in the mirror.

“I didn’t know.”

“What’s to know?”

“Everything.” She continued her combing. Despite the sharp sting and pull against her scalp from the snarls, Ororo enjoyed the feel of being pampered and cared for. “Tell me everything.”

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Alison Blaire was the owner of the Looking Sharp Salon and Spa, which operated at three sites in the city. Ororo’s eyes scanned the studio as they chatted. The warm water and foam felt good as Ali rubbed her troubles away, massaging the thick shampoo through her mass of hair. There were several awards from the local chamber of commerce, two magazine covers with Ali on the cover, and a picture of Ali accepting an Emmy for best on-set stylist. Ororo’s favorite was a black and white photo of Ali at Fenway Park, hugging a baseball mascot; it captured her essence perfectly.

“Remy took that one.”

“I’m not surprised.” Ororo was beginning to recognize his style. “You take a great photo.”

“Liar. It’s smoke and mirrors. When you see me getting up first thing in the morning, sugar, I look like hell, but keep that to yourself. I love hair, I love makeup, and I love bringing out a woman’s personal best using those tools. I know how to create an impression.”

And what an impression she made. Ali’s hair was cut in a chin-length bob and teased at the crown, razor-cut at the ends and dyed a luscious shade of fuschia. Platinum blonde chunks framed her face, bringing out her eyes. Her complexion was fair and delicate. She enjoyed bold styles, if her nineteen fifties black and white polka-dotted dress and pink button earrings and pearls were any indication.

The protein pack smelled slightly fruity as Ali slathered it over Ororo’s hair, running her fingers through it.

“Much better. My hand are sliding right through this. It was too dry before. No breakage. It’ll feel like mink when it’s dry. You’ll love it. So, let me lay this on you. Your ends are a mess. I’m going to heat-set the conditioner, give you a rinse and a cut. Not drastic, but definitely different. We’re going to show you the potential your hair has, and then we’ll have fun. Mani, pedi, facial, you name it. Oh, and here.” She handed Ororo a small tube of something clear and green.

“What is it?”

“Aloe vera numbing gel. I’m going to zap your lip. That helps to keep it from stinging when I yank out your mustache!” she sang as she swept away to grab her lunch from the front desk.

“Wait…what?”

The hours ticked by quickly. Ororo was trimmed, combed, blown dry, buffed, polished, moisturized, exfoliated, depilatoried – painfully with Alison’s electrolysis probes – brushed and styled. Her cuticles and upper lip ached, but she felt exhilarated. Ali kept her so engaged as they talked that she hardly noticed the clippings of white hair piling up on the floor.

Ali finished rubbing a glosser leave-in into Ororo’s hair and gave her waves one last flick with a round brush. “Well, baby, was it good for you?”

“It. Was. Fabulous.”

“I just wish I had a killer Prada dress to send you out the door in. You’d stop traffic. But in the meantime, Rem’s balls’ll turn blue when he sees how you look right now.”

Ororo sat behind the front desk with Ali while Ali finished her half-eaten sandwich, so Remy didn’t see her as he breezed inside.

“Where’s Ali?” he asked Jubi. She nodded to the desk as she rushed to the back with an armful of color packs. Alison grinned and stood up, blocking his view of Ororo behind her.

“What do YOU want?” she demanded, hands on her hips.

“Came ta collect my model. Thanks fer babysittin’.”

“No trouble at all. And she’s the sitter, not me. Someone’s gotta keep me out of trouble.”

“Tell me anudder one, petit. So…?” he shrugged. “Where is she?”

“Ta-daaaaaaah…!” Ali gave a flourish and runway twirl and stood aside, reaching down to help Ororo out of her chair.

Remy’s jaw hit the floor.

“Ho. Lee. Shit.

“Uh-huh,” Ali grinned, bursting.

“She…she…you…”

“Uh-huh!” she repeated, just getting warmed up.

Ororo’s smile was hesitant. “Whaddyou think?”

“I’ll let ya know when m’heart starts beatin’ again.” Remy took a long swig of his bottled water to moisten his dry mouth.

Ororo’s manicured hand reached up and toyed with a lock of hair. A shy smile toyed with the corner of her mouth, glossed in a rich plum. “Well?” she asked.

“Am I. A Bad Ass. Or What?” Ali gave Ororo a cat that got the cream smile and a little hug.

“Thank you. For everything.”

“Here’s my card. My cell number’s on there. Whenever you get settled in with any kind of schedule, we’ll do lunch. And here’s more leave-in and a decent comb. And a nice freeze and hold…” she ticked off different items that Ororo needed in her style arsenal as she loaded them into a paper sack. Remy only listened with half an ear.

“How ya feel ‘bout dis, chere?”

“It’s different. I think I like it.”

“Ya should.”

“How…how do you like it?”

“Honestly?” Ali was running on autopilot, ringing everything up on Remy’s platinum card and nagging her assistant to set up her next day’s round-up of colors and up-dos.

“Please.”

“You’re a different woman. Ya don’ look like de woman I met in de street.” Except for her shabby clothes. Remy decided to remedy that posthaste. In the meantime, he couldn’t stop staring…

“Maybe it’s time to stop being that woman,” she said hopefully as he held out her coat for her to slip into. Remy freed her hair from the collar, spreading it over her shoulders reverently. It felt like mink.

Ororo watched him with curiosity and confusion as he deftly buttoned her coat. “My hands work,” she reminded him. He looked down at his own hands and jerked them away. The dazed look fled his face and he scowled.

“I think she can manage, Mom. Next thing you’ll be wiping her face with spit on a hankie,” Ali said in disgust.” Remy stepped back and jammed his hands in his pockets.

“You ready?”

“Let’s go.” She turned to Alison and leaned down to peck her on the cheek. “I’ve never had such a good time. No one’s ever done this much for me.”

“Thank me by keeping up with your ends. Use that leave-in and wrap up your hair at night.” She gave Remy a pointed look. “You’re my next victim.”

“Book me fo’ Monday.”

“I’ve got a two o’clock with your name on it.”

“Ya can have me whenever ya want me, chere.” His grin was wicked.

“Honestly, I don’t know how Bella puts up with you and your shit.” Ali shooed them out. “Call me.”

The sunshine was stark and glaring despite the bitter wind. Ororo paused when she reached the corner, impatiently freeing a few strands of her hair that got stuck to her lipstick.

“I’ve gotta tie this stuff back.”

“Non. Jus’ tuck it in.” It was hard not to touch her hair…irritation with himself mingled with temptation as he carefully gathered her hair and pushed it under her collar. “An’ ya forgot dis.” He added the comfortable winter cap.

“I’ll get hat hair. Ali would kill me.”

“As opposed ta an ear infection,” he pointed out. But she was beaming.

He was surprised when she wove her hand through the crook of his elbow as they walked. She was still skittish around him, even after three days of staying in his apartment. Whenever he brushed too close in small spaces like the kitchen or bathroom, she went stiff as a board. It puzzled him more that her nerves didn’t extend to touching him.

She reached out and wiped off a speck of spaghetti sauce from his chin at dinner the night before. Her light touch surprised him; she didn’t see the baffled look on his face when she went back to her business, washing the dishes.

So Remy took it in stride. He was a perfect gentleman.

It was killing him.

He tried to be subjective; photographers had to know their models, strengths, weaknesses, best sides, how light and shadow transformed them in front of a lens. Having some knowledge of their moods helped, too, for facial expressions and body language. Remy knew which buttons to push, guaranteeing the best poses for the fewest number of frames.

But there was something intimate, a connection made from looking someone in the eye, prompting them, probing them, examining them, daring them to leave themselves open and expose their essence.

*

 

Belladonna had been his greatest success and biggest personal failure. She was named one of the Top Ten most beautiful supermodels in the world and one of the highest paid women in Forbes. Remy’s camera work brought her into the limelight and made her a household name soon after she’d gone on her first go-see. Promotion was anything, certainly; Bella’s agents and publicists were a pack of barracudas at best, but the cliché “A picture says a thousand words” was something Bella lived by and how Remy brought home a fat check.

Their photo sessions were explosive. For nearly a year, they hated each other. Remy made a habit of bringing coffee to their shoots.

Bella curled her lip as her stylist drew on her eyebrows. “Did you spit in that?”

“Call it seasonin’. Remy’s special blend.”

“Fuck you.”

Her lips promised candy-flavored kisses. Her eyes offered poison. Her body was lean and graceful, curves rivaling an upright bass. She flaunted it, every incremental turn and flick mocking him, every step grinding him into paste on the pavement. Bella despised Remy.

He ate it up.

“Looks like ya didn’ get ta’ run dem extra miles at de gym dis week, neh? I ain’t hatin’, chere, Remy likes his women wit’ some meat on dere bones.”

“Glad one of us can deliver in that regard.” Her eyes zinged to his crotch. He winced.

“Ouch.”

“I hope they turn blue and fall off.” She leaned seductively over a rail and blew him a kiss, treating him to a full shot of her cleavage.

“Shriveled up inta raisins five seconds ago, chere. Lick yer lips. Pretend ta put some effort into it.”

Sparks.

It was like watching a soap opera, working on-set with two prima donnas like them. Fire sizzled up Remy’s nerve endings even when they inadvertently brushed in close quarters or crowded changing rooms. Her pulse sped, even tripped during shoots, making her clumsy, dropping props and tripping over furniture. They resulted in spontaneous shots but pointed to a sickness ten times grander than the symptoms.

She saw herself reflected in his eyes, and a missing piece of her soul. There was fire. There was heat. There was energy and electricity and sex-

One of Ali’s house parties for thirty of her closest friends found them overheated and tipsy. Remy just watched her as she worked the room; every time she looked up or had her glass refilled, his eyes were on her. Devouring her.

She couldn’t stand it. Each time she took even a bite of food, it lost its taste and her wine left her tongue unquenched. No one else’s conversation appealed to her and her mind wandered. Eyes wandered, craving him.

Her feet didn’t heed her command to stay near the fireplace. A Bavarian import, Pietro, sulked in her wake as she left him mid-sentence. His words evaporated on his lips as he watched her drift into the kitchen.

Belladonna swam into Remy’s line of vision, blue eyes flashing. Her slender hand darted out and fisted itself in his lapel.

“Dance wit’ me, chere.” She pulled him away from the doorframe. Desire rocketed through his body and she felt a frisson of excitement.

Ali looked up from an argument she was winning over the appeal of white jumpsuit Elvis and skinny black leather Elvis and watched with awe as they wandered into her living room. They danced like two people shortly before last call, needy, clinging, groping, two minutes from getting a room. Her guests were deep into the grape, so Remy and Bella weren’t misbehaving that creatively, she mused.

Still…

It was like watching a train about to run off the tracks. Her gut screamed at her to do something, anything to put off the inevitable.

Bella whispered into Remy’s feverish neck, “C’mon. Let’s get de hell outta here, chere.”

“Don’ wanna be rude.”

“Don’ wanna rip yer clothes off right here. Actually, dat’s a lie.”

“Remy’s shy.”

“Non. Not all o’ Remy’s shy.” She ground herself against the throbbing knot of nerves pressing itself into her belly. Her teeth caught the edge of his earlobe and grazed it. A whiff of steam from her lips shot into his ear, and his nipples pebbled in response.

“Damn it,” he hissed. His grip on her wrist almost hurt as he whipped around and tugged her before him. They shouldered their way out of Ali’s apartment, shouting a goodbye as Remy retrieved his coat from the closet by the front door. She didn’t try to find her own wrap; he bundled her into his coat in the elevator, punched the ground floor and waited only long enough for the doors to close before he mauled her.

She burned him, branding him with her touch, her passion rushing into his lungs like incense. He consumed her and drank her and prayed to her, satisfying months of yearning, answering weeks of questions, leaving nothing to doubt.

Bella felt him molding her, sculpting her with his touch, his mouth. She begged him for release, to never stop, whimpering his name between kisses. She relished the give of his supple flesh as she clawed his back or bit his neck.

“Can’t see anyt’in’ but you. Don’ matter when. Or where, chere. Want ya.” She didn’t want his words, except for the curses as he bucked and neared his own peak. Or her name, which he chanted into her skin, into her mouth.

Hours later, they lolled beneath the tangled blankets, replete and touching each other in quiet wonder. She read his thoughts as he stared up at the ceiling. Bella felt part of him slipping away, where she couldn’t reach.

“Ain’t gonna be any different ‘tween you an’ me.”

“Sure. Business as usual, chere.” His lip curled. She pinched him.

“Bella means dat, chere.”

“Remy b’lieves ya, chere.”

It was almost true.

They still argued. They still communicated through the camera between them. They fought. They fucked. They made thousands of dollars and her face littered billboards and magazine covers. After two more years, it was still “business as usual.”

 

*

 

“Are they kidding? Remy, please. Tell me they’re kidding.” Remy looked up sharply and met Ororo’s troubled look. Her hands trembled slightly as she showed him the price tag of a lilac cashmere sweater. “Three hundred. For this.”

“S’cashmere,” he shrugged, but she grew more worked up.

“No. It’s a sweater. A top. Something you just throw on to keep warm.”

“Non. Ya don’ jus’ ‘throw on’ cashmere, chere. Ya wrap yerself in it and ya own it. And ya work it. But ya never jus’ ‘throw it on.’” He took the sweater off the rack and held it up against her. “Nice choice, though, chere. Works on you.” It was an understatement. He wanted to see it on her, bringing out her eyes and accenting her hair.

“I can’t do that. That’s ridiculous. I can’t afford that!” Her face looked stricken. “I…I can’t afford any of this. I can’t let you walk out of here with this.”

“Non. Ya gotta try it on first.”

“But-“

“Might look nice wit’ dese.” He meandered to a rack as she followed him incredulously, mouth agape. “What size are ya, chere, ‘bout an eight?”

“I don’t know.”

“Built a lil’ different den Bella, I’m t’inkin’.” Ororo’s hips were slightly broader, her ribcage was narrower, and she topped Belladonna by about two inches, he guesstimated. He took up a pair of black trousers and draped them over the crook of his arm.

She argued with him. “I can’t let you do this.”

“Sure ya can. See?” He took a white dress off a nearby rack and nodded to the display. “Like it in black instead?”

“Yes. No. I don’t like you spending mon-“

“Look,” he stopped her, eyeing her levelly. His grip on her arm was firm. Her breathing quickened. “It ain’t ‘bout de money. Remy ‘kin afford it jus’ fine, sweet pea. Ya need ta be outfitted properly. It’s cold out, ya hardly have a decent coat or hat or so much as a pair of mittens or decent socks t’keep yer piggies warm.”

“The socks don’t need to be Prada.”

“Where’s de fun in dat?”

“Remy, please…”

“Whatsamatter, baby?”

“It’s just…could we maybe find a section of the store that doesn’t involve a second mortgage or selling your firstborn?”

“After ya try dese on.” He thrust a hefty armload of clothes at her and spun her around. The clerk in the fitting room looked up with interest as he pushed her forward.

“Take care of her. M’gonna be findin’ a few other goodies.” The clerk grinned at him, enjoying the view of his retreating back.

“He. Is. Hot.”

“He’s all right,” Ororo said hollowly. The girl stared at her like a zealot finding a blasphemer at Mass before leading her into a changing cubicle.

Ororo’s fingers fumbled with hangers and clasps. Her own clothes drifted to the floor as she began to try on each new piece, but butterflies took wing in her gut. She despised the mirror that was too close, giving her no room to back up and take an objective look. The lights overhead were no more flattering.

She didn’t see her smooth, flawless skin, narrow waist or graceful limbs. Her worn undergarments and fraying, faded bra were eyesores. Her elbows and collarbones looked knobby under her own inspection. The hollows beneath her eyes were still too deep.

The dress whispered against her skin and fit her like a glove; once she’d protested herself hoarse, every word landing on deaf ears, Ororo declined Remy’s choice of the white and selected the black dress instead.

She walked out in bare feet, feeling ashamed of the holes riddling her socks. Remy was unfortunately nowhere in sight. Ororo hugged herself in embarrassment, feeling like a little girl playing in her mother’s closet. Where was he?

The clerk didn’t help matters any. “Ohmigod. Ohmigod.” She gasped and circled Ororo like a hungry lion. She tweaked the folds of the dress, tugging on the hem, fluffing Ororo’s hair over her shoulder all without permission. “Look. In. That. Mirror.”

“Er…?”

“Look. Go ahead. That…is perfection. Perfection.” She eyed her levelly. “I hate you.”

“I’m sorry…”

“You need a belt. Wait here.”

“But…”

“Wait. Don’t move a muscle.” She scurried off. Ororo just felt confused and was about to drift back into the cubicle when she heard her voice again. “Hey. Yeah, you. Get over there and get a look at her in that dress. If you don’t buy her that, I will.” Ororo watched in amusement as she practically strong-armed Remy back to the misses’ section.

“No need ta drag out de brass knuckles, petit, I’m goin’, I’m…oh, my. Damn.”

“Well?”

He said nothing else. He numbly handed the clerk the other hangers he juggled in his grip, which she dutifully took back to Ororo’s changing room. He circled her slowly, closely, gently laying his palm at the small of her back. She shivered beneath his touch, even though the department was stifling and warm.

He turned her toward the mirror. “Look. Ya own it. Dat dress was made fo’ ya, chere. No one walkin’ in here today an’ tryin’ dat dress on is gonna look like you look in it right now.”

“It’s a nice dress,” she murmured.

“Non, chere. It could be a dishrag tied on wit’ a piece of dental floss, an’ ya could make it work. An’ yer standin’ up nice an’ straight. Get used ta doin’ dat. Posture’s essential an’ yer best friend.”

“I feel funny. Can I try something else?”

“Be Remy’s guest. Hurry up, I wanna see all of it, petit.”

“Fine.” She pulled herself from him almost reluctantly. Remy regretted the slight draft he felt once she took away her warmth. Her gait made her muscles roll in a sinuous dance in that dress, rippling over her curves like liquid velvet.

Two hours later, Remy looped two heavy shopping bags over his wrist and watched their clerk package everything else into boxes. Several boxes.

“I can give you a discount on the delivery charge for the amount you spent today. Can I put it on your store card?”

“Please.”

“This is insane. It’s obscene.” Ororo shook her head in awe. “I can’t believe we just did this.”

“Ya had fun, though.” Ororo tried to hide her smile. “C’mon, now. Ya did. Like a lil’ girl in a candy store.”

“No,” she insisted, but her smile widened. A range of emotions charged it, guilt mingling with sin. “Maybe a little.”

“Better den sex, non?” The words slipped free before he could give it any thought. The store clerk giggled as she wound her roll of tape around the last box. Ororo cleared her throat.

“Are we gonna eat soon?”

“Feed her. She deserves it,” the clerk suggested.

“Thanks,” Ororo said. “For everything.”

“No. Thank you.” Visions of a fat commission check danced in her head. “That. Was fun.”

Lunch was less lush, which Ororo had no problem with. They stopped at a tiny café and Remy ordered them both chicken salads with an appetizer of falafel. Ororo watched Remy as she ate.

“Why do you do that? You stare a lot. Just…at everything.”

“Everyone, petit. Dontcha ever people-watch?”

“I guess. Yeah, sometimes I do.” Ororo wouldn’t have given it a name. Most of the time, it felt like she was watching life pass her by, literally, as people went to jobs and to homes she didn’t have.

“It inspires me. Gotta find t’ings dat inspire ya, chere.”

“I’m still figuring that out.”

“It’ll come to ya.” He dragged a ball of falafel through a pool of hummus on his plate. “Find those t’ings dat move you and dat make you feel a certain way, put ya in a certain mood. It’ll come through in yer face, chere. It’s all ‘bout creatin’ a mood.”

“Remy?”

“Yeah?”

“Think this place is hiring?”

“What? You t’inkin’ bout a job?”

“Well…yeah. Now that I have a roof over my head…” her voice trailed off. Remy studied her. His eyes grew dark.

“Ya have a place as long as ya need one, chere.”

“I don’t want to just sponge off of you indefinitely. Let me…do something for you. Not just to repay you, but to help. Something. But if not, I need a job.”

He nodded. “Okay. I get it, chere. Yer right.”

Their idyll the past few days were a luxury. Remy knew he’d have to face his day planner and personal assistant soon enough. Business as usual.

“Ya can use my address whenever ya need ta put in an app, chere. An’ Ali won’t mind bendin’ de truth a little if ya need another reference.”

“Thank you.”

“Take dis up an’ pay de bill. I wanna head home and check my messages.” He handed her his Visa platinum card and the tab. She nodded and headed to the front desk. Appreciative male glances followed in her wake. Remy smiled.

She was already doing it, creating an impression. Possibly a memory.

*

They separated at the subway tunnel. Remy handed Ororo the shopping backs and tucked a twenty into her palm. She tingled at the graze of his fingertips as she curled her grip around the money.

“G’wan home.” She flushed with happiness that those words had meaning. “I’ll be back. Gonna head out an’ meet one of my publishers.” He patted his carryall, which contained several small folios.

“Will you be gone long?”

“Why? Gonna be lonely? Miss Remy already?” He bumped her playfully. She rolled her eyes, then stared at the ground. Her lips twisted into a shy little smile.

He stroked a lock of her hair back from her cheek, toying with it. It was hard for him not to touch her hair. Ororo grew warm beneath his gaze. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Ain’t against the law, sweet pea.”

“Well…it’s weird,” she told him, backing away a step, but she licked her lips. He stared at her mouth. She saw the faint flare of his nostrils and his eyes dilating before he shook it off. Remy chuckled.

“Meet ya back. Here.” He tucked a second item into her hand. It was cold and hard. Ororo peered down at his spare apartment key. “Don’ lose it, petit.”

“I promise.”

“Lock up de dead bolt as soon as ya get inside. Stay in de habit of doin’ dat, Ororo.”

“Should I fix anything? For when you get back?”

“Surprise me.” Before she could offer any other suggestion, he leaned in and brushed the corner of her mouth with lips. Her skin still tingled when he rushed off.

“Bye,” she called hollowly. She walked back into the flow of foot traffic, dazed.

Had Remy…kissed her?

She tried to dismiss it. Sure. Air kisses. Just like handshakes and claps on the back, exchanged between people who sometimes didn’t even like each other.

Sure.

But…didn’t she like Remy?

She argued with herself down the next three blocks before she remembered she needed a cab. She waited on the corner as she bought a newspaper from a nearby vendor box. Three cabs gradually rolled into view, two of them making a drop. Ororo rushed to one as an elderly woman climbed out with her purse-sized dog and an eco-friendly sack of groceries.

“Do you already have a fare?” Ororo asked breathlessly as she hurried forward to the passenger-side window. It rolled down, letting out the scent of cigarette smoke, air freshener and coffee. Ororo wrinkled her nose.

“Ya need a ride?”

“If you don’t have anything else right away?” Ororo cocked her head and waited for the driver to click on his roof light.

It was the same grizzled driver from before.

His stare ate her up. Ororo impatiently smoothed back a bit of hair from her lipstick, which she’d replenished in the café rest room.

“Trust me, darlin’, I can make the time. Hop in. Gonna freeze yer ass outside.” He beckoned to her, resetting his meter to zero.

She climbed in and slammed the creaky door. “Don’t hafta bang it, darlin’. This car’s old. Be nice ta her.”

“Sorry.”

“Where to?”

“Park Avenue and Twentieth.” Ororo didn’t remember Remy’s apartment building number, but she wouldn’t need it. She basked in the warmth and took off her new gloves, enjoying her French-tipped manicure.

“What is it about you women and those nails?”

“What?”

“Y’know. The white crap. Ya get a manicure ta make it look like ya didn’t have a manicure. Pink cuticles, big white band across the ends ta make it look like plain ol’ long nails. What’s the appeal?”

“It’s not distracting. It doesn’t take away from everything else you have on, I guess.”

“So even you don’t know why? Ya didn’t choose that fer yerself?”

“No,” she snapped. “Does it matter? I think it looks nice.”

“It looks okay.” Ororo was staring down at her nails defensively, fighting the urge to pick at them. “Ya look different. Like ya got done up.”

“You could say that. I did.”

He stared at her in the rearview periodically as he stopped at each red light. Ororo silently willed them green, but they didn’t listen to her whims.

“It’s a big difference. Ya got somethin’ big comin’ up?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“What, this just for show? Gotta impress somebody?”

“Is there anything wrong with impressing someone?”

“Depends on who yer tryin’ ta impress.”

“I’m looking into different things.” She settled on an easy tidbit, offering “I’m jobhunting.” He shrugged.

“Goodie for you. These days, that’s askin’ fer the moon. Economy sucks.”

“I know.”

“Looks like ya got an easy break,” he remarked.

“Excuse me?”

“Saw ya before. Looked like life wasn’t goin’ yer way.”

“It looked that way,” she repeated. Heat rose in her cheeks and she heard a low buzzing in her ears. He was working her nerve.

“Who was that guy? Yer sweetheart?”

“He’s a friend.”

“So yer headin’ back ta his place?” He chewed on his cigarette and took a thirsty drag.

“Does it matter?”

“No.”

“Okay, then.”

“Are ya?”

“Not that it should be important to you, but yes.” She really wanted him to mind his own fucking business but swallowed the words.

“Sorry, sweet cheeks. Sheesh!” He held up his hands in defense, smirking at her. She glared, then turned away to watch the street lights zooming by.

The sky was shifting to that deep blue that she loved, just as the black clouds mingled with it, turning it into a murky soup. The stars weren’t out yet. The street lamps and stoplights threw prisms of light over her caramel skin. The driver made a sound of approval in his throat.

“Damn,” he muttered. Ororo glanced back at him. He licked his lips. She sighed.

“Do I have something on my face?”

“Naw.”

“You’re staring like I do.”

“Just enjoyin’ the view.”

“Makes it hard to keep your eyes on the road.”

“Ya do that, anyway, darlin’.” She was grateful as he turned the corner onto Park. Finally.

She was out of her seat before he could even get out to open her door, scrambling for the money in her pocket.

“Take it.” It was just enough for the fare and a meager tip, but Ororo wasn’t embarrassed. She just wanted to get away from him. “I don’t need change.”

“Damn right ya don’t.” He left his light on and continued to stare. “Hold up, darlin’.”

“Excuse me?”

She was taken aback when he reached up out of his window and tugged on a lock of her hair, stroking it. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Sorry. Had ta…sorry.” He held up his hands. “Sorry, darlin’. I know, look, don’t touch. My bad.” He didn’t look sorry at all. She gave him a withering glance.

“Ugh,” she muttered as she turned on her heel. “Thank you,” she called over her shoulder.

“Naw. Thank you.” She stifled the urge to flip him the bird.

She didn’t realize as she headed for the comfort of Remy’s loft that it was unfortunately the first of many “my bads” in a certain smelly cab.

Chapter Text

“What did you say her name was again?”

“Ororo.”

“How old is she?”

“Nineteen.”

“Old to start.”

“Dey ain’t all gotta be twelve-year-olds dat look 21.”

“Twelve-year-olds have more staying power,” she reminded him. “Five, maybe ten good years in front of a camera, Remy, before the blush fades from the rose. You know that.”

“Tell dat ta Lauren Hutton or Brooke Shields,” he pointed out with a shrug.

“They went into acting,” she sniffed. Cassandra had little patience for actors. Models were more malleable talent, in her opinion.

“She’s got a lotta potential.”

“Don’t they all.”

“She’s about six feet tall in her bare feet.” Cassandra made a noise of approval and sipped her tea.

“That helps. How’s her walk? Is she runway-ready?”

“She could be.”

“Could be. No. That’s not what I asked. Is she or isn’t she? I don’t want someone I have to coddle for weeks before I can place her anywhere, LeBeau.” She paused a moment and tugged a gorgeous black and white eight by ten from the stack onto her desk blotter. “Nice,” she murmured. “Her eyes are blue?”

“Those ain’t contacts. Wait’ll ya see ‘em up close.”

“She reminds me of a young Naomi or Tyra. Or a Beverly,” she said, leafing through each shot and laying them side by side for comparison. “Is she an eater?”

“Been workin’ on dat already. Booked her an appointment wit’ Remy’s trainer.”

“Good. Keep her away from carbs. Sugar is the tool of the Devil.” Remy fought back a pang of guilt for the mocha latte he treated her to that morning, topped with a froth of whipped cream. “It kills some of these young girls to have a little discipline, honestly.”

“So after seein’ dese…what’s yer take?”

“What’s my take, he asks me. What’s my take, indeed.” Cassandra sat back and sipped her tea, enjoying his restlessness. “She’s interesting. Definitely interesting. I’ll even say ‘memorable,’ to be honest.” Remy beamed. “But,” she said, holding up one finger for emphasis, “interesting girls walk through here every day.”

“She could be de next Tyra. Betta yet, Tyra will wish she could be de next Ororo.” Cassandra snorted.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Dat’s what I’m tryin’ ta tell ya. She has dat sumthin’. People turn dere heads ta look at her when she walks into de room and follow after her when she leaves. She has presence. T’ink about seein’ her on de runway, struttin’. She wears clothes well.”

