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Seven Ways Wolverine Knows Gambit is His Friend

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1.

Wolverine's trying to be normal for awhile, again, with a job and a place of his own, and no one taking him on missions or making him wear uniforms.

He knows it won't last.

Wolverine knows this because when Gambit pulls up to his trailer on a battered motorcycle, looking pretty battered himself, his blood quickens, and the claws vibrate under his skin.

Gambit crashes on Wolverine's couch and drinks all his beer. He 'borrows' Wolverine's last pair of clean socks and Wolverine never sees them again, clean or dirty. He drinks milk from the carton and changes the radio stations in the truck and uses Wolverine's last cigar to start the barbecue.

Then he sits back with a beer and watches Wolverine grill food that Gambit made no effort to pay for.

The trailer is small when Wolverine's in it, but Gambit makes it feel bigger, cards always sliding through his fingers or spread out on the nearest flat surface, his coat tossed over Wolverine's on the back of the kitchen chair, the clipped words and odd inflections of his speech pushing against the flimsy walls.

Wolverine thinks, this isn't so bad, and wonders why it seems familiar to think in terms of two.

The second night, Gambit gets Wolverine kicked out of his favorite dive by winning too much at poker, or perhaps he was smirking too much about the winning.

It pisses Wolverine off. That was the only place around where he hadn't been kicked out for brawling. Not to mention, the only place to buy alcohol this time of night. The two of them have gone through all the booze in the trailer and the single liquor store in the county is closed by now. The other five or six bars within driving distance don't welcome Wolverine any longer. He has a habit of getting into fights with the other customers.

Gambit thinks this is funny. Wolverine wants to wallop the smirking ass but the reaction of the local cardsharps to Gambit’s victories was pretty damn funny, and he almost laughs. Then Wolverine notices that the man is wearing his favorite shirt, just washed, and growls at him instead. Gambit is counting his winnings, and doesn’t notice.

The fall night is getting cold, and Gambit has the trench coat wrapped around him like any southerner would. Wolverine decides he doesn't care and tries to make him walk back but somehow, the man's in the truck with Wolverine when he coaxes it to start.

Wolverine snarls at him and tells him he'd better clean up his mess when they get home. Gambit has just the clothes on his back and his staff, plus a deck of cards, and it still seems to Wolverine that he's all over the trailer. His hands are always busy, fingers always moving, long legs sprawling.

The next night Gambit makes Wolverine dinner using all three of his pots (he only has three because they came in a set and they were the cheapest) and both bowls (ditto). It tastes good, whatever it is.

It's not rations or bar food or charred red meat. Wolverine didn't know that sausage and rice could taste like something more than just that stuff by itself.

Gambit leaves all the dishes for him, but Wolverine doesn't care, even when Gambit leaves without warning the next day when Wolverine is at work in the boatyard.

Wolverine eats the leftovers and drinks a beer on the steps. The trailer seems tiny again.

 

2.

Wolverine leaves a message on a number memorized three years ago and never used when he arrives in New Orleans. He doesn’t expect Gambit to pick up; the man once said he doesn't like cell phones, and he doesn’t want to be tied to a landline.

Wolverine wanted to growl at him, because even he has a cell now.
Rogue bought it for him. Wolverine might be a bit of an animal, but he knows you can't turn down a present (especially one from Rogue). Wolverine talks to her every couple of days when he's not at the mansion. He even kind of likes it.

But Gambit can't be bothered with regular communication. Wolverine figures he doesn't want to be at anyone's beck and call. Fair enough.

Things have settled down now, as much as they could, at the school. Wolverine's been teaching hand-to-hand when he's there, and handling security, going on missions, talks to the kids about geography of places he can’t remember visiting, but knows, same way he just knows how to ride a bike, but can’t remember his given name.

Wolverine sometimes goes on other missions for the Professor, not just violent ones. Wolverine would never admit it but he feels a creeping bit of pride whenever Xavier asks him to do anything that doesn't include heavy breakage and bodies. It's not like he gives Wolverine talk-talk stuff to do, that's for Scott or Jean or Storm, but he can pick up mysterious packages, and do recon, and escort new kids back to the school.

He feels he’s earned his place. That means something.

Sometimes he has to get away from all the earnestness and education, though, and rides from town to town, just north of New York City. This place doesn’t hold him, the weird mix of mini-mansions, and gourmet candy shops, and fur storage warehouses, next door to a community of run-down strip malls, and people smoking up under bridge overpasses, and auto repair yards that look like the wrecker’s already been.

He meets a woman in a diner on the highway, an artist with big eyes and strong hands. She makes delicate pots and vases for galleries, and mugs and wine cups for craft shops and boutiques. Wolverine feels like he can break everything in her studio just by breathing, so he tries to stay real still at her place. There's one mug sitting on a shelf that he almost asks to buy, that makes Wolverine think of the crazy Cajun. The glaze changes colors in different light, from silvery blue to purple to fuchsia. But he leaves it on the shelf, because what would he do with it? Instead he buys one with white trees and grey mountains for Rogue.

He knows he’s lucky Viva puts up with him, really. He’s not much of a talker and he keeps odd hours and he lives at a school. That’s what she knows. What she doesn’t know about is the violence. What she doesn’t know is that he’s a mutant. He thinks maybe she wouldn’t care. He doesn’t want to test it.

Wolverine waits for Gambit at the bar he'd named, off the main drag in the French Quarter. The phone in his pocket rings after he claims a seat at the bar and a long-necked beer. It's Viva. Wolverine almost smiles when he sees her name.

Wolverine's closing the phone on Viva's "I'm sorry, Logan," when Gambit walks into the dive.

He takes one look at Wolverine and says, “Come on, homme.”

Wolverine follows him, hanging hard onto anger. It crowds out the pain.

Gambit takes Wolverine to a dirty part of town, a filthy, ugly uncared for neighborhood. There’s rats and trash and even the drug dealers have drifted somewhere else.

Gambit parks and they walk for a few blocks. Wolverine follows him, sometimes just by scent, as the man ducks through an alley or around a streetlight.

Gambit stops at an old brick warehouse and beats a hard tattoo with his staff on a cracking wooden door.

The door eases open and Gambit flicks three cards at it, one after the other, and blows it wide.

The men inside rise up as one when Gambit and Wolverine walk in past the destroyed door. Nobody says welcome. They take out chains and knives and one guy has a baseball bat. Another one is levitating billiard balls.

They attack in a rush. Gambit goes for the telekinetic. Wolverine goes for everyone else.

Not a single table is left in one piece by the time Wolverine's done wiping out his hurt with adrenaline.

Wolverine looks up from trussing the last unconscious body. Another thing he knows is that he’s never gone for casual killing.

Gambit is leaning against the bar, rolling up a ripped sleeve. He’s lost his hat somewhere. One end of the bar smokes and burns from a massive hole. The Queen of Hearts tatters black against the flame-licked wood.

Wolverine steps over the bound man on the floor and joins him.

Gambit hands him a bottle of Abita.

Wolverine leans across the bar from Gambit.

“She said she couldn’t trust me,” Wolverine says. “She said she didn’t know who I was.”

Gambit grips Wolverine's shoulder, and serves him beer after beer in the busted-up club.

 

3.

The fancy New York hotel seems strange to Wolverine, like it’s part of another world. He wonders why Gambit couldn’t choose some old money hotel with all the wood and cigar smoke and whiskey.

This chrome and marble monstrosity does have the advantage of multiple entrances, attractive to a man with the occasional price on his head who takes stuff that doesn’t belong to him.

Wolverine almost expects to find Gambit in the penthouse. His message said he'd had a good week.

Instead, the room number takes him to a big floor of anonymous doors, boasting three fire stairs and several elevators. Op sec, again, and Wolverine wonders just what the man has been doing. If he was stealing state secrets or something, surely he would have skipped town by now, Wolverine thinks.

Gambit opens the door with a grin. He’s got the rumpled look and satisfied smile of a man who just won or stole a lot of money.

“Wow. It’s like you have a real job. Business trip and everything,” says Wolverine, taking in the suit coat draped over the chair with a tie flung across it, next to a well used briefcase.

“And business has been good,” Gambit says. “You hungry?”

Wolverine gives him a look.

“Right. Let’s go downstairs,” Gambit says. He drapes his trench coat over his arm. From that, Wolverine figures he has another destination in mind later. Probably a bar. In that, they’re alike, both just at home in dark watering holes as wherever they lay their heads.

