A week ago, an hour ago, Ann had thought that the only person in the world she might expose herself for was Leslie Knope. Manic, sweet, impossible Leslie Knope who filled offices with balloons and planned actual carnivals for birthday parties. Leslie Knope, who always made Ann feel special, important, and human. In a way, this was for Leslie. It was for the flecks of blood on her face, the tears rimming those bright blue eyes, and the shrill panic in her voice as she said Ben’s name. Ben’s eyes were vacant, blinking and staring at her as he raised an arm to comfort her in a vague way. He didn’t seem to notice that the chain, after shooting out of Jamm’s actual cannon that had nothing whatsoever to do with t-shirts, had sawn his body in half.
There was no time. Ann knelt next to him while Ron kept the crowd back and Tom vomited discretely somewhere behind them.
“Ann! Ben, it’s okay. Ann’s here! She’s a nurse. You’re a nurse,” Leslie babbled, “you can fix this, right? All in a day’s work.”
“Yeah,” Ann said, because reassuring the patient was a big part of nursing. “You’re going to be just fine, Ben.”
Lifting one hand weakly, he pet Leslie’s arm absently. “‘S fine,” he slurred around the blood in his mouth.
“Totally fine,” Leslie agreed, panicked tears flooding her eyes.
Ann didn’t bother to repeat the sentiment a third time. Grabbing Ben Wyatt’s lower half by the belt, she hauled it up, carefully realigning his spine and knitting bone back together with bone. It was as good a place to start as any. This wasn’t like gently diminishing a clot during Jerry’s fart attack or turning Andy’s shattered legs into a simple break. Ann was a nurse, not a miracle worker, but if Leslie needed a miracle, Ann would gather viscera in both hands and stitch it back together with sheer will.
“April, get your ass over here.” The younger woman came hesitantly, staring at Ben’s rapidly healing wounds. It was obvious that her concern for the dying man circumvented her natural resistance to listening to Ann about anything.
“What? If you think the fact that you’re a witch is going to make me like you more, you can forget it.”
“He’s lost a lot of blood and I can’t deal with that right now,” Ann said, taking what was left of Ben’s liver in one hand, healing the rupture, and speeding the natural regeneration until it was whole and almost normal sized. “You’re a universal donor. I need you and Andy to find the park’s first aid supplies. It’s possible there will be a transfusion kit or something we can use to make do until the ambulance gets here.”
Out of nowhere, Ron appeared with a length of plastic tubing that had a syringe at either end. Apparently, Donna and the no-longer-vomiting Tom had taken over on crowd control. “I sterilized it with alcohol,” he grunted. Ann didn’t waste time asking what he’d made the thing out of. If Ben lived long enough to worry about sepsis they’d be lucky. Ann had never once lost a patient to infection.
Gently finishing with Ben’s left kidney, she stopped healing him to put the line in April. “Ow, no, stop, you’re hurting me,” the woman said in an absolute deadpan as the needle went in, but she stayed out of Ann’s way and kept the line clear, holding her arm above Ben but below her own heart. Ignoring the complaining, Ann went back to work.
Sweating, dizzy, and covered in blood, Ann just managed to finish stitching a little skin across the healing abdominal muscles as the paramedics finally arrived. “Ann Perkins, I’m a nurse, I’ve been giving first aid. Patient’s name is Benjamin Wyatt, blood type A positive. He needs a real transfusion and one heck of a course of antibiotics. I am fine. I have low blood sugar, but I don’t need medical attention the way he does.”
At least she thought she managed that much before passing out.
Waking up in a hospital was not even close to an unusual experience. Like any nurse accustomed to long hours, Ann had napped a time or two on the coma ward or in the break room at Pawnee General. Waking up with an IV in her arm was strange, though. Waking up in a room with two soldiers guarding the door was Twilight Zone levels of weird.
“Um, hi?” she said, before remembering the events of the previous day.
“Stay calm, ma’am. You are in violation of the Mutant Registration Act, and under arrest. Don’t worry, though, we’re not going to take you in until the docs clear you to travel.”
Nodding numbly, Ann acknowledged that it was more consideration than violators usually got. Theoretically, a mutant could live a perfectly normal life as long as she registered her powers and agreed to a certain amount of testing when they developed during puberty. However, there were no provisions for a mutant with stifling, embarrassed parents who insisted that she keep what she could do a secret. There were no provisions for a woman who tested her own limits in nursing school then moved to a different state so her parents wouldn’t need to worry about what the neighbors thought. According to the federal government, there was no difference between Ann and one of those Brotherhood terrorists. She was in violation.