“I can see that. Shit, she could make a garbage bag look good. Or clothes from Walmart,” Cassandra mused. “Great breasts. Hers?”

“Huh?”

“Has she had any work done?”

“Non. Remy knows she ain’t been under de knife.”

“How do you know that?” She eyed him shrewdly.

“Never mind.”

“You seem awfully attached to this girl.”

“Remy t’inks ya should meet her at least once.”

“Do you know how long a model has to wait before taking a meeting with me, LeBeau?”

“Cass…” He sighed in defeat, but she continued on.

“This is a portfolio. Test shots,” Cassandra sniffed, tapping the eight by ten with a manicured talon. “I want meat. She’s not established yet.”

“Ain’t dat where you come in?”

“I’ll want her when I see who else wants her first.”

“Yer makin’ a huge mistake.”

“If you’re a smart man, you’ll never utter those words again, boy.” Cassandra rose from her seat and slowly circled her desk. She sat back against the edge of it and folded her emaciated arms beneath her breasts. Her lips smiled; her eyes didn’t. “I said she has potential. But so does everyone who walks through that door. Most girls her age have an entire body of work behind them, not just some pretty test shots. And they are pretty,” she emphasized. “You’re still a genius behind the lens, LeBeau.”

“Bella walked in through yer door with a handful of pretty test shots, too. Ya never doubted Remy and the work he did with her, then. So why doubt him now?”

“Remy, I don’t want a girl coming in here green. I want a model that can get it right in the first frame. I want her to eat, drink, sleep, breathe, talk and strut modeling. It’s got to be her life. I don’t want a girl who’s going to come in here half-assed and want to play dress-up.”

“That ain’t Ororo.”

“Bring her back in six months,” Cassandra ordered. Remy’s scowl was thunderous.

“That’s it? Six months. That’s all ya’ve got. These mean nothin’ ta you.”

“I only put girls on my books and on my wall once they’re signed.” Remy shook his head, smothering a harsh laugh. He gathered up every shot and placed them carefully, lovingly back into his folio.

“Yer makin’ a mistake.”

“Sure. That’s what they tell me. But who’s the one sitting behind this desk?”

“The one who’s gonna see this girl on magazine covers and wanna kick her own ass fer not gettin’ while the gettin’s good.”

“Nice seeing you again, Remy,” she said sweetly to his retreating back. No air kisses, no promises to do lunch. Remy felt angry and slightly sick. He didn’t slam the door, to his credit, but she listened to his feet thump down the hall behind it, growing farther away. He called out a goodbye to her receptionist. She drank more tea, musing.

The nerve of him. Really…

Not every girl was a Belladonna. Shit, once upon a time, Cassandra herself had been a Belladonna.

An enormous black and white portrait of a waif-thin girl with huge blue eyes stared back at her from above her desk. Her boyish haircut was an anomaly amid the hip-length hair the girls ironed at home, or the careless shags and flips.

She’d been the toast of Paris, muse to a stable of designers here in New York. Cassandra wasn’t just another pretty face, due in part to the fact that she wasn’t to just everyone’s taste. But she was memorable. Her face sold expensive watches, fine wine, women’s couture, perfume, cars. Everyone could recall where they had seen her or heard her interviewed on Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin.

As her light dimmed, she moved into the fashion houses, and then into print. She didn’t publish women’s magazines with pretty flowers and pastries on the cover. Style addicts prowled the newsstands every month looking for each issue of Swag almost as soon as the ink dried. It took a pretty face to sell ads, but it took one smart bitch to run an empire.

“Ororo,” she murmured to herself. She had to admit, it had “first name only” potential if she had to package her as a “brand” as well as a face.

Cassandra pushed Remy’s protégée to the back of her mind and finished her tea. Her day was bursting at the seams with appointments and a draft of the spring double issue to review and tear apart. She was a busy woman, for Christ’s sake…

*

Ororo stirred the pot of rice and turned down the heat just shy of letting it boil over. Brown rice wasn’t her favorite, but Remy’s trainer said white starches were a strict no-no. That eliminated half of Ororo’s diet, yet she wasn’t sorry. Gone were the days of living on Slim Jims and cupcakes or soggy 7-11 hot dogs.

She reached over to tune the static from Remy’s small kitchen radio and found a song that she loved. “Oh, yeah,” she grinned, and out of habit, her hips began to move. A serving spoon became a microphone and she began to boogie from counter to fridge and back again, glad she didn’t have an audience.

Her mother had danced around with her in the kitchen, once upon a time. It was a custom she missed.

The apartment was pleasantly warm from the heat of the kitchen and from Remy thoughtfully setting the thermostat at seventy before he left. Ororo turned it down slightly once she’d dressed for the day, but it was cozy. Her day involved errands and disappointments. She hoped Remy’s was better.

She hardly noticed the click of the front door. Ororo expected him to head straight to the living room to read his mail.

She stopped mid-warble and dropped the spoon in surprise. “GAH!” He’d ambushed her, grinning wolfishly at her from the doorway.

He clapped slowly, dramatically. “Encore, chere.”

“Shut. Up.” Her cheeks went up in flames. “You weren’t supposed to see that.”

“Wasn’t supposed ta hear it either, petit.” He drilled a pinky in his ear for emphasis. “Good t’ing we ain’t tryin’ ta sell ya as a singer.” Ororo made a face.

“You’re mean.”

“Jus’ bein’ honest, chere. Get used to it.” He was still smiling but he wouldn’t meet her gaze as he opened the refrigerator. Ororo turned off the rice and reached for the tub of margarine. Remy caught her hand, startling her.

“Non. Don’ even t’ink about it. Wanna add a lil’ salt, be Remy’s guest.”

“Hmmph…”

“Get used ta dat, too, sugah,” he added with a shrug. “Gotta suffer t’be beautiful.”

“Sure,” she sighed dismissively as she scooped the rice into a small serving bowl.

“Smells good,” he remarked.

“I think I burned it.” Ororo jumped back at the rush of steam from the oven as she opened the door. She stuffed her hands into Remy’s green oven mitts and reached inside, extracting a dish of chicken breasts.

“Ain’t too bad,” Remy lied. “Got a vegetable?”

“Broccoli?”

“Dat’s a vegetable,” he confirmed. He peered into a second saucepan, making a slight face at its dull green color. She’d overboiled it a bit, but a starving man couldn’t quibble.

Remy watched her set the table while he hung up his trench coat and unfolded his paper. Ororo watched him occasionally, worried by the set of his shoulders and how quiet he was. She brought a pitcher of apple juice to the table and ladled food onto two plates. “It’s ready, if you want it.”

“T’anks, chere.”

“Sure.” She didn’t sit down until he did.

“Might wanna drink more water durin’ de day, chere. S’good for ya.”

“Right. Got it.” Okay, she wondered, what was with Mr. Food Police, all of the sudden? “My day was fine, Remy, thanks for asking.” He huffed, suddenly feeling guilty.

“Wish Remy could say de same.”

“How did it go?”

“How do ya think Remy’s day went?”

“I don’t want to know, do I?”

“Oui, ya do wanna know. We’re gonna make a lil’ change ta de game plan.” Remy toyed with his rice. “Met with Cassandra Nova today.”

“So?”

“’So,’ petit says.” Remy’s chuckle was indulgent. “She heads a modeling agency and she’s the publisher of Swag.

“Oh. Wow.”

“Met wit’ her today. Showed her a few shots.” Ororo felt hard, cold knot form in her stomach.

“What did she say?”

“That ya had potential. But in de meantime, no go. Back ta the drawin’ board, chere.”

“Wow.” Ororo’s voice sounded despondent. “Um…Rem? Are you sure this is a good idea, after all?”

“Cassandra ain’t de only fish in de sea.”

“I just…I don’t know if I can do this.” Remy’s eyes narrowed dangerously and he tossed his fork into his plate. Ororo jerked back at the loud clink.

“Den maybe ya wanna make dat clear now, chere.”

“I’m just saying-“

“Ya don’t quit after one rejection. Learn dat right now. Ya keep struttin’ an keep knockin’ on one door after anotha’ til someone lets ya in.”

“I just think maybe this might be a little premature.”

“Den ya need ta fix dat way of t’inkin’. Remy’ll back ya up one hundred an’ fifty percent if ya have de right attitude, if yer willin’ ta throw yerself into dis wit’ everyt’ing ya have, chere. But ya can’t do this half-assed.” He couldn’t stop himself before he used the same word Cassandra threw at him.

“I looked for a job today,” she confessed.

Remy was silent. He shook his head. She continued speaking.

“I knocked on a few doors,” she admitted. “Filled out a few applications. It’s nice to have an address and phone number.”

“What kinda jobs?”

“Store clerk. That kind of thing.”

“Did ya finish high school?”

“I didn’t walk, but yeah. I finished.” Ororo swallowed around a lump in her throat.

“Why didn’t ya walk?”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“Fine den, petit. We won’t talk about dat.” He sighed, leaning forward on his elbows. His voice grew soft. “Chere…ya gotta t’ink bigger den dat.”

“I haven’t had a lot of practice, Remy.” She lost her appetite and got up from the table. Ororo took her plate back into the kitchen and put her chicken into a Tupperware contained; ruthlessly she scraped the rest of her dinner into the trash bin. She heard his footsteps growing closer, and she let the words tumble out of her mouth, her previous good mood gone. “Thinking big involved having a roof over my head and a place to shower every day a few weeks ago. I never went to college. I always hear about people saying that they can ‘write their own ticket.’ I’m not one of those people.”

“Ya could be.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Remy had ta learn dat the hard way himself, once upon a time, chere.”

“Sure you did.”

“I did,” he insisted. She continued moving about the kitchen.

“Let me know if you want me to save any of this.”

“Don’ matter ta me.”

“I hate to waste food.”

“Remy knows dat, chere.” She turned to put the plastic container of chicken into the refrigerator and ran up against something warm and solid.

She hadn’t been looking him in the eye, hardly sparing him a glance during their talk. She still wouldn’t; she focused on the weave of his wool sweater and his collarbones instead. When he exhaled, his warm breath tickled her cheeks. His grip on her elbows was gentle and not completely unwelcome, but she hated his scrutiny.

It made her feel too naked, too exposed.

He pried the container out her hands and set it on the counter. “She said ya have potential. She liked yer look. But she t’inks ya need ta develop yer image a little first before she books ya. What that means is dat we need ta get yer face out dere.”

“I don’t know how,” she muttered.

“We jus’ need t’take a different tack,” he said. “And it ain’t gonna happen workin’ at an AM/PM or Kmart, petit. If ya take a job, yer gonna hafta interact with people more den dat. Show ‘em de charm ya know ya have.” She tried to turn away, but he held onto her hands. “So we take it a step further, petit. Gonna introduce ya to a few more people.” He lifted her chin up with his index knuckle, urging her to look at him. His fathomless black eyes stared into her face, taking in the rebellion and self-doubt.

“What if they don’t like me either?”

“Don’ matter. Bein’ liked ain’t as important as bein’ remembered.” His thumb stroked her cheek before he even realized what he was doing. Ororo shivered. He released her quickly and went back to the table. He tucked into his rice with little enthusiasm, but Ororo felt slightly better watching him make the attempt. She went back to putting away the food.

“Hope ya don’t have any plans tomorrow.”

“Why?”

“Got an early day.”

*

 

Remy wasn’t exaggerating.

The next day found her in borrowed gray sweat pants and a pair of Remy’s spare sneakers; he laughed over the fact that her feet were nearly as long as his.

The gym was more crowded than Ororo thought it would be first thing in the morning.

“Morning commuters,” Remy explained before she could ask as she stared at row after row of treadmills and stationary bikes. “Gotta get in a workout before dey head t’dere nine-to-fives.”

They resembled gladiators, garbed in slick, dark canvas warm-up suits and yoga pants. Long wires dangled from their ear buds as they watched the cardio theater screens or sweated to their own music.

“Geez,” she murmured.

“Ya ready, petit?”

“Oh, yeah. Ready, Freddie.”

“You’re late,” a nasal voice informed them. Ororo turned and managed a smile for the razor-thin brunette in an immaculate white track suit. Her black tee was snug and the white skull logo stretched across her meager breasts. “No Fear” was emblazoned beneath it in blood-red letters. She gave Ororo a cool look and held out her hand. When she shook it, they were ice-cold.

“Sorry,” Ororo apologized.

“Don’t be. It’s his fault,” she informed her, looking Remy up and down. “He needs to get his own lazy bones in here today. Missed you on Friday,” she accused.

“Had an appointment.”

“You told them you can’t cancel your trainer’s bookings without at least forty-eight hours notice, right?”

“Had an appointment,” he offered again.

“I don’t care if you had a kidney transplant. See this?” She held up her hand in a gesture that there was no mistaking for anything else. “These are your balls. They’re mine once you walk through that door, LeBeau.” Ororo’s eyebrows flew up. Remy merely rolled his eyes.

“Beggin’ ya a t’ousand pardons, chere.”

“A thousand pardons, my ass.” She turned to Ororo. “You. Take that off.” She nodded to the roomy sweatshirt. Ororo dutifully took it off.

“It’s drafty in here.”

“Pfft. Drafty, she says. Honey, you won’t have to worry about that.”

Two grueling hours later, her words came to pass. Ororo was gasping up a lung, muscles burning and skin pouring buckets of sweat. Her ponytail was plastered to her nape and damp triangles spread beneath her breasts, darkening the cotton of her tee shirt.

“C’mon. Keep it up. Pump those arms.” Raven watched her scathingly and without pity. “Be consistent if you want to see results.”

“I just…wanna see…my…next…birthday,” Ororo wheezed. Raven snorted.

“Man up. In a month, you’ll thank me.” Ororo shot her a look that screamed volumes. Raven barked a psychotic laugh.

Nautilus weights. Stretches. Exercise ball. Crunches. Elliptical. Stationary bike. And Raven’s instrument of torture, the treadmill.

Remy was a few yards away, jogging and watching ESPN, occasionally peering her way. He shot her looks of pity mingled with laughter. Raven had already put him through his paces in the free weights and saved her time to focus on Ororo’s virgin visit to her gym.

“Please…can I…stop?” Raven appraised her, then shook her head.

“Okay. It’s your first day. I’ll cut you some slack. Come tomorrow ready to work, young lady.” She fiddled with the display, punching the speed button down arrow a few times. “Cool down.”

“Can I…just…die now?”

“Not until I tell you to.”

Her consultation was brief and unrelenting. Ororo listened to Raven from flat on her back on an exercise mat.

“We’ve got to unlearn a few bad habits with you. I can tell that already. But I can tell you have good muscle memory. Not too many weights, or you’ll look burly. We just want you to look hard.” Raven made notes on her clipboard. “I’m putting together a workout plan that I want you to follow even on days where you don’t see me. But I want to see you in here regularly. Like your life depended on it.”

“Because it does,” Remy added. He reached down and offered Ororo his hand. She looked ready to collapse. Her skin was flushed and gleaming with sweat, her ponytail had loosened and her posture was lax and limp. Even sitting up, she was all sprawling, long limbs. Her full breasts heaved with long, labored breaths. Remy tried not to stare, but it was futile.

“That was brutal.”

“Welcome to my gym,” Raven chirped. She gave her a hard clap on the back and sauntered off.

“What’s her deal?”

“She’s a fitness model. Been doin’ dat fer ten years. Can’t tell she’s a day over twenty-one, can ya?”

“How old is she?”

“Thirty-five.”

“Shit…”

“Trust an’ believe she’ll whip ya into shape.”

They headed into the brisk air. Ororo was too happy to see daylight. She glugged down half a bottle of Fiji water and still felt depleted.

“Where we headed now?”

“Home ta change.”

“Yay.”

“Got another appointment wit’ Jean-Paul.”

“Wait. What?” She stared at him as they headed into the subway tunnel. Ororo was just grateful she could no longer smell her own sweat over the stench of the long corridor as they went through the turnstiles.

“Yer gonna love ‘im.”

“But…I’m ready to drop.”

“Non. Gonna be ready ta drop after he’s taken a crack at ya.” He ushered her into the southbound car and dragged her into a seat close to the door. Ororo looked shell-shocked. He collected her hand into his and gripped it snugly, almost as if trying to keep her immobile. She looked indignant, perhaps even ready to run screaming from the train. “Trust me, chere. Gonna love ‘im.”

*

She despised him.

“You know I love a challenge, sugar plum, but I’m no miracle worker,” he drawled once the introductions were made. He looked Ororo up and down and flicked a hand through her hair. Ororo narrowed her blue eyes at him and shrank back. He smirked. “At least she’s sassy.”

“Jean-Paul’s a runway and image coach,” Remy explained. They’d walked up three flights of stairs of an imposing brownstone and entered a small studio at the end of the hall. Jean-Paul’s business name was spelled out in gold letters on the door’s glass pane, which was reflective enough for Ororo to see how tired she looked.

“I’m the best,” he corrected Remy. He appraised Ororo. “How tall are you?”

“Tall,” she shrugged. Remy cocked one brow. Jean-Paul threw back his head and laughed. It was a rich, bawdy sound.

“Oh, that’s cute. She’s cute,” he told Remy. “You’re built on nice lines. Not bony.” He circled her slowly. “Nice caboose. Generous, but nice. We can work with that.” Ororo made a sound of disgust. She’d just sweated half of it off! “But we’re not about booty strut here. I’m gonna teach you to stomp that runway, Miss Thing. It’s not as easy as it looks.”

He crossed his studio and carried Ororo and Remy’s coats with him, hanging them on an iron rack. “Take a seat, LeBeau. You, come over here.” As Ororo followed him, she noticed wall-to-floor mirrors along one wall. She felt more self-conscious than ever. “Head up. That’s the first thing. We need to work on your posture.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“You’re doing that ‘thing’ that tall women do. Don’t try to make yourself look smaller. No one’s gonna believe it, and you’ll end up looking like Quasimodo in heels.” His long, slim hands arranged her, practically molding her like clay. Ororo took silent exception to being manhandled but tolerated it. Remy watched, fascinated and amused. He winked at her when Jean-Paul’s back was turned. The corners of her mouth twitched. “Throw out that chest! Be proud of it! Pull in her your abdomen. That’s a good girl. Now take a little walk,” he bade her.

“Sure.” She walked with her usual stride, not in a hurry. She heard him tsk and watched him screw up his face behind her in the mirror.

“Stop, stop, stop. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Shit.

“I’ve got my work cut out for me.” He caught Ororo’s face and poked her. “Takes more muscles to frown, kiddo. Causes wrinkles.” He turned to Remy. “She always this quiet?”

“Can’t get her ta shut up,” Remy lied, grinning. Ororo narrowed her eyes again.

“She cleans up nice,” Jean-Paul allowed. “Looks like Ali’s handiwork with the hair. She color it, too? She did mine.” He ran his fingers through the wave of white hair over his forehead, tousling it. It stood out starkly against the rest of it, which was midnight black.

“No,” Ororo said flatly.

“Hm.” His voice was thoughtful. Then he ignored her and went to his calendar on his desk.

“Once a week,” he told Remy. “Bring heels with you. Practice in them when you don’t see me. Real shoes with some real lift. You can’t be fierce in flats.”

Jean-Paul was pretty “fierce,” she supposed. He dressed in couture and smelled expensive. He wore a few silver rings on his fingers and the crest of his ear was pierced with a small hoop. Jean-Paul and Ororo were roughly the same height, and he had a lean swimmer’s build with an enviably flat abdomen. Intelligence shone in his blue eyes and he had an impish smile that was also too capable of scorn. He looked like he could have been a model himself.

“Toodles,” he said, then circled his desk. He leaned in and pecked Remy on the cheek. Ororo sighed as he patted her on hers. “Know you’ll miss me.”

*

Later, happy hour:

Harry’s was hopping, packed to the rafters. Patrons drank in the rough, dirty blues the local band played along with their Heineken.

The interior already felt sultry despite the cold night outside. There was a line wrapped around the corner of people smoking one last cigarette and stomping warmth back into their feet.

Logan was in his element.

Except here, they called him Jimmy, and they came to hear him jam on the harmonica and make it wail.

Women’s eyes glued themselves to him even as he sat toward the back of the stage, plainly dressed in old denim and his signature cowboy hat. Broad, strong hands with thick knuckles and whose backs were dusted with fine dark hair stroked the silver harmonica. The instrument followed the dictates of his firm mouth, singing a song of zero apologies and little regret.

The siren on the mic was tall and willowy, garbed in simple black leather pants and a matching bustier. Her mop of thick hair was unrepentantly red, cascading down her back. Her voice was seasoned and gritty and her strut was predatory as she flirted onstage with each member of the small ensemble.

This was Logan’s world. His refuge.

He didn’t step and fetch and play hurry up and wait, hoping for fares and swearing at no-shows here. He wasn’t at anyone’s beck and call. He wasn’t reading a meter or punching a clock.

One song tumbled after another, blasting out onto the street and unbroken by the sounds of crashing billiard balls and pitchers thumped down on the bar.

“Last call!” It didn’t matter. Hardly a soul budged except to make one last trip to the john in the back. The younger crowd scowled down at the glow-in-the-dark stamps on the backs of their hands, annoyed that they could no longer “come and go.”

An hour later, Logan sat at the bar, nursing a mug of Molson and polishing the harmonica with a small rag. Despite the bar’s no smoking policy, Harry allowed him to light up after hours. Logan watched the busboys and cleaning crew mopping up tables and floors as he tucked a generous tip into the jar by the register. Lorna smiled at him from behind the counter as she dried the first of several clean pitchers.

“You guys were hot!” she told him.

“Thanks, darlin’.”

“Want another one?”

“I’m good.”

“Sure?”

“Yup.” He didn’t have his heart set on a buzz or a bender tonight.

He looked up at the sound of high-heeled boots thudding across the dance floor’s hard wood. Green-grey eyes ringed in the remnants of eyeliner that had been sweated most of the way off appraised him.

“Ready?”

“Fine by me.” Logan shrugged into his thick jacket and tucked the harmonica into his shirt pocket. He rose from the barstool and joined the striking redhead, keeping his hand at her lower back. She was smiling, but he felt her stiffen.

“G’night, Harry.”

“Bye!” Lorna waved happily. “You guys rocked.”

“Our pleasure, darlin’.”

As they made their way toward the exit, Logan picked up “Speak for yourself” muttered under her breath. He frowned.

“Gotta have the last word,” he said aloud as they emerged from the stagnant air of the pub.

“I’m ready to go home. I’m not making any promises of when I’m coming back, either.”

“Who asked ya ta promise anything?” he shrugged, but Logan was tired, and her manner was annoying him. He was ready for a decent smoke, some ESPN and to crash for at least ten hours. He was damn well worn out.

“I’m sick of Harry’s. This is getting old.”

“That the only thing that’s gettin’ old, Mare?”

“No. Do you care?”

“Probably not. Ya don’t think I do, anyway.”

“That’s because you don’t,” she snapped.

“Fine, then. I don’t.” Her voice held a warning note, even though she hadn’t raised it. But her stride lengthened, quickened, as though to leave him in the dust. Logan sighed.

She was right. It was getting old.

The walk home was chilly and frustratingly quiet. Mary attempted to walk ahead of him on their way into Logan’s apartment building, but he caught up to her easily and held open the door. She brushed in front of him coolly, not looking at him. Logan made a low sound of disgust in his throat and fished in his pocket for his keys.

He ignored the flash of messages on his voice mail machine and did up the dead bolts. Mary removed her jacket and went to the thermostat.

“Don’t turn it up too high.”

“It’s cold in here.”

“Put on somethin’ warm, then.”

“Fine. Let’s freeze, then.” She headed back to his room. Even her boots sounded pissed off.

“Turn it on, if ya want. Just don’t blast the friggin’ heat! That’s all I’m askin’ ya, Mare!”

“Easy for you. You never get cold.” She was shucking her leather pants and digging in his bureau for a shirt.

“You wanna pay a shitload of money to the power company, be my guest. Huh?” He turned on the bedside lamp, then the overhead light. “Here. Yer cold?” Logan savagely punched the button on the digital thermostat several times. “Here. Nice an’ toasty, darlin’. Wanna use some more?” He left the room and began turning on every light in the two-bedroom unit. Mary scowled as she heard the sudden blare of the radio in the kitchen, followed by the hum of the television and click of the remote in the living room.

“Are you kidding?” she muttered.

“Naw. Ya think I’m made of money, darlin’. Obviously.” She stood before him in his long, roomy grey thermal and a pair of pink pajama pants. Mary sighed.

“Here we go again…” She threw up her hands in surrender.

“There you go,” he corrected her. “I’m watchin’ TV. Go ta bed. Stay nice an’ warm.”

“Don’t be an ass,” she hissed.

“Sure. I’m an ass.” He helped himself to a glass of juice and took down a half-rolled up bag of Lays from the top of the fridge.

“Stay out here, then.”

“Yer lettin’ me stay out here,” he sneered. “Yeah, just go back there. Sleep tight, darlin’.”

He hated how hard his voice sounded even more than the sight of her retreating back. The chips lost their taste and suddenly he didn’t feel like sitting down.

She glared at him as he stood in the doorway, arms folded across his brawny chest.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you lately?”

“Why does something have to be wrong with me. Huh? It’s all on me?”

“Looks that way from here. I don’t know what’s wrong with you!”

“That’s nice,” she snapped. “Why did you even come back here?”

“Why can’t I?”

“Watch your sports.” She put scornful emphasis on the word sports. “Or your usual crap with tits in it.”

“That’s all I care about?”

“Yup. That’s all.” She turned off the bedside lamp and climbed into bed. “Turn that off,” she said, pointing to the overhead light.

“Maybe I want it on.”

“I’m going to bed.” That was his cue to be dismissed.

He wasn’t in the mood to back down or walk away, even though he recognized it as one of Mary’s “timeouts” that she tended to take when things got heated.

She started it, nagged a mean little voice in his head. He was emotionally programmed to want to finish it and have the last word.

“So whaddya want? Huh?”

“To go to bed.” Her answer was too curt. Logan felt anger creeping up his nape.

“Maybe ya don’t hafta sleep here tonight.” He strode over to the bed and grabbed the covers, yanking them off onto the floor. Leaving her exposed. Her eyes bit into him.

“That’s nice. You psycho bastard.”

“I’m a fuckin’ psycho,” he huffed. “Listen. I ain’t gonna play these games with ya. All night, all ya did was snap at me, ignore me, mutter under yer fuckin’ breath, and be a bitch toward everyone we knew. Ya made yer little high an’ mighty face and sneered at everyone. Ya think Harry and everyone else didn’t notice?”

“They didn’t notice shit! They don’t have any problem with me! You do.”

“Believe that if ya want.”

“Fuck you.”

“No. Uh-uh.” He pointed his finger, which was shaking, nearly jabbing her in the teeth. “Fuck you. Get out. If ya wanna fuck around with me and play this little game, then get the fuck outta my bed, get outta here and don’t come back.” She skirted around him, lunging off the bed. She grabbed her discarded stage clothes and bunched them under her arm.

“Fucker,” she hissed.

“So that’s it?”

“That’s enough!” she shot back.

She fled into the bathroom and shucked the pajamas, jumping back into her pants.

“So that’s it?” he repeated, lowering his voice. It lost none of its irritation.

“You don’t care how I feel. You’re just…you. This has always been you. You don’t feel. I don’t want to waste my time trying to explain this to you-“

“Waste yer time? Hn. ‘Kay. Wouldn’t want ya ta do that.”

“You’re hard, insensitive and you don’t listen to me or care what I think. This doesn’t need to go any further. We’re stagnating.”

“There’s a big word.” His smile held little humor.

“Fuck you,” she muttered. Her eyes were dry, but her voice was watery. “I’m done.”

He followed her. He didn’t feel like stopping her, or even stopping himself, even though it would have been prudent. Sensible.

They were never sensible people.

Logan’s sigh was gusty as he went into the kitchen, still watching her as she gathered up her jacket and purse. She stuffed her pajama bottoms into an old Victoria’s Secret shopping bag and continued to glare at him and mutter under her breath. Logan punched the button on the answering machine.

“Ya ever even listen ta these?”

“It’s your machine, genius.”

“No one ever calls ya here,” he shot back. The first was a hang-up. Delete. The second was an automated offer for lower rates on his credit card. Delete. The third was a hang-up. Delete.

Beep. “Hey.” The voice was garbled by static and traffic sounds in the background. “Tried to get a hold of you tonight. Went out, huh?”

Mary went silent, standing stock still.

“Gimme a call. Okay? Gonna be lonely…”

Delete.

“Hm.” Logan shook his head and paced the kitchen. When he looked up, his dark eyes were dilated and hard. “That guy care what ya think?”

She was silent, and eventually dropped her gaze.

“He sensitive? Doesn’t waste yer time?”

She folded her arms, cradling herself.

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

Can’t be late, can’t be late…shitshitshit.