The hotel restaurant is dark and huge. Luckily, despite the prices on the menu, they don’t require ties or jackets. There’s rare steak and potatoes and new peas. There’s expensive red wine. It’s almost like a date except they both pay more attention to the food than each other.

Wolverine thinks more people ought to be like that.

With the wine, the bill is more than $500. Gambit signs for it but Wolverine can see that he’s using something other than Le Beau to travel on.

Gambit takes him to a bar downtown, in Alphabet City, not too far from the mutant slums. The old warehouse has far more dark corners than Wolverine is comfortable with, but for all his precautions uptown, Gambit seems fine with it. The bluesy rock and scattered card games make him feel right at home, it appears.

Abandoned at the bar with a double bourbon and a decent cigar, Wolverine watches Gambit fleece tourists and greasy locals who don't care what tricks he does with those cards as long as they think the big score is right around the corner.

Gambit wins some money and buys a round for the place, a girl at each elbow. He graciously allows that Wolverine might have his leftovers, now that Wolverine's single, and Wolverine cuffs him on the back of the head.

Wolverine blows smoke in his face and talks about motorcycles until the girls see another winner and drift away. Wolverine doesn't care and Gambit doesn't care. Why should he? He can get a girl anytime he wants, just by stepping out into the street, Wolverine thinks.

The room empties, then ebbs full again. Gambit idly flips cards at his hat, upended on the bar, with his eyes closed. The cards flash and sparkle when they hit something solid.

“You want to see what I came up here for?” Gambit asks, lazy, gathering up the cards and shuffling them.

“You’re walking around with the stuff you stole? Are you an idiot?” Wolverine blows a smoke ring.

The muscles along Gambit’s jaw tighten. “Ain’t a novice. This is somethin' different."

Jesus, now he's going to sulk. "Okay," Wolverine says. "You're only kind of stupid. What is it?"

With a hand movement so smooth Wolverine barely sees him twitch, Gambit slips something small from his coat and lays it on a dry patch of bar between them.

It's a tiny miniature portrait, less than an inch a half high. Every delicate detail screams quality, worth, masterpiece.

"Can I...?"

"Go ahead," Gambit says, eyes slitted.

The back says, Emeraude Le Beau.

She's not beautiful, this Emeraude Le Beau, but she has strong features, graced with a real smile.

Wolverine passes the tiny portrait back with care. "Relative?"

"Not of mine, not really," says Gambit. He stows the painting back in his coat.

"Just some random Le Beau? Can't be too many of those around." Theft for the sake of a name seems strange even for his light-fingered companion.

"I was adopted." Gambit flicks through the cards in his hand, lays them out for solitaire, gathers them up again. "Le Beau isn't my real name anymore than Logan is probably yours. The portrait, she was the sister of the head of the line, during Napoleon's wars. It was stolen by a Yankee during the War Between the States. I been tracing it for years."

"You'd think you'd be happy about that," says Wolverine. "Getting it back."

Gambit shrugs. The gesture says a lot.

"You ain't in their good graces anymore," Wolverine guesses. "Think you should straighten up and be a banker."

"More like, they ain't in mine," Gambit says, grins without humor. "I come from a family business, homme."

"Why go on with it? The search, I mean."

"I said I would do it. She should be with her family, non? With the people who know her as Esme, not the people who want to list her in a catalog," Gambit says.

"You going to take her home? Give her to the blood Le Beaus?"

"Sure. Doubt she'd approve of living with a mutant," Gambit says.

"Good," Wolverine says, not knowing what to say to that. "Remy actually your first name?"

Gambit shrugs. "Always had it."

Another round drunk in silence.

"Fuck," Gambit says.

"Don't throw up," Wolverine says. He looks over at Gambit.

Gambit is staring at the door, like a canny fox hearing the hounds.

"Le Beau!" one of the guys at the door yells. There's three of them and they look like they know their business. Loose jackets don't cover the guns at their hips.

"Cover me," Gambit says, and slips off the bar stool.

Wolverine tips back the last of the bourbon in his glass and stands up. The room is narrow here and he has no trouble taking up enough space - eight inch claws on either hand help - to block the way of the bad guys.

"Where's Le Beau?" the lead bad guy demands.

"I don't know any Le Beaus," Wolverine says, and kicks the guy's feet out from under when he pulls a gun and tries to lunge past him. The man falls hard, and the gun skitters away under a far table. He seems to be unconscious.

The other two bad guys get tangled up with a chair trying to keep clear of his claws. Wolverine grabs them by the collar, drags them to the front door, and throws them out.

The barkeep has a sawed-off pointed at the first one, who’s groggy but standing. He gets his balance. Wolverine raises his hands, and the guy scuttles after his sidekicks.

"Your friend went out the back," the barkeep says, after putting the shotgun away. “You want something? On the house."

Wolverine shakes his head. He figures he ought to head out himself. He reaches for his wallet, swears under his breath. That stuff is expensive, and he only has about $50 bucks. He hates to use his school credit card for a bar tab.

The barkeep waves away the card, though. "Your buddy took care of it."

"When?" Gambit isn't stupid enough to run a tab or leave a card number in this situation, is he?

"Dropped some cash when you braced those guys," the barkeep says. "And he left you a note."

It's a battered Ace of Spades, propped on his glass, with See you around scrawled on it, signed, Remy.

Wolverine shakes his head.

"Some friend, leaving you to take care of those guys. Looks like he can handle himself, too," the barkeep says.

"Nah. He knew I would deal with it. He tries not to bust up places he likes," Wolverine says, absently. He puts the playing card in his pocket. He knows without saying that Gambit trusted him to take care of his pursuers so he didn't have to fight with the portrait on him, the portrait that, despite the distance between him and his family, he clearly treasures.

Gambit had even bothered to leave him a note instead of just disappearing out the back.

Wolverine makes for the door, hoping the bike is where he left it on the street. He misses Viva, but he has a friend in Gambit - Remy. With Rogue, that makes two. That's not bad.

 

4.

When Wolverine asks Gambit to help defend the mansion, Gambit says, “Be there tomorrow.”

 

That's some kind of concession. Wolverine knows the academy makes him skittish, especially Professor Xavier.

Wolverine knows the rumors, knows that the Professor keeps track of mutants around the world, especially those that have real power and use it. He hates to think about someone keeping tabs on mutants, even one of the good guys. Everyone thinks he’s a good guy, that they have a just reason for their actions, like Stryker, and Wolverine is occasionally a little afraid of what the Professor might do in the name of good.

Wolverine tells the Professor and others during the council of war that afternoon that he has called Gambit in. Scott goes tight faced, Jean looks imperturbable. Storm looks at Wolverine like she knows more about him than Wolverine does himself.

Wolverine looks belligerent. "They won't expect him to be in the school," Wolverine says. "They won't be prepared for him."

"Any help is welcome. Thank you, Logan," says the Professor.

Wolverine wants to growl, but he keeps quiet. This is important. But he feels uncertain and uncomfortable now, and worries that calling Gambit was a bad idea. Rumor has him working for some pretty nasty people, including the kind of mutants who will be assaulting the school any time now.

The old building hums with former students summoned back for the duration. Wolverine leaves them to bring in more supplies, the extra bottled water that got forgotten on the last run, and a couple bags of chocolate bars. Tempers flare over food and water more than anything else in a siege, Wolverine knows somehow, and Rogue had asked him to bring back something sweet. Wolverine picks out all her favorites, plus some he knows she hates, just to see her make that wrinkled nose face.

A sports car, electric blue and old, pulls up the drive as Wolverine loads the older kids down with the last of the water.

Gambit steps out, surveys the house and grounds like he's never seen them before, then reaches back into the car for staff and a backpack. He nods and says “Logan,” when he sees Wolverine.

“Good to see you too,” Wolverine says.

Gambit's not here to fight the good fight. He cares a bit about some of the mutants who've been through here, his fellow inmates at Three Mile Island, but having a personal interest in some of the players is not the same as sharing their point of view. Wolverine knows his loyalties go where the winds blow, and they know it too. Gambit's used to not being trusted. He encourages distrust. He makes it work for him.

Wolverine wonders how much he himself has bought into the Professor's viewpoint. Or is it that he just needs a mission?

Gambit goes inside and pours on the professional charm with old acquaintances, and the ones not happy to see him thaw a little. The Professor is cordial, Scott neutral, until Gambit bends over Jean's hand and kisses it, murmuring something in French that Wolverine doesn't catch, then his face goes thunderous.