A gentle rapping on the glass pane of the hospital door broke through Ann’s funk. The cuter of the two guards turned the handle and Leslie came bustling in wearing a ridiculous red dress with huge hoop skirts and one of those old-timey nurse’s hats with a red cross.
“Here we go! Homemade fudge! Best medicine in the world for the hospital bound.”
“Ma’am, are you a member of the hospital staff?”
“Nope! Leslie Knope, candy striper.”
“Access to this room is strictly limited to essential personnel. You’ll have to leave.”
“Fudge is always essential, my good man. Do you know how many awards I’ve won for this recipe?”
The cute guard looked confused. Ann almost felt sorry for him. Half a second was all Leslie ever needed. She started listing awards, accolades, and notable local heroes who had said nice things about her fudge.
“Are you saying that the fudge that Sweetums CEO Nick Newport Junior called, ‘even better than our candy,’ isn’t good enough for this sick woman?”
“You’re damn right it’s good enough. This fudge is made with real chocolate, perfectly crafted raspberry coulis, and whipped butter so light it might as well be air. I know my fudge, sir. The Indiana Chocolate Advisory Board knows its fudge, which is why I won first place in the category two years running.”
Defensively, the older guard took a piece of fudge off the plate and popped it into his mouth. It was obvious that he just wanted to placate Leslie, but the minute the candy touched his tongue his expression changed. He looked startled and pleased. Ann knew that fudge. It tasted like a raspberry cloud had made sweet love to a chocolate swamp and born forth a paradise island for anyone with a sweet tooth.
“Hey, this is pretty good.”
“Pretty good?” Leslie had finally built up to full on fury. “Listen, buster, this fudge is better than good. It is the best. I have the blue ribbons to prove it; I don’t need your condescending compliments. Besides, I didn’t make it for you! This fudge is for sick people!”
“Yeah?” the cute guard smiled in a mean way. Ann hated when people looked at Leslie that way, like she was just a small woman that they could walk right over. Leslie was a giant. Anyone too stupid to recognize that deserved a talking to. Carefully sliding the IV from her arm, she shifted to get up in the awkward hospital gown but too slowly. The jerk snatched a piece of fudge off Leslie’s plate and popped it in his mouth.
“Thief!” Leslie shrieked, the way only Leslie could shriek. Indignant, annoying, and with that determined power that she sometimes radiated, Leslie lifted one finger to start scolding.
“Aw, it’s okay,” he said to the other guard, ignoring Leslie.
The older guard opened his mouth to respond, and then collapsed on the hospital floor.
“John?” The younger guard rushed to his side. “Buddy?” he asked, shaking the older man’s shoulders, and then promptly collapsed on top of him.
Smirking, Leslie turned to Ann looking pleased, proud, and a little terrified. “Ann, you goddess of mercy, are you alright?”
“Did you just drug those guys?”
“Technically, maybe. They shouldn’t have stolen my fudge.” Leslie’s grin was manic. The costume nurse’s hat had slipped to one side, and Ann could see the bobby pins she was using to keep it in place.
“They were soldiers. You know that, right? Mutants in violation come under the jurisdiction of the US Army.”
“And get sent to those horrible internment camps. I know. I saw it on NewsHour. Obviously that’s not happening to you.”
“Now it’s going to happen to both of us! Leslie, you just attacked soldiers! I’m pretty sure that the federal government frowns on that sort of thing.”
“Please. I didn’t attack them. I just slipped them a mickey.”
“Where did you even get the drugs?” Bending awkwardly in her hospital gown, Ann checked their vitals. Both men were breathing at least. “It’s dangerous to give someone an inexact dosage.”
“Oh, right! Donna wanted me to make it clear that our supplier of controlled substances today is a handsome beau of hers who happens to be a doctor and that not every african american woman knows how to acquire drugs.”
“Right.” It was good to know that Donna and cooler heads had set the dosage, but Ann still felt lost and frustrated. “So, just to be clear, you’re breaking me out of the hospital?”
“Absolutely!” Reaching under her huge red skirts, Leslie pulled out a duffle bag. “Get dressed.”
Obediently, Ann opened the duffle bag to find her most comfortable jeans and her favorite green cardigan. “My lucky panties?” she asked, holding up the soft black cloth.
“Hey, you’re a fugitive from the federal government. You need all the luck you can get.”