Ororo’s legs burned slightly as her feet pounded the pavement in a near-run. She was two minutes ahead of the cross-town transit that picked up on Tenth Street, and her appointment reminder card burned a hole in her pocket. Remy gave her strict orders not to be late, and she was already batting a thousand; everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong as she prepared herself for her go-see. Ororo left the plastic wrapper from a packet of makeup sponges too close to her flat iron and melted it onto the paddle, nearly ruining it. It took her ten minutes to find her missing pump, stumbling over it when she ran back into the bedroom and jarring her ankle in the process. Ororo ended up dumping orange juice all over the kitchen floor when she misjudged how close the pitcher was to the counter as she took out items for breakfast, then ended up skipping it anyway when she burnt her English muffin.

She silently rolled her eyes as the transit pulled up, assaulting her nostrils with the odor of exhaust. Raven and Jean-Paul would say eating’s overrated, anyway. Ororo waited impatiently behind a mother of two who wrestled futilely with a full-sized, canopied stroller that refused to fold, and two teenage boys each saying with great conviction how much the other sucked. Absently she reached for her purse, then rummaged through it for her bus card. When she reached the top step, still searching, the female driver gave her a long-suffering look.

“Would’ve saved everyone some time if you’d dug your card out while you were still waiting for the bus,” she pointed out.

Your momma! “Sorry. I know. I’m sorry.” She finally found it and ran it through the reader, relieved that it still had some fare credit left.

“Take a seat, please.”

“Thank you.” Ororo kept her saccharine smile all the way to the back, where she ended up sandwiched between two old ladies who smelled like peppermints and new perms. After the brisk cold of outside, the bus’ warmth was almost stuffy and oppressive, and Ororo smothered a sneeze.

“I hope you’re not sick, honey,” one of her neighbors mentioned warily. “I wouldn’t wanna catch your germs, ya know what I’m saying?” She looked at Ororo as though she was a walking Petri dish.

“I’m not sick, it’s just…allergies,” Ororo demurred carefully.

“This isn’t allergy season, it’s cold season,” the woman corrected her.

“I’m sure it isn’t a cold.”

“They’re very contagious. You could be contagious.”

“I doubt it. I won’t be on here long,” Ororo said encouragingly, even as her cheeks burned with frustration. She tried to stare into the aisle, pretending that the rubber nonslip texture was fascinating, even mesmerizing. She knew her lie wasn’t very convincing as she mentally ticked off each stop on the route map above the windows.

Shit. Seven more to go, then a transfer. Why couldn’t Remy have just given her cab fare?

She squelched that thought as quickly as it bloomed. Because he’s given you everything else. Quit being ungrateful. Ororo spent the next few minutes listening to the women bicker on about whether or not Walmart or CVS had the better deal on Aspercreme in the weekly circulars.

She was stirred from the monotony by a sudden poke from the one with the mole. “Hey honey, what’s this ya’ve done ta your hair?”

“Oh…er…my hair? You mean…well, I just flat-ironed it this morning.”

“Nah. Not that, kiddo. I mean the color. Why did you color it white like that? You’re a young thing, you don’t want hair that color.”

“I can’t really do anything about it. It’s my own color.”

“So’s this,” the woman claimed, pointing to her brassy red locks. “I paid ten dollars for it, so it’s my own color!” she cackled. Ororo choked back a laugh until the woman beckoned to her to lower the scarf she had loosely wrapped around her hair so as not to get hat hair or cold ears. Ororo obliged her, bending down slightly. She felt her lightly probe her scalp and heard her grunt under her breath.

“Shit. That’s real, all right.” Ororo righted herself and replaced her scarf carefully, hoping her hair wasn’t jacked up now. The woman wasn’t through assessing her, though, and she was feeling chatty.

“Look, M’rinn, at those eyes. Eh? Blue.”

“Get outta here,” her companion mumbled, leaning precariously into Ororo’s personal space. “Get outta the house,” she repeated incredulously, and Ororo found it difficult not to stare at the hair follicles on her upper lip. “They are. Look at that. Aren’t you a looker!” Ororo blushed.

“Thanks,” she murmured.

“You are, kiddo. I won’t lie. You could sell perfume or fur coats or other fancy stuff with a face like that.”

“I don’t know about that,” Ororo admitted, since really, she still didn’t.

Remy and Allison had confidence in her; Jean-Paul’s constant claims that she had “rough edges” wore on her last nerve, to the point where her last nerve itself had “rough edges.” The rejection from Remy’s publisher, Cassandra Nova, was humbling, but Ororo reserved a small flicker of hope. She hadn’t been accepted, but she had been noticed. It was a start.

Ororo listened with half an ear as the women threw bits of their conversation at her or over her as they rode past each stop; her other ear was reserved for the dings of the signal pulls. Her stomach growled despite the knots of tension she woke up with and hadn’t shaken off. She struggled with a polite and attentive smile, brief nods and “mm-hmm’s” and “yups” at the correct intervals. Finally her stop loomed three blocks up.

“Ooh,” she yelped hurriedly, twisting her body around as carefully as she could without accidentally elbowing either of her neighbors as she reached for the window cord, “that’s it, that’s me.” She jerked it three times before she realized it didn’t work. Ororo jerked herself to her feet, awkward since she wore a pair of pumps, and she lurched slightly as she made her way across the aisle to the opposite window. “Excuse me, I just…sorry,” she stammered as she nudged her way around the man by the window trying to read his book. He glared at her over the edge of the Sue Grafton cover but then peered appreciatively down her cleavage, making her long to smack him.

She managed to jerk the cord one block shy of her stop, subjecting her to another disgusted look from the driver. Ororo held tight to the edge of the seat rail as the bus skidded to a stop. “Bye,” Ororo offered her two seat mates.

“Good luck, hon,” M’rinn called out.

“Knock ‘em dead,” said Irene, giving her a little wave. Ororo darted off the bus and crossed the street in the thick of a large crowd at the corner. At a newsstand on the other side, she hastily purchased a pack of spearmint TicTacs and popped two into her mouth. It did nothing for her hunger, but it was comforting to have something to suck on. Fate finally smiled on Ororo, bringing the connecting bus three minutes later. She was already holding her fare card in her gloved hand and managed a seat third row from the front. The remainder of her trip was relatively smooth; Ororo managed to get off right before a huge group of tourists filled it to capacity at her stop.

The cold, fresh air did nothing to soothe her nerves as she approached the tiny building that resembled a factory. Its brownstone face was intact but not decorative; the sign out front was even slightly nondescript, a plain black, slanted signature on a white ground.

Piotr Rasputin Designs

“Not very creative,” Ororo mused aloud as she approached the door. She found it locked, but noticed a small buzzer. She leaned on the button and stamped her cold feet to help their circulation. Her stomach was full of butterflies as she waited for an answer. Her heartbeat sped up as heavy, thudding footsteps echoed off of what sounded like a hardwood floor inside. The bolts were drawn back and the door jerked open to reveal the flushed face of a strikingly tall young man. Ororo actually found herself staring up, craning her neck slightly to meet his eyes, which was rare.

They were kind, sapphire blue and graced with fine laugh lines and enviably thick black lashes. He gave her a flustered look. “Ororo?”

“Yes. That’s me,” she stammered, tentatively grasping the door handle but jumping back as he yanked it open.

“C’mon. I’m sorry, but I’m running late. It would have helped if you’d shown up a little early for the fitting…”

“Fitting?” She frowned. “I didn’t know I was having one today.”

“You weren’t told?” Piotr sounded slightly exasperated. He escorted her down a long hallway decorated in framed, old movie posters. She didn’t have time to appreciate the old titles or the architecture of the building, which was definitely a factory, judging by some of the exposed pipes and duct work. Myriad scents tickled her nose, including ink, a strange polyurethane odor and various fabrics.

“How tall are you?” he asked her brusquely.

“Almost six feet,” she explained. He looked impatient.

“What’s your exact height?”

“Five eleven and a half.” He made a thoughtful sound in his throat, then looked her up and down.

“You wear clothes well.”

“Thanks, I-“

“EMMA!” he barked as they reached a large room with wall-to-floor windows. Rows of tables were laddered up and down the room, stacked with patterns and rolls of fabrics. Ororo gawked at how many different bolts there were in so many different colors and finishes. She almost reached out to stroke a roll of thick, soft-looking fabric that resembled suede. “Don’t touch anything,” her host piped up. She dropped her hand and backed off. “Emma? Get over here, please.”

“What’s your malfunction? What do you need, what do you need?” insisted an imperious blonde in a white sweater and snug knit pants. To Ororo’s mind, she actually looked like a woman who was used to being on the other end of the groveling.

“Why didn’t you call her and let her know this was a fitting?”

“I was told this was a go-see,” Ororo said absently. Emma fixed cool, slate blue eyes on her and hmph’ed under her breath.

“Because we had a change of plan,” she reminded him with more than a hint of I-told-you-so satisfaction in her voice. “Cal’s out of town. Just took off for Morocco without so much as a so long.”

“Shit…” Piotr, or the man Ororo presumed was Piotr, raked his long, thick fingers through his black waves and kneaded his neck, closing his eyes. “Let me think…”

“I’d never get in the way of genius,” Emma quipped.

“Okay. I can do this. You,” he pointed to Ororo, “that way. Emma, show her the changing room.”

“I didn’t see a changing room on the way back here,” Ororo argued.

“We’re low-rent here, darling,” Emma informed her with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “We use it for storage.” She turned back to Piotr. “Which outfit?”

“The black,” he told her impatiently. “No. Fuck that. The white.”

“Good choice,” Emma agreed, nodding to Ororo. “Grab that hanger. Come along.” Ororo reached for the one white outfit on a disorganized rack of clothes and followed Emma, who hadn’t slowed down, from the room. Ororo wondered if she’d fallen down the rabbit hole, and where the Mad Hatter was with his pot of tea. Emma hustled her off, back the way she came, giving Ororo another spare moment to enjoy the movie posters. Her favorite was the one of Marilyn, Jack and Tony from Some Like it Hot.

“Here,” Emma nodded, shoving her inside the room in question. Ororo noticed it was draftier due to a slightly cracked window pain. Someone haphazardly hung a battered curtain over it for privacy, and a full-length mirror was propped in the corner of the room, not in much better condition. Ororo inwardly shivered. She wasn’t holding out much hope of this go-see yielding promising results.

“Buck up, ducks,” Emma told her. “But hurry up.” She slammed the door shut after Ororo, leaving her staring after her speechlessly. Almost.

“What…the…fuck.” Ororo shook herself, then noticed there was nowhere to set her own clothing, let alone the pristine white outfit. Awkwardly, she hooked the hanger over the questionable curtain rod, hoping the whole thing didn’t collapse onto the floor with its weight. The room was freezing, raising goosebumps across her skin, and Ororo shivered, almost dancing from one foot to the other in a bid to shake off the chill. Piotr’s creation was tricky and stubborn, with several hooks and ties that made it difficult to fasten. The outfit pulled in places were Ororo thought it should drape, and her reflection didn’t give her any clues as to how to fix it. Her stomach roiled with her previous hunger and a fresh bout of butterflies.

She was unsure of the outfit. She was unsure of herself. Everything about her looked wrong to her self-appraising eyes, even the things that pleased her when she ran out the door that morning, but Ororo was resigned.

“To heck with it,” she muttered. “Get on with it, Ororo.” It was go time. Ororo steeled herself, took a deep breath and opened the door, stalking back down the hall. She heard Piotr deep in a discussion, but Ororo quailed at the sound of two new voices that weren’t there when she’d arrived.

“…she’s totally green. I don’t know we keep ending up with the new girls.”

“So get another agent, sweetie.” The accent was slightly foreign, the voice nasal and female.

“Where’s Cal?”

“Morocco. Lucky bitch.”

“You snooze, you lose. She needed this shoot. The PR would have helped her.”

“Guess she figures enough people have taken her picture.” That came from Piotr, who sounded resigned. Ororo shivered, hesitating before she returned to the main floor.

What if they hated her? What if they laughed at her? What if they sent her out the door with her tail between her legs? But then she reminded herself, This isn’t just a go-see. This is a fitting. They might actually use me. She crossed her fingers, took another deep breath, then entered the room slowly, giving them the chance to hear the clicks of her high heels and pause their conversation.

It came to an abrupt end when they laid eyes on her attempts to don the designer dress and jacket.

Emma covered her mouth with her fingertips, smothering a snort that made Ororo sick. The striking, curvy woman beside her had waist-length black hair and wore that color like a tattoo, covered in it from head to toe. Thanks to Remy’s tutelage, Ororo could tell her sweater was cashmere, a nice contrast in texture to her mercilessly snug leather slacks. Brittle dark eyes flicked over Ororo and a hint of a smirk twisted the corner of her mouth. Piotr looked…baffled.

“Ermmm…hm. Okay.” He approached Ororo slowly. “What’s wrong here? This looked fine on the fit model.” Ororo felt icy fear wrap around her chest and squeeze as he walked around her in a slow, appraising circle. “Hold on…oh. Okay.”

“Okay?” she murmured unsurely. “Maybe…this dress might not…quite…work on me.”

“It’s meant to work on everybody,” the dark woman told her haughtily. “Piotr’s designs are very flexible and conscious of every body. Not that we want girls who aren’t fabulous wearing them on the runway.”

“She has potential; be nice, Gallio.”

“What? I’m not entitled to an opinion?” Emma shushed her with an impatient gesture while Piotr retrieved a small pin cushion and piece of chalk.

“It’s no good, is it?” Ororo whispered. She tried to maintain some semblance of a smile, but she was devastated. All of her poise that she’d practiced, her smile, expressions, walk, voice…all of it was a waste of time.

“I didn’t say that,” Piotr muttered. He was tweaking the dress here and there. “Can’t figure out…hmmm… He was patently ignoring her in favor of working on the dress. “You’re not a big girl.”

“Thanks,” she husked. Her eyes burned and she retreated into that quiet, lonely little place inside herself for shelter.

“Buck up. You showed up on time. That’s a plus.” He stood back from her a moment, then moved in again, smoothing the fabric of her sleeve. His touch was almost a caress and his palm felt sturdy and hot; it was almost comforting. “Well, shit.”

“What?”

“Take that off. Just…take it off.” His voice mixed annoyance and amusement.

“Why? Here?”

“The jacket, for one. It’s fastened wrong. I couldn’t figure it out until I took a look at the hooks. It hooks first, then wraps, then you tie the sash.” It dawned on Ororo that all wasn’t lost.

“So I was having a wardrobe malfunction?”

“The malfunction wasn’t with my outfit, but yes.” His eyes met hers, and he gave her a tiny punch in the arm. “Smile. It’s not the end of the world.”

“I feel like an idiot.”

“Again, I don’t care. You were on time. You couldn’t know the difference between pop art and Pop Tarts and I wouldn’t give a damn as long as you have the right attitude and I can work with you.”

“I don’t get Warhol,” she blurted out.

“Blasphemy.” But he offered her a smile that calmed the sting in the back of her eyes. He unfastened the jacket without her permission, peeling it from her, but his baffled expression returned.

“What?”

He sighed heavily. “Right. Emma?”

“Hmmm?” Emma looked up from a stimulating conversation she and her guests were having over some color swatches when she slapped her knee, bursting into a laugh that could only be called a cackle.

“What did I do now?” Ororo whispered, feeling ashamed and mortified.

“Emma…darling. What sayyyyy… we start sewing tags into the samples? Like, in the back?”

The damned dress was on backwards. Ororo wanted to die.

*

 

The rest of her go-see was longer than Ororo expected. Remy told her initially that she’d likely only be a half an hour in the small design shop. Come in, smile, hand over her portfolio, change into whatever outfit they wanted to see, walk for them, and thank them for their time. She wasn’t expecting several outfit changes, or for Emma and her colleague, Selene Gallio, to give out critiques that were thirty-one flavors of unkind. But Ororo steeled herself and smiled until her face felt like it would crack.

While the women tore her apart, Ororo focused on Piotr’s responses to each outfit as she walked out, practicing what Jean-Paul taught her. Some of the clothes were truly beautiful, making her wish she could wear them home. Once in a while she would end up in something that could only be called “couture” for couture’s sake, sublime, strange, and the kind of outfit that just occupied ad space in thick, glossy magazines until you flipped to the table of contents. Piotr occasionally sidled up to her and adjusted her stance or beckoned for her to turn this way, then that.

“I like your hair. The color works with all of the clothes. Gives your face a nice backdrop. You really pay attention to ‘you’,” he pointed out, gently flicking a lock of it back from her neck. “It’s striking, but not distracting.”

“I’ve never been told that before,” Ororo mused.

“Be honest with me?”

“Of course.”

“Were you scared when you came in here?”

“Terrified.”

“Don’t be.” He nodded back to Emma and Selene. “Be more worried once we give you the job.” Ororo’s stomach flipped and her heart sped up.

“I got the job?”

“I’ve had ten appointments this week that were all crap. Some of them we’ll use, but not one of them grabbed me like you did. Even if you did wear one of my designs backwards, but you know what?” Ororo’s face burned with embarrassment.

“I don’t know if I want to know.” He patted her shoulder, and his hand lingered, briefly.

“If we get you out there often enough, if you get exposed enough, you might set a trend doing just that.”

*

 

The rest of her day didn’t matter. Ororo was elated, not giving a damn that a car cut her off at an intersection when she was crossing at the walk light. She casually flipped him the bird as he sped off, enjoying the spring in her step once she hit the crosswalk.

I got the job. I got the JOB! She knew Raven would frown upon it, but she stopped at Starbucks and treated herself to a white nonfat mocha and got it with syrup AND whip. It felt good to celebrate.

Ororo decided on the scenic route home, deciding to head toward the harbor front. The day was still cold, but the frost had dissipated and she could no longer see her own breath. She perused the newsstands and people-watched, indulging in Remy’s habit and almost regretting that she didn’t have a camera, or even a sketch pad. It had been so long since she felt…ebullient. Glowingly happy. The day was bright and full of promise, ending in the best possible outcome despite all of her troubles, and she wanted to record it in some way.

Ororo decided she needed one last, naughty indulgence while she was on a roll. Visions of extra miles on the treadmill made her shudder, but one whiff of the falafel at a nearby stand made up her mind. Moments later she was licking a dab of hummus from the corner of her mouth and eating the overstuffed, whole wheat pita in unladylike, huge bites. It had been too long…

Her mother had been a falafel addict and persistent vegetarian. Ororo shared her father’s taste for meat but still enjoyed some of the foods her mother introduced her to before they ended moving in with her grandmother. From then on, choices were limited, and her mother was exhausted. Their lives were filled with tense silences and arguments between N’Dare and Gran-Gran where they often sent Ororo from the room. She couldn’t unburden herself to David when he was so sick. Sometimes she still retreated to his room and sat by him, even when he slept, just to hear his uneven breathing.

Her grandmother instilled her with the habit of cooking vegetables down to nothing, claiming that leaving them too firm gave her gas. Ororo kept to herself most of the time, listening to her music in the basement to avoid disturbing anyone else with it. She despised the smell of beans and pork boiling on the stove or hearing her mother describing her father’s condition in whispered tones in the kitchen.

Dinners were never any better. Ororo grew used to short, quick meals on foot, usually a Pop Tart on the way to school or a pizza slice on her way home. When she was out on the streets, that hadn’t changed. Ororo kept her taste in foods simple out of habit anyway, but her way of living made it a necessity. She wrinkled her nose at still too-recent memories of Slim Jims for breakfast or Hostess cakes for dinner.

Ororo saved the last few bits of her pita pocket for the birds, throwing crumbs out to the ducks and pigeons that already looked pretty well fed.

“Hey, Blue Eyes!” Ororo started, heart pounding as she dropped the last ragged bits of bread on the ground. Out of habit she shrank back from the deep, gravelly voice that she thought she’d escaped months ago. She turned slowly to confront Vic’s broad, jagged grin.

“Hi,” she murmured numbly, stiffening and standing to her full height.

“Damn, darlin’, look atcha. Man. Someone got the hook-up,” he nodded to himself, appraising her. His roving eyes made her feel scummy. The past few weeks suddenly fell away like dominoes, closing the gap between Ororo and one of the uglier reminders of her past.

Yet Victor was physically striking, to his credit. His blue eyes were narrow and shrewd, staring out from the hard angles and planes of his face. His heavy, dark blond brows drew together at her lack of greeting. “Whatsamatter, darlin’? Cat got yer tongue?”

“No. No big deal, Vic.”

“No big deal. Listen ta you. A guy loses track of a girl, and she gives the cold shoulder! Whaddya know good, baby?”

“I’ve been busy.”

“No shit. Where’ve ya been?”

“Here and there.” Ororo felt slightly sick. Her heartbeat sped up as she looked for an easy out to the conversation. He grunted at that, but then he continued his interrogation nonplussed.

“Ya’ve been keepin’ yerself scarce. Any time I’ve asked around, no one’s seen ya, darlin’.” That made Ororo’s blood run cold. “Ain’t got a hug fer ol’ Vic?”

“Vic,” she stammered, looking around furtively. “C’mon…” She tried to smile and play it off like he was joking.

“C’mon, kiddo, give Daddy some sugar…c’mon. C’monnnnnn…” He was still smiling, but there was an edge of irritation to his voice. Her skin crawled the closer he came, and she wanted to tear her hand away as he grasped it. Her whole body went stiff in response and her brain screamed alarms to her body to run as he enveloped her. Victor felt harder, more massive than he had the last time she’d seen him several months ago. The scent of his cologne and his cigar smoke made her fight not to gag.

“Got some meat on yer bones, darlin’,” he whispered into her hair. “Feels nice.”

“O-okay, Vic, that’s…okay. You’re glad to see me. Let a girl up for air, huh?” Ororo prized herself from his grip and continued her bluff. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.”

“Funny! Funny girl! Love that shit,” Victor barked, but he held onto her wrist. Ororo hoped he couldn’t feel her racing pulse through his battered suede gloves. “So where ya stayin’?”

“Nowhere special. Listen…how have you been? What’ve you been up to?” He didn’t miss her attempt at diverting him. His eyes held that gleam that always appeared whenever he got the jump on someone, literally or physically.

“No good, darlin’. No good. You know me.”

Yes. She knew Victor. Too well. That didn’t make her fear him any less.

“Everyone misses ya. I miss ya. Ain’t anyone else I know who can move it like you can.”

“It’s…been a while, Vic.” She swallowed. “I don’t want to do that anymore.”

“Ya got some other gig lined up?” he scoffed. “That’s why yer all fancied up?”

She swallowed roughly. “I’m out.”

“Ya think so, eh?”

“I am. I’m out.” He eyed her thoughtfully.

He shook his head. “That’s nice. Ya’ve moved on. Nice.” His smile never left his face, but she felt ready to throw up. Ororo felt herself break out into a clammy sweat. “How ya gettin’ home, Blue Eyes?”

That threw her into a fresh spate of panic. She couldn’t walk. He’d follow her, or have someone on her tail, maybe for days. The bus wouldn’t be along for another half an hour.

“Um…I was just going to hail a cab.”

“I can have North pick us up in a flash,” Victor interjected, whipping out his mobile phone.

“NO! No…don’t go to the trouble.”

“Ain’t no trouble. No trouble at all, Blue. He’s just a few blocks away. Why bother with a stinkin’ cab that’ll charge ya up the ass per mile?” He punched in the number of his right-hand man with one thick thumb; it alarmed Ororo that he still hadn’t let go of her wrist. Ororo’s eyes darted around and she craned her neck around to stare back at the street. There was no one around who looked like they could help her get away, or who would think twice about Vic. To them, he was just big, handsome and a good ol’ boy out for a walk around the harbor and a hot dog. With his best girl. What could be shady about that? That was what made Victor Creed dangerous, the things that you assumed about him, the harmless impressions he wanted you to have.

She spied a familiar cab on the corner as it pulled up and parked. She saw its burly driver get out and buy himself a paper from a lockbox beside the stoplight. Ororo cupped her hand around her mouth.

“TAXI! TAXI!” It was a risk. It worked. Vic was startled by the volume of her voice, and he released her hand in response, as if he didn’t want to be caught holding onto her so tightly, after all.

“What the fuck!” he hissed. “Don’t blow out my fuckin’ ear drums! Where ya goin’?”

“He’s already here,” she reasoned as she backed away from him. “Look, Vic…good seeing you. Gotta jet.”

“North’s gettin’ us drinks! He’s already got the heat turned on…c’mon, Blue! BLUE!” he bellowed after her, and this time his voice sounded annoyed.

“Bye!” she cried as she retreated.

“BLUE! ORORO!” She took off at a loping trot and to her horror, heard his heavy footsteps coming after her.

“Shit,” she hissed under her breath. “Shit, shit, shit…”

Her lungs burned with the cold air and her feet smarted from the pinching shoes. “TAXI!” she cried. She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice. God must have heard her, because he made the grizzled driver peer over the roof of his cab just as he was about to let himself in. He pinned her with inquisitive dark eyes. He saw her running for his car like a bat out of hell and automatically hurried around to the passenger side of the cab.

“Where’m I takin’ ya, darlin’?”

“The usual,” she stammered. He no sooner opened her door than she dove inside, nearly flattening herself against the opposite door. He slammed it behind her with no further ceremony and grunted.

“Okay. That tells me a lot, sweetheart.”

“Just drive,” she rasped hoarsely. When she chanced a look back at the harborfront, Vic was staring after her quizzically, but she didn’t linger on her side of the exchange. She watched Victor throw his hands up, then make “call me” motions with his hand.

It took seven blocks for Ororo to catch her breath and for her savior to get her attention. His eyes peered back at her from the rearview mirror. It took a while for her to process that it really was him.

“I know there’s a story behind why ya ran like ya were comin’ from a house on fire, darlin’. That an ex of yers or somethin’?”

“No,” she grated out bitterly. “That was no ex. Trust me.”

“I’ll take yer word for it.”

“I don’t want to discuss it,” she warned him.

“My bad.” Ororo was almost disappointed that he didn’t pry, but she was also relieved that the car was moving, putting more distance between her and Vic. The blocks whizzed by one after the other, and she noticed that they were nearing the garment district. “Plannin’ ta go shoppin’?”

“No,” she muttered, frowning.

“Because if ya are, I can drop ya off at any of these, curbside. Macy’s? That little Indian fabric shop?”

“No. The ‘usual’ means home,” she pointed out.

“On Twentieth?” he inquired.

“Yeah. And you’re going the wrong way,” she accused. “I’m not paying you the extra fare because you took the long way.”

“This ain’t the long way, and don’t get yer panties in a bunch,” he shot back. His voice was amused, even though his expression was flat.

“Don’t make assumptions about my panties,” she muttered under her breath, glaring at the back of his head. Thankfully his cab was warm, and she relaxed back into the seat at least, feeling some of her tension uncoil itself.

“Ya look pretty fancy.”

“I had a go-see.”

“A what?”

“Go-see. An appointment about a job. They wanted to get a look at me in their clothes.”

“What, ya gonna be a dancer, darlin’?” he smirked. Irritation and distaste twisted her mouth.

“Please. You wish.”

“Can’t blame a guy fer tryin’, sweetheart,” he shrugged, nonplussed, and he had the nerve to raise one shaggy brow in her direction in the rearview.

“That’s not how I roll,” she informed him haughtily. “I met a new designer. He’s doing a show in two weeks.”

“What’s his name?” She was surprised he gave a damn. In his battered fleece-lined denim jacket and jeans, he didn’t look like someone who cared about fashion.

“Piotr Rasputin.”

“Pfft! PETEY? Yer workin’ with Big Pete?”

“You know him?”

“He works out at my gym,” he shrugged. “Nice kid. Benches three hundred like it was nothin’. He’s a stress case, though. Gonna give himself an ulcer frettin’ about gettin’ buyers for his stuff. His agents don’t help.”

“I don’t even have an agent yet. Remy set me up with this go-see today.”

“Remy?”

“My friend. I live with him.”

“Ah. Pretty Boy.”

“Don’t call him that,” she ordered indignantly. “He’s done a lot for me.”

He eyed her levelly in the mirror. “I bet he has.”

Heat flooded her cheeks. “Whatever you’re insinuating, buddy, don’t.”

He shrugged again. “Who’s insinuatin’ anything?”

“Good.”

“Fine.” He averted his eyes from the mirror, but not before she saw him smirk to himself again. Bastard.

They rode in silence for the remainder of the trip, until they were three blocks shy of Remy’s apartment. “So what kinda name is that, anyway?”

“What kind of name is what?”

“’Roro, or whatever that guy called ya.”

“Ororo,” she corrected him, enunciating it sharply.

“Whoa. Lah-di-dah,” he muttered, pulling a face of mock contrition.

“It’s African. My mother gave it to me.”

“Just ta be fashionable like some of those parents who come up with those fancy names?”

“No. I don’t know anything about ‘those parents.’ I’m half African, not just Black. Not that it should matter to you.”

“Nifty,” he said easily, ignoring her irritation. “Sounds neat, anyway.”