Wolverine hovers in Gambit's vicinity, hoping that no one will challenge him and start a fight. Wolverine doesn't want the Professor's trust in him to be wrong. He doesn't want to choose sides. Not if he doesn't have to. And if he does, not yet.

Rogue wants to meet him, this guy who knew Logan before anyone else here. Gambit flirts with her, gets her all tongue tangled and flushed. There's an edge to it beyond simple interest. Wolverine puts a stop to that with a hard grip to the nape of his neck and drags him out of the room.

Gambit lays off Rogue when Wolverine growls at him, but switches to Bobby, teasing and flirting in a bid to get under the skin at any cost, all in that soft accent, with that twinkle in his eye that says to the naive, I'm just playing a game.

Wolverine can't - won’t - stop him. Wolverine needs him here, and he didn't want to come. Wolverine keeps him away from Kitty, though. Gambit does not need to get his thieving hooks into a girl who can walk through walls.

Everyone’s called in favors and the mansion is bulging with mutants come in from their lives as accountants and construction workers and dog trainers to hold the fort. Sentry duty goes to former students who know the place. They're fresh. It lets people swap out sleeping on couches, and spare beds.

Wolverine lets Gambit share his bed. No one else seems eager to host him.
The tension doesn't go out of Gambit's shoulders until Wolverine stretches out next to him late that night after a tense briefing by Cyclops and the Professor. There’s just enough space on the bed to let them sleep without touching. They're fully dressed and ready.

The warning squeal of breached defenses brings Wolverine out of sleep, claws extending as his heart kicks up.

Gambit rolls out of bed and onto his feet, coming up with staff in one hand and cards riffling through the other.

There's something big and metallic clawing at the roof and Wolverine and Gambit go out the window and climb to meet it.

It's a running fight all night long. Once, the spider-robot knocks Wolverine from the roof all the way into the lily-pool. He cracks his skull hard enough to black out and squashes Storm‘s favorite lotus.

Cyclops fights for hours with a broken arm. Bobby gets trapped against the roof and almost asphyxiated by a thick robotic tentacle. Kitty gets its attention and slips away through the roof or a chimney every time.

Gambit blows out half the top floor of the west wing with just the spades in his first deck. He blows three legs off the robot, too, and Rogue and Colossus heave the twitching legs into the swimming pool, three stories down.

The robot seems to be remote controlled, until a hatch opens in the bottom and mutants pour out. Wolverine doesn't know who these people are, but from everything the Professor could find out, these guys aren't as strong as Magneto's gang. Of course, that doesn't matter when there are a couple dozen of 'em throwing coordinated mutant-powered attacks at you on a rooftop.

There's a bad moment when Wolverine and Cyclops are forced to the edge of the roof by a crowd of attackers. Storm is too far away to support their fall and Jean is covering the entire first floor by herself. Wolverine is about to grab Cyclops and try to ensure that he lands on the bottom, cushioning the man from the fall, when charged playing cards blast into the roof slates at each of the attackers' feet, sending them stumbling. Together Wolverine and Cyclops put the opposition out of commission and plunge forward.

The battling mutants, school side and dark side, part just long enough for Wolverine to look over at Gambit and exchange a quick nod. Then Gambit is leaping onto the leg of the robot and Wolverine and Colossus dog pile a big guy with a club.

It's dawn by the time Bobby manages to freeze the last leg segment. If they weren't so exhausted and hurt it would be comical, this bit of leg scuttling around with some dim battle plan of its own, and the X-Men chasing after it.
Wolverine looks around. No one's dead. That's a plus. Rogue's face is badly bruised, Storm is limping. Cyclops hugs the bad arm to his chest. Gambit has a long gash in his shoulder and arm, right through the trench, and he has the arm tucked into his shirt.

Somehow they get everyone off the roof, and those that need it down to medical. Then everyone sleeps until noon. Wolverine stays up and prowls the school, but he makes the kids and Gambit go to bed, instead of sitting up over coffee and rehashing the fight.

In the dining hall at lunch, Xavier thanks Gambit, courteous as ever, and something like contempt passes over the younger man's face.

Wolverine tenses.

Gambit inclines his head, says with stiff courtesy, "It was my honor."

Wolverine takes a deep breath. Gambit raises an eyebrow at him, mutters, "I am housetrained."

He won't stay another day for the debriefing and celebratory dinner for the returned students, who are now treating this visit as an unofficial reunion. There's much passing around of pictures and talk of mortgages and good restaurants.

Wolverine walks him to his car.

"Your arm okay to drive?" he asks.

Gambit shrugs. "Won't be any better tomorrow.”

Wolverine nods. "Don't do it all at a stretch.”

"There's a nice luxury hotel waiting for me in the Carolinas," Gambit says.

"Right. Gambit - Remy - thanks," Wolverine says. Thanks for not showing me up. Thanks for not screwing up the only home I can remember.

Thanks for putting your life on the line.

"Never got to fight a robot before," Gambit says, with a grin, and gets into the car.

Wolverine watches him drive off, then walks out into the grounds. Too many people in the mansion right now. He slides his hands into his pockets, frowns. Hadn't he picked his wallet up from the dresser this morning when he'd changed from the uniform? He checks again, checks his back pockets. No wallet.

Wolverine looks at the drive Gambit had just driven down.

That bastard.

 

5.

Mutant gossip finds its way into the mansion like magic.

Schools are like armies, Wolverine realizes early on. When you’re in a closed system, all you have to talk about are your fellow inmates. Wolverine's never understood how talk of those on the outside reaches the mansion so quickly, though. Or at all. Maybe it's that Internet thing. It comes in handy, sometimes.

When Gambit gets caught by a mutant crime lord and thrown into a nasty private prison, the mutant grapevine knows to pass the news on to Wolverine.
Wolverine rehearses a speech about I'm not your keeper, and you get what you deserve. He’ll probably never say it. Gambit would barely listen, and it’s not as if he asked for the help. Not directly, at any rate.

Rescue missions are what the X-Men are for, practically, but this one is a hard sell. Wolverine is pissed and knows he doesn’t do a great job of hiding it. They’ve helped worse people, people who never did anything for them. They had helped him, and they knew nothing about him to start.

Wolverine wonders if they would jump to faster for someone else’s friends. If Storm had asked, would they have ever considered saying no?

The Professor wants to go along. He isn’t one to waste a chance to extend a hand to one in need who might help them later, but he’d agree just to help a mutant in trouble. Still, the Professor doesn’t want to help Gambit enough to just overrule Scott.

Which puzzles Wolverine as much as it pisses him off. What game is Chuck playing here?

“He got himself in there, he can get out,” Scott says. “He wouldn’t be in this mess if he wasn’t a criminal. You can’t lay down with pigs without getting up covered in shit.”

“He does some bad stuff. He works with some bad guys, yeah,” Wolverine says. “But he helped us when we asked.

"He helped you when you asked," Scott says.

"If it wasn’t for him, one eye, you’d still be on that island," Wolverine says.

Scott gets even more ramrod stiff at that. “We would have gotten ourselves out,” he says.

“You were stuck in those cages to rot ‘til we came along,” Wolverine says. “Hell, it took Gambit two years to figure a way out from the inside and he probably had the best chance of anybody. You'd still be there and you’re pissed that you have to be grateful to him. And me.”

“You can go if you want,” Scott says. “You’ve made it pretty clear you’re part of this team only when it’s convenient. But you’re not using our resources. Well, you can take the bike.”

The bike is a sore point. It’s pretty thrashed, after Wolverine’s last trip up north. He keeps intending to make that right, to pay for that, but Scott’s attitude makes it impossible.

“Wait a minute,” Storm says. “Remy put himself on the line for us a few months ago. Just because he doesn’t meet your idea of morality, Scott, doesn’t mean he’s not worth help. Isn’t that right, Professor?”

Wolverine tries not to grin. Trust Storm to turn the issue into a classroom exercise.

“We didn’t promise him anything,” says Scott.

“Wait a minute, bub,” says Wolverine. “You don’t have to go. But I could use a hand, and maybe transport. If Storm’s willing.”

“You know where Gambit is? You have a plan?” the Professor asks.

“Where he is, sort of. And as much of a plan as I ever have.”

“Professor,” Scott says. “He’s just going to go in there and beat on everyone he sees. Do we want to be part of that?”