“Not that kind of luck.” It felt good to laugh. It felt better to put on real clothes. Still, Ann couldn’t really entertain the thought of running. Even with a bag of essentials put together by the one and only Leslie Knope. Leslie might be disorganized at home, but she knew how to pack a go bag. From the wad of cash to the tin of homemade fudge, it was clear she’d considered almost everything. “This isn’t drugged, is it?”
“Of course not! That’s your comfort food. I mean, you’ll probably want to stop at a diner or something on the way for lunch, but you need road snacks. There’s a bag of my homemade pretzels in there too.”
“Leslie.” Ann took a deep breath. “It was really great of you to do all of this for me, but I can’t run. I’d never make it all the way to Canada in my car. Even if you let me borrow yours, I’ll probably be shot at the border. The cops don’t take chances with unregistered mutants.”
“Don’t worry! Ron’s got a safehouse or something. He’s going to drive you out of here.”
For the first time since she’d woken up in the hospital, Ann felt a glimmer of hope. If anyone had a reliable way to hide from the federal government, it was Ron Swanson. It was just possible that he did know a way to get her out of this. Of course she’d probably end up living in the woods somewhere five hundred miles from the nearest place to buy cosmetics, but Leslie was right. It was better than life in one of those camps, pressed into service for the US Army.
“Are there more soldiers here in the hospital?”
“Yeah, but Donna and April are distracting them. Andy, Tom, and Jean Ralphio are keeping the officer guy occupied. Chris is with Ben.”
“How is Ben?” Ann interrupted, and the grin that broke across Leslie’s face was brighter than the summer sun.
“Just fine. I told him he would be. They’ve got him on fluids and antibiotics, but the doctors all think he’s going to be A-OK. Oh, hey, thank you! Did I say thank you, yet? For saving the love of my life’s life?”
The plan was convoluted and overly embroidered with backstories, costumes, and details, the way so many of Leslie’s plans were. For once, Ann was too anxious to really pay attention. She followed Leslie, ducking into empty rooms when ordered to, riding elevators up instead of down, taking the stairs to an emergency exit, and finally ending up in the back of a white maintenance van. Jerry was driving the van in a janitor’s uniform, which didn’t exactly fill her with confidence.
That feeling was justified when they wound up at a road block and Jerry somehow convinced the soldiers that he was a wanted criminal, not just a guy with a wanted criminal in the back of his van. Fortunately, a few of the local police recognized him and he bumbled his way back onto the road. Ann liked to think she was more forgiving of Jerry’s general Jerry-ness than his co-workers, but the guy could at least try to hold it in when she was running for her life. It wasn’t like she’d once used her ability to save him from an early grave or anything.
Despite Jerry being Jerry, they eventually made it to a diner in Ohio, and Ann was finally allowed to get out of the van. Ron was already in the booth furthest from the windows with a truly appalling amount of bacon and eggs spread out around him.
“Sit down. Eat something. Get your strength up.”
Sitting as ordered, Ann pulled one of least greasy looking plates of eggs onto the flimsy white paper of the second place setting. Ron raised an eyebrow and twitched his lips disapprovingly.
“It’s fine. My intention was to indicate that you should order something for yourself, but we are in a hurry. Take some of this toast, which I did not ask the waitress to bring me, as well.”
The toast was rye bread with real butter. Ignoring Ron, Ann helped herself to a slice. It was that or start crying. After years of silence and terse replies to her attempts at small talk, it seemed like they were actually friends. Ron might tolerate a little larceny from an acquaintance, but he didn’t offer to share food with just anyone. Of course she’d only realize it when she had to go on the run.
Driving with Ron was both better and worse than riding with Jerry. With Ron she didn’t have to worry about an accidental stop sending her to an internment camp for the rest of her life. On the other hand, Jerry hadn’t insisted on driving in absolute silence. Ron wouldn’t even let her turn on the radio. Naturally there was a well intentioned book in her go bag, but Ann couldn’t concentrate enough to read about the Founding Mothers. Which meant that all she could do was stare out the window at cornfields and smokestacks until they finally passed into Pennsylvania and there were at least some pretty mountains to break up the monotony.
Even towering red rock and sheer cliffs on either side of the road got old after hour six with Swanson, and Ron just grunted when she mentioned stopping for dinner. Still, he accepted some of Leslie’s fudge because he was a human being and relented enough to let her play the “Ann on the Run” mix CD. While he scowled through the Sarah McLachlan, she caught an approving mustache twitch for some of the Johnny Cash. Obviously Leslie’s strategic CD stylings had considered both the driver and the fugitive. Not that Ann would ever doubt her best friend. Who she was never going to see again. Making use of the travel sized kleenex, Ann wondered if maybe Ron wasn’t a little right about the Sarah McLachlan being too maudlin for this particular trip.