“Thanks,” she muttered, sighing. She wanted nothing more than to get upstairs and kick off her uncomfortable high heels, which were starting to pinch the ball of her foot.

He surprised her as he turned and parked alongside her curb. “When I said ‘those parents,’ darlin’, I meant like some of the hippie chicks that come out to the park with their kids named weird shit like Cornflower or Happy or Seven or Mars.” Ororo snorted, genuinely amused.

“Cornflower?”

“Guess I’ve heard worse, but yeah.”

“Maybe they were from SoHo,” she murmured thoughtfully.

“Woodstock, most likely. He craned his neck around as she began to count out her cash. “Does it mean anything?”

“What, my name?”

“Yeah.”

“Gram-Gram said it means ‘beautiful,’ I think. I don’t know. Guess Mom had high hopes. Wish she’d named me something that meant ‘One of these days I’ll be rich and famous.’”

“Yer mom knew what she was hopin’ for,” he chided her. “Don’t knock it. Maybe she got what she was askin’ for when she named ya that, darlin’.”

“Don’t call me that,” Ororo argued.

“Kay, ‘Roro.” She impatiently tucked the money into his palm and hurried to get out. “Take it easy,” he told her. “Hold on a sec.” She sat back, puzzled and frustrated, until he unbuckled his seatbelt and climbed out of the car. In an instant, he was up on the curb, opening her door. She wasn’t expecting the chivalry, but his eyes held mischief as they roved over her when she climbed out and stood to her full height. “Damn, yer tall.”

“So I’ve been told. Just don’t ask me ‘How’s the weather up here.’ It’s fine.”

“Sun’s always shinin’ lookin’ at you, darlin’,” he shrugged, but his drawl was so…cocky…that all she could do was sigh and shake her head.

“Thanks for the ride.”

“I’ll give ya a ride any time ya want.” His words chased her up the steps as she trotted into the brownstone building, relieved to leave him behind.

Chapter Text


“Shit,” Ororo hissed in alarm.

“What?”

“My zipper’s broken,” she insisted. “Piotr, it’s not working!” Panic choked her and she felt herself breaking out in cold sweat and goosebumps. Piotr’s hand at her lower back was meant to calm her, and she appreciated the warmth of his skin as it seemed to pulse into her through the thin, flimsy fabric of the outfit that currently refused to cooperate. She was getting a wicked draft…

He gently tugged her hand away from the zipper she was manhandling into submission. “It’s not broken,” he corrected her, “but quit yanking on it, Ororo. Look, you caught it on a thread. It frayed a little and got caught in the track.” She heard him grunt under his breath, then felt some of the cool air disappear from her back as he zipped the bodice closed. “Nice and neat, no thanks to a certain model and her habit of mangling my creations.”

“Sure, blame me and my ten thumbs,” Ororo muttered. Piotr, to his credit, was sober-faced, but his blue eyes held humor at her expense. He swatted her hip.

“Stand up straight, let me fix this.” She squared her shoulders while he slid the jacket up her arms. Ororo fought the urge to sneeze as the feathers tickled her lips.

“Couldn’t you come up with a collection of blue jeans for a change?” she teased.

“Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out,” he warned around a mouthful of pins as he fixed the sleeve’s cuff and tacked down a loose button. Ororo was impressed he could focus on such a small detail with all the chaos erupting around them. Backstage, the large dressing room was like Grand Central, deafening with bellows for makeup and accessories, models tripping over each other as they pulled their ensembles from racks and left empty hangers still swinging. The air was thick with fogs of hairspray and the cloying scent of moisturizer and makeup. Despite her skimpy dress and the insignificant little jacket, Ororo was suffering from the stuffiness in the room from too many bodies and the hot, bright lights from the stylist’s mirrors hanging over the wide row of vanities. It was growing hard to breathe, but Piotr’s forehead had that little divot in the center and the vein in his temple was sticking out in an ominous fashion. It wasn’t a good idea to complain.

One of Piotr’s other finds was doing enough of that for everyone in the room. Ororo silently rolled her eyes at a high-pitched screech from her left. “I don’t want green eyes! I hate myself like that!”

“It’s not up to you,” her stylist reminded her nastily. “Hold still, Kitty.”

“No,” she pouted, folding her arms and jerking back from his small brush. “Get that crap away from me.”

“Look, do you wanna tell Piotr you won’t wear green eyes in his show, after he was nice enough to book you?”

“Excuse me, but my agent was the one who booked me in this show,” Kitty snapped. She didn’t look ready to budge. Her stylist threw down the brush and got up, shoving back his chair so roughly it bounced off his standing easel, knocking it onto the floor.

“I’ve fucking had it. Someone else deal with Barely Legal over here!” Ororo tried not to laugh as Kitty sat mimicking him with her expressions, making talking hand gestures behind him. She stopped and glared back at him just as he turned around to stare at her. “What’d you just do? Are you making fun of me?”

“Who’s making fun of you?”

“You are! You’re making fun…she’s making fun of ME??!” He looked around at the room at large and threw up his hands. “Look, I’ve had enough of this shit! I’ve put up with your MOUTH and your ego all day! I won’t put up with you making a fool of me to boot!”

“You’re doing a great job of that yourself,” she shrugged innocently. She even threw in a little clap. “Bravo.” The stylist was about fifty, graying, slightly paunchy despite careful dressing to camouflage it, and his skin was the florid red of someone who struggled with hypertension. His jaw worked and his fingers twitched for an inkling.

His palm struck her cheek with a loud crack. Kitty reeled back, looking stunned; her large brown eyes were huge, even devoid of makeup, but now, they were glistening.

“Fuck,” Ororo muttered under her breath. One side of her wanted to be amused, since Pryde was a spoiled brat, but shock won out. Ororo was appalled and watched Kitty’s lip tremble slightly, but she straightened up.

“You hit like a girl,” she spat. His eyes bulged, and he looked ready to jump over the fallen easel to throttle her, but Piotr clapped one beefy hand over his shoulder.

“Out. Go. No one lays a hand on any of my models,” he snapped. “You should know better, you’re a grown man.”

“But…look, she pushed me too far! She’s a spoiled little brat, she’s the worst kid I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been in this fucking business for twenty years!”

“Then act like it. Out. Now.”

“But…!”

“Don’t make me have you thrown out. Get your crap. Leave with dignity.” Piotr nodded to his easel and satchel and gave him a slight shove. Kitty opened her mouth to add her two cents, but Piotr made a silencing motion. “Zip it, Pryde.”

“I was…”

“Uh-uh. Not a word.”

Once the stylist was gone, the temporary hush that had fallen over the dressing suite returned to its former clamor.

“My mom’ll have him sued,” Kitty grumbled as a young cosmetology intern named Anna began daubing white cream beneath her eyes, which were now slightly puffy.

“Tip yer head back, shoog, while I give ya some of these drops. Fix ya right up in a jiff.”

“I can have him put away for assault and battery,” she bragged, nonplussed by the fact that she had likely gotten a man fired.

“Over eye shadow,” Ororo tsked aloud, shaking her head. Kitty swiveled her head around, eyeing Ororo up and down.

“Excuse me?”

“All that drama over a little eye shadow,” Ororo repeated.

“I know how to look good! I’ve been doing this since I was five! I was a Gerber baby, for cripes’ sake! Last year, I did a Access Dental billboard!”

“Goody for you,” Ororo told her, giving her a few polite claps. “That man was doing his job. You were playing around with him on a night where no one in here has time to cater to your every whim.”

“What do you know? I mean, you’re nobody,” Kitty crowed, raking her eyes over her and smiling nastily, making her look older and more harsh. “No one here’s even heard of you.” Ororo shrugged, nonplussed.

“If all goes well, they will after tonight,” Piotr told her sharply. “Listen up, Katya. Enough. I told that stylist what I wanted for your look. I picked out the outfit for you, knowing that I needed a petite girl with your kind of dark looks to set it off. The look is glam, so the green eye is almost a prerequisite.”

“It’ll look like shit.”

“If you feel that way, there’s the door,” Piotr challenged, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “You don’t get to sit here and insult me in my own house.” She folded her arms and had a hard time holding his gaze. Anna backed off from putting on Kitty’s concealer when Piotr leaned in close enough to her that Kitty could see his pores and count the specks of stubble along his jaw. “Do you think I’d send you out there looking like shit?” She squirmed uncomfortably in her seat.

“No,” she said quietly.

“No. Huh. Good. Thanks for the vote of confidence. And guess what? You’re selling my clothing for me. You have to make my designs look fantastic with the way you present yourself. Not the other way around. Watch your mouth, and work on that attitude. If you want to act like a primadonna, do it on someone else’s runway, in someone else’s clothes.” He backed off slightly. “Understand?”

“Yes,” Kitty said in a small voice. She dashed the edge of her thumb beneath her lower lashes.

“Good. Finish getting ready.” Piotr turned on his heel and went to check on the lighting onstage.

“Harsh,” Anna Marie muttered. “Lemme give ya a little concealer, sugah.”

“What was that white crap you put on me a minute ago?”

“Preparation H. Makes the swelling go down.”

“Omigod! That’s so gross!”

“Hey, it works, don’t it? Quit yer yappin’, kid, and hold still!”

Ororo sat back and let her stylist work on her hair, bumping it with a curling iron and teasing it mercilessly. She hardly recognized herself with the extravagant makeup as it was as her now smoky eyes stared back at her. Remy forced her back onto her Spartan diet and training regimen, and it paid off brilliantly, since all of Piotr’s clothing fit her like a glove.

But she was ready to kill someone for a Snicker’s bar. Violently.

“Quit frownin’, petit. It makes wrinkles,” Remy drawled as he swam into Ororo’s line of vision. His reflection hovered over hers, and she offered him a shaky smile.

“I’m nervous as hell.”

“Don’ be. Worked hard enough fo’ it, padnat.” The nickname was one of the few she liked, once Remy explained it was French for “partner.” “M’gonna be down in front.”

“Remy! Don’t! You’ll make me mess up!”

“Don’ focus on me. Focus on you,” he shrugged.

“Easy for you to say,” she sulked, staring down at her nails. The white-on-black French tips stared back up at her but held no answers to her fears.

He leaned down and nudged her cheek with his jaw. His voice and warm breath feathered over her ear, making her shiver. “Dis is your night, chere. Get out dere an’ show ‘em who’s house it is. Make ev’ry camera out dere train itself on you. Show ev’ry woman in here how it’s done.” His cologne was slightly metallic and crisp, a perfect complement to his black silk shirt and jacket. His familiar, drawling baritone was comforting and gave her strength that she sorely needed.

“They all know how, I’m the rookie in here. Even Pryde makes me look like an amateur.”

“Bullshit. She keeps pullin’ dat nonsense, an’ no one’ll wanna work wit’ her anymore. Her career’ll be over by de time she’s eighteen if she ain’ careful.”

“I’m already too old, then.” His dark eyes met hers in the mirror, and his gaze burned her.

“Dat’s bullshit, too.” He edged himself between Ororo and the vanity, leaning back against it and bending over her. His fingers captured her chin and lifted it so that she couldn’t look away from his eyes, but she stared at his lips as he spoke. “Dere ain’ anyt’in’ you can’t do, chere. Only gonna fail if you don’ try. Remy b’lieves in ya. Never backed a loser in my life. Know ya got it in ya t’make it, chere.” Her heartbeat sped up as his fingertip traced her jawline so gently that it could hardly be called a caress, but it still made her tingle.

She was impossibly beautiful, but the old Ororo still lingered beneath the gloss, vulnerable and unsure of herself. “Get out dere an’ kill it. You nail dis show, an’ Remy’s gonna take ya out fo’ a steak dinner. If ya stumble, den it’s salad city, chere.” She snorted. “I ain’ kiddin’. Better yet, chere, I’ll sweeten it. I’ll throw in a surprise if dis show gets any of the agencies comin’ tonight t’sign you.”

“That’ll be the day.”

“Den I guess we’ll be eatin’ salad,” Remy shrugged. He brushed her temple fleetingly with his lips, and her stomach fluttered in response. “Lemme know when ya wanna apply down at Starbucks, chere.” With that, he left. Ororo fumed.

It wasn’t his lack of pity that made her shrivel. It was how badly she felt she needed it.

*

The opening bars of “Poker Face” blasted from the speakers onstage. The audience out front resembled an arena to Ororo as she glanced out past the curtains. “Shit,” she hissed under her breath.

“What’s wrong with you?” Kitty demanded. “You look sick.”

“I feel sick,” Ororo admitted.

“Baby,” Kitty insisted. “What’s the matter, is this your first show?”

“Piss off, kid,” Ororo said nastily, unsure of whether her claws were coming out from nervousness, annoyance, hunger, or some combination of the three. Kitty looked taken aback.

“I was just gonna ask if you wanted a mint,” she claimed, holding up a box of TicTacs, popping two of them into her own mouth. “They won’t let you have gum back here.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Kitty shook the pack, and Ororo gratefully held out her hand. “This hasn’t been a stellar day.”

“Tell me about it.” Ororo didn’t bother reminding Kitty she’d brought the slap on herself; she needed a friendly…well, somewhat friendly voice and face right about now to soothe her jitters. “My first show sucked. I fell. Tripped over a pair of five-inch heels when they snagged in my train. I sprained my ankle and couldn’t work for a month. It sucked.”

“Ouch.”

“That was one of Gallio’s shows. I hate working for her, anyway, she’s a bitch.” Ororo suppressed a smile.

“Does she book you a lot?”

“Every once in a while. She doesn’t always like petites.” Kitty sighed. “Sucks being short.”

“You’re cute.”

“Omigod, don’t call me that. I hate ‘cute.’ It’s the kiss of death.” Beneath the makeup, which Anna did a killer job of, Kitty Pryde was a vulnerable looking girl. “I’m already limited enough. When I was twelve, they told my mom once I was too ‘baby-faced.’ When I gain any weight, it ends up in my cheeks.” She cupped her hands near them in a gesture that suggested they were big and poofy, which was anything but the truth. Kitty had a lean, heart-shaped face with sharp bone structure and dimples when she smiled, which for the moment seemed rare. Kitty seemed the moody type…

“Oooh!” she gasped suddenly, flanking Ororo and whispering at her like a co-conspirator, “Look! I can’t believe she’s here!”

“Who?” Ororo peered around the edge of the stage and into the front row, following the path of Kitty’s manicured finger.

“Cal! She was supposed to be in the show tonight!” Ororo couldn’t stop staring at the striking, rail-thin woman with irregular features and choppy, short coif sitting beside Emma. Like half the other people attending the show, she wore black, making her skin cross the line between “fair” and “pale.” Ororo tried to place her, knowing she was familiar, especially with so many piercings and slanted blue eyes lined in needle-sharp kohl.

She was just…fierce. Everything in her demeanor screamed “Fuck off”, from her hard, bolt-upright posture to the faint sneer in her expression.

Ororo envied her.

“What else has she done?”

“Are you kidding? She’s a legend, where’ve you been?” Kitty leaned in closer than was polite as she filled her in, giving Ororo a sharp elbow. “Whatever you do, don’t cross that woman if you get stuck with her on a shoot. She’s mean.”

“What else is new?” Ororo muttered.

“She’s made photographers cry,” Kitty went on. “She was in a Mapplethorpe calendar once.”

“I love Mapplethorpe,” Ororo murmured, impressed.

“Callisto’s not even her real name,” Kitty sniffed. “One-name wonder, just like Tyra or Vendela.”

Or RuPaul. Or Bono. “She’s different.”

“That’s how you make it,” Kitty said simply. “She had a falling out with Cassandra Nova two years ago. Told her to fuck off and stomped out of her office, I heard.” Ororo wondered how guilty she should feel as she did nothing to discourage Kitty’s gossip. Them, for all she knew, Ororo would probably be her next subject five minutes later. She gave a mental shrug.

“Must be nice to have that much sway.”

“Are you kidding? I wish I were her.”

Ororo had no more time to contemplate the wisdom of that statement. She was rushed by one of Piotr’s assistants into line, and her stomach twisted itself into ten thousand knots. As the first two models paraded out, she saw a sudden burst of flickering lights and realized they were flashbulbs. It suddenly hit her that she could end up in print.

Holy shit.
Her mouth tasted dry, then slightly bilious…

“Go.”

“What?”

“GO!” the assistant snapped, waving her out once the model before her in line was about five paces ahead.

“Shit,” Ororo yelped, smoothing her skirt with sweaty palms. This was it. Now or never.

Someone had the bright idea to set a fan off to the side of the stage. The high, flamboyant collar of feathers trimming Piotr’s blazer that he designed so lovingly came with the nuisance value of trying not to scratch her face. The refreshing, cool air rushed up at her, promptly blowing the itchy plumage across her lips. Ororo sputtered, trying to free errants bits of fluff from her lipstick. The overhead lights were blinding, underscored by the flickering bulbs as they popped, several at a time.

Ororo’s heart hammered as she made her way out. She tried to ignore the eyes pinning her at first, roving over her hungrily and with interest. She caught a few women’s pursed mouths “ooh’ing” at her outfit, or perhaps over her; she couldn’t tell, but it sent a shiver of excitement through her. She was getting noticed.

Her brain struggled with the effort to free her face from the annoying collar and to walk as Jean-Paul taught her. Strut, she corrected herself. She patted down the collar, trying to make it look intentional, and then Ororo literally put her best foot forward, cruising down the runway in long, fluid strides. She ignored the pinch of the snug little heels (medieval torture devices in a previous incarnation, she decided) and focused on the crowd. Her expression was collected and confident, even while she prayed that the feathers didn’t attack her again.

Her prayers were too little, too late…

Shit,” she huffed, feeling the hitch in her abdomen as she tried to stifle a sneeze. Her hand remained resting on her hip, and it was time to take off the jacket as she walked to reveal the delicate little camisole underneath, which was proving easier said than done. She wanted to reach up to stall the sneeze, but not at the expense of taking off the jacket with a flourish, as Jean-Paul had instructed. She smiled, catching the eye of the photographers with the Vogue press badges to her left, and Ororo began to unbutton the jacket.

The sneeze, when it escaped, was sputtery, loud, and completely unladylike. Thankfully, the music was loud enough to drown her out – somewhat – and Ororo recovered enough to see that she was perilously close to the edge of the stage, correcting herself in time to pivot and fall back in line.

To her horror, a feather escaped the jacket, drifting in lazy arcs through the air. Ororo’s eyes widened briefly, but she tore her gaze away from it, remembering the jacket. She carefully unbuttoned the two small, black discs and slid it gracefully from her shoulders, slinging it gracefully over her shoulder. She maintained her calm mask, but she overheard titters from the front row and cringed. Ororo felt herself breaking out into flop sweat.

The fans hit her again as she headed toward the back of the stage, and once again, heaven laughed at her expense. She sneezed again and this time, felt a tiny pop. She pivoted when it was time, showing the audience the outfit once more before retreating offstage.

This time she knew the audience was amused about something. What was worse…why did she suddenly feel a draft?

She shrugged to herself again. Look at it this way: You didn’t have a heart attack.

She made it back behind the curtain, by turns relieved and annoyed with herself, wondering if it was safe to inhale yet.

Obviously not.

Selene was hurrying toward her, absolutely livid. “What. The hell. Is wrong. With you.” She yanked the jacket from Ororo’s grasp and practically strong-armed her behind a changing screen.

“What’d I do?”

“What. Did. You. Do.” Selene spun her to face her, gripped her jaw, and forced her to look down. Ororo’s nipple stared back up at her.

“Oh, crap.”

“’Oh, crap’ she says. How nice. Ororo’s decided to join the rest of us on planet Earth.” Ororo scrambled to fix the camisole and cover her now drafty breast.

“That…wasn’t supposed to happen,” Ororo said numbly, trying to meet Selene’s gaze without cringing. She failed miserably. Selene’s scowl was made more menacing by her jet black brows, waxed and tweezed into an angry arch.

“What on earth is wrong with you? What is it with you and clothes?”

“I had to sneeze. The fan was blowing on me.”

“She had to sneeze.” She grabbed Piotr, who had approached and stood on the other side of the screen like a gentleman while Ororo struggled to fix predicament. “She sneezed,” she repeated to him.

“I gathered that.”

“Twice,” Ororo added meekly. Her nose still itched; she fought the urge to rub it while she shrugged into a small silk changing robe. Off to the side, Ororo noticed Kitty returning from the catwalk, dissolving into giggles and pointing. She knew the brat had met her quota of being slapped silly for the night already, but what was wrong with a surplus? Ororo narrowed her blue eyes at her and made a chopping motion across her neck for Kitty to be quiet, resulting in a slender hand clapping itself over her mouth, merely stifling the sound. The brown eyes were full of amusement at Ororo’s expense, green shadow and all.

When Remy reached the dressing area again, he was out of breath and flushed, having cut his way through the thick crowd and harried stylists and models.

Ororo turned to face him before he even called out her name, feeling his presence, even craving it in the wake of her humiliation. Her façade faltered, weakening as she saw the sympathy in his dark eyes.

“I fucked up,” she said in a near whisper as he drew closer, shaking his head.

“Petit…”

“I completely fucked it up, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” Selene barked in the background as she fussed with the jacket, tacking down a few feathers that were trying to work their way loose from the collar. Her mouth was full of pins and she sewed furiously, as though she wished she were stabbing Ororo with her needle. Ororo schooled her face to be passive, but her eyes glistened as they filled.

“Non,” Remy said quickly as her posture crumpled. “Ororo…calm de fuck down.”

“I…can’t,” she insisted hoarsely, barely audible above the clamor in the room. He jerked her around by the shoulders and steered her to the vanity, forcing her to sit. His hands squeezed her shoulders firmly, keeping her grounded and warming her through the flimsy robe.

“Look at me, petit.” She shook her head, staring stubbornly at her hands clenched in her lap. “Dat’ll be enough of dat. Chere…c’mon, now. Ya got out dere an’ strutted, jus’ like ya were taught.”

“I made a fool out of myself,” she said haltingly, voice clipped when she could find it. Her chest felt constricted, and she breathed in short, harsh little huffs. Remy sighed, then rubbed her upper arm soothingly.

“Ya had a wardrobe malfunction,” he quipped blandly.

“Shit,” she tsked. “Of all the times that something like that had to happen…it just had to happen to me.”

“In front of dozens of cameras,” Selene muttered from the corner. Remy spat something in guttural, clipped French that made Selene’s mouth drop open, letting the pins fall from her lips onto the floor. “Go fuck yourself.”

“Fine wit’ me. Sure as hell wouldn’ fuck you,” Remy shrugged.

“Don’t flatter yourself!” she sneered, but her face was florid. Ororo suppressed a snort, but a hot, slick tear streaked down her cheek despite brief swipes beneath her lashes with the sash of her robe.

“C’mon, now,” Remy chided. He reached for a wad of cotton balls and tucked them into her hand. “Clean up.” He snapped his fingers at Anna, motioning for her to come over. “Touch her up. Get her ready t’head back out dere.”

“It’ll only take me a sec. Girl, it ain’t the end of the world, a’ight? It gotcha noticed.” She pulled out a small bottle of eye drops. “Tip yer head back, sugah.” Ororo hissed as the cold drops smarted as they hit her corneas, but they soothed away the hot itch of tears and cleared away the bloodshot haze, making her eyes look less glassy. “Gotta hit ya with some of this too,” Anna warned, yanking out the hemorrhoid cream again. Ororo hid a shudder as Anna continued to fix her up.

Ororo was strong-armed into another outfit, despite loud objections from Selene and her own misgivings. Yet another pair of stilettos pinched her toes. Remy stood off to the side, back turned to keep his promise to Ororo not to watch her, even after she wrangled with him to stay backstage to build up her resolve. He sighed, deciding not to question it.

The woman was driving him bonkers and batshit.

It almost reminded him of Belladonna, in their earlier days, while she was still green and knew how to push all of his buttons. He wondered what he was doing again, how good it was for his mental health to shepherd Ororo, when he was lying to himself daily that he even had control of his own life.

But Ororo was so vulnerable. Her outward strength was a shield, layers built up like the rings of a tree, sturdy as a weed that survived winter. But there were moments when he caught fleeting glimpses of the girl who had missed birthdays and slept in doorways and who had to depend on the kindness of strangers, flying in the face of motherly warnings never to do any such thing.

There were times when she made Remy feel like a man holding a lollipop out from the window of a sedan. He scoffed at himself; that wasn’t him. Could never be him. Ever. She was an adult, capable of saying no, and his door wasn’t locked from the outside. She was welcome to leave any time she got tired of Remy’s shit, something he’d made plain.

Her potential boggled him. It was like trying to count ripples when a raindrop disturbed the surface of a still pond. There was such a vicarious thrill for him to watch her enjoying things he took for granted, whether it was the brisk walk to the subway, knowing she actually had somewhere to be, and a reason to get up in the morning, a bed to get up from. She walked differently, sounded more confident, and her eyes lost that hollow look.

His own had lost focus; he’d entrenched himself so deeply in his musings that he didn’t realized where he was until he heard her voice calling out to him, uncertain but insistent.

“Remy? Rem?”

“Quoi?” he snapped impatiently, jerking himself around.

His mouth went dry and he felt a tightening in his gut…in his loins, for God’s sake. Ororo’s blue eyes bore into him and she straightened herself, hand automatically hooking itself at her hip with a snap. She vamped for him without a second thought, almost instinctively.

Remy blamed the dress. Oh, God, that dress… It rustled as she approached him.

“Tell me if it’s no good,” she demanded. He shifted the blame to that mouth, expertly lined and glossed in deep plum.

“It’ll be good if you don’t ruin it,” Selene cut in, but she was interrupted by another hard, deep female voice.

“Whatsamatter, kiddo, didn’tcha enjoy her little peep show out there? I sure did,” Callisto informed her, clearly amused.

“Cal,” Remy offered. She stepped in and gave him a shallow brush of her cheek against his that masqueraded as a kiss. “T’ought you were overseas.”

“Got homesick.”

“Made it here soon enough t’see de show,” he said, a note of accusation in his rich drawl.

“I had jet lag,” she murmured. She wasn’t contrite. Remy sighed.

“Right. Jet lag.” Piotr materialized out of nowhere, and he gave Callisto a stony glare.

“What the fuck are you doing back here?”

“Stretching my legs.”

“Stretch them that way,” he ordered, extending one brawny arm toward the door that led to the street. “Don’t even come back here. Are you fucking crazy? You’re going to come back here like you own the whole fucking place, after leaving me in a lurch?”

“You’re over it,” she snorted, rolling her eyes by the time he reached “like you own the whole fucking place.” She folded bony arms beneath her meager breasts and stared him down. “Looks like you’re getting by with the second string.” She nodded to Ororo, unimpressed.

Her tone got Ororo’s back up, raising her hackles and raising her chin a notch. “Nice try, Blue Eyes,” Callisto told her scornfully.

“Nice try, my ass.”

“Got enough of it,” Callisto yawned. Ororo fumed, feeling flames lick over her face and a strange tightening in the back of her skull.

This skinny, hard little heifer was gonna step to her?

“Jealous?”

“Hell, no!”

“You will be.” Ororo cut past her to Selene, who was organizing a basket of accessories. Ororo dove into it and snatched up an ornate, gilt-edged fan.

“What the fuck…HEY!” she barked. “Bring that back! That’s the wrong prop for that outfit.”

“Like hell,” Ororo muttered. She promptly fell into the lineup, cutting before a rail-thin blonde in sheer black chiffon.

“I was first!” the girl hissed.

“Tough. Do you want a cookie?” Ororo paused long enough for the beat of the song she was waiting for and started back down the runway. Anger fueled each step, and her strides became a steady stomp. Her hips didn’t sway; they snapped. Snap! went the ornate fan, sliding open to reveal the hand-painted characters and willow patterned designs. The black silk shantung was heavy and clung to her mercilessly, no less of a torture device than the hard wires and hooks of her corset underneath. She could barely breathe; it was moot. If a whiff of oxygen made its way to her brain, she’d take a moment to think. Each flash of her calves opened up the white froth of ruffles where the skirt was slit open in the front, wrapping around to a decadent train that swished out behind her.

Action superseded thought. She vamped, offering only a brittle, wintry smile as she reached the end of the runway. The flashbulbs were back, blinding but not distracting, not to Ororo; she looked through them, looked past the crowd, seeing Callisto in her mind’s eye and still hearing Kitty’s laughter in her ears.

You can fuck off, her inner voice barked. And so can you. And you. And you. She compiled a growing list, adding Selene and Emma with some semblance of satisfaction, then Cassandra Nova as an afterthought.

As though Ororo had summoned her, the diminutive platinum blonde caught Ororo’s eye. Just because she felt like it, Ororo tipped her chin up a notch and let her lips curl into a smile. Cassandra’s own smile faltered slightly and she narrowed her eyes. It was a shrewd look; was Ororo challenging her?

Her heart pounded in her chest as she made her way backstage.

“What the fuck was that?” Selene demanded, throwing up her hands. She whirled on Piotr. “What was that?” she repeated.