Scott is afraid of losing control of the team, Wolverine thinks. He sees Wolverine as a threat to far more than his marriage and his vehicles. Not that Wolverine wants to take over the team or be the Professor’s favored son and heir, but he knows he disrupts Scott’s careful set-up. He is, as Gambit might say, the wildcard.

The Professor sees it too. He’s watching them all like an experiment. Probably hopes Scott will find a way to give in gracefully. Probably consider it a sign of maturity.

“Professor, you offered Magneto help, and he’s done a lot more damage than Remy ever will,” Wolverine says, deliberately using the man’s given name. That should remind everyone they’re talking about a human being. He hopes so. It was Rogue’s idea, before he went in to talk to the Professor.

“Alright,” Scott says. “You need to be back here by tomorrow night. And leave the uniforms in the locker. This isn‘t an X-Men operation.”

Wolverine knows Gambit’s rescue will only be delayed if he responds like he wants, so he stuffs the “screw you pal” back in and gets up. He looks at Storm and Storm nods and follows him out.

The first thing Wolverine does is change into uniform. When he meets Storm at the jet, he sees she’s done the same. They share a grin.

The South American night is humid and hot and the leather is punishing after the cool air in the jet. The air in the underground prison is frigid, though.

Storm and Wolverine take out the guards on a little used back door and run. The owner of this place has a fondness for slow, public executions and Gambit’s already been in his hands for three days.

When Wolverine shoves his claws in the lock to the cell and sees the bruise that is Gambit’s face and the bloody wreck of his knee, the berserker rage he thought he’d left behind with Victor rises and Wolverine becomes almost sick with the need to avenge Gambit’s hurts, to take down his tormenters right now.

Wolverine pulls Gambit to his bare feet. From the way he moves he‘s probably bruised internally, too.

The man tries to shake off Wolverine’s hand on his elbow, tries to use the wall to stay up, but he can’t walk on the knee. Wolverine growls and slings Gambit over his shoulder.

Gambit yelps. Wolverine is sorry he hurt him, but he'll be sorrier if he doesn't get him out of the way. Wolverine runs, back to the guard post where Storm is keeping watch. When Wolverine eases Gambit down to the cold concrete, the Cajun is choking back French swear words.

“I’ve got this,“ Storm says, and she takes point back to the jet. Wolverine picks Gambit up again. This time he passes out. That’s good. If Wolverine has to put him down and fight, he won’t worry so much about hurting him.

It takes an hour to get back to the jet. There are all of a sudden guard patrols in corridors that were empty when they came in. Wolverine wonders if they’ve been set up, with Gambit as bait.

They duck around back halls, something Wolverine never does by choice. That sort of thing can get you mired in roundabout routes and false turnings. It is easier to plow straight ahead when you can’t die, though.

They subdue another pair of guards and make it back to the jet, where Wolverine sets Gambit down on the med bench. Storm pulls out the medical pack.

“I’ve got to go back,” Wolverine says.

Storm nods without looking up from her work over Gambit, who seems to be stirring back to consciousness. His hair is matted with blood, and one eye is swollen shut.

“I’ll set the jet defenses. Don’t forget to signal through your comm unit when you return,” Storm says.

“Right,” Wolverine says.

Gambit is awake and listening, hazy eyed.

Wolverine takes the extra second to lean over and tell him he'll be right back.

Gambit bumps his knuckles on Wolverine’s shoulder and says, “Merci, mon vieux.”

Wolverine is covered in blood when he gets back to the jet. That particular crime lord won’t be imprisoning or executing anyone else. He’d love to blow the entire prison complex but they’re not prepared for that. It would take a hell of a lot of skillfully placed explosive - or one very powerful mutant - to take the place down. Something to consider for the future.

Gambit is strapped in on the med-bench, brace on his knee, IV stuck into a vein, spaced on pain killers. His hands are still. That bothers Wolverine. It’s just unnatural.

Storm lifts the jet straight up. She dodges cannon fire and rockets, juking wildly through the sky. She’s calling out incoming but Wolverine doesn't care what’s being thrown at them because he's throwing up into a bag.

“Big, bad Wolverine gets airsick,” Gambit says, almost to himself, and snickers.

“I hate you, you know that? You're not funny. And you’re too much fucking trouble, too,” Wolverine says.

Storm gave Gambit the good painkillers. He just laughs.

***

“You should be in the revenge business,” Gambit says from his Miami hospital bed later that night. Jean has an old friend from medical school here, who is ensuring that Gambit gets the attention he needs - without any unwelcome attention from the cops.

“Instead of doing it as an amateur? I don’t want to lose my status for the Olympics,” Wolverine says around an unlit cigar.

“How’d you get Xavier to loan you the jet? This wasn’t exactly a full on X-Men production,” Gambit says, voice fuzzy from the pain killers.

“Used the magic word,” says Wolverine.

“Which one? Revenge? I’ll kill you? I have naked pictures?”

“Magneto,” says Wolverine.

“You fight dirty,” says Gambit. This time he does drift off.

Wolverine sits vigil over him. Gambit’ll be in here a few days, and then he’ll need a lot of physical therapy. He’s refused to come back to the mansion to recover, though, preferring to handle it on his own, and Wolverine has to respect that.

Storm took the jet back a few hours ago, to meet Scott's deadline, leaving Wolverine to find his own way back.

Wolverine’s jacket crinkles when he gets up to check that Gambit is breathing. He pulls out the complete false identity Gambit sent him to pick up from a storage locker in Jupiter Beach. Wolverine finds driver’s and pilot’s licenses in the name of Remington Lee Beauregard. Wolverine shakes his head. That name is a little too close to the man’s real name, in Wolverine’s opinion, to make a great alias, but Gambit does love his grand gestures.

There’s also a MasterCard, a couple bank cards, and a platinum AmEx in that name. They would all be current and paid up, if Gambit knew his business, and he does.

The next morning Wolverine tells Remy to stay out of trouble. Looks away but tells him to call if he needs anything.

“See you when I see you,” Gambit says. “Thanks.”

“I’m not going to say ‘anytime’ because I’m afraid you’ll take me up on it,” Wolverine says. He’s kind of serious.

He doesn’t plan to be much away from a phone for awhile. Gambit worries him now in ways he didn’t before. That his friend has the capacity for getting into terrible trouble isn’t academic anymore. But Wolverine can’t follow him around. They both have their own things going on. And Gambit would never let him anyway.

This time was a victory, or at least a happy ending, for him and his. Wolverine’ll have to keep telling himself that.

There’s also the victory over Scotty to savor.

And Gambit will soon be paid back for the stunt with Wolverine’s wallet.

Later that morning, Wolverine guns north out of Miami on a brand new Harley, courtesy of Remington Lee Beauregard’s American Express card.

 

6.

Gambit whips the staff through the air. His quarry dissolves and the business end of the staff cracks into Wolverine’s skull.
Wolverine's head snaps back and he shakes off the heavy bloom of pain. Gambit might look slender compared to him, but he carries a lot of muscle under his tailored shirts.

They turn as one towards the mouth of the alley - which is empty except for the college kid yacking his guts out at the mouth. Behind the college kid, Mardi Gras rages in full swing.

“Fuck,” Gambit says. "So much for talking to it."

“Yeah,” Wolverine says. He runs a hand through his hair and finds wet blood. Gambit must’ve clocked him harder than he realized. He holds the hand up.

“Shit. Sorry,” Gambit says, with a grimace.

Wolverine doesn’t tell him not to worry, that he can’t really be hurt. It’s nice that there’s someone out there who doesn’t think it’s okay for him to get beat, shot, killed, just because it never sticks. Because it does hurt. It just doesn’t last.

Gambit looks with dismay at his shirt and pants. Somewhere in there he’d gotten thrown in a puddle. Wolverine sniffs, but he doesn’t smell anything nasty. Water off this alley floor isn’t too clean, though.

“I need to change,” Gambit says. What he doesn't say is that they should have expected a surprise attack, and that they hadn't done very well against this mysterious mutant.

Wolverine turns toward the mouth of the alley, preparing to use his height and weight to force a path through the crowd on the French Quarter street. It's a heaving mass of drunken people with really large cups of crappy alcohol. Wolverine is willing to drink crappy alcohol, but he would rather not have it spilled on him. Crowds tend to get on his nerves, too.

“This way, mon vieux,” Gambit says.

Wolverine turns back.

Gambit is halfway up a spindly fire ladder.