It was edging toward midnight by the time Ron pulled off the road and down a long driveway toward a huge, creepy mansion in upstate New York. Maybe creepy wasn’t entirely fair. While the building was massive, with dark windows and stone masonry that belonged on a castle or a library, there was a welcoming golden glow from the lights around the big doors at the top of the broad front stairs. Ann could just see another light on in the front hall. So Ron could have brought her to a big house after everyone had gone to bed, not a haunted sanitorium.
She could also see a man in a red checked flannel leaning against the side of the staircase when he was illuminated in the washed out white of Ron’s high-beams. He vanished into the shadows as Ron turned off the engine and the house went back to being super creepy. Unfortunately, as Ron had absolutely no hesitation about sliding out of the car and pocketing the keys, Ann was forced to follow.
The orange flash of a match in that shadowed corner only made Ann jump a little. Yes, it was nice to know exactly where the stranger was standing, the long shadows cast across his face by the glowing cigar didn’t precisely make him appear nonthreatening.
“Ron,” he said with a nod, stepping out into the pool of light at the bottom of the stairs.
“Logan,” Ron replied, giving a similar nod.
“Oh my god!” Ann couldn’t help it. Cigar guy had the same thick dark hair, though he seemed to go for muttonchops over mustaches. “Are you guys brothers?”
Cigar guy snorted. It almost sounded like a laugh.
“Logan is an old friend of mine,” Ron explained in his patronizing, how-many-words-did-you-need-me-to-use voice.
“Right. Well. It’s nice to meet you, Logan.” And they were back to creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. Ann was sure that Ron wouldn’t leave her with a serial killer, but she was equally sure that things were only about to get weirder.
“Likewise,” Logan said politely, switching his cigar to his left hand to offer her his right. He had a firm handshake, not the crushing grab that a lot of dudes resorted to as a display of masculinity, and he didn’t do anything weird. He really was a lot like Ron. Of course, Ann had never been particularly good at making small talk with Ron.
Fortunately, before Ann needed to resort to commenting on the architecture in what would have definitely been an awkward and insulting way, the most beautiful woman she had ever seen opened the doors and came to the top of the steps.
She had long, shockingly white hair and soft dark skin. Her chunky amber necklace complemented the teardrops dangling from her ears, emphasizing the elegant curve of her neck, a fashionable and expensive contrast with her light blue jeans and asymmetrical t-shirt. The heels were tasteful, but not Jimmy Choo levels of extravagant. Overall, she looked like a woman ready to go clubbing, and nothing even remotely like a friend of Ron’s.
“You must be Ann Perkins. Please come inside.” There was a warm welcoming hand on the small of Ann’s back and she was shepherded into a large, dimly lit front hall. “I’m Ororo Munroe, I teach history. The Professor wanted to greet you himself, but there was an issue with a few students that he needs to take care of first.”
“This is a school?”
Ororo paused. “I can see that Ron and Logan filled you in with their usual attention to detail.”
“You will do well here,” Ron said, unprompted. “That is all that matters.”
“Um, you do know that I already have a BSN? No offense, Ororo, but I don’t really need to go back to school.”
“You will teach,” Ron said, not deterred.
“Ron. I’m a nurse. Not a teacher. You are aware that traditionally feminine professions do differ from one another in terms of skill set, right?”
“Since I am not a two year old, yes, I am aware of that.”
Rolling his eyes Logan stepped forward. “This isn’t a typical school.” In one fluid motion, he made a fist extending three long metal claws from between his knuckles, then he drew those claws sharply across his other arm, tearing open the flesh there.
Ann couldn’t help jumping back a little, though she covered her mouth to muffle the sound of her shock. It only took her seconds to master herself enough to step forward. The claws went away as she took his arm, but by the time she assessed the wound, the cut had vanished as well.
“That’s what I do! I mean, not to myself. I mean, I can do it to myself though I don’t usually have to. Does it work the same way? Does your body naturally stimulate cell function and replication or do you emit directed radiant energy the way I do?”
“Not sure,” he said, allowing her inspection. “Something about a protein and salamanders? Sorry. I’ve never been too interested in playing lab-rat.”
“No! That’s. Don’t be sorry. I’m the one who’s sorry. That was rude.” Ann looked up into his gruff, Swanson-like face. “I’ve just never met anyone like me before.”