“Take your pill,” he urged her, expression deadpan. He turned back to Ororo. “Have someone help you out of that.”

“Fine.”

“Don’t let anything happen to it,” he added. There was a hint of amusement in his eyes. “The fan wasn’t supposed to go with it.” Ororo shrugged, then nodded.

“My bad.”

“No. Good. It worked.” Ororo felt a dwindling of her adrenaline and suddenly wobbled on her spindly heels. Someone was steering her into a chair.

“Chere, what’s de matter?”

“I’m fine,” she insisted. A bottle of chilled water was pushed between her lips, and she was surprised at how much she craved it.

“Get outta dat, quick!” Remy ordered, but Emma moved more quickly, jerking open the hook at the back of the dress. Ororo took a starving breath and her dizziness passed.

“Right. Maybe we use a minimizer next time,” Emma said, nodding to Ororo’s cleavage. Ororo glared at her as she worked her out of the dress; Remy calmly held up his hands in surrender and backed off.

“Pathetic,” Callisto muttered from behind her. Her reflection sneered at Ororo in the vanity’s mirror, but Ororo was nonplussed.

“Who’s the one blaming it on jet lag?”

“Fuck yourself.”

“Sure as hell wouldn’t fuck you,” Ororo told her blandly.

Chapter Text

“Honey, I’m home!” Ororo sang as she kicked the front door shut, juggling the plastic shopping bags and a foil gift bag looped around her fingers by gold cord. “Rem?” she called out. She heard his low music playing, but he was nowhere in sight. Then she heard the low hum of the bathroom fan drifting out into the hall. “Smells good,” she added as she locked the deadbolts behind her and heading into the kitchen. She set down the bags and pulled off her glove with her teeth. Ororo hit Play on the answering machine and reviewed the messages and caller ID display.

Beep. “Ororo? I’m leaving this message for Ororo Munroe? This is Sandy, from Van Dyne Design. I received a copy of your resume, and I was wondering if you were willing to come on down tomorrow to meet with us. We have a show coming up, and your look might be just the thing we’re going for, if you could try some of our clothes in-house. Give me a call when you have a minute, area code five-five-five, five-five-five, five-six-seven-eight, ask for Sandy…”

“Yes!” Ororo whispered, feeling a grin twist her mouth. She clapped silently and hit the button again.

Beep. “Remy, this is Emma. Just checking in with you about the show we just wrapped. We’re missing one of the scarves Ororo wore at the show, and we were wondering if it got swept up and taken out of the studio when you departed. We’d really like to have it back. Give me a call.”

“Bitch,” Ororo muttered. “I’m no thief…”

“You an’ me know betta den dat,” Remy countered as he ambled into the kitchen. He leaned against the door frame and smirked. “Already heard dat one.”

“I know which scarf she’s talking about. I hate that one.” Ororo bristled defensively as she took off her coat. She was about to hang it over the back of a chair before Remy tutted and pointed toward the hall.

“Hang it up, petit.”

“Okay, okay. Sheesh. I just got home.”

“Den treat it like a home, not a dump. Don’ leave stuff lyin’ ‘round. Do dat often enough, an’ a house stops lookin’ like a home.” Remy was a meticulous neat freak. While Ororo wasn’t a slob, she wasn’t used to having a home to take care of herself.

While Ororo went to the closet, Remy rummaged through the shopping bags. “What’d you get?”

“A few things to make a recipe Piotr gave me.”

“For what?”

“Potato pancakes.”

“Pancakes? Dat ain’ on Raven’s meal plan.”

“Lighten up! We deserve a treat,” she insisted as she sidled up to him, elbowing him companionably.

“Already got dinner in de oven,” Remy pointed out. “Put de potatoes away.” Ororo pouted and stomped her foot.

“Please, pleasepleasepleasepleeeeease… I’m so sick of low-carb!”

“It ain’ sick of you. Lookin’ sharp, petit.” His eyes flicked over her before he continued putting away her groceries. “What’s dat?” He nodded to the shiny foil gift bag.

“It’s a surprise. It was a gift.”

Remy paused in emptying the Safeway sacks to reach into the gift bag. He pulled out a bottle of champagne by the neck and grunted in surprise.

“Where’d you get dis?”

“Nice, huh? It’s Cristal, Remy!”

“I can read what it is, petit.” He set the bottle down on the counter and continued unpacking the bags, moving briskly around the kitchen. His body language was closed and stiff, and his lips were a tight, thin line.

“What’s wrong? Don’t like champagne?”

“Yer too young t’be drinkin’, an’ it’s a bad habit ta start at dis point in yer life, ‘Roro.”

“It’s one little bottle,” Ororo shrugged. “Monet gave it to me. It was part of the swag from her agent.”

“Den give it back. Or give it away.”

“You don’t want some with dinner?”

“Non. Get it outta here.”

“Remy…?” She was puzzled that he was avoiding her eyes.

“Get rid of it. Now.

“Stop talking to me like I’m a child!” Ororo snapped, eyes sparking. She folded her arms beneath her breasts and shifted her weight to one hip. “It’s no big deal. It’s a little champagne. If you don’t want any, then don’t drink it. I didn’t spend your money on it!” she insisted.

“Dat ain’t de point,” he growled. He slapped a bag of broccoli crowns on the counter and whipped around to glare at her, and Ororo wondered when and where she’d gone too far. “It’s my house! Ya ain’t gonna bring liquor up in here! All right? Ya understand, chere? I. Don’t. Drink. I can’t drink.” His intent sank in, and Ororo averted her eyes from his stony gaze. “Ya get it?”

“I get it,” she muttered. “Sorry.”

“Ya need ta understand,” he told her, “cuz I ain’ gonna let ya be mad at me ‘cuz I didn’ make myself clear, ‘Roro.”

“Fine. You don’t have to give me the details.” She looked chastened and slumped out of the kitchen. “You can throw it out,” she tossed over her shoulder.

“Chere! Chere, come back here!” He trotted after her, but she closed her bedroom after herself.

She fumed to herself. She should have guessed. Somewhere along the way, it should have registered in her mind. She’d never seen him drink anything but bottled water or club soda, even when they went out to eat or hung out backstage at any of her shows.

But what bothered her more than her own lack of insight was hearing those damning words: It’s my house! Of course it was his house. That bothered her more than anything. Ororo was still living with him out of his hospitality, and it hung over her head. She’d begun contributing to their living arrangement in little ways, like bringing home groceries, and she paid him for her calls on his Verizon bill, but he kept assuring her it wasn’t a big deal. Remy said he was “comfortable” and her staying with him wasn’t putting him out, but Ororo had pride. She hated taking advantage.

And she didn’t want to owe anyone anything. Never again.

Ororo kicked off her pumps and shrugged out of her cardigan, laying it neatly over the bed. Remy knocked gently from the corridor. She heard an odd jingling noise. “What do you need, Remy?”

“Need t’talk t’you, petit.”

“We don’t have to,” Ororo offered. “I get it. I won’t do anything like that again, Rem. I promise.” She continued stripping out of her go-see clothes, glad to slip into her soft flannel pajama bottoms and a gray, ribbed wifebeater tank that she’d stolen from his clean laundry. She’d borrowed it from him after her first forty-eight hours under his roof, before he’d outfitted her properly, and it never made its way back into his drawer since.

He knocked again. “Please come out, petit. I hate talkin’ to ya through a door. C’mon, chere.” He sounded frustrated, but not angry. Ororo’s eyes burned.

She sighed and opened the door to him. His face pleaded with her. “Truce?”

“Sure.” He edged inside and sat on the guest chair in the corner. He nodded for her to take a seat on the bed. “Make yerself comfy, chere. Wanna talk to ya. I don’t want ya ta rush me, cuz dis is important.” He leaned forward with his elbows propped over his knees, letting his wrists dangle in front of him, and she noticed his key chain, realizing that was what she heard jingling before.

“Are we going somewhere after this?”

“Non. Stayin’ in. Dinner’s ready, but I wanna have a talk.” He tossed her his keys, and she caught them deftly. “Look at de tags.” She turned the ring over in her hands, fingering the little metal tags. Each was a different color, and they had different dates inscribed on them. Six months, one year, five years, Ororo read to herself, mouthing the words. “Been sober six years now,” he informed her. “Ain’t been de easiest t’ing, chere.”

“I guess not,” Ororo agreed. “I didn’t know.”

“Ain’t like I t’ought dis discussion would ever come up, ‘Roro. Never crossed my mind dat I’d have ta bring dis up. I ain’t ashamed ta talk about it.”

“And you shouldn’t be.”

“I know. But I gotta be honest wit’ you. Yer used t’seein’ Remy a certain way, in a certain light. Long as you’ve known me, I’m jus’ a man earnin’ a livin’ wit’ my camera an’ my eye for style. I pay my bills. I live in a nice building, have good neighbors, and run around in a highbrow crowd. Ya remember how much of a rise ya got outta me when ya took my camera?” Ororo made a sound of disgust and stared down into her lap. Her cheeks flushed with shame.

“I still can’t believe I did that. You didn’t have to trust me or offer me a place to stay, but you did anyway.”

“I like t’live life on de edge,” he chuckled, and she threw a pillow at him, but there was still hurt in her eyes.

“It’s your house. You can live how you want.”

“Hn. Oui. Guess it is.” It dawned on him what she was getting at, and he felt a pang of guilt. “M’sorry.”

“You were making a point. Which brings me to mine.” She stood and crossed the room, handing him back his keys. “Maybe I should move out.”

“Ain’t no hurry. Why?”

“Because it is your house. You’re right.”

He took the keys but caught her hand, gripping it tight. She tried to jerk away from him, and her face was confused and slightly annoyed. “Did dat upset you, chere?”

“It’s not that. I’ve had it on my mind for a while.”

“When you’re settled and more comfortable, den ya can t’ink ‘bout findin’ yer own place, petit. We’re getting you out dere. But dis ain’t a livin’ for you yet.”

“I’m getting there! Don’t baby me, Remy! And don’t doubt me! What’s the point, if you’re going to tell me it’s not my living yet? I’m getting more shows!”

“Gotta think bigger, petit. A lot bigger.”

“Just don’t doubt me.”

“I doubt you, den I’m doubtin’ how much I’ve put into helpin’ ya get dere, chere. I’ve never backed a loser in my life. I have faith in you. If ya get yer own place, dat’s one thing, but den it’s a struggle.” Then he sobered. “C’mere.” He tugged on her hand again. His fingers felt warm, and his thumb stroked her pulse.

“I’m fine where I am. Talk.”

“Fine, den.” He released her, and she backed away, huddling back on her bed. Her wrist still felt warm from his touch, and her heartbeat sped up. She stared at him as he resumed his comfortable slump. Like her, Remy had slipped into sloppy togs, opting for a soft charcoal gray Starter tank and black Lycra sweats. His hair was still damp from his shower, and his jaw was clean-shaven. The lingering scent of his aftershave lotion tickled her nose. Remy sighed.

“I hit rock bottom one night when I woke up in an alley. My wallet was gone. I was all banged up. I couldn’t remember much about how I got dere. Wuz so hung over I couldn’t t’ink straight. No cab wanted t’pick me up, cuz I looked like hell. But it’d been dat way for a while. I had de cab take me to a clinic. Dey said I wuz anemic, an’ I wuz emaciated. Ya t’ink of drunks as havin’ a beer belly, but it had gotten bad, chere. I wuz hardly eatin’. All I t’ought about wuz gettin’ high. Wonderin’ where my next drink or my next hit wuz comin’ from. Had de shakes. DT’s. Two busted ribs. Contusion on de back of my head. Someone kicked it when dey had me on de ground.”

“Oh, my God,” Ororo whispered. “Oh, Remy.” Her voice was full of sympathy and shock. She reached for the other pillow on her bed and hugged it to her belly.

“Dat’s how bad it’d gotten. Guess ya might’ve guessed by now, me an’ Bella had a fling. Back when I wuz livin’ dat life. She never fell dat far. Dat wuz one of de t’ings that tore us apart, even dough she stayed wit’ me when I wuz dryin’ out. She waited for me. But t’ings were already a mess ‘tween us. De damage wuz done.”

“Did I mess things up?”

“Non. Wuzn’t you. You had not’in’ t’do wit’ us goin’ sour.” Belladonna still called, and occasionally, Remy didn’t come home at night. Ororo didn’t ask why, since it wasn’t her business. But it still chafed her. Sometimes she nibbled on almonds and fixed herself a cup of tea and stayed up watching old movies, waiting for him to come home, but she often fell asleep and woke up to the sound of him humming in the shower the next morning.

“Didn’t really realize how bad I let t’ings get. Ev’ry’tin’ got away from me. My rent, my car payment. Utilities were shut off when I got back from rehab, and everything was in collections. I had t’start from de beginning. Call back agents and models who fired me by phone. Apologize to my pere and my brother. Had ta stop hangin’ out wit’ a whole crowd of people I t’ought were my ‘friends.’ My pere came by ta help me clean my apartment, and it looked like a crack house. Bottles an’ pipes ev’rywhere. Garbage bags full. I primed over a wall dat I painted dark red. Still don’ know why. I even wrote t’ings on it.”

“Like what?”

“Let it end now. Loser. No love. Live fast. Die young. Leave a beautiful corpse. Whole lotta nonsense.”

“Wow.” Ororo shook her head numbly. “That isn’t you.”

“It was, back den.”

“So I didn’t mean to freak out about the champagne. But now ya know why.”

“That reminds me… excuse me.” She shuffled into her bedroom slippers and dashed for the door. Remy jumped up and caught her arm.

“Where ya goin’?”

“Out for a moment. Give me a minute.” Ororo brushed him off and ran for the hall closet. She grabbed a hoodie and tugged it on before she made her way into the kitchen. She took the bottle, still unopened, and tucked it back into the bag. She looked at it longingly, but she made up her mind. Remy followed her, but she waved him off. “I’ll be back.”

“Ya don’t hafta dash off, chere! Ya just got home!” he complained. “And dinner’s ready!”

“I’ll be back.” Ororo briefly stroked his arm before she breezed out the door. Remy sighed at the sound of the hollow slam.

“Fuck,” he muttered, wondering how far into his mouth he’d shoved his foot.

But it was out. The weight was off his chest, and Remy felt as though they were on more even ground. He was relieved, but part of him wondered how Ororo would feel about him now. Did she think he was a hypocrite? Did she think he’d treated her like a child?

His thoughts raced as he set the table and brought out serving spoons and utensils and made them both hot Tazo tea. He’d forgotten that he’d left his music playing, and he headed back to his bedroom stereo and changed the discs in the carousel. He added a couple that Ororo mentioned she’d liked, an olive branch.

He was already at the table, sipping his tea when she came back inside. She gave him a brief, noncommittal smile as she hung up the sweatshirt and sat down, toeing off her slippers under the table. “Where were you?”

“Down the hall. I gave it to Wanda. She was pretty stoked. Thought I was crazy for giving it away.”

“Ain’ not’in’ wrong wit’ givin’ up free booze.”

Ororo mused to herself, How about free rent? Free electricity? She didn’t voice her concerns again. Dinner was casual, not as tense as it could have been, but Ororo’s earlier good mood deflated. Remy asked her once in a while if everything was fine, and she assured him that it was delicious.

She headed back to her room, pleading exhaustion, but she needed to give the memories flooding her free rein, alone.

Victor. It always came back to him.

**

Flashback:

 

Ororo had never used. She could have. Some scrap of pride and self-preservation kept her from walking that road. But she threw her lot in with Vic as an easy out. Like Remy, he was generous. It didn’t mean anything to him to set her up in a rent-by-the-week motel or to take her where she wanted to go in his car.

He’d propositioned her. It wasn’t an ideal start to their “business arrangement” and working friendship. Ororo was huddled against the wall of a liquor store one night, trying to take meager shelter from a pelting rain that caught her by surprise. Victor came outside, lighting up one of the Camel’s he’d just purchased. He was larger than life and imposing in his shining black leather jacket, and he grinned at her like a hungry lion.

“Ya on the clock, sweetheart?” His voice was gruff and held a hint of laughter at her expense.

“What?”

“C’mon. Come over here and talk ta me for a minute.” He closed in on her, and his body provided a brief windblock as she struggled up to her full height. She glared up at him.

“I don’t know you,” she accused. “I’ve gotta go.”

“Why? Ya got somewhere ya need ta be?” He caught up to her easily with his long legs, and he took another fortifying drag of his cigarette. “I ain’t a cop.”

“Good for you.” Ororo didn’t trust the police. She’d nicked a few wallets and the occasional bag of groceries from people’s car trunks, but she’d been scared to death every time.

“Ya can trust me. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Name’s Victor. I go by Vic.”

“Rhymes with Dick. I’m not interested in whatever you’re selling.”

“What the fuck?” He kept following her, and Ororo wished that a cop would come along and chase him off, so he’d leave her in peace. Why did all the weirdos find her appealing? Ororo wondered if some tattooed “Come and mess with me” across her forehead while she was napping in the doorways and tenements where she squatted as necessary. “Why’ve I gotta be selling anything?”

“Looks like you’re making a big living selling something,” she pointed out. He kept following her as she pushed the walk light button and hustled over the crosswalk. “Check the time on that fancy Rolex you’re sporting.”

“It’s half-past seven,” he obliged, looking amused and annoyed at the same time. He cocked one shaggy, honey blond brow at her.

“No. It’s time to leave me the fuck alone.” She turned into a crowded diner, not caring about the disgusted look the waitress gave her as she took in Ororo’s shabby garb. Ororo wore a men’s ribbed tank that was soaked through from the rain, a dubious bargain from a Salvation Army shop and one of the only summer items of clothing she owned. Her jeans were faded and torn, and where they were once form-fitting, now they bagged around her waist.

It occurred to her that she couldn’t even order anything. She didn’t have any money. “How many?” The waitress’ voice was flat and her eyes held contempt, silently telegraphing We both know you’ll be out of here in thirty seconds. Don’t waste my time and yours making me seat you at a table.

“Two,” Victor pronounced over her shoulder. The waitress gaped as she saw the huge blond in designer labels and teeth like a shark’s sidle up to the too-tall, too-skinny Black chick with the freaky hair and let his eyes run over her in her disheveled state. Ororo’s breasts looked ripe in the flimsy, worn cotton that was plastered to her skin.

“One,” Ororo argued sharply.

“Both of ya can sit at the counter.” The waitress jerked her thumb over her shoulder and scooted off to help the next customers. Ororo glared at her retreating back, but Victor’s touch distracted her. His hand was warm at her lower back and gentler than she would have expected.

“My treat, if ya quit tellin’ me ta fuck off.”

“You’ve got the wrong idea about me. It’s that simple,” she told him, blue eyes blazing. His were blue too, but they were an icy slate and held a gleam of intelligence. The way he looked at her was making her shiver more than the chill from the rain on her bare skin.

“Then give me the right idea. Ya hungry?”

She was starving. “No. I just wanted a cup of coffee.”

“We’ll make that bitch over there in the orthopedic shoes bring us a whole pot,” he assured her, nodding back to the mean waitress. “Siddown. Tell me yer name.”

“My name’s not important.”

“Fine, then. Be that way, Blue Eyes.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Then give me something I can call ya.” A different waitress asked if they’d seen the menus and told them the specials. “Give us a minute, sweetheart.” She glanced back at him approvingly and eyed Ororo curiously, wondering why he was talking to someone so bedraggled.

“You don’t really care what my name is.”

“Damn. Ain’t old-fashioned at all, are ya? Can’tcha let a guy be a gentleman?”

“I can be a lady, but not if you think I was working that corner.”

“So ya weren’t.”

“No. Not my idea of a promising career choice.”

“Depends on the clientele.”

“Baloney. My daddy didn’t raise any fools.”

“So how’d ya end up here?”

“I was unlucky.”

“Then this is yer lucky day, Blue.” Ororo sighed. She gratefully thanked the waitress for the coffee and sugared it generously, letting the steam waft up around her cheeks.

“Not if you’re looking for a good time.”

“I’m already havin’ a good time.” He glanced at the menu and clapped it shut when the grumpy waitress sidled up.

“Know whatcha want?”

“The reuben with fries. And a root beer.”

“What about you, kid?” Before Ororo could answer, Vic held up his hand.

“Get her a cheeseburger. The combo.” Ororo gave him a wry look. That was just what she’d craved as soon as they entered the diner.

“And a Coke.”

“Got a ‘No Shirt, No Shoes’ policy hangin’ the front door, kid. That’s hardly a shirt, the way yer wearin’ it.”

“Hope ya ain’t workin’ here for tips,” Victor challenged. “Leave her alone.”

“That gonna be all?”

“Yeah, Flo. Go find some grits ta kiss.” His eyes hardened, even though his lips smiled at her in saccharine fashion. She took the hint and disappeared with their ticket.

“So I’m buyin’ ya dinner, and I don’t even get a name.”

“Ororo.”

“Different. How ‘bout a last name?”

“How about not.”

“I think I still like Blue Eyes better.”

“Get used to it.”

“Should I?” He smelled like smoke and some musky cologne that wasn’t unpleasant. His body radiated heat and having him beside her made her feel strangely protected, almost like owning a pitbull that only heeled at the sound of her voice. “What if I told ya I could help ya?”

“Why do you think I need help?”

“Ya wanna pick up the tab?” Ororo looked down and picked at her nails.

“Asshole,” she muttered. “Maybe next time.”

“That’s what I thought.” He gulped down his of coffee in two swallows and sighed, staring at her. “Yer a mess, but yer fuckin’ gorgeous, Blue. Real sweet-lookin’, like a little girl. I need that look of yers. I wanna put ya ta work for me.”

“You a pimp?”

“No.”

“Dealer, right?”

“Yes.” His answer was blunt and to the point.

“Hell, no.”

“Ya don’t hafta sell it.”

“That’s what they all say. You heard me when I said my daddy didn’t raise me to be a fool, right?”

“I ain’t ‘they all,’ darlin’. Give me some credit. I don’t wantcha ta deal. I need a contact. A lookout girl. Easiest job in the world.”

“What’s it pay, minimum wage?”

“A cut of every deal.”

“Right. You probably are a cop.” He threw back his head and laughed.

“Ya’ve got a mouth on ya, Blue.” Their food arrived, and Ororo was ravenous, but she didn’t want to tear into it while she was still making her case and turning him down. Too bad he didn’t get the picture.

“Look… I don’t need any trouble. I don’t know why you get your kicks, asking any woman on the street to be your lookout, or whatever-“

“Not just any woman. I think yer special. Ya have that ‘quality.’” He took a bite out of his reuben, and his eyes closed at how good it was. Ororo’s stomach growled. “Dig in,” he said with his mouth full.

She nibbled a French fry and wanted to cry at how crisp, greasy and salty it was. She hadn’t had any in so long. She was about to go primitive over the burger in a second, but she didn’t want to give Victor the satisfaction. “Men always say a woman’s special when they want something.”

“Whadda you want?” he said pointedly as he licked a dab of Thousand Island dressing from his finger.

“Stability. You can’t give me that.”

“Ya can buy stability. Stability,” he snorted. “What’s that? Really? That what yer chasin’, doll? I don’t know anyone in the world who’s a hundred percent ‘stable.’ Everyone’s got their problems. ‘Issues.’” He made finger-quotes and took a swig of his root beer. “That’s what shrinks call ‘em before they take yer money. Ya don’t need a shrink. Ya need a job. Easy as pie.”

He had to mention pie. She gingerly ate another fry and took a ladylike sip of her Coke. “C’mon. I’m a fair boss.”

“I’m my own boss.”

“Of what?” He shook his head. “C’mon. Yer tempted.” She was startled when he took her hand and stroked her fingers, examining them. “Where’d ya get that scar from?”

“Broken window.”

“Sounds like some story.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” The way his fingers ran over her skin gave her chills, and she jerked her hand away.

“Fine. We’ll leave that skeleton in the closet. I’ve got a whole friggin’ graveyard full.” She chuckled as she ate another fry. “Ya better eat that, or I will.” He inhaled half of his sandwich within seconds, and she finally couldn’t stand it. Grease, ketchup and pickle juice ran down the edge of her hand when she bit into the patty, a generous, diner-sized quarter pound of juice beef. She made a rapturous sound. He shook his head and watched her thoughtfully.

“Bet it doesn’t take much ta make ya happy.”

“I can’t remember the last time that I was. Don’t get your hopes up.”

“I don’t hope. I know how ta get what I want. Ya could learn a lot from me about that, darlin’.”

Her mother’s childhood lectures about not taking candy from strangers rang in her ears. N’Dare left out the part about dealers picking up the tab in dives with cracked vinyl seats and Formica counters. But N’Dare was gone.

Ororo was all alone.

She finished the last sip of her Coke and wished she had another. She was stuffed and wished she had a bed to sleep it off. “Ya got anywhere ta go?” Vic asked her, reading her mind again.

She’d learn to hate that about him.

“Wherever I end up.”

“I can put ya up.”

“Not at your place.”

“It’s nice.”

“That’s not the point.”

“What’s the alternative? Women’s shelter? Dumpster? Alley? Crackhouse?”

“No. No. No. Hell, no.”

“Thanks for the burger. I’m sure you’re a nice guy, but so was the Big Bad Wolf.”

“Yer not a little girl in a red hood. Not that I’d mind, if that’s what ya were into, Blue.”

“It’s Ororo.” Her pride bristled and she straightened up as she stood.

“I could get used to it.”

“I don’t think you’ll have the chance.”

“Ya need a ride home?” he asked dryly as he left the money on top of the ticket that the turnip-faced waitress slapped down. Ororo halted her stalk toward the door and closed her eyes for a moment. Fuck. He had her again. She waited for him to catch up, and she stared dolefully up at him.

“No funny business.” He held up his hands, and his hand was once again gentle at her lower back as he guided her toward his car. She was stunned to find that he had his own driver, and that sent panic fluttering into her chest. “This is North.”

“Chris,” he corrected her. He looked friendly enough, but he was too well-dressed with rich-looking gold and platinum rings littering his fingers; one was curiously thick, almost as big as a brass knuckle. Inwardly, she recoiled.

But Victor surprised her again by removing his heavy jacket and draping it around her shoulders. “Yer shivering.”

“Can’t help it.”

“Get in. Watch yer head.” She ducked down into the back of the Crown Victoria, having no clue that it was one of several cars Vic held the title to, often his collateral for clients who couldn’t pay. This one was one of his favorites.

He took her to his place, and she cursed herself; it wasn’t like she had an address to give him. He looked smug, but Victor was silent. His hand felt hot against her knee, and he gave it a little squeeze. She was stiff and tried not to lean against him, but it was difficult when he took up so much space in the back of the car. They drove across town, more city blocks, then eventually more miles than she could count. She lost track of how many shadows thrown by the streetlights ghosted over his blond hair before she dozed off against his bulk.

He supported her as she staggered up his front steps. His cologne filled her head with its musk, and she was close enough to smell his skin with its salty tang of sweat. She was exhausted; too many nights of sleeping on hard, unfamiliar surfaces and never being warm enough, sheltered enough, or never being able to feel safe enough caught up to her within minutes, thanks to a full stomach and the comforting warmth of the jacket and the car’s heater. Her eyelids drooped, and she had a hard time not nodding off as he keyed the lock. She didn’t pay attention to the furnishings of his apartment. All that she cared was that it had a roof. She began to shrug off the heavy leather, but he finished the task. She was dead on her feet.

He led her to the couch and knelt by her feet, tugging off her shabby sneakers and holey socks. He tsked. “Yer feet feel like ice cubes.” He rubbed them between his palms, and she sagged back into the cushions in contentment. Bit by bit, she let go, ignoring the earlier alarms in her head.

She had a choice. She could change her mind, scream, run like a bat out of hell, and run the risk of pissing him off.

Or, she could stay the night. Do the deed. Stay sheltered. Repay his favor, and sneak out in the morning.

His fingers drifted up her leg, light as a feather. He raised himself up from his crouch, nudged her knees apart, and leaned in, blocking out her view of the overhead light as his lips closed in on hers. Ororo was a realist. She didn’t believe in guardian angels or getting anything for free. Her fingers twined through his long hair, and she moaned beneath his warmth and the welcome feel of his bulk. His body was crawling with sinewy muscle and dusted with dark gold, fine hair when her hand found its way inside his shirt. His kisses were insistent and hungry, and she opened for him easily.

He knew she’d taste sweet. He didn’t expect her to be so compliant after she made her case. It was all he could do not to take her on the couch. He burned for her, enthralled by the lithe curves outlined by the ridiculous men’s undershirt. He scooped her up and carried her to his bedroom, with her long legs locked around his waist.

He stripped her down quickly and led her into the adjoining shower, making her feel initially self-conscious, but again, she didn’t care. He didn’t bother to turn on the lights, leaving the room lit only by the scant sliver from his room’s lamp. He ground against her, alternately stroking her and jerking off his own shirt. Her hands fumbled with his belt before he relieved her of that task, too. He tested the hot spray before stepping into the tub first, and he helped her inside, slamming the glass door shut before he devoured her.

They made a soapy, steamy mess of the shower and the bathroom, leaving wide circles of water on the linoleum as they headed back to his bed. Ororo let herself go, letting her caution slip until she pushed her doubts into the dark, locking them away. She had no reason to trust Victor Creed. None at all.

But he was marking her with his kiss, nipping it and possessing it with his large hands, examining and exploring every inch of her soft brown skin, murmuring how sexy she was into her hair, stroking it back from her face as he drank kisses from her until they both drowned. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya, unless ya want me to,” he growled into her neck. She shook her head.

“Don’t,” she pleaded, voice nearly a sob. “I’ll do what you want tonight, Vic. Please.”

“Yeah?” She nodded, and he nodded back to her. His fingertip slid over her plump lips and tickled her beneath her chin. He ground against her, enjoying how pliant her body was beneath him. She was driving him crazy.

“Tell me what you want.” He shook his head, chuckling.

“You show me, first.” His eyes were dark with passion and danger as he descended her body, painting a trail of heat over her flesh. She gasped at the feel of his teeth catching her nipple and arched up into his mouth.

Mom. I’m so sorry. It was her last coherent thought before she began praying out loud and crying out his name. He pried all of her secrets out of her with his skilled tongue, probing and teasing her until she shattered. He returned to her, crushing her into the mattress and breaching her with a hard, deep thrust that made her see stars. His girth stretched her with a sweet burn, and her hands caressed him as he wrapped her legs around him again and began to ride her. This was what she expected from him, the slickness of his sweat-drenched flesh, his dilated pupils and flushed cheeks, his sweaty tangle of hair mingling with hers every time he kissed her.

“Damn it, Blue! Damn you!” He pounded into her faster, harder, with so much force that that headboard banged against the wall. She was sweet, mewling beneath him and clenching around his throbbing cock, milking him of every last drop of juice… “Oh, God. Oh, God…shitshitshitSHITSHIT!”

His hands were tangled in her hair as his hips pistoned like a machine. Pleasure spiraled through her nerve endings, centering in her womb, tingling in the tips of her breasts. She felt his lips fasten themselves at her throat, and she yelped at the feel of his teeth sinking in a little too deep. He kissed the wound in apology, and for a moment, things grew almost too kinky, even though she was still aroused.

“Ya like it, darlin’?”

“Yes,” she hissed.

“Tell me how much ya like it.”

“Please…please,” she chanted as he pulled all the way out of her except for his swollen head, then snapped back into her in long, hard strokes, finding her hot spot with each thrust.

Panic flooded her when his hands closed around her throat. Her eyes flew open wide, and she shook her head, clamping her thighs around his ribs tight enough to crush a walnut. His expression was thoughtful, and he released her throat as soon as his fingers began their furtive squeeze.

VICTOR!” Her heels bounced against his back as she tried to roll him off of her, and her fists rained down upon his shoulders until he caught her wrists and jerked them above her head, pinning her.

“Calm the fuck down!” he growled, amused and disgusted. “Too freaky, darlin’?” Tears flooded her eyes, and he knew he’d gone too far. “Daddy’s sorry, darlin’… I’ll make it better…”

“Please, don’t hurt me,” she whispered. He hadn’t stopped thrusting into her. He kissed her damp cheek, letting his lips trail down to her mouth. He captured her sob and once again tangled his fingers in her hair, murmuring reassurances into her throat. Her passionate haze never came all the way back, but her body still responded to his onslaught. She came hard, squeezing him and mewling his name. He finished soon after, more out of courtesy than exhaustion.

She fell into an uneasy sleep against him while he stroked her hair, once he pulled the covers over them both. “Sorry,” he repeated. “Didn’t mean ta freak ya out. Got a little carried away.”

Hearing that terrified her more than his playful throttling. Ororo remained silent.

She mused to herself at how she’d arrived at this point. She wondered how far she’d go, still, until the cards fell in her favor.

She accepted his offer over breakfast the next morning. Ororo became his runner.

*

Ororo was startled by the sound of Remy’s knock. “Chere?”

“Hold on.” She opened it to find him looking worried. He leaned his forearm against the frame. “What’s up?”

“Not’in. Jus’ wanted ta see if we were straight.”

“Solid.”

“Still t’inkin’ ‘bout leavin’?”

“When the time’s right. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”

“When I’m ready t’kick ya out, you’ll know, chere.” He smirked. She stuck out her tongue at him.

“Thanks a heap.” Her eyes still looked troubled.

“I feel like I botched dis up, somehow. Yer sure yer fine?”

“I’m okay. Just thinking about stuff. It’s no big deal.”

“We can talk. Want more tea?”

“Tea’s fine. But I don’t think I want to talk about it. It’s… just weird.”

“Complicated?” She nodded and reached up to pat his hand. His thumb snapped around hers and squeezed it, and he sighed, straightening up.

“C’mere, chere.”

C’mon, Blue.

Ororo stepped into his hug and sighed. Here she was again. She didn’t want to accept it.

But she didn’t want to let this go.

She didn’t want to let Remy go. And it scared her.

She felt tense in his arms, and he stroked her back, rubbing his cheek against her hair. “Ya okay?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “Remy, I’m sorry I messed up today.”

“Already said it was okay.”

“I just am, okay? I don’t want to let you down.” They stood locked in the embrace, hearts pounding and just listening to each other breathe. Her arms tightened around his waist, and his palms mapped out her taut muscles and counted her vertebrae through her tank.

Yer special.

“You won’t. Yer special. I believe in you, chere.” Ororo shivered. Remy brushed her temple with his lips and pulled back to stare into her face. Her eyes were filled with emotion. “It’s okay.”

“Thank you.”

“Quit dat. Ain’ no need t’keep t’ankin’ me.” He kissed her forehead and smacked her hip. She gave him a watery smile, and she surprised him when she engulfed him again in a needier, much more desperate embrace. “Chere,” he murmured. “It’s okay.”

I know how ta get what I want. Ororo wondered, deep in her soul, if Victor had taught her, too well, how to do that, too.

Remy just held her, wondering what thoughts were brewing in her mind.

*

Ororo arrived early for her go-see at Van Dyne Designs, out of breath and full of butterflies. She checked her hair in the window before she walked inside, and she decided she would pass muster. She longed to go back to Ali’s and pour out her heart over a protein pack and acrylic fill. But she had a job to do, more importantly, a job to get, so there was no point in wanting to fool around.

She approached the receptionist’s desk and introduced herself. “Hi. I’m here to meet with Sandy? I’m Ororo Munroe.”

“Perfect. They’re waiting for you down the hall, to your right.” Ororo’s heart jumped.

“Waiting? Am I late?”

“No. You were booked for ten, but they wanted to bring you in to try on an outfit or two, and they wanted the extra time to interview you.” Ororo felt antsy. “Right now, they’re meeting with another model and trying a few ideas out.”

“Sure,” Ororo said cheerfully, but she still felt uncomfortable when she was given a visitor’s pass. She headed down the hall as the receptionist called out, “Room three!”

“Thanks!” She waved back to her over her shoulder and braced herself before knocking on the door and peeking around the corner.

“Ororo?” A petite brunette looked up from a design table strewn with photos and fabric swatches. She looked like she could only be five-one in her bare feet, but she tottered over to Ororo on five-inch, mean-looking stilettos. “I’m Janet Van Dyne.”

“Oh, my God,” Ororo gasped. “You’re kidding!” Janet chuckled as she shook her hand.

“I wanted to sit in on your meeting with Sandy. She’s head of my personnel department and keeps tabs on my shop.”

“You’re a legend,” Ororo blurted. Janet threw back her head and laughed. She looked like she could be a petite model herself, with her small, even features and boyishly slim figure. She wore her chestnut brown hair in a razor-cut shag that cupped her heart-shaped face. Her coffee brown eyes were soft and fringed with ridiculously long lashes, and her brows were waxed as carefully as Ororo’s making her wonder if she went to Ali, too. Her outfit was a purple confection in wispy chiffon, and she wasn’t shy about accessories.

“Let’s see a few different things on you. Sandy,” she called back to another fashion-conscious blonde who entered the room from a small store room in the back. “Can you bring us some coffee?”

“I ordered in for some. Hank’s bringing it soon,” Sandy assured her. “Any preference?”

“Black,” Ororo supplied, even though the thought of a Starbuck’s latte nagged at her. She heard Raven’s voice in her ear threatening her with another fifteen minutes on the treadmill if she erred in favor of empty calories.

“You can head back into the changing room. Our model who booked the appointment before yours is still in there. You can say hi.”

“Sure,” Ororo agreed, but she wasn’t enthusiastic to meet her competition for the job. She was glad that Piotr liked her, but she needed to expand her repertoire and get her face out there, and Janet Van Dyne was as “out there” as you could get. She wasn’t afraid of color, unlike some of the designers who were thinking up different incarnations of the “little black dress” every season and giving all of their models Robert Palmer-slick buns and smoky eyes.

Ororo dutifully accepted the garment bag that Sandy handed her once she told her she was a size eight. As she made her way back to the changing room, she heard the women muttering between themselves.

“Little bigger than I hoped.”

“She has that look. Nothing wrong with hips, if we work around it.”

“She needs to work around us,” Sandy reminded Janet.

“They always said I was out of the box. At my height, I’m your usual designer’s nightmare. That’s why I booked Pryde, too.”

“Still don’t get it. She’s too short and too young.”

“She’s spunky.”

“Let her be spunky from the cover of Marie Claire.

“I like this one. She looks like a real woman.”

“Models aren’t supposed to look like real women. I can take that dummy,” she said, pointing to the body double fit mannequin, “put a wig on it, and wheel it down the runway in one of your ensembles, and I’d have an easier time selling it than I would on a model with hips.”

“How about breasts?” Janet quipped. “People pay for ‘em like hers.”

Ororo was flushed with embarrassment and resentment, but then she thought back to her sessions with Jean-Paul. Strut. Work what you’ve got, and believe that you’ve got it, or no one else will think so. Just as she thought her chances were shot to hell, Janet surprised her.

“She has that hungry look. Kind of vulnerable.”

“She’s not ‘waify.’”

“Thank goodness. No. I can’t stand that look. Remember how Chrisiansen and Seymour both looked back in the day? Turlington? They were doe-eyed like that, and really lippy. I can work with that.”

“Maybe if you have a lingerie line.”

“Hmmmm…” Ororo chuckled at Janet’s contemplative tone. But she ignored them. It was time to face the music. She hung up the garment bag and stepped out of her heels, hanging up her purse. She turned on the small lamp and gave herself a once-over. She looked fit, again, thanks to Raven. Makeup? Check. Hair? Decent, and thankfully, she wouldn’t have to worry about pulling her own outfit off over her head.

She opened the garment bag with a sharp zip once she had stripped down to her skivvies, but a familiar, raspy voice with a Brooklyn burr intruded on her privacy. “Damn. Look at that big ol’ ass. Guess I’m wasting my time if they’re booking you. Seven days a week running my ass off, krav maga, yoga and no red meats, and I’m wondering now who you had to fuck to get the same show I did, looking like the Big Bad Wolf after he ate the first two little pigs.” Callisto tsked and folded her arms across her rib cage. Ororo glared and rolled her eyes.

“Before you opened up your mouth, I thought Bono stepped out the door in drag.” Ororo turned around and began stepping into the dress, a gun-metal gray number with a short skirt that appeared to be backless. From behind her, Callisto gave her a sickening smile in the mirror.

“You think you’re cute. That’s your first mistake.”

“Yours was that haircut. Shemp and Moe called, they both want their look back.”

“Please. You call that a comeback?” Callisto tsked with emphasis, shaking her head. “I’m gonna read yer fortune right now, kid. You’re gonna walk out the door, they’ll take one look at you in that dress, and they’ll try not to laugh as they tell you not to let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”

“That gives me two minutes to change their mind. That gives you even less. You’re wasting my time and yours, and you’re in my light.” Cal sauntered up close to her, and Ororo edged away from her as she invaded her space. Cal smirked, and in a move straight off the streets, she flicked her razor-sharp nails through Ororo’s hair. Ororo instinctively slapped her hand away. “Get away from me.”

“You’ve got nothing, bitch.”

You’ve got nothing,” Ororo countered, letting her eyes dart down to Callisto’s chest. Cal caught her look and shrugged, but her smile faltered.

“Boo-hoo.” She pretended to wipe away tears with her knuckles. “You might make it working a pole, but you suck on the runway. Prissy bitch.”

“Skank,” Ororo muttered. She turned her back on her and did up the tricky side zipper, the kind that she hated, but she was glad that her stomach was flat enough to allow it.

“Don’t forget to do this on the way out,” Cal snickered, and she made an exaggerated gesture of twisting around to look at her own backside.

“Are you done? I have places to be after I get this job.”

“Bullshit. You don’t have anywhere to be. I don’t know where Remy dredged you up from, but you’re better off crawling back there. And you won’t get this job. I’ve already got a spot in this show. Me? I’ve got the look they want. It works. That’s why I work so much in this business. You?” She snorted and waved her hand in Ororo’s direction, turning up her nostril. “Please. You won’t hit, and even if you hit, you won’t last.” Her words stung. Ororo fumed.

“You okay back there?” Sandy called out from the office.

“Coming,” Ororo replied before she glared at Callisto. She stepped back into her shoes and ran her hand through her hair. “It’s funny, hearing that from you.”

“What’s so funny about it? You’re shit.”

“I might be struggling my way up, but you’re on your way out. So, go on. Get out.” Ororo brushed by her in the narrow doorway to make her impression.

“Bitch,” she muttered.

Without turning around, Ororo flipped her the bird.

 

Janet looked up at the sound of Ororo’s low voice. “Well?” She wished she could think of something intelligent to say, but keeping it brief might work out to her advantage. Janet looked up from her coffee and then set it down before it reached her lips. Sandy’s brows rose, and she beckoned Ororo forward.

“Come out here. Walk around in it.” Ororo obeyed, heart pounding, but she caught a glimpse of herself in the pane of a framed print. Her too-critical eyes doubted the appeal of her curvy body in the delicate little dress. It looked like it was hanging on by a thread with its halter neckline and gaping back, and she was getting a draft. Tiny silver chains draped across the waist unevenly, emphasizing her flat belly and wasp waist.

“Come back this way,” Janet murmured. Her eyes roved over Ororo. “Come here.” Ororo flushed. “Try this with it.” She handed her a small alligator purse. Ororo slung it over her shoulder by the strap and stepped back, vamping with her hand on her hip.

“Try the necklace,” Sandy added, approaching her with a string of mismatched hematite and cut glass stones that Ororo would never pick out for herself, but it looked right with the dress. As Ororo caught her reflection in a standing mirror in the corner of the room that she hadn’t noticed before, she almost – thankfully not quite – checked her ass out like Callisto predicted she would. Bitch.

Callisto stepped out of the changing room, hobo bag draped over her shoulder, and she gave Ororo a crooked grin as she headed for the door. “Thanks for coming in, Cal,” Janet bade her. Sandy gave the needle-thin brunette a hard look that piqued Ororo’s interest.

“Bye-bye.” She waved and appeared to be laughing at Ororo, and when she walked away, it was with an exaggerated swish of her narrow hips, miming that Ororo had a big butt. She rolled her eyes silently.

“Mind telling me what you did to get Cal on your scent?” Sandy asked quietly after she left. Janet was rifling through the racks of samples, selecting Ororo’s next look.

“Breathed.”

“Ah.” Sandy sighed. “You’re a hard sell. You know that, right?”

“Better than everyone thinks I do.”

“Buck up. Here’s your coffee.” She handed Ororo the to-go cup that still had steam snaking through the slit in the lid.

“Try this one next. I want to see it against that hair of yours,” Janet told her as she handed her a cut-out black gown. Ororo’s brows shot up.

“Wow,” she muttered.

“Go for it. Don’t take too long; we’ve got a tight day today.”

“Right. Be right back,” Ororo promised. She hoped she didn’t end up putting it on backwards or strangling herself with any of the myriad straps and loops.

Janet and Sandy wore polite smiles when she took her next walk, but inside, they brimmed with excitement.

*

Beep. “Ororo, this is Sandy. Just calling to let you know that we decided to go a different direction with the show this time. I’m sorry.” Ororo’s heart fell. She was about to delete the message, but after a pause, Sandy continued to torture her. “You have a great look, but we’re not sure it’s ‘runway’ enough. Couture is tough.”

“Damn it,” Ororo hissed, feeling the hot sting of tears and the flush of shame.

“…so what I’m thinking, if I haven’t ruined your day yet, is that we’ve got a photo spread coming up in Swag. It’s next month. Give us a call.” Ororo spun away from the answering machine, heart pounding. She braced herself against the counter with shaking hands and took a deep breath.

Then she screamed, not caring one bit what the neighbors thought.

Chapter Text

“What are you doing here?” Ororo’s head jerked around sharply at the sound of the familiar, girlish voice, and Kitty Pryde grinned down at her like the Cheshire cat.

“Hi. Janet picked me to wear a few of her outfits for this spread.”

“Lucky.” Kitty made a sour face and rolled her eyes, but then she directed the conversation to herself without missing a beat. “Omigod. I got to work with Piotr yesterday!”

“Where?”

“Turn this way, please.” Ororo’s makeup artist, Greer, looked impatient as she brandished her small blush brush. Ororo dutifully leaned closer to allow her to blend the powdered foundation over her skin.

“I’m redoing my head shots.”

“I didn’t know he did head shots.”

“He didn’t shoot them,” Kitty clarified, her tone mocking. “Piotr dressed me.”

More like you coerced him. Ororo knew Piotr wasn’t particularly fond of Kitty, claiming that she was spoiled, moody, and difficult to work with even on the best of days. Or, to quote him, “I’d rather work with a pack of untrained Chihuahuas.”

“Piotr’s a genius. Bet you looked great.”

“Pfft. Are you kidding? Look at these.” Kitty reached into her enormous Coach hobo bag and extracted a manila envelope. She thrust it into Ororo’s lap, and she obliged her by opening it and examining the stack of photos. “I did a few full-length ones, too. The gown makes me look taller, right?”

“Sure.” Ororo wanted to credit the ridiculously high heels for doing that, but she didn’t want to crush her spirit. Sure enough, though, she could see Piotr’s hand in the outfits she wore, and Ali’s in her careful hairstyling. Her curly hair had been flat-ironed and hung softly in layers around her face. Once again, her makeup made her seem older to Ororo’s jaundiced eye, but she figured it was a necessary evil.

“Ooh. I’ve gotta jet. I’m almost late. Here, give me those back, just put them back in.” Ororo shuffled the photos back into the envelope quickly. “Looks like my shoot’s after yours.”

“Really?” Ororo’s white brows rose in interest. “Janet doesn’t have a junior’s line of clothes, does she?”

“No. Sportswear. Especially her dance gear. She gives me freebies. I dance, too. I didn’t tell you that?” she asked smugly.

“No. Just now.”

“I’m good. You should come see me.”

“If I get around to it.”

“Kitty,” a voice called from the doorway, and Kitty closed her mouth before she could fill Ororo’s ear any further.

“Right. Later!”

“Bye.” Ororo waved and smiled weakly, then sighed heavily as she disappeared through the doorway.

“Brat,” Greer muttered.

“Sheesh…”

“Kid’s homeschooled,” Greer shared. “The kids were bullying her at her old high school. Thought she was hot shit, and the other kids thought she was full of herself. She got into a lot of fights. Her mom just went through an ugly divorce, and Kitty’s her only child. Might be why she’s so spoiled.”

“I was an only child. I wasn’t that spoiled,” Ororo argued. She didn’t add that she was also an orphan and a foster child. She still felt that her mother raised her right.

“Her mother’s a classic stage mom. She has the kid enrolled in everything. Gymnastics. Tae kwon do. Dancing. Computer classes at the community college. Piano. You name it. To her credit, the kid’s precocious. She’s traveled everywhere just from shoots she’s been on, and her father takes her to Japan every summer.”

“Wow.”

“It’s a hard knock life.”

“And she’s how old?”

“Just had her fifteenth birthday. She’s been in the business since she was in diapers.”

“I know.” Ororo remembered her backstage rant about being a Gerber baby and shook her head. “Modesty wouldn’t hurt.”

“There’s no room in this business for modesty. The sooner you learn that, sweetie, the better.” She came at her with the liquid eyeliner. “Look up.”

“I still wonder what the hell I’m doing here, sometimes.”

“You don’t have to do this. But if you do, you have to want it.”

“I do want it.”

“Prove it. Put on your big girl panties. No whining. No one said this shit was easy.”

“I’m not whining.”

“You were right on the verge of whining.”

“The only time I whine is around Raven.” Ororo shuddered at the memory of the bell workout her trainer subjected her to. Her arms felt like limp noodles.

“She’s a scary bitch.”

“Yeah, she is.” Greer and Ororo’s chatter died down to a lull as she finished Ororo’s look. When Ororo glanced in the mirror for a better look, she didn’t recognize herself.

“Whoa.”

“Hello, Mama.” The makeup was extreme, nothing like the “naked” look Ali showed her how to do at home.

“Help,” Ororo muttered.

*

 

The studio was oppressively warm; Ororo could easily blame the umbrella lights and other photography lighting fixtures, as well as the heat piped in through the floor vents that felt like she was walking over a subway grate.

“Is it always this hot in here?”

“We keep it warm for shoots.”

“Why?”

“You haven’t seen your outfits for this one, have you?”

“Not yet.”

“Prepare to get a draft.” Greer led her toward the clothing rack beside the backdrop, and she handed her a garment bag. “Go ahead and change into that. Janet called and said she’ll be here in fifteen minutes. Take a water bottle, if you want, but watch your lipstick.”

“Okay.” Ororo took the garment bag gingerly, almost afraid of its contents. She trusted Janet’s taste, especially after trying on her clothes at her fashion house, but Greer’s warning made her stomach churn. Ororo drew in a long, slow breath and steeled herself. She could do this.

The magazine would show up on newsstands everywhere. With her pictures in it. This was it.

*

 

Ten minutes later, Ororo leaned against the backdrop, mentally coaching herself, hearing Remy’s voice in her ear.

Ya don’t hafta try dat hard, petit. Don’t smile like yer shootin’ a Colgate ad. It ain’t about actin’ in front of the camera. T’ink about sometin’ or someone dat broke yer heart when the one holdin’ de camera tells ya ta look sad. Remember how it felt de last time someone made yer toes curl when ya hafta look sexy. Dis ain’ hard. Yer workin’ wit’ what ya already have. Ororo shivered at how his voice sounded the last time she sat for him, coaxing and with a hint of mischief.

There was an intimacy in his touch, albeit brief, when he rearranged locks of her hair or gently tilted her face at an angle he liked. He held his light meter by her face and readjusted the settings on his camera. He continued to pick odd locations, like behind buildings, piers, or subway decks. This time, it was a back alley, right behind a café they frequented. Ororo felt self-conscious, as though they were sneaking around, but Remy shrugged it off, reassuring her that they weren’t breaking the law.

His breath tickled her cheek as he “sculpted” her pose. His hands felt warm, and she could smell his now familiar cologne through that contact. Ororo never had male friends, and her track record with what few men she allowed to slip past her defenses yielded crushing failures. Remy was her friend. He was her savior. Coach. Mentor. Cheering section. Biggest critic. Creator. He had too many titles to list, even though he was only one man.

That odd hitch in her chest didn’t mean anything, just because it happened every time he touched her. It didn’t matter that her pulse quickened or that he seemed to swallow up all the space in the room as soon as he entered it, that he always seemed to be right by her elbow every time she turned around. Ororo could blame his tiny kitchen, certainly, for the amount of times she backed away from the counter and found herself leaning back against his hard chest. There was such a thing as friendly neck rubs, meaningless and noncommittal, wasn’t there?

Except his hands knew her flesh. Her body’s defenses completely dissolved as soon has he touched her skin, kneading knotted muscles into complete submission. Ororo did submit to him, and it frightened her. It terrified her how much she came to depend on Remy, that she could trust him so much without holding back.

Eddie’s voice brought her back down to the ground, like a rough slap. “Wanna focus here, honey? I know I’m paid by the hour, but I’ve got other girls to shoot.” Ororo’s cheeks burned as she met his eyes, which were a hard, flinty gray. His expression was amused at her expense as his face disappeared behind the camera. “Look right. I don’t wanna see too much of the whites of your eyes.”

“Fine.”

“That’s it.” Click. Flash. Click. “Relax your shoulders. I don’t like those hands, your fingers are spread too far apart. Don’t make ‘em look like spiders. That’s the problem with you big girls, you’ve got these big meat hooks for hands…”

“Sheesh,” Greer muttered off to the side. Ororo almost snickered. The glare from the umbrella lights was giving her a headache, and Ororo wished she were doing an outdoor shoot, instead. But could she afford to be picky? She corrected her pose and posture, not making her movements too broad. She gave Eddie the opportunity to catch those small, brief nuances of expression and angle so that decent, potentially usable frames didn’t get lost.

Eddie Brock wasn’t Remy. His way of communicating was more negative, more critical, but he challenged her to work harder. Ororo knew she was doing it right if he wasn’t snapping at her.

“That’s as good as it’s gonna get. Go.” He waved Ororo away. “Change into the next one. I want looser hair.”

“Got it,” Greer assured him. Ororo hurried off the set.

“Be back in five. Or less,” Eddie called after her impatiently as he chugged an energy drink. His hard eyes followed her out of the room, admiring the long line of her back and fluid walk. Eddie liked making girls work in front of the camera and being in creative control. It made him feel powerful.

If Ororo had seen him on the street and hadn’t known what he did for a living, she would have assumed he was a bouncer or a prize fighter. He was a mook, easily over six feet tall and had at least a forty-inch chest. His wheat blond crew cut did nothing to soften his sharp features; his nose looked like it had been broken at least twice. He had fine lines under his eyes, the by-product of squinting in true “are ya shittin’ me?” fashion. He was dressed for work in dark jeans and short boots. His black North Face jacket hung over a director’s chair in the corner instead of on the coat rack. He made no bones about letting agencies, models and publishers know that his time was valuable, and that when a shoot was over, he was out the door.

Ororo toed off the unforgiving heels and carried them by their straps as she trotted to the dressing room. Greer was already there, pulling the next outfit off the hanger. “Go. Off.” She nodded to what Ororo had on. “Quick. I’ll unzip this, but hurry it up.”

“I know,” Ororo grumbled under her breath. “I’m going as fast as I can.”

“It’s never fast enough with a photographer like Brock. He’s an asshole. Don’t let him get back to Janet that you made him wait, kiddo.” Ororo fumed silently as she unzipped the first outfit and let it drop to her ankles as Greer whisked the other one over her head. Ororo was thankful again that the bodice opened widely enough not to mess up her hair, but the next few seconds were a blur of being nudged, jerked and pulled into the proper position for Greer to fasten, zip and snap everything shut.

When she was finished, Ororo couldn’t breathe.

“It’s… tight,” she hissed.

“It’s stunning,” Greer corrected her.

“I’m never eating carbs again.”

“Raven would dance a jig if she heard you say that.”

“Thanks. Scary image.”

“I know. You’re welcome.” She handed Ororo the shoes. “Quick. These. Don’t fall off of them.” The warning wasn’t undeserved. The six-inch heels were a chiropractor’s nightmare, practically pitching Ororo out of them when she stood up straight. “I wish I had your legs.” Greer’s voice was a disgusted growl.

“Thanks.” Ororo’s glow was cut short.

“Now, GO!”

“Sheesh…” Ororo hobble-trotted back to the studio, knowing Jean-Paul would shake his head in defeat at her lack of strut. Eddie didn’t seem to care for the moment. He barely glanced up at her as he fiddled with his Nikons. He jerked his head toward the window.

“Hurry up. We’re losing sunlight.” Ororo instinctively sat on the low ledge and leaned back into the frame. “Shit. That’s it. Hold it. That’s what I want.” Ororo relaxed, satisfied to hear something else come out of his mouth than “No! Not like THAT!” Her lucky streak only lasted about six shots before she managed to piss him off again. “This isn’t Seventeen. You’re not at the prom. Show me some real emotion, for fuck’s sake.” Ororo’s smile faded as he came up and gave her shoulders a little shake. “You’re too stiff.” Adrenaline spiked in her veins for a brief moment as he drew close enough for her to smell his aftershave, and worse, the Marlboros on his breath. His grip was rough, that of a bear cub that didn’t know its own strength, and his expression reminded her too much of Vic.

“Don’t handle me like that,” she hissed. Ororo’s eyes hardened into chips. Her voice had an edge to it that made Greer pause in tidying up her makeup kit.

“Like what? C’mon! Sorry. Fine. Get pissed off with me. It actually works.” Ororo fumed as he backed away. “Do that thing again. Bet ya’ve made grown men piss their pants with that look.”

“Hope you’re wearing Depends,” she challenged him dryly.

“Cute,” he huffed. “Real cute.” But there was a gleam in his hard gray eyes, and the corners crinkled at her expense.

Ororo spent the next fifteen minutes prowling and profiling, focusing on his instruction while she fought a war with her id. She shouldn’t be fantasizing about decking him with the umbrella light stand, she mused. Yet whatever emotion she was channeling seemed to work. He snapped quickly, occasionally murmuring under his breath.

“Nice. I can work with that. Don’t overdo it. This isn’t rocket science.”

“Okay,” she shrugged.

“That’s it. Right there.” Ororo chuckled mirthlessly and breathed a sigh of relief when he finally lowered his camera and fiddled with the lens.

“We’re done. That wasn’t too painful, was it?”

“Sure,” she agreed, but she was paying more attention to her empty stomach. Adrenaline fueled her more than food that morning, but it was time to feed herself.

“Make sure you sign the model release,” he reminded her. “That has to go back to the agency. Should’ve actually done that before.”

“Okay.”

“Ooh,” Greer piped up. “I forgot. Did you ever fill out the other paperwork with Janet?”

“What other paperwork?”

“The background check.” Ororo’s blood ran cold.

“Background check? Why?”

“Just to stay on the up and up. Having your picture taken is still a job,” Greer reminded her.

“I’ll give Janet a call,” Ororo said blankly.

“Hurry up and do it. You don’t want her to skip over you for other work.” Greer smiled and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Great work today.” Ororo smiled back, but the corners of her mouth dropped as soon as Greer turned her back.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit… Her mind raced with the possibility that her future was over before she’d even taken her first baby steps.

“Go ahead and change out of that. Put it back in the garment bag.” Ororo toed off the shoes quickly and schooled herself to walk calmly back to the dressing room. She didn’t realize she was holding her breath until her chest began to ache. Cold sweat broke out over her skin as the enormity of it all hit her.

They wouldn’t want her. No one would want to hire her if the truth came out.

Ororo stripped out of the clothes quickly, desperate to rid herself of their confines. Paranoia crept into her chest; she wished she could dispose of the outfits, somehow, and erase her presence at the shoot, leaving nothing of herself behind. Greer caught up to her as she was shrugging into her thin angora sweater.

“Catch your breath,” she chuckled. “Excited to get home?”

“Definitely.”

“Got anyone at home to tell about your shoot?”

“Yeah. Kind of.”

“Kind of, huh?”

“More than anything, I want to put my feet up.” Ororo didn’t feel like going into the details or complexities of her odd arrangement with Remy LeBeau.

“Go to the gym,” Greer countered. “Don’t rest on your laurels. Always be ready for your next job. You never know when one might pop up.”

“I have another show with Piotr next month.” Ororo didn’t add I just hope I don’t have another wardrobe malfunction. Ororo knew Greer was right, too, but the idea of the treadmill and endless reps didn’t appeal to her at all. “Hey, Greer?”

“What’s up?”

“Do you have anything to take this off?” Ororo motioned to her face. The flamboyant makeup made her self-conscious if she wasn’t going to be in front of a camera.

“Are you kidding? Leave it on. Go out and show off.” Greer’s green eyes had a mischievous gleam. She made a shooing gesture, and Ororo sighed.

“Sure.” Ororo snagged her jacket and looped her purse strap over her shoulder. “See you later, Greer. Thanks for everything today.”

“It was a pleasure.” Greer watched her hurry out, amused at her rangy, lanky gait. Ororo Munroe wasn’t the kind of girl who wanted to be the model twenty-four hours a day, and that might work against her. But at least she was easy to work with, and she seemed willing to adapt and be flexible. Greer sensed that she still had a thin skin; she hoped it wouldn’t work against her.

“Greer. C’mere.” Eddie waved her over impatiently to look at his digital camera. “Check her out.” She squinted at the tiny frame and made a sound of wonder.

“Nice. She’s got it.”

“Or she could. She still needs a lot of work, but look what she has to work with.” Eddie chuckled. “That’s some ass.” Greer elbowed him roughly and tsked. “What?”

“Don’t be a pig.”

“Ain’t my fault if it’s there, I ain’t supposed to notice? It’s nice. She might not have an easy time getting jobs with all those other sticks out there. I hate the waify look, myself, but it works on camera.”

“Speaking of which, aren’t you shooting Cal this week?” His face cracked into a serpentine grin and he nodded. Eddie put away his camera and continued packing up his equipment.

“That’s gonna be a barrel of laughs. Can’t fucking wait. She’s such a barracuda. I love that bitch.”

“I know you do.”

“I remember Cal when she was like this little Munroe girl here. She was fresh, and she wanted it real bad. I just wish she wasn’t such a pain in the ass now, but she knows how to do her job.”

“I know. I know why she is the way that she is, I guess, but… still. My jaw hurts from grinding my teeth when I have to style Cal.”

“It’s beginning to bite her in the ass. Cal’s been taking catalog work lately.”

“Why?”

“Cassandra’s getting sick of her. Her agent’s getting sick of her. She’s pissed a lot of people off. She even blew off that Rasputin kid, from what I heard.”

“Piotr? She blew him off? He’s such a teddy bear. And his clothes are gorgeous.”

“Better buy ‘em now, before you can’t afford ‘em.”

“I know. His last show did well.”

“It was memorable. I was there. So was Legs back there.”

“Wait, that’s right! She was! She mentioned it offhand.”

“Pfft… she didn’t mention everything, I know that much. Poor girl had a nipple slip.”

“Oh, no!” Greer chuckled. “She didn’t?”

“Yeah, she did,” Eddie mused. “I was in the second row. Made my night.”

“Pig.”

 

*

Ororo heard the door slam just as she pulled the tilapia out of the oven and turned off the broiler. “Hey,” she called out to Remy out of habit. “You’re early! Everything’s almost finished, I tried something different with the fish…” She heard footsteps walk past the kitchen while her back was still turned. “Rem? How was your day?” She was puzzled by his silence. “Remy?” Ororo tossed aside the oven mitt and headed toward the sound of his steps, then paused. Now that she was out of the kitchen and its aromas, she smelled overwhelmingly flowery perfume. “Hello?” she called out in annoyance. Ororo headed toward Remy’s room, seeing that the door was now ajar.

Belladonna stood at Remy’s dresser. She rooted through a small box and plucked out a pair of dangling earrings. “What are you doing here?” Bella’s delicate profile didn’t flinch as she continued her search through Remy’s things.

“Don’t mind me. And I have a key.”

“So that makes knocking out of the question?”

“I used to pay rent here.” Ororo wanted to cry foul, but she’d only started paying rent herself in recent weeks. She was still incensed at the violation of her privacy. “Wasn’t expectin’ t’see you here, little girl.”

“I wasn’t expecting to be here this long, either.”

“Looks like it agrees with ya.” Belladonna’s blue eyes flicked over Ororo, taking in her casual jeans and sweater that still looked expensive. Ororo tied her hair back in a scrunchie while she cooked, and she had removed the makeup as soon as she came through the door. But her face had less of that haunted, hungry look that Bella remembered from their initial meeting.

“I try not to take up too much space.”

“I can see that.”

“I left some clothes here.”

“They might be in my room,” Ororo told her curtly. “I’ll get them.”

“In yer room,” Bella snorted under her breath. “So this one ain’t yers?”

“No,” Ororo said coldly, not sparing Belladonna a backward glance as she stalked down the hall. She wanted to feel embarrassed that her room was slightly cluttered, but at least the bed was made. Ororo went to the closet and scraped back the row of hangers, isolating the two garment bags that hung in the back. She held them out to Bella expectantly, away from herself as though they burned her. Belladonna huffed and took them, shaking her head.

“You his little pet project?”

“I’m nobody’s pet. Bite your tongue.”

“Remy the one doing the biting? He was with me, did he tell you that?”

“I kinda guessed that when you came over before. I figured you weren’t his accountant or spiritual advisor. I’m not that thick, hello?”

“Bet ya ain’t. Good. Then ya might manage just fine.”

“I am. I always have, one way or another.”

“Yeah?” Belladonna’s eyes held something akin to pity.

“Are you finished? Is there anything else you need me to send with you?”

“Tired of me?” Belladonna looked like she was accustomed to it.

“Dinner’s almost ready.” Ororo’s shrug was nonchalant and she gave her a smile that she didn’t mean.

“Don’t burn yer biscuits.” Belladonna turned on her heel and preceded Ororo out of the room. Ororo was tired of her perfume and her smug drawl. “Have fun playin’ house. I already went that route with Remy. It’s fun for a little while,” she shared.

“He helped me when I needed it. I’m not in it for the ‘fun.’ I don’t play games. If you and Remy still have a thing, I won’t get in the way.”

“That ship’s sailed,” Belladonna assured her. “Don’t try an’ do me any favors. What was yer name again?”

“Ororo.”

“Damn. Wouldn’t think I’d forget a name like that.” Ororo looked ready to make her regret she’d ever heard it, and Belladonna knew she struck a nerve.

“I’ll tell him you stopped by.”

“I was hoping to catch him.”

“You have his cell number. It’s rush hour. It might take him a while to get back.” Ororo decided she was tired of looking at the icy blonde’s hard eyes. She went back to their meal and drizzled olive oil into the skillet. She threw in the asparagus she’d sliced into short spears and some chopped garlic.

“Guess yer right,” Belladonna murmured after a moment. She sighed heavily. “I dunno. Whatever. You know what yer gettin’ into, or ya wouldn’t have stayed this long.”

“What I’m getting into? Hmmm. Roof over my head, food, clothing, social networking, and a job, all without asking me for so much as a thank-you. He’s been nothing but a gentleman since I got here. I owe him everything.”

“I felt like that, once.”

“I don’t want to hear this.” Ororo prodded and stirred the vegetables, keeping her back turned on Belladonna. Her face would give too much away, and that would make Ororo feel weak. “Whatever it is, whatever way that you think you’re helping me, warning me, or whatever. I hate drama. I really do. I don’t know what I walked into the middle of the night Remy took me in, when you met me before, but I could tell there something that wasn’t settled between you two. And I didn’t question it. Not once, because it was none of my business. But I don’t need you telling me what’s good for me. I don’t want you telling me anything about Remy. That’s between you.”

“Pretty soon, it might be about you, little girl.”

“You know my name. That isn’t cute anymore.”

“Y’know, yer right. I have his cell. I’ll let you get back to what you were doing.”

“That’s fine.”

“Tell him I’ll be in touch.”

“I’ll let him know as soon as he sets foot in that door.”

“I’ll let myself out.” Her tone was deadpan.

“Uh-huh. Yup.” Ororo heard Belladonna’s exasperate tsk. The door didn’t slam, to her credit. Ororo was relieved that she was gone.

“And she still has the key,” Ororo muttered. “Shit.” Her day just kept getting better and better.

 

When the apartment door opened again, Ororo was glad to hear Remy’s familiar baritone humming in the front hall and the thud of his heavy boots under the coat rack. “Somet’in’ smells good,” he remarked. “Hey,” he called out to her where she lounged on the couch in her stocking feet.

“Hey. How was your day?” It felt odd to ask him that again, even if the first time didn’t count.

“Can’t complain. How wuz yours, petit?”

“Rough. Just… rough.”

“Your shoot went okay, didn’t it?” Remy took the remote out of her hand and huddled beside her, forcing her feet off the other end of the couch. But he made up for invading her space by lifting them up onto his lap. Ororo smirked. A foot rub was a small consolation, wasn’t it?

“I had to work with Brock. He’s not like you.”

“Damn right he ain’t. He’s good, but watch yerself wit’ ‘im.” Remy changed Ororo’s Big Bang Theory episode to CNN without permission and began to massage her toes. “He’s high-maintenance.”

“I’m exhausted.”

“What’d ya make?”

“The fish. Asparagus. Fruit salad. And Bella mad.” Remy paused mid-rub and scowled.

“What wuz de last one?”

“She stopped by.” Ororo feigned nonchalance.

“She never called.”

“That didn’t matter. She still has her key.”

“That’s… merde. Sorry, petit. I forgot. She does. Damn it.”

“Go check that box in your room. The one on the dresser. She took a pair of earrings out of it.”

“That was all?” Remy’s voice was hard.

“That was the only thing she took out of your room. Go check it out. I also gave her back her clothes that were hanging up in my room.”

“Did she give ya a hard time?”

“No,” she lied. “No biggie.”

“That ain’t convincin’, baby.”

“I’m not trying to convince you of anything. She stopped by. She said she’d be in touch.” Ororo shied away and removed her feet from his lap. “Go look in your box.”

“No big rush. Bring dose back here.” He pulled her feet back and was amused at the slight struggle she put up. “Chere. C’mon. Kick back. Don’t be mad. Quit starin’ daggers at me and let me finish rubbin’ yer feet.” Remy gave her a sly look. “C’mon.”

“Eat dinner. It’s getting cold.”

“Only if yer plannin’ to eat wit’ me.” Ororo was hungry, but her stomach was churning, roiling with frustration since Belladonna left. She sighed and looked away. Remy tugged her middle toe, then tickled her sole. “C’mon.”

“Rem… I’m just…” She growled in exasperation. “It felt weird the first time I met her, and this was weird, too.”

“Bella’s weird that way,” he shrugged. Ororo reached over and swatted him with a cushion.

“There was just this… this thing hanging between us. I feel like… I’m intruding.”

“Hell, naw, ya ain’t. Bella wuz de one who walked in wit’ a key.”

“That’s not what I meant. Well, it is, but that’s not all I meant.”

“G’wan, den. Tell me what ya meant.”

“Rem… is there still something up with you two?”

“Non. Uh-uh. Ship’s sailed. Bella’s outta my system. Has been fo’ a while.”

“She still has stuff in your apartment.”

“She took care of that today,” Remy shrugged. “Happens. I might still have stuff in hers.”

“She said she used to live here.”

“Ya figured that much before anyway, didn’t ya, petit?”

“I guess I just never took the time to ponder it.”

“Sure, ya didn’t,” he mocked. Remy smirked and tickled her foot, holding her ankle captive in his strong grip when she tried to wriggle away. Ororo squirmed, trying not to laugh as she brandished the cushion again.

“That leaves the next question.”

“G’wan ahead. Shoot.” His dark eyes were amused, clearly at her expense. His warm, large hands toyed with the ball of her foot, kneading away the tension from wearing excruciating stilettos all day. Every muscle in her body began to unknit and relax.

“Am I in the way?”

“In de way of what?”

“Of you and… whatever.”

“What’s dis ‘whatever’ shit? What?”

“You know what. C’mon, Remy.”

“Non. You c’mon. Y’tink yer makin’ it hard fo’ Remy t’play de field?”

“Sheesh…” Ororo rolled her eyes and facepalmed.

“Is dat it? Are you pussy blockin’?”

“Okay. No. That’s just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m blocking no such thing. I just wanted to know if you thought I was.”

“Y’ain’t tryin’ t’block de pussy jus’ a teeny, tiny bit?” Remy held up his finger and thumb, and there was a paper-thin space in between. Ororo brandished the cushion again, glaring at his attempt to duck.

“Never mind this… Where’s my shoe?” It was a much more effective method of smacking him.

“Naw. Petit, lemme tell ya sumt’in’. You ain’t in my way. Not even a lil’ teeny smidge.”

“I’m not cramping your style just a little?” She held up her finger and thumb and squinted at him. “Just a tad?”

“Not unless you were plannin’ t’get yer own digs all of the sudden. Ya got a big spread I don’t know ‘bout yet, chere?”

“Nope. Not yet.”

“Okay. Not yet. That’s what I wanna hear from you, chere.”

“Go ahead and eat.”

“We’re gonna eat. Don’t run off yet. Quit tryin’ t’escape. ‘Roro, did Belle put dis lil’ buzz in de back of yo mind about bein’ in de way?”

“Not with what she said. Just that… I was here, minding my own business and making dinner. When she walked in without even knocking, just unlocking it like she still lived here, I was the one who felt like a stranger in her house.”

“That right?”

“I felt like I was creeping.”

“Creepin’? Damn, baby.” Remy tried to watch his news, but then he squinted back at her. “Creepin’?

“Yup. I can’t help it. That’s just how I felt.”

“Is dat how you feel now?”

“I shouldn’t,” she emphasized. “It was just… weird.”

Neither of them wanted to point out the elephant in the room.

“I’ll go get the plates. What do you want to drink?”

“Water’s fine.”

“I have iced tea already made.”

“Not sweet tea?”

“Nope.” Ororo would have preferred it that way, but she stuck to Raven’s meal plan to the letter while she was going to her assignments, no matter how much it killed her. She finally tugged her foot free with a little yank and rolled gracefully up from the couch. Ororo padded into the kitchen and took two clean plates from the dishwasher. They were basic black ceramic, bachelor-style dinner ware that matched everything else in Remy’s apartment.

Remy’s apartment. That was it.

That was part of the problem.

Even after several weeks, Ororo still felt like a houseguest. She was afraid to spread out or invade his personal space. Once Ororo moved into the spare room, she claimed the hall bathroom while Remy retreated to the master bath adjoining his room. The room - her room – was nondescript. The furnishings were “safe” and neutral. Some thought went into the dresser, a beautiful five-drawer cedar bureau with cast iron handles. The curtain rod was iron, too, but the drapes were plain linen. The bedding was decent, but again, it was devoid of real color. The spread was camel with an ecru underside and the sheets were plain white Egyptian cotton. The ginger jar lamp was the same camel brown as the spread. A couple of bland, coffee shop-style art prints were hung in white mattes and black frames on the walls. When Ororo first came to stay with Remy, it seemed like the Ritz.

It wasn’t truly hers.

Even when Ororo lived with her grandmother during her father’s final days, she had a space to call her own. She still had her Mickey Mouse bed sheets and her magazine posters hung on the walls with thumb tacks while framed pictures of Ororo with her friends sat staring back at her from her desk and vanity. Her teenaged style was quirky, disorganized and mismatched. It wasn’t overwhelmingly girly, but there was color. There was pizzazz. Ororo’s current digs screamed out for color. A plant or two might have been nice, or an abstract print, even if it was a cheesy Warhol knockoff, or some Keith Haring. Dogs playing poker. Anything.

Remy hummed under his breath while he joined her in finding place settings. Paper towels were unrolled and torn off, folded casually like napkins. Ororo poured the iced tea, and she snuck a packet of Splenda into her own. They occasionally bumped into each other in his kitchen, making Ororo feel underfoot. His body was lean and firm each time she inadvertently backed into his chest, and they did that annoying, three-second “I’ll go this way, you go that way” waltz of two people bucking for the same space, a silent, polite game of chicken. Her cheeks felt overheated, and the awkward flush seemed to wash over her skin, making Ororo squirm in her angora sweater.

“Why ya all squirmy?” Remy muttered as she toyed with her fish. The mood of the table reminded her of her grandmother’s lectures and interrogation sessions of what she did at school that day.

“I’m not squirmy.”

“Ya look squirmy. Ya keep fidgeting.”

“I’m fine.”

“Ya still weirded out about Belle?”

“No.”

“Sure, chere?”

“M’fine.”

“Eat.”

“I am.” Ororo took a perfunctory bite of fish. Remy copied her, then sprinkled his generously with salt and pepper.

“I seasoned it,” Ororo told him, sighing as she laid down her fork.

“I seasoned it a lil’ bit more, chere. Ain’ a big deal.”

“Next time, we order in.”

“Non. Next time, we can eat out, if ya want, petit.”

“I just wanted you to be able to sit right down and eat as soon as we were both home,” Ororo mentioned. “I could have ordered something.”

“Nut’in’ dat eit’er one of us needs t’be eating, petit. Pizza? Chinese? Ya don’ want dat crap.”

“Sometimes, I do,” Ororo admitted savagely. Visions of a greasy bacon burger swam in her head. She continued to toy with the fish.

“Next time, I’ll take ya out. We’ll dress up.”

“No heels?” Ororo asked hopefully. Remy smirked.

“Tired of ‘em already, huh?”

“Yup. My bunions have bunions. I’m practically six feet tall, anyway. After a while, it’s just overkill.”

“Dat’s fine.”

“How much do I have to dress up?”

“Somet’in’ nicer den a potato sack,” he suggested. “Ain’ takin’ ya out in yer jammies an’ curlers, eit’er.” Remy helped himself to more asparagus and tucked into it with more enthusiasm than he had for the main course.

“Aw,” she pouted. Remy swatted her. They went back to their food, but Remy stole looks at her until she scowled. “What?”

“Dey didn’t have you in makeup for dis shoot?”

“I took it off. I hate how it feels on my face when I don’t need it.”

“Ya don’t need it,” Remy murmured thoughtfully. Ororo’s eyes flitted to his face. He was already giving his fish his attention.

“What was that?”

“Nut’in’.”

Chapter Text

Thanks for reading.

*

“There’s Pryde,” murmured the spiky-haired blonde in a ripped up pink sweatshirt. She popped her gum and elbowed the strawberry blonde before she could finish her sip of water from the fountain. She looked in the direction of her pointing finger and made a sour face.

“What’s she doing here?”

“Thought she was on house arrest.”

“That’s cold.”

“I’m not the one that got pulled out of classes and ended up being homeschooled, Sal,” Tabitha reminded her. “God, she’s such a priss.” They watched the petite brunette stroll by, not sparing so much as a glance or hello to the crowd of students milling around in the hall. She thumbed her smartphone screen as she made her way to the third classroom on the left.

“Must be nice to roll like that, though. I want her shoes. And her bag.”

“Bet it’s a knockoff.”

“Bet it’s not.” The focus of their discussion wore an alphabet soup of designer labels from head to toe and minimal makeup. Her hair had been flat-ironed straight, and she pulled it back in a high ponytail. She didn’t walk down the hall; she strutted, compliments of her modeling coach and dance instructor.

They watched her pause by the door, still going through her phone, and both girls burned with envy as a medium-height, fresh-faced blond approached her, a teasing smile on his face. “Oh, no way,” Tabitha grumbled. “Tell me I’m not seeing that. He’d better not be trying to hook up with her.”

“The nice guys always want the bitchy girls,” Sally pointed out. “Doug should know better.”

“He’s dumb for a smart guy,” Tabitha mused. They watched Kitty look up at him, clearly annoyed at being interrupted. “Look, he’s totally complimenting her, and she’s brushing him off.” They watched Kitty shrug back from him when he reached out to examine one of her dangling earrings. Her shift of her weight to one hip, arms crossed beneath her breasts, spoke volumes: I’m too good for you. Her ponytail whipped out behind her as she spun and left him alone in the hall. But Doug Ramsey still had a loopy grin on his face as he went on his way.

“Ugh. I hate her.” Sally unwrapped a cherry Jolly Rancher and popped it into her mouth. “He’s not supposed to like her. He’s supposed to like me.”

“Practice being a bitch.”

“She’s in my dance class. She’s such a show-off.”

“Wonder why she came back,” Tabitha speculated.

“I heard her talking with Jubes. Her mom thinks she needs more interaction with peers her own age. So, we’re stuck with her again.”

“Think she goes to launch parties?”

“Who cares?”

“I do. Bet it’d be totally cool. Think of the people you’d meet.” Tabitha looked green with envy.

“Eh. I guess. Still… her mom had to pull her out of school. Her life can’t be all that great.”

“Pretty lucky not having to go to gym, though,” Tabitha pointed out. “It’s physical fitness week. Yuck.”

“Time for chin-ups. And pain. Lots and LOTS of pain.”

“Shut up,” Tabitha told her sweetly.

*

Ororo hurried down the block, raising her hand to flag down a cab on the crowded street. “C’mon, c’mon,” she grumbled. “TAXI!” she shouted. Two of them whizzed by and ignored her even as they stopped at the intersection for a red light. Their back seats were empty. Ororo fumed. “Assholes,” she muttered. “TAXI!” She ran to catch up to them, but they both shook their heads. “Seriously? You don’t want a fare?”

Ororo stared down the length of the past couple of blocks, watching traffic for signs of another possible cab. She saw an orange Checkers cab that had a bickering couple in the back of the car and sighed. Nope. The number six bus was headed for the stop, but it was northbound and wouldn’t get her close enough to her go-see. If Remy hadn’t had a shoot of his own booked, she would have hitched a ride with him, but her show wasn’t until one, and he’d left right after his morning gym workout.

She continued her fast walk, high heeled-pumps permitting, and she tried to hail a lime green Charter cab, but the blond driver shook his head, pointing overhead to the “Out of Service” placard on the roof of the car. “What’s the point?” she asked him futilely. “Seriously?” It was the middle of the day, so it made no sense to her. The day was windy and brisk, making her shiver inside her snugly belted, spring-weight, short gray trench. She blew a stray tendril of hair out of her mouth, wishing she’d pulled it back into a chignon after all.

She continued her walk down the next three blocks, beginning to abandon hope as she checked the clock on her little tracphone. “SHIT!” she hissed. She had twenty minutes before she was late, and worse, not hired for her next show. “TAXI! HEY! Give a girl a chance!” She was fuming, hating her pumps now that she was likely to have to walk, or even run for the next bus.

She tried to hail the next cab when she caught something blue from the corner of her eye, and she tried to move aside, but someone caught her arm in passing, and reflexively, she twisted around and began to swat the man who accosted her. “Leggo! I don’t know you!” she snapped.

“Whoa, whoa, HEY! Darlin’, I…OW! Shit!” She bashed him with her mock Fendi bag – when she made it, the real thing would be calling her name – and brandished it again.

“What do you think you’re doing, putting your ha- oh. Oh, God. I’m so sorry.” She recognized him more clearly once she had the chance to get a look at him. It was Short Stuff, the gruff little cabbie who picked her up by the river. He looked less bruised from her ineffectual swatting than he did from the burn he received from his spilled cup of coffee regular. He pouted up at her, shaking dripping coffee from his hand and wiping it haplessly on his battered blue flannel fleece.

“Damn it. That’s what a guy gets fer tryin’ ta do a good deed. Ya look like yer in a hurry, darlin’.”

“Shoot… yeah. Hold it.” Ororo stopped at a hot dog cart a few yards away and grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser. “Darn it… I’m sorry. I suck. You surprised me.”

“Remind me never ta sneak up on ya on purpose, Blue Eyes,” he grumbled, but he appraised her with open interest. “Some get-up ya have on. Where ya headed?”

“I’m running late to a go-see.”

“How far do ya need ta go?”

“Why?”

“My cab’s right over there,” he explained with more than a little annoyance. The hand that held the depleted coffee pointed to a yellow taxi across the four-lane street.

“Really? Hey!” she cried out as he took her hand and tugged her after him with no further explanation.

“C’mon, kiddo, let’s jet.”

“There’s such a thing as crosswalks!” she huffed after him as he made them weave between cars in the busy street, nodding and trying to smile at pissed off drivers.

“They’re fer sissies. Ya wanna ride, or what?”

“Twentieth and Marauder Street. The big gray building with all the mirrors.”

“I know that one,” he agreed. He opened the back passenger door for her and stepped aside to let her climb in. She dutifully tucked her hands and purse on her lap so he could close it before ambling around to the driver’s seat. He climbed in, parked his cup in the holder and peered at her in the rearview. “Big job?”

“Could be. Couture show.”

“Ya’ve done one of those, haven’t ya?”

“I’ve done a few smaller ones. I’m going to be modeling Piotr’s line again, and Janet Van Dyne’s.”

“Not bad.” He sounded less than impressed. “Ya could model a potato sack and make it work, darlin’.” That mollified her slightly.

“Can you take the short way, please?”

“Right away, yer Highness. Dump coffee on a guy, interrupt his lunch break, but it’s all about you.”

“A fare buys me a ride and the chance to be a pain in your ass,” she countered with a shrug. She peered at his business license taped to his dash. “Your name’s James?”

“Let’s stick with Logan,” he advised, raising his heavy brow at her in the rearview. “It’s still Ororo, right?”

“Yup.”

“So, whaddya do between jobs?”

“Try to keep my time between jobs short,” she replied. She watched the cars ahead of them slow down with impatience and started drumming her fingers on her purse. “Look for more jobs. Sit for more shoots with Remy. Go to the gym. Nothing remarkable.” Raven and Jean-Paul both made her work her ass off, but it was paying off. She was about to kill someone for a donut, just one sugary sweet, glazed carbohydrate bomb of fatty goodness, granted, but it was paying off.

“Remy, huh?”

“He’s a professional photographer. He did my portfolio.”

“Sounds like he’s yer hook-up.” She frowned at him slightly.

“He’s been helping me, sure.”

“Sounds like a nice little arrangement.” She glared at him this time, and Ororo decided it was time to ignore him. She watched the cars whizz by as the flow of traffic picked up again. A bike courier in a tight red spandex shirt darted by, making her wish she owned a bicycle. She savagely reminded herself that Logan was doing her a favor and going at least a little out of his way. She listened to the crackle of his hand digging into the small white plastic bag at his side. He fiddled with the wrapper on his sandwich and folded it back enough to take a large, grateful bite. The scent of spicy mustard and salami tickled her nostrils and her stomach growled in response. “Damn, darlin’. Was that you?”

“Huh?”

“Sounded like somebody woke the beast. Have ya eaten anything yet?”

“No time. I just grabbed a Red Bull before I left.” He glared back at her in the rearview and shook his head.

“That ain’t no way t’do. Ain’t no point in starvin’ yerself to do what you do.”

“I don’t starve myself,” she argued, but his pastrami was torturing her with its meaty temptation. “I just watch everything carefully.”

“Sounds fucking miserable.” He crammed a couple of chips into his mouth, and his speech was garbled by the low sound of crunching. “Glad I ain’t got yer job, Blue Eyes.”

“I’m glad when I can get it,” she countered.

“Beauty and pain,” he muttered, shaking his head again.

“So, is this what you do?” she asked, diverting his criticism. He shrugged and pulled a face.

“What? Driving a cab? I’m livin’ the dream, darlin’! It don’t get any better than this.” She chuckled, and he winked at her. “It’s an honest livin’. Pays some of the bills.”

“What pays the rest?”

“Odds an’ ends. Whatever gigs I can find.” Her smile faded. Ororo went back to staring out the passenger window and she suppressed a sigh.

Odds and ends. That was what Vic called it, back in the day.

*

 

He told her to tone it down and stay inconspicuous, so Ororo took to wearing hats, even when it was hot outside. Her favorite was a Dodgers cap that she pulled down low over her blue eyes. Her white ponytail stayed tucked beneath the collar of her nondescript, men’s gray quilted jacket, keeping her neck warm. Victor’s crew referred to her as “Blue,” something she initially resented, but he reminded her that a false name was a benefit in his “line of work.”

She kept her meeting places random and casual. Vic’s clients were always surprised by his runner, miles tall with those lush, pouting lips. Drops and pick-ups were always brief and discreet. Sometimes she greeted them like an old friend and walked arm in arm with them, tucking their merchandise into their pocket. When squad cars rolled up, she tucked her hands into their pockets in the guise of trying to warm them and found the rolls of bills fastened neatly with diamond-studded clips.

Some of his crew were uneasy that he picked a female, and one so young to run for him. Victor rested assured that he had a girl who wanted it badly enough that she wouldn’t let him down; a girl wouldn’t brag about her take to the wrong people, and Ororo was cautious.

Ororo stayed at Vic’s place – she couldn’t really call it living - for several months. When she wasn’t “working,” she spent as much time as she could downtown. Spending too much time in his apartment created too many opportunities for her to run into the wrong people when he brought clients home. They always stared at her when they came out from behind closed doors, and they leered at her hungrily, even with Victor standing there. Still, there were advantages, like hot water, a roof, and three squares. At night, when she finally turned in, Ororo watched his large TV in the dark, scenes of old episodes of the Honeymooners or I Love Lucy throwing flickering, grayish-blue light over her skin where she huddled on Victor’s leather sofa.

Victor put her on the pill, a necessary evil. She looked at him like he’d lost his damned mind when North turned the car into the parking lot of a clinic one afternoon. “Why are we stopping here?”

“Gotta hook you up with some birth control. Ya gotta be practical, Blue. We’ve dodged a bullet so far, and we’re playin’ house, but we ain’t Ward and June.” He leaned over her and unlocked her door, opening it and giving her a little shove. She frowned. “C’mon. Go get it done. I’ll pick ya up for lunch.”

“I don’t have any insurance.”

“It’s a clinic. Yer fine. Here.” He took a roll of hundreds out of his pocket and peeled off a few, tucking it into her pocket for her. “Tell ‘em ya want the pill.”

“What’s wrong with a diaphragm?” His blue eyes crinkled, and he shook his head.

“They ain’t made of steel, darlin’. They can break. They can slip. Accidents can still happen. You want an accident?” She shook her head and averted her eyes. His hand reached for her, fingers tickling her jaw, then gripping it to make her look at him. “No. Ya don’t. Be a good girl, Blue.”

“I am good,” she argued petulantly. “You know I’m good.” She wasn’t in the mood for him to give her a hard time. He stared down at her, then leaned in, invading her space, grinning at her annoyance before he gave her a sloppy, possessive kiss. She tried to argue with him, but his mouth urged her to open, and his fingers tangled in her ponytail. She felt him grope her breast, hand easing inside the flap of her heavy jacket, ignoring North in the front seat. Ororo smothered a whimper and broke the kiss uneasily. “I’m going.”

“Call me.”

“I will.” As she climbed out, he swatted her ass before she could evade him. She tsked in disgust and flipped him the bird as she headed into the clinic. She heard North chuckling behind her before he steered them out of the lot.

It wasn’t the life she ever imagined having. She missed her mother and grandmother, and Ororo missed having female friends, or any friends. She had no job experience except for a brief summer stint at a Chik-Fil-A when she was fifteen, and she couldn’t sign up for high school without a parent to complete her paperwork. Ororo couldn’t afford to end up “in the system.” At seventeen, she walked that fine line of still being a minor, and her resources were scarce. That’s where Victor Creed came in.

He occasionally gave her little gifts, nothing extravagant enough that she could turn around and sell. Ororo often wore his clothes because they were big and comfortable, and they accomplished the goal of not making anyone look twice at her on a crowded street. Victor’s landlord was suspicious of their “working” relationship, but Ororo never had to fill out rental paperwork or a credit check to live there, something she thanked God for regularly; in hindsight, she wondered if Victor paid him off to look the other way. Her body filled out slightly from regular meals and from proper rest, no longer spending all of her waking hours walking and searching for shelter. But Ororo never lost that precarious feeling of dread, that everything could be snatched from her hands the next day.

The people Ororo arranged drops for were other dealers, and Victor was their point man. She spent an uncomfortable twenty minutes in the Crown Victoria’s cushy rear seat waiting for him in the warehouse parking lot on the edge of town, failing to make small talk with North, who drowned out her tentative questions with twangy country music. She knew that the fresh rock was cut, mixed and wrapped for sale in the back room, and Victor didn’t want her inside, making any of his crew antsy or being a distraction.

She cleaned his apartment but didn’t cook much, so he often brought food home in white Styrofoam boxes, proclaiming “Honey, I’m home!”

“How’d we do?”

“We? What’s this ‘we’ shit? I did fine, darlin’. North said ya made that drop on Palm and Fifth.”

“Here.” She would produce the contents of her jacket pockets on the dinner table as she opened up the takeout containers, watching him as he counted it or examined the merchandise in its pristine plastic pouches. She never spoke to him until he was done counting it all. Once the money was accounted for and put away, he would be chatty, talking shit and teasing her as they ate. It felt domestic sometimes, but the bubble popped every time he got up to leave the house to run an errand, tucking his Glock into his coat pocket.

She lied to herself that she was safer with Vic than without him.

*

 

“Yer zonin’ out there, darlin’.”

“What?” she huffed, jerking out of her reverie at the sound of his rasp. Logan turned and glanced at her over his shoulder for a moment, his dark eyes looking concerned.

“You okay?”

“Yeah… yeah, I’m fine. Anxious.”

“I’ll get ya there on time, kiddo.”

“You’re sure?” The traffic hadn’t improved, and she felt like they were crawling along the street. She checked the clock on his stereo and cringed. He caught her look in the rearview.

“I won’t let ya down, Blue Eyes. Never fear.” His loud, strident voice blasted out of his window as he rolled it down, startling her. “C’MON, FER FUCK’S SAKE! ARE YA COLOR BLIND?? THE LIGHT’S FUCKIN’ GREEN!” The heel of his hand abused the horn and leaned on it, and Ororo tingled with a mixture of embarrassment and amusement, noticing people glancing into the cab’s windows from the street. A bike courier rode past them, flipping the bird at Short Stuff. They inched further along in the traffic, then plowed through the intersection. Logan took a sharp left, manhandling the steering wheel in his meaty grip. Dimly, Ororo noticed he had nice hands, despite his slightly dirty nails.

To his credit, time in the back of his cab was much more entertaining than the number six transit, and she had a little room to stretch her legs. The floor heater’s vents blew warm air over her legs, unthawing them from her brisk walk, bathing her skin through the flimsy, sheer hose she wore.

“Warm enough?” he inquired, reading her mind. “Ya ain’t wearin’ much, doll. Outfit looks like it’s givin’ ya a draft.”

“I’m good,” she offered.

“Bet ya are,” he murmured under his breath.

“What?”

“Nuthin’.” He flicked his glance away from hers and diverted from the route she figured he’d take.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don’t run that meter, buddy. I didn’t ask you to take the long way!”

“Pssssh… c’mon, now, act like I know what I’m doin’, darlin’. Everyone else is headed this way and climbin’ over each other’s asses tryin’ ta get to work. Think yer the only one who has somewhere to be? This way’s shorter. We’ll work our way around it.” He avoided a snarl of traffic just off the corner of the garment district, neatly cutting off a man in a black Benz, who joined the peanut gallery of drivers who’d flipped him the bird since Ororo got into his car. Ororo grabbed the peeling vinyl safety bar of the passenger door reflexively as he swerved again, spinning the wheel like he was diverting the Titanic from the iceberg.

“Geez…”

“Would ya rather be walkin’?”

She hesitated a moment. He flicked his eyes at her again from the rearview. “Just say the word, and we can end yer fare here…”

“I’m good,” she told him curtly. She left off the part where she thought he left her stomach back on Fifth Street, and she was glad, after all, that she hadn’t eaten.

“That’s it, right?” They were two blocks down from the shimmering high-rise. The rainbow surge of brightly colored cabs and delivery trucks were reflected in its surface, and Ororo released a breath she didn’t realize was trapped in her chest. Her panic ebbed away until she checked her watch again.

“Shit. Okay. That’ll do. Here.” She fished in her purse for a wad of bills, relatively sure at least one of them was a ten-spot. “I’ve gotta go.” She thrust the money at him, shoving her hand through the small window in his safety screen. He took it, and his fingers grazed hers, but she released the cash before he caught all of it. “Sorry. If it isn’t enough, I’ll catch you next time, scout’s honor!”

“Ya don’t look like any Girl Scout I ever met, darlin’… how do I know yer good for it?”

“You do. Trust me.” She launched herself out of the car before he even pulled all the way up to the curb, nearly tripping herself as she closed the door. It slammed louder than she intended, and he gave her a sour look.

“Careful, Blue Eyes! Don’t tear up my ride!”

“Sorry! Later,” she called over her shoulder, giving him a halfhearted wave. He watched her in amusement and slight disgust.

“Sheesh…” He helped himself to another bite of his sandwich. “Nice legs. The crazy ones always have the best legs…” He turned the car back into the stream of traffic and hit the speaker on his smartphone, answering his next fare.

*

 

Ororo hustled into Marauder Towers, feeling the back draft lift her hair as she shoved her way into the revolving door. The interior of the building took her breath away. The front lobby was an atrium with ceilings at least two stories high, and she heard her footsteps echoing against the pristine marble floors. Ororo hurried to the visitor’s desk, where a no-nonsense receptionist in a security uniform gave her half her attention, barely sparing it from her computer screen.

“Who are you here to see, ma’am?”

“I’m working. I’m in the show in the auditorium.” The woman gave Ororo her full attention at that statement, and her brows rose into her hairline.

“Day-um…” she muttered. “All right. Sign in. Name and time in. Take this visitor badge, please. The auditorium is up the elevator, five floors, take a left, and cross the ramp. The rest of the signs will point the way.”

“Is there a bathroom?” Ororo’s bladder didn’t give a damn about her timetable.

“Second corridor to your left.” She took the badge gratefully and hustled off after scrawling an illegible signature. Ororo’s thoughts were a chaotic litany of curses and self-scolding. She managed to find the rest room, and the two women in line ahead of her were nice enough to let her go first. Ororo caught a glance of herself in the mirror and saw her wild, windblown hair. Great. Late, and sloppy. The dispenser was out of seat covers; she settled for upholstering the seat with as many tiny, rice paper-thin squares of TP as she could jerk off the roll.

A quick rinse with the insipid-smelling foam soap and cursory flick of her hair sent her sprinting as fast as her pumps would allow toward the elevator. She heard it ding when she was several yards away. A handful of suits and a young man with a fully laden mail cart squeezed in, and she waved them down. “Can you hold it, please?” she called out. They didn’t hear her. She watched it close just as her outstretched fingers punched the “1” button. The man in front looked slightly contrite as he stepped aside to make room, but several others just looked annoyed. “Five?” he asked.

“Yes,” she breathed, giving him a grateful smile. He smirked and pressed her floor, stealing a look at her legs. Ororo blew a stray tendril of hair out of her eyes.

“Nice. Hold everybody up. Why’m I not surprised?” a gruff alto growled out from the back of the car. Ororo winced, then sighed. She flicked a look over her shoulder at Cal, who smirked at her. “Nice hair. Just fall out of bed?”

“At least it was mine.” Ororo smothered the urge to laugh when she heard the mail room boy mutter, “Ooooooo…!” under his breath.

“You’re funny. That’s funny. Don’t hurt your brain.”

“I won’t. But you just hurt my eyes.” It was a pot shot. Callisto was edgy, as usual, garbed in black leather and a killer pair of Loboutins. Her almond-shaped, blue-gray eyes were ruthlessly penciled in black kohl and her lips were a slash of blood red. Everything about her was sharp and hard, a look that worked on glossy paper, but she was unapproachable – unapologetically so – in person. She was still needle-thin, owning the mannequin physique that was so highly prized.

Ororo was glad to have curves and enough flesh to keep her warm. Cal had to be freezing in her tight, thin leather. She smirked at Ororo.

“That all you got?” Ororo ignored her, giving Cal her back. “That’s what I thought.” Ororo felt her amused gaze and the flesh of her nape shivered. She rolled her eyes silently. So this was her day. Great.

The elevator dinged, and Ororo headed to the ramp, crossing the bridge between suites and enjoying the view through the reinforced glass corridor. Even though it wasn’t her first show, she felt giddy about the size of the venue. Her legs tingled as she finally adjusted to the warmth of the building and as she continued to hurry toward the dressing suite. As she turned the corner, she caught a glimpse of Cal in her peripheral vision, where she paused to speak with a concierge with a Bluetooth in his ear. So much for Ororo lagging behind…

She made her way to the dressing room, and as soon as she opened the door, the barrage of noise and activity nearly blew her back. Roughly a dozen models darted about in changing robes, having their hair styled and sprayed and makeup daubed with precision. Her stomach twisted with excitement, and she caught Greer’s eye. Greer looked up from the three-tiered makeup caddy she’d just popped the lid on and immediately sprinted across the room, grabbing Ororo’s arm.

“Kiddo, you’re so late! What held you up? Selene’s on the warpath.”

“Traffic,” Ororo offered guiltily. Greer gave her a hard look.

“Uh-uh. There’s traffic every day, girlfriend. That’s a fact of life. Don’t ever let it make you late for a show. C’mon. Your outfits are over here.” She guided Ororo over to a vacant chair at the long vanity. She nodded to the robe. “Throw that on so I can do you up.”

“She’s supposed to take off the robe, then,” joked Betsy Braddock from the next bank of chairs, dutifully looking up as her artist applied some false lashes. Ororo envied her flamboyant purple hair, impressed by the noticeably British accent. “I’m Betsy.” Ororo shook her hand briefly; she had a hearty grip.

“Ororo Munroe.”

“Remy’s muse,” Betsy qualified. “I saw your black and whites on a go-see with Janet last week, luv. The lighting he used loves you.”

“Hurry,” Greer interjected. Ororo shucked her coat and headed for the changing screen with the robe slung over her arm. She stripped down to her bikini briefs, letting her clothes puddle around her feet, and she slipped into the robe, single-knotting the slippery sash. Greer met her at the vanity and began patting on some moisturizer.

“What are you using on your skin? It’s dry.”

“Some stuff I got at CVS,” Ororo shrugged.

“No. No, no, no. Go straight to Macy’s and hit the Clinique counter. Don’t use that cheap shit. You’re skin’s so important, Ororo, you’ve got to baby it. And you’re lucky to have such nice skin, too.”

“Duly noted,” she sighed. Greer was on a roll today, and she spent the next fifteen minutes lecturing her about everything she was doing wrong, from how she should pluck her brows to her untrimmed cuticles. She was still preaching about the benefits of whitening strips, even handing her one out of her purse when Selene strolled up. True to form, she looked pissed.

“You showed up.”

“I know.”

“Late.”

“I know. Sorry.”

“Unacceptable. I could send you packing, you know. I’ve got a whole stable of models your size and just as hungry to be here, who obviously had better attitudes and showed up on time.”

“I’m so sorry,” Ororo told her genuinely. “I had a heck of a time getting here.”

“Didn’t we all. You’re due out on that catwalk in ten minutes. Ten. Minutes. Makeup, hair, outfit, flawless. You understand that, don’t you?” Ororo opened her mouth, but Selene held up her hand to cut off anything resembling pacification. “Greer, go ahead and finish her. Take your time. Cal’s her height.” Ororo’s mouth dropped open.

“Seriously? She just got here! She was just out in the hallway a minute ago!”

“In black leather?” Selene pointed out, unamused.

“Yeah.”

“That’s her first ensemble for the show.” The blood drained out of Ororo’s face, and she stared down at her hands in her lap. Her day kept getting better and better. “She’s runway-ready, Ororo, because she’s a seasoned professional. Ororo, do you know why you’re here?” Ororo looked up at her as Selene leaned back against the vanity, folding her arms beneath her breasts. “Because you’re Piotr’s new favorite. He sees your potential, and he likes your look. He says you’re memorable, and the way you wear his line works. I told him to make me see it. I’m still on the fence, frankly.” Tears sparked behind Ororo’s eyes.

“Then maybe you should give him my regrets.” The words were out before she could stop them, and Ororo felt how hollow her voice sounded to her ears. “Greer, go ahead and work on the next girl.” The aggravations of the past half-hour evaporated in the face of Selene’s pisstivity, and the dressing suite’s walls seemed to be closing in on her. The chatter and scrape of hangers sliding across metal racks mingled in the fog of her brain. Ororo felt herself break out in prickles of sweat and goosebumps. Greer tried to stop her, reaching for her, but Ororo jerked her wrist free. Greer caught her again before she could walk away. Selene glared at her audacity.

“You won’t leave me shorthanded just as we’re about to start the show,” she hissed.

“You just finished telling me I’m easily replaced,” Ororo spat. She threw her free hand up in the air. “Make up your mind. Let Cal wear my outfits. Go down on her, for all I care.” Betsy’s eyebrows flew into her hairline, and her quick jerk of her head toward the strident sound of Ororo’s voice made her stylist drag a line of lip gloss across her cheek from the corner of her mouth.

“You realize who you’re talking to? Doesn’t she?” Selene turned to Greer, who looked slightly sick, her hands moving in pacifying gestures.

“Selene, let me get her in makeup. It won’t take long. A smoky eye and neutral lip. Two minutes, tops. Let’s get this show on the road.” Ororo still simmered, blue eyes locked on Selene’s piercing black. Adrenaline pumped through her veins and she felt her eyelid aching to twitch.

“I’m going to Piotr after this is over.”

“Fine,” Greer offered as she tugged Ororo back to her makeup chair. “Everything will be fine.”

“That purple garment bag. The gray silk,” Selene snapped. “With those shoes.” She spun on her heel, black curtain of hair fanning out behind her as she shepherded the rest of the models, beginning to line them up.

“Jesus,” Greer muttered, glaring at Ororo. “Seriously? That wasn’t cool.”

“You could’ve let me go.”

“You’d never work again. Not even at Starbucks or Chik-Fil-A. You don’t want that woman giving you a bad reference, girl.” She went back to sponging some foundation onto Ororo’s skin in short, wispy strokes, gradually transforming her. “Look up,” she demanded as she dabbed concealer under her eyes.

“Tell me again that this is worth it,” Ororo muttered.

“You tell you,” Greer suggested as she burnished her cheekbones with a layer of bronzer.

Miserably, Ororo admitted that she was right. It didn’t take the stench off of her morning so far. Greer finished her makeup and quickly handed her off to Anna Marie for hair. Anna furiously back-combed it and aimed a huge can of Aqua Net at the growing, wavy mass, practically choking Ororo with the hair-set. “Girl, ya don’t wanna get on Gallio’s bad side, y’hear? That woman’s no joke.”

“Understood.”

“Betta be,” Anna chided. She fluffed and toyed with her hair, deciding on the right hair clip and opting for some silver bobby pins. “I love this stuff. I can do so much with it.”

“Knock yourself out.” Ororo remembered back to her first time in Ali’s salon and how petrified she was about having her hair cut. The memory made her flush in chagrin. Her hair had been such a neglected, damaged mess.

And so had she.

Anna didn’t have any plans to let Ororo breathe any time soon as she kept hitting her pouf of white plumage – the only way Ororo would describe it at this point – with the lacquer. She twisted and coiled sections of it away from her face and pinned it snugly, mercilessly against her scalp.

“Why were ya late?”

“Traffic. Cab. ‘Nuff said.”

“Girl, next time, put on yer roller skates,” Anna tsked. “Woulda got ya here sooner.”

“I knew the driver. That helped. At least he didn’t try to rob me by taking the long way.”

“Every way is the long way during rush hour, shoog.” Anna continued to tease her hair; Ororo winced at the tug of the rattail comb. “Ya betta hustle.”

“I know.” Anna gave her hair a few final pats and tosses and called it good.

“Go!” Ororo grabbed her garment bag and hurried again to change. The unzipped it and let out a low whistle at Piotr’s latest, mentally going into sticker shock. “This thing’s silk,” she muttered to herself. She dropped the robe and carefully slithered into it, mindful of the long, fragile hem. It felt like liquid sex pouring over her skin. She zipped it up and the drafty air of the dressing room caressed her back, left exposed by the cut of the gown. Ororo went to the shoe racks, finding the pumps tagged with her name. She drooled over the cool, slick feel of the charcoal snakeskin and gleaming silver stilettos; Piotr had a perfect eye. She stepped into them and assumed her strut, heading toward the walkway to the stage.

“Wait,” Selene snapped. “There’s a necklace that goes with that. Don’t go out there half-assed and unfinished, Munroe.” One taloned hand whipped out and jacked Ororo up by the arm with surprising strength, and she found herself wrangled back toward the vanity before she could say Bitch, please! The cool, metallic finish of the strands of hematite and seed beads rested just below her collarbones when Ororo dutifully lifted the back of her hair to allow Selene to fasten the tiny clasp. That was the last time she wanted that woman that close to her throat; she shuddered.

“That’s a lot of ass stuffed into that dress, Selene,” Cal warned as she took a brief sip of green iced tea. “Petey better start making his line with spandex.”

“Fuck you,” Piotr snapped as he hurried by with an armload of garment bags. “I never use synthetics.” Ororo smirked at the sour look Cal gave him, keeping her lips curled as Callisto pinned her with an annoyed look. She flipped Ororo the bird, making her shrug as she gave Callisto her back… long, lean and bare. She stopped behind Betsy and smothered a sneeze at the whiff of hairspray and body glitter that assaulted her.

“You’d better not be getting sick,” Betsy warned her, glancing at her over her shoulder. “At least not by me.”

“Uh-uh. Nose itches.”

“Don’t go out there with a booger hanging out there for everyone to see,” Betsy suggested cheerfully. She nodded at her outfit. “I like the bling.”

“Wish I could take it home.”

“You can’t afford it,” Betsy reminded her as they approached the walkway and peered out at the crowd. Ororo squinted at the flickering flashbulbs, and suddenly she felt too warm as the bodies around her began to close in, waiting their turn to make an appearance. She fanned herself, scalp aching from the hairpins, and she felt the pinch, acutely, of the snug pumps shodding her feet. Her world tilted for a moment, and she turned away, heading back toward one of the vanities. She picked up a folded program and fanned herself with it, drawing in thirsty gulps of air.

“You all right, ducks?” Betsy murmured, laying a cool hand on her shoulder.

“Mmm…I just… need a minute.”

“All right.” Betsy’s blue eyes looked concerned, but she gave her shoulder a squeeze, then gently took her elbow. She steered her toward a small cooler on the side table and reached into it for a water bottle, uncapping it and inserting a drinking straw. Ororo dutifully sucked down some welcome moisture while Betsy rummaged through her own purse and retrieved a half-unrolled pack of Lifesavers. “Ate today?”

“Uh-uh.” Ororo popped one of the peppermints into her mouth, and her stomach growled in response.

“You look gray. Don’t be foolish, ducky. Should’ve at least grabbed a juice on your way out the door this morning.”

“It’s been that kind of day,” Ororo muttered as she crunched into the candy and sucked down half the water, then set it down quickly as she caught Anna Marie’s glare; she was compromising the perfection of her lip gloss.

“Off we go,” Betsy nagged cheerfully as she shooed her back toward the entrance of the stage. Callisto shoved past her roughly.

“Noooo, you just didn’t,” Ororo insisted, taken aback. Her manicured hand planted itself on her hip and she narrowed her blue eyes.

“Watch and learn, little girl,” Callisto drawled as she headed for the runway, her strut fierce and wearing a fuck-off smirk on her lips.

“Hate her,” Ororo hissed under her breath.

“Who doesn’t?” Betsy shrugged. “You’ll freeze to death with all the shade she’ll throw your way if you let her, dear.” She leaned in closely and murmured, “But it doesn’t hurt to watch a pro.” Ororo nodded mutely, even though she was still fuming.

The fashionistas in the front three rows and the photographers loved her. The room buzzed and thrummed with applause and furious clicks of cameras. Callisto’s strut was impeccable. Ororo caught Jean-Paul in the audience, fingers steepled against his lips and watching Cal intently; she wondered if he’d coached her, too. Cal did her pivot and snapped her weight to one lean, sharp-boned hip. The camera flashes became blinding and hot. Cal reached the edge of the stage and lingered there, unzipping the jacket to reveal the fragile, sheer black blouse underneath, and she let the jacket drop from her shoulders and slung it over one, ad-libbing and delaying deliberately while the models behind her waited their turn. Her look was hard and unyielding, her attitude was unaccommodating and demanding, and the crowd ate it up.

“Sheesh,” Ororo muttered.

“It’s her world. We just live in it,” Betsy agreed. “We have to follow that.”

Hell, no,” Ororo tossed back. Callisto made her last pivot before she exited the stage and found Ororo watching her. Eat shit, she mouthed, then smirked. “Heifer,” Ororo muttered under her breath as she donned a confident smile and faced the music.

Disco music. Her favorite. She forgot the expensive leather biting into her toes and the torturously snug coif that was giving her the slow stirrings of a migraine. Ororo worked the runway, feeling the hot glow of stage lights and camera flashes, catching glimpses of fashion writers texting on their tablets as they watched her, taking furious notes. Ororo profiled, doing slow, smooth pivots to let them take in Piotr’s handiwork, allowing them to capture the soft drapes and tucks of his gown that slithered over her curves. The women in the front rows watched her enviously. She caught Jean-Paul’s eye and he winked. Ororo smothered a chuckle and finished her turn, moving off-stage and into Greer and AnnaMarie’s capable hands.

“Go, go. Here. This next. Give me those.” Greer snatched her shoes once Ororo toed them off and she hurried back to the changing area. The second number was a color that could only be described as “putty,” and it wasn’t Ororo’s favorite, but it was supposedly “the new black” for spring. She was out of the first dress and into the next quickly, skirting around Selene and finding another pair of mules shoved into her hands as Greer sat her down.

“That’s a good look for you,” she remarked. She swabbed Ororo’s lips clean with a makeup sponge loaded with lotion and applied a new matte shade. Anna went back to work on her hair, and Ororo sighed in relief as she removed the pins.

“Love this stuff,” she drawled. “Better than playin’ with Barbies when I was a kid.” She combed it back from her face and coiled it into a mercilessly snug chignon, but Ororo could live with it. The hematite necklace was swapped for strands of seed pearls and Swarovski crystals. Ororo shoved her feet into the taupe mules and slid the slender bangles up her wrist.

“That’ll do,” Greer told her. “Go. Go, go!”

“Don’t worry, Blue Eyes, you can change back into your comfy Kmart clothes before you go home,” Cal mocked as Emma helped her out of the leather and chiffon. Emma looked slightly mortified, and her eyes darted away from Ororo as if to say I’m not with her. This crazy bitch doesn’t speak for me.

“And you can go back to your street corner,” Ororo told her cheerfully.

“There’s only room there for you,” Callisto sang back.

“Then try the docks.”

“Stop,” Selene snapped. “That’s enough of that. We’re professionals. All of us. Act like it.” Both women went back to their respective corners, finishing makeup and hair.

The show was a hit. Despite Selene’s earlier threats, Ororo wore all of the ensembles Piotr set aside for her, and the rest of the afternoon was a blur. Sashay. Strut. Pivot. Strut. Change. Repeat. Ororo shoved aside the memories of huddling in her jacket on curbsides and park benches, invisible to all who passed, and she came alive under the spotlight.

It was delicious.