Wolverine sighs. He looks to the mouth of the alley, and the crowd beyond.

The ladder isn’t that spindly, it turns out.

***

“Why’d you call me down here during Mardi Gras?” Wolverine is standing in the middle of Gambit’s living room, drinking Gambit's last beer.

“Didn’t call you down because of Mardi Gras. Just happened to be Mardi Gras,” Gambit says. He levers the shoes off, surveys them, shrugs, and dumps them in the trash. “You didn’t have to come.”

“Where are we going, anyway?” Wolverine says.

“Hopefully, not Bourbon Street,” Gambit says. “So I don’t have to listen to you whine.”

“Don’t tell me you like the tourists and all the hooraw,” Wolverine says.

“Love the crowds, homme. Used to work ‘em when I was a kid. Could do without the drunken frat boys,” Gambit says. "They never have a lot of cash. It's all Daddy's credit card."

The place is one big room, rough brick and wooden floors. Gambit goes to the far end, strips off, and pulls on jeans, tee shirt, heavy boots. From a wardrobe near the door, he takes a hip length leather jacket, and catches the staff up from a table near the entrance. He leads the way down the creaking stairs to the garage on the lower level.

Wolverine has offered to fix the steps. He hates stuff that isn’t in the best shape you can make it.

Gambit says the steps are that way on purpose, to keep the opposition from sneaking up.

The floorboards in the loft creak too. It makes Wolverine nuts.

“Whatever happened to that bike I left here before? When we went to the Island?” Wolverine asks.

“I put it in storage,” Gambit says.

“You didn’t put a classic like that in somebody’s shed,” says Wolverine, hands on his hips.

Gambit gives him impatient. “No, I said storage. Thought I might want it one day. You can have it back, if you want.”

Wolverine hesitates. The Harley he has is souped up, adjusted for him. He’s not sure the old bike can stand up to his weight, or the way he will use it.

“No, you keep it,” Wolverine says, finally. “As long as you get it out and ride it.”

“Sure you don’t want to just sell it? Could get a few thousand for parts alone,” Gambit says.

Despite all his fancy stuff, he is surprisingly pragmatic about possessions. Wolverine figures he's either living the high life or sleeping in his car, depending on the turn of the cards or his latest heist. Sometimes Wolverine thinks Gambit doesn't actually care how his gambles turn out. It's the risk he wants, the pivot on the razor's edge that gets the blood up and sharpens his grin.

Wolverine knows a little about that himself.

The bike the old couple gave him should be preserved, though. He doesn't know how else to honor their memory. He's never known much about that.

Wolverine shakes his head. “Wouldn’t feel right,” he says. "The people I got it from, they gave it to me to help me out of a jam. Wouldn't be right to just sell it."

"Up to you, homme," Gambit says. He's going over his own bike with quick fingers and sharp eyes.

It looks fine to Wolverine, but Gambit is paranoid about sabotage.

 

The outskirts of New Orleans looks a lot like other towns Wolverine has been in. These neighborhoods of auto repair shops, small factories, bars advertising 'package goods' in the window, worn houses, twisted fences trapping scraps of trash, seem to be universal.

They're looking for the home base of a mutant who has been attacking other mutants, the one that had attacked them in the alley.

No one's been hurt or killed, but the mutant community is concerned, or so Gambit had said when he called the tip in to Wolverine.

Xavier had urged Wolverine to go. "The X-Men cannot operate easily in New Orleans. The criminal guilds and various political interests do not like interference. They cannot do much to us, but to the mutants in the city, they are a threat. In everyday life, New Orleans is a comparatively safe place for mutants. But they are a very easy scapegoat in a city which enjoys near daily power struggles between the factions," the Professor had said. "And while I have contacts in the guilds, I certainly do not have the influence to set any action in motion through unofficial channels."

"And I do?" Wolverine had snorted.

"Remy Le Beau called you," Xavier had said.

"To pass on information. He was trying to throw it in our lap, not asking for help."

"Well, he has the authority to make something happen," Xavier had said.

"Right," Wolverine had said, with a sigh. "I'll head south tomorrow."

 

It still rankles him that he'd known Gambit for a few years before the man had let on that he was the reluctant heir apparent to the New Orleans Thieves' Guild. Wolverine had thought he was just another mutant who'd gotten himself off the streets by cashing in on natural talents and sheer bloody-mindedness.

It does mean Wolverine can make lots of cracks about him being the Prince of Thieves, though. So there's an upside.

The mutant had been spotted in this grungy neighborhood five or six times a few weeks ago.

"Makes me feel like the X-Files," says Gambit. He's studying a map spread over the handlebars of his bike with the incidents marked in red crosses.

"If we get beamed up I'm letting them keep you," Wolverine says.

"I was thinking we would kick their asses and steal their spaceship," says Gambit.

"You think you're Han Solo, don't you?" Wolverine says. He fishes out the stump of a cigar.

"Fast ship, hot woman. That would be nice," Gambit says.

"Nah, you're more like Lando Calrissian." Wolverine lights up. "The guy the hot girl brushes off, and if you're really lucky, you get to borrow the fast ship and probably get killed."

Gambit gives him an irritated look. "We going to catch this thing or what?"

Wolverine shrugs. "Maybe it was here last week, but it ain't here now."

"The most recent incidents happened a few miles from here," says Gambit. "This one -" he points to a mark closer to city center - "was reported last night. And then we were jumped outside the bar earlier. So it's staying around the old town right now. There isn‘t a pattern we can see, though."

"You didn't get these from the police," Wolverine says.

"One of our people. And notice I ain't saying if they were in the police or not."

"You work fast," Wolverine says.

Gambit shrugs. "We keep a record of unusual incidents. It pays to be ahead of the authorities. When you said you were heading down, I asked for all the reports for the last few weeks."

There were a lot of little red crosses on the map.

Wolverine hates this kind of search. He isn't a covering all the bases kind of guy. But apparently, Gambit either couldn't get more help from his people or didn't want to ask. Mutants are in a weird position down here. Wolverine is grateful that Gambit is willing to help at all. Otherwise Chuck would have him go it alone.

The slow quartering of the original incident sites produces nothing. Around midnight, Wolverine suggests a food break.

"Ok, so I was thinking about this mutant. What they were doing, what they wanted," Gambit says, stirring more sugar into his coffee. The waitress brings them sandwiches and fries. He waits 'til she leaves to continue. "See, it never stole anything. It never really raised a hand. Just a lot of noise and a lot of jumping out at people. Muggers don't waste their time on practical jokes. They get in and out with the goods and they put distance between them. This thing, this mutant, it doesn't seem to want anything. It only got strong with us when we reacted to it surprising us,” Gambit says.

Wolverine digests that. He doesn’t see what good that information does. Still, he doesn’t have anything else to offer.

"I guess that means we can't find some kind of bait," Wolverine says. He notices he has about half the fries he had when the plate was put down and sighs. "Cut that out."

Gambit raises an eyebrow.

Wolverine sighs again. "Forget it. Where do we go from here?"

"Guess I'll have to call out the troops. Then we patrol around the most recent sighting and wait for a call from a spotter," says Gambit. He looks unhappy.

"If it's not hurting anybody, we could just leave it," Wolverine says. He doesn't know what kind of political capital Gambit might have to burn here, but he knows that with thieves you don't ever get anything for free. He doesn't want someone else's crusade to put Gambit in a bad position he may not be able to get out of. The man's connection with the guild is already strained. Wolverine is just about ready to abandon the search without some compelling threat from this mutant anyway.

Wolverine doesn't see that dealing with this one is worth a high cost. Sometimes, the Professor has tunnel vision. Wolverine figures that someone sometime has to say no.

"Be alright, I think. Just have to position it as bad for business," Gambit says. "Just that it's Mardi Gras."

Wolverine doesn't quite see the problem, but he mentally shrugs. It's up to Gambit in the end.

Though whatever shit Gambit gets into, Wolverine has to back his play.

 

Little kids and teenagers swarm up out of the shadows where Wolverine and Gambit wait a few blocks out of the French Quarter.

The kids are dressed neatly, non-descript. Their body language says, don't look at me. They call Gambit 'Master.'

Gambit gives them instructions and the kids melt away into the dark.

Then Wolverine gets it. This us the Thieves Guild training squad, kids pulled away from pick pocketing the Mardi Gras crowds for Professor Charles Xavier's crusade.

That's a lot of money not going into Guild coffers tonight.

Fuck.

"We owe you big," Wolverine mutters.

"Shut up." Gambit gives him an almost fierce look.

It's two a.m. before Gambit's phone rings with a report: the mutant's bothering a couple of tourists in a quieter street in the Quarter.

This time the mutant looks like a ghost, a ball of amorphous eldritch light. A big ball of light, one that's growing arms and legs.

An invisible blow sends Gambit's bike skidding as they approach. Gambit bails out and rolls to safety on the hard street the way only a mutant with his agility can. Wolverine brakes and throws himself off the Harley, shoving the bike towards a patch of grass. He rolls onto his feet and wonders how you can fight light with fists and claws.

Then a spectral fist slams into his face. His head rocks back and he instinctively strikes out, claws punching through skin. He tags the now solid body, can feel adamantium pushing through an enemy's flesh.

From the corner of his eye Wolverine sees the tourists run off.

Gambit sparks a card off at the mutant's feet. The mutant stumbles back, wavers into gas, then disappears.

Gambit's bike is thrashed and leaking fluid. They shove it to the side of the road and Gambit gets up behind Wolverine on the barely scratched Harley.

Right away a report comes in from the guild kids that the mutant just reappeared further east.

This time it dumps Wolverine on his ass in the street when he dismounts. Gambit catches it good in the back of the knees with his staff, but doesn't duck fast enough and gets punched in the face. Wolverine charges, claws foremost, and the mutant fades so the sharp blades pass through it.

Gambit sends a cascade of cards at it, charged enough to stun. The cards arrow through the disparate form and spark their power out on the road. A near invisible hammer blow takes Gambit in the ribs, hard enough to stagger him back almost off his feet. Then the mutant vanishes entirely.

"I prefer it when people just stand there and try to kill me," Gambit mutters, feeling his ribs. He straightens, takes a deliberate deep breath, and nods at Wolverine. "Let's go."

Third time is not the charm. The call comes in from Bourbon Street itself.

Wolverine looks over his shoulder at Gambit. "You jinxed us, you ass," he says.

“Everybody ends up at Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras,” Gambit says.

"Once more into the breach," Wolverine mutters. The bike goes in back of Gambit's bar and they head into the party.

By now the Bourbon Street crowds have thinned, with just the serious partiers left, letting them pursue the quarry, but leaving no room to deal with it. The mutant looks solid, but it’s like a ball of dust and gas coalesced, not really like a person. No one gives it a second look.

As soon as one of them catches up to the mutant, it fades or slips around a reveler. But they both know how to hunt. Wolverine stalks it from behind. Gambit shadows it from the side.

When the mutant stumbles into a small open space in the crowd and Wolverine and Gambit jump it from opposite ends.

It's a disaster. They can only avoid some blows, and they can't return any worth shit. Wolverine draws its attention to himself, hoping it will get tired, hoping for a lucky shot to knock it out. The effect of the few blows he lands seem to dissipate by the time the figure reconstitutes.

He really hopes no one who can recognize him is watching.

It's phasing in and out so quickly that Wolverine almost feels nauseous. The mutant isn't so bold now, its stance wavering, the gaseous form lasting less and less long.

Gambit jerks his head sideways and between them they herd the mutant into a side street.

Without warning, Gambit gets knocked hard into a brick wall, by a blow that almost seems accidental. He pushes himself back to his feet, looking a little glassy eyed, and says, "Come on now, ain't it time we talked?" He's got the staff up in a ready position in front of him, as if he doesn't expect much success.

The gaseous form pulses, snaps solid, then runs right at Wolverine. He expects it to pass right through or around him but it hits with full corporeal force, propelling him back like a football tackle.

Wolverine and the mutant fly back into someone he can't see. Something cold and wet splashes over them.

"Fuck, man, watch where you're going," a man says.

Wolverine has his arms wrapped around a suddenly rigid mutant.

It's a street kid, probably a girl. She looks about 12 years old. She looks like she hasn't eaten well for months. And she smells.

Well. This is why Xavier’s school exists, Wolverine thinks, and sits up, keeping the girl in his lap and off the pavement.

Gambit tosses the guy a $50 and tells him to go get another drink. Then he gets out the cell phone.

An hour later the girl - who has yet to wake up - is in the care of Gambit's aunt, Tante Mattie. Gambit says she can handle anything, but just as a precaution he makes sure there’s a couple jugs of cheap wine on hand to subdue her. They don't know if it was alcohol content or water that froze her, but figure wine is a safe bet.

Wolverine reports to the mansion, waking Xavier. They'll send the jet for the girl tomorrow morning.

Gambit grabs up his jacket from the couch at Tante Mattie's elegant French Quarter apartment, and nods to Wolverine, who's standing by the window, away from the antique furniture. She had offered him free run of the expensive alcohol in an antique cabinet, offered to send in sandwiches or cookies, had taken his hand without hesitation. Wolverine had found himself calling her ma'am.

"You sure she doesn't want us to stay?" Wolverine says.

"She says men don't know anything about a girl's troubles," Gambit says.

"She knows the girl's a mutant, right?" Wolverine asks.

"Told her on the phone. Don't matter if a soul is in trouble," says Gambit.

"So our work here is done," Wolverine says.

Gambit shrugs. "Unless you want to raid the kitchen."

The front door opens and a tall man walks in. There's something ageless about his face.

"Father," Gambit says. He’s wary.

"Remy," the man says. "I had hoped you'd be able to sort this out without bringing your troubles to us."

"I've earned that right," Gambit says, tension lining out his shoulders.

"For our people," the elder Le Beau says.

"Mutants are my people," Gambit says. His eyes take on that lambent shine that means he's about to make something explode.

Wolverine steps forward to stand next to Gambit. "So it's okay when you take a mutant kid off the street and give him a better life, but not when your son does it?"

"My actions are not in question," says Le Beau.

"What are you disappointed in this time, Pere? That I might have saved a life? Or lives?" Gambit's voice is controlled, diamond tight. Wolverine can still hear the hurt.

Le Beau gives nothing away. "Questions are being asked in the guild."

"Listen, bub, you had your chance to say no. Didn't say it," Wolverine says. "Remy did good and he didn't have to."

"The guild is not forgiving," Le Beau says.

"You didn't tell me your Dad was a coward," Wolverine says, then almost immediately regrets it.

Gambit speaks as if he did not hear him. "Is the guild the reason you never sent anyone after me when Stryker's men took me?"

Le Beau jerks as if struck.

"I thought so," Gambit says, soft, so soft Wolverine barely hears it.

"I think we're done here," Wolverine says. His claws are itching to come out.

"I don't believe anyone asked you, mutant," Le Beau says.

"That's enough. He‘s done more for me than you‘ve ever bothered to," Gambit snaps. The shine fades from his eyes. "We're leaving. I would hate to damage any of Tante's furniture."

Le Beau steps aside. Wolverine waits to make sure Gambit goes out the door first.

The street outside is empty. Wolverine half-expected to see Le Beau’s bodyguards lurking.

"That went well," Gambit says. He's pale. His hands are steady.

Wolverine swings a leg over the motorcycle. Gambit gets on behind him.

The bike rumbles to life and Wolverine pulls out into the empty street. "Where to?"

"Just go," Gambit says.

Wolverine cuts north, away from the Quarter.

Gambit puts his forehead against the back of Wolverine's leather clad shoulder. One ragged, pained breath rattles out of him. Then his breathing steadies, becomes so regular and even that Wolverine realizes he must be maintaining the rhythm through sheer will.

Wolverine drives for a long time.

 

7.

In the darkest parts of the night, Wolverine wishes for an adamantium bullet, so that ice-cold agony can write over the memories of Alcatraz.

By day, Wolverine haunts the back roads on his Harley, trying to erase the images in his mind with speed and wind and the slip of the road under two wheels. On the bike he can turn off his brain and slip away from memories at 90 m.p.h.

But every day by supper time, Wolverine eases the bike down the drive to the mansion, watching for kids and stray basketballs, trying to look like a man who can be depended on.

Nine days after Alcatraz and dinner is getting noisy again. That’s good, Wolverine thinks; kids shouldn’t be stuck with all that doom and gloom. They’ve got to start living again.

Wolverine excuses himself before dessert to walk the grounds in the warm spring dusk, summoning the little bit of acting ability he has to put a good face on the ever present heartache.

Storm smiles, murmurs, of course, Logan, and turns back to the kids.

Kurt gives him a slow nod, face solemn. Kurt understands grief.

If he were a praying man, Wolverine would thank some god for Kurt. Storm needs competent back-up in the school. The oldest kids, the newest X-Men, had graduated to their new roles with grace and confidence, but the younger kids needed people they saw as adults, needed to feel safe.

Kurt makes the routine work. He cooks simple meals. He makes sure kids do their chores and finish their homework. He insists that movie night continue, though it‘s hard to find kid movies to watch that don‘t include death or war. Kurt steps in to handle all the squabbles and dramas that inevitably crop up when you put 50 or 60 kids in one building.

Room inspections, head counts, minor injuries, missing homework, teenage couples breaking apart and getting together: it’s not too different from living on an army base, Wolverine realizes with the part of his brain that is desperate to pretend nothing has happened.

In other circumstances, it might even be comforting.

But Wolverine wants to scream. Thrash. Break apart.

Wolverine walks the mansion and sees the empty rooms, hears the unfinished conversations, feels the never quite disinterested gaze of the woman he loved so hopelessly.

When he closes his eyes he can see Jean become the Phoenix under his hands, obliterating the tough, brainy, compassionate woman who had captivated him. He can feel the convulsive clench when Scott's death hits home. He can taste the horror of the Professor’s disintegration in Jean‘s childhood home.

Can hear the Phoenix's last gasping breath against his claws.

So Wolverine keeps moving. Keeps his eyes open. Eludes grief and worry and fear by constant action.

Wolverine walks the immediate perimeter of the building that evening, checking windows and doors, slowly working a circuit around the mansion until he reaches the back, where he stops on the terrace overlooking the memorials.

There’s a man standing there, a man where no one should be. He seems familiar, but the dusk is deeper here, and Wolverine isn‘t sure from this angle, and the wind is wrong to catch a scent.

Wolverine swings over the rail and drops to the ground, a growl ready in his throat. When he straightens he recognizes the stance, the angle of the shoulders, the spicy, clean scent. When the man kneels, he knows.

Gambit is on one knee in front of Jean’s grave. His lips are moving. Wolverine can hear prayer.

Gambit crosses himself and stands. He’s dressed all in black. Wolverine isn’t much good at telling good clothes from better clothes, but he knows Gambit, and this is nothing less than his best gear.

“Gambit,” Wolverine says.

Gambit turns. He reaches his hand out to Wolverine, who grips it hard. Wolverine finds himself pulled into a strong embrace.

“I’m sorry,” Gambit says into his ear. “I grieve with you.”

For just a moment Wolverine lets himself hold on, then steps back. He gestures to the memorials, the flowers. His mouth is dry and he clears his throat. “Thanks. For treating ‘em like people and not saints.”

“You’re welcome.” Gambit hesitates, resets the jacket over his shoulders. “Let’s take a walk.”

The long grass of the wilder stretches of grounds near the estate wall swishes against their boots. New leaves whisper overhead. A fox barks. Wolverine takes a deep breath. He misses the wilderness.

Gambit moves through the increasing dark almost as well as Wolverine does. Night is his element, after all.

Wolverine wonders how he’d do in full on woods. Maybe in the fall he’ll see if Gambit wants to go off to the north woods for some deer hunting, test out his wilderness skills. It feels odd to think about the future right now, but he doesn't want to think about the conversation they're going to have.

“Tell me about it,” Gambit says after ten minutes of quiet rambling through the dark. There’s no hesitation, no faltering in his voice.

That makes it easier.

And Wolverine does. Ends up with tears choking his voice, tears for more lives taken from him. Another woman he loved gone, and this time he was not just at fault but carried out the execution himself.

Wolverine grips Gambit's arm, holding on like something was trying to tear him away.

All Gambit says is, “I am so sorry.”

Wolverine hadn’t realized he needed something so simple, something untouched by the unspoken, embarrassed knowledge of his hopeless love for Jean, his ambiguous role as would-be lover forever on the outside, a man with less right to grieve.

His clashes with Scott, his failure to save the Professor, none of that mars his grief in Gambit's eyes - even if Wolverine still doubts his own right to it.

It’s not enough. Nothing said can ever be enough. But Gambit is there, and he gives a damn, and that matters more to Wolverine than he could ever find words for.

 

The lights in the mansion are mostly out when Wolverine and Gambit slip inside. It's late and everyone has gone to bed.

Gambit retrieves a duffel bag from the front hall on their way upstairs, with his staff, and Wolverine remembers that he had not heard him drive up.

“You didn’t drive?” Wolverine asks, casting about for something normal to talk about. He feels drained and yet lighter. He thinks maybe tonight he will sleep, without wishing for a bullet.

“Took a cab. Made my own way from the road,” Gambit says.

“You snuck in,” Wolverine says, suddenly weary. That means security was breached, and none of the tell-tales went off.

“Relax, homme. Ain’t too many people out there can come in the way I did and not set off alarms,“ Gambit says. “Most of them who can don’t want nothing to do with this place. Enemies more likely to come in direct.”

“Maybe I should make another circuit,” Wolverine says.

“Don’t worry, mon ami. I got that,” Gambit says. “Mansion gets invaded, I’ll yell real loud. Let you take care of it.”

Wolverine almost laughs. He stops at his bedroom door, says, “I’m counting all the Ming vases in the morning.”

“Do you even know what a Ming vase looks like?” Remy says. He sighs, and shakes his head. “I wish I didn’t know you people. Some mighty fine pieces of swag here. Mighty portable, too.”

“Like you don’t steal from your friends,” Wolverine says.

“When did I steal from you?” Gambit looks surprised.

“You took my socks. In Maine,” Wolverine says. He doesn't mention the wallet because he got a Harley as revenge.

“You’re whining about a pair of socks? Sides, that was a test,” Gambit says. “See if you would toss me out.”

Wolverine shakes his head. “What about food? You always take off my plate.”

“Food stealing ain’t theft,” Gambit says, as if this is a rule he lives by.

It probably is, Wolverine thinks. “I’m going to bed. You owe me socks.”

“I made you dinner!” Gambit is indignant like this is an acceptable rate of exchange: jambalaya for socks.

Wolverine figures he actually made out better on that deal, but he’s not going to tell Gambit that.

“Not the same,” Wolverine says. “I’m going to bed.”

“You want these socks I‘m wearing? They‘re silk,” Gambit says.

Wolverine blinks at him. “I can’t wear silk socks.”

“Your rep is safe with me,” Gambit says, looking earnest.

“I’ll pass,” Wolverine says. He yawns, shakes his head. “I’m really going to bed now.”

He opens the bedroom door, hears Gambit murmur, “Sleep well, mon vieux.”

As he drags the shirt over his head, tired and needing his bed like he hasn't for days, Wolverine wonders if Gambit used his mutant charm power to soothe him. Decides he doesn't care. He falls into bed, reaches out all his senses in one last check of the mansion like he always does, and feels rather than hears the light tread of a new guardian.

He sleeps.

 

Gambit is still there in the morning, when Wolverine goes downstairs a few hours after dawn. He’s sitting in the dining room with a cup of coffee, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved tee shirt. They exchange nods. Wolverine goes into the kitchen. Kurt is standing over a pan of bacon. There’s a bowl of some kind of batter on the counter. Looks like it’s a waffle day.

“Morning,” Wolverine says.

“Good morning,” Kurt says. “You should have warned me your friend was arriving. I nearly had a heart attack when he walked in this morning.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know he was coming.” Wolverine pours coffee into one of the big mugs.

“After teleporting halfway across the mansion, I recognized him, of course. From that photograph Storm has of the reunion after the robot attack,” Kurt says. He moves the bacon plate out of Wolverine’s reach. “He is a very polite young man, your friend. He apologized for disturbing me. He offered to help cook, too.”

“You should have taken him up on it. He cooks a good meal.”

“But he is a guest,” Kurt says, as if that is the final word. “And you, you are a nuisance in the kitchen. Out you go.”

Wolverine goes back to the dining room and pulls out a chair across from Gambit.

“Remy!” Rogue bounces into the room.

“Cher,” Gambit says. He stands up and comes around the table to hug her, careful.

“You can touch me,” Rogue says. “I got the cure.”

“The cure?” Gambit looks taken aback, like he can’t imagine erasing his mutations, but he hugs her again and kisses her cheek.

“It wasn’t a mutation I could live with,” Rogue says, softly. “It’s not like I could do anything with it anyway.”

“If it makes you happy, cher, is what you should do,” Gambit says. “Would you like a coffee?”

“You didn’t offer to get me coffee,” Wolverine says.

“You’re not that pretty,” Gambit says.

“I don’t want to be pretty,” Wolverine says to Rogue, who sits down in Gambit’s seat.

“Don’t worry, you’re not. You’re kind of handsome though, in a he-man kind of way,” Rogue says.

“Smartass,” Wolverine says.

“It’s true,” Rogue says.

Gambit puts a cup of coffee down in front of Rogue, and a paper towel with half a dozen strips of bacon in front of Wolverine.

“Kurt gave you bacon? He never gives me bacon.”

“I helped myself,” Gambit says.

Kid voices squabble in the hall and Wolverine goes out to break it up. When he comes back in Storm is hugging Gambit. They don't know each other that well, as far as Wolverine knows, but there's been a lot of hugging around the mansion lately.

"Got here as soon as I could," Gambit is saying. "I'm sorry I missed the service."

"It's good that you're here," Storm says.

After breakfast, when Gambit manages to shoo off the last few kids who want him to demonstrate his powers - again - Gambit says, "How about you show me this Danger Room you're so proud of?"

Gambit masters the Danger Room’s programming pretty quickly for a guy who refuses to carry a cell phone or send e-mail, and soon he and Wolverine are running the younger X-Men through drills. He’s pretty inventive even in the simple warm up scenarios.

To be perverse, Wolverine refuses to let him program the holographic opponents as aliens or zombies - though that would be cool.

That day is almost normal, at least normal the way Wolverine remembers it. He’s trained too hard over decades for muscle memory to slide, but his mind is another matter.

To wind down, Wolverine makes Bobby and Piotr work through defensive scenarios without using their powers. They have to consider that darts carrying the cure will be used against them at some point.

Gambit pulls the girls aside and shows them a few martial arts moves designed to put a larger opponent off balance with minimum force. He’s a good teacher, patient, breaking things down so they can understand both how to execute the moves and why they work.

After three days, Gambit fits the routine of the mansion like he was made to fit. Everyone treats him like he’s always been there. He takes his share of the load, and more, if Wolverine is honest: expanding the training schedule, patrolling at night, adding clever mods to the security protocols, and teaching what he knows to the X-Men.

Some of the school kids start taking Gambit their troubles, too. There were a couple of kids who used to do that with Wolverine, off and on. He’s not exactly the nurturing type. He’s not sure the advice he gave was ever useful. It doesn't matter. The couple of kids who used to confide in him, whether he wanted to hear it or not, they haven't come around since Jean died the first time.

Wolverine spends less time on the bike, and more time on the grounds. He fixes some things that have been neglected, tunes up all the vehicles, except the jet, moves furniture into unused rooms for the extra kids they’re going to have next year. Parents of mutant kids started calling shortly after Alcatraz made the news, and Storm expects another 20 to 30 kids next year.

 

 

On the fourth day, Wolverine hears a car come up the drive, a car they aren’t expecting. He puts down the tools he was using to replace a cracked pane of glass on the third floor and heads for the front hall.

Voices in the hall: Bobby and two men identifying themselves as cops, asking for someone in charge. Wolverine freezes, wonders who’s done what, then shakes himself. Cops don’t automatically mean trouble for one of his, he tries to convince himself.

Bobby takes the cops to the room Storm is using for an office. No one’s been able to bring themselves to clean out or pack away the belongings of the dead, and the Professor's office sits ready and waiting, as if he is going to come back from some long trip and reclaim it all.

Wolverine trails behind the two men, a pair of detectives, it looks like, not uniformed cops, but keeps well back. He watches Bobby usher the police into Storm's office, and hovers in the corridor, weighing whether he needs to get in there.

Gambit comes around the corner, wiping greasy hands on a rag. He has a sixth sense for trouble, probably because he causes so much of it. “What’s doing?”

“Some cops just went in to talk to Storm,” Wolverine says. He really should go in there -- he doesn’t think Storm distrusts authority enough, and he doesn’t want to see the X-Men jumping when the cops whistle.

“Cops? Here?” Gambit goes still. The wheels are turning in his head.

Gambit could go out the back door, Wolverine knows, and be gone in minutes.

Gambit takes a deep breath, lets it out slow, and shrugs. “If they wanted me, they’d have asked for me.”

“Stop reading my mind,” Wolverine says, and immediately regrets it, thinking of Jeannie.

“Thinker like you is easy to read,” Gambit says. “I’m going to go see what they want, make sure Storm doesn’t get too agreeable. You coming?”

“I got some stuff to do upstairs,” Wolverine says, guilty at his relief.

Gambit looks him over, shakes his head, and lets himself into Storm's office.

Wolverine finds out later, from Kurt, that the detectives were trying to pin a murder on a mutant, and they wanted the X-Men’s help to do it. Between them, Storm and Gambit had poked enough holes in the cops' theories to debunk the idea, and sent them packing.

“So the old charm got a workout today I hear,” Wolverine says. He and Gambit are making another circuit of the outer wall after dinner. Gambit has some idea about passive alarms on the outside of the wall that might work, but Wolverine wants something else to catch anyone who gets in.

“You should have been there,” Gambit says, voice flat.

“You didn’t need me,” Wolverine says, and dismisses the incident. He pulls himself up on the wall and considers distances. “All bets are off if we get someone like you crossing over. Or anyone who can really leap.”

Gambit shakes his head. “If people got the ability to fly, there ain’t much we can do but protect the target. We’re just want to eliminate the more ordinary invader.”

The conversation trails off into shop talk that lasts for the rest of the circuit, and Wolverine forgets that Gambit seemed about to say something else just then.

 

The jet bucks through turbulence. Wolverine swallows hard. Rogue showed him this anti-nausea acupressure point on his hand but it’s not working. Next flight, he wants an IV drip of something. If there’s enough of it, maybe it’ll work on him.

Everyone else is having a high old time. This is the first post-Alcatraz mission, and the kids are feeling their oats. Storm is letting Gambit fly co-pilot. Gambit loves the jet with a passion that’s kind of disturbing to witness.

They land in southwest Indiana, and the day falls to shit.

There are three dead bodies in the central square of the small farming town already. The call said a mutant gang had robbed the bank, taken hostages, and then busted through the meager police cordon, for no good reason that anyone could see. Probably just to show that they could. Career criminals they weren’t.

Wolverine takes on the first mutant he sees, no more than a high school kid, with some kind of super strength, and gets thrown around. A lot.

Rogue gets the kid with a tranquilizer gun while Wolverine plays bait.

When the first kid is down, Wolverine takes off after another gang member, this one with some kind of deadly accuracy that lets her throw knives like a Marine sniper can shoot. The knife girl is little, and fast, and she dodges around a corner out of sight. Wolverine hears a scream, and lengthens his stride.

Wolverine almost trips on the body. He stops, goes to check her pulse. Blood is already pooling on the worn concrete. It’s obvious what killed her: two knives transfix her chest.

And a tempest of red hair frames her face.

Wolverine stills, frozen. He heaves in a great breath, then another. It’s not Jean. It’s not Jean.

He stumbles through the rest of the battle, downs the knife wielding mutant almost by accident, and lets Bobby throw cuffs on her.

On the flight home Wolverine barely registers the nausea. He holds himself still, grasping for numbness with slippery mental fingers. It’s like trying to forget what the sky looks like.

Red hair. Red blood. Another woman he could not save.

He bolts from the jet as soon as wheels are down in the underground hanger, throws off the suffocating uniform, and roars out of the grounds on the Harley.

He drives dark roads for nearly an hour, pulls into a dive in the middle of nowhere, and demands an entire bottle of rotgut whiskey.

That’s where Gambit finds him, three hours and four bottles later.

“That’s enough, Logan,” Gambit says at his elbow. He doesn’t sit.

Wolverine glares at him. That’s about the limit of what he can do right now. All he can remember is something about the color red, and it’s chewing at his brain. More whiskey should push that away. He reaches for the alcohol but a metal staff cracks down on the bar top in front of the bottle.

“No more,” Gambit says. He throws a $100 bill on the bar. “Take this away. Get the man some coffee.”

Some idea about protesting stirs in Wolverine’s brain, but dissolves in the massive amounts of whiskey circulating through his body. He takes the coffee cup and swallows down the contents. His brain starts to