His eyes softened then, and he covered her hand on his arm with his other hand gently. “We’re all like you here. I’m Wolverine.”
Fox News had all kinds of things to say about mutants who rejected human culture to create their own, taking new names in the process. Wolverine was right for him, though. Better than Logan, anyway. Logan was the name of a twenty-something with a trust fund, not a mountain man friend of Ron’s.
“Storm,” Ororo said, twirling her fingers a little and making a tiny whirlwind dance across the carpet in front of them.
“Ron. Swanson. My mother gave me a name and I don’t have a need for fripperies.” Ann grinned at him and wanted to thank him for breaking the tension when she realized that the steel colored paperweight he’d picked up off an end table was now shining soft and yellow in the lamplight.
“Is that gold? Did you just turn that into gold?”
“Fairly useless as far as these things go,” Ron admitted. “Since one can also turn base metals into gold using hard work and the free market, but I do like gold. And you are not alone.”
Ann didn’t cry, and she was too grateful to Ron to inflict a hug on him. She was not alone. She hadn’t been alone in Pawnee, either, not once she finally met Leslie. Ann Perkins was a mutant whose parents had hidden her away, but Leslie thought those powers made her a goddess. “Mercy,” she said, brushing at the corner of her eye. “My name is Mercy.”
“An absolute pleasure to meet you, Mercy,” a warm, british voice said just behind her. Turning, she saw a well dressed man in a wheelchair. “Welcome to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. I am Charles Xavier. If you happen to be seeking employment, our school could always use a good nurse.”
“Well I could use a good meal,” Ron said, saving her from answering right away.
“Come on,” Wolverine said, putting a broad hand on his shoulder. “I promised you a steak.”
“That’s why we couldn’t stop for dinner somewhere?”
“Logan is aware of the proper method of cooking meat.” Probably the highest praise Ron could give. Ann rolled her eyes.
“You must be hungry,” Storm said with a kind smile. “I’ve run from plenty of soldiers in my day, and I know how it builds an appetite. I promise that our kitchens are stocked with more than Logan’s bloody meat.”
“There wasn’t a lot of actual running.”
It was an invitation to more than just a non-steak dinner. It was an offer to listen the way Leslie would with actual interest instead of competitive storytelling. Far surpassing the job offer and the show of solidarity, it was a genuine welcome. Storm was going to be a friend. So Ann told her, about Leslie’s candy striper outfit and the fact that the Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, Indiana was made up of exactly the kind of people that a mutant on the run wanted in her corner.
“Unfortunately, it may be a while before you can return to Indiana. Mr Swanson will, I trust, share your location. Naturally your friends will be most welcome to visit us here. However, even as our basic individual rights improve over time, public opinion on mutants tends to be cyclical in nature. Right now we are at a bit of a low point thanks to the activities of Erik’s extremist group. The legal battle to have your arrest warrant rescinded might be unwinnable at the moment, even if we managed to arrange for a sympathetic judge. That said, I have an understanding with the federal government. They do not interfere here at the school.”
“Thank you. Really, even just. I mean, I miss Leslie already. She’s my best friend. But I always knew I would never be safe in Pawnee. It was never home, you know?” Once she hit puberty and realized that Michigan wasn’t safe, Ann had sort of given up on finding a place that would be. So she had picked the closest town with the worst health problems and taken her nursing degree off to do some good while she could. It was only luck that a place like Pawnee had a person like Leslie. Leslie, who had never once made Ann feel out of place in her strange little town.
“Anything’s better than an internment camp,” she concluded, trying to end the awkward word vomit. Luckily, her fellow mutants seemed to understand or take pity on her. Ron passed her a beer. The professor started talking about the dichotomy between the American ideal of freedom and the fact that forced labor was perfectly legal as long as the government managed to convict a citizen of a crime and imprison them. Gradually, the conversation moved on to ways mutants were legally challenging the camps with the help of the ACLU, as well as direct and very illegal action the school was taking to help alleviate some of the suffering in those awful places. Logan grinned and told a story about a Japanese American Internment Camp during World War II. He didn’t seem old enough for the story to be true, but it was pretty good either way.
Shackled in an internment camp, Ann would never have regretted saving Ben’s life. But in the big, comfortable kitchen, catching olives in her mouth as Storm tosses together a ridiculously elaborate salad for a late night snack, Ann thought she might be glad he got hurt. If he hadn’t, she might never have found a place where she could feel normal. Without Ben's injury, she might never have found a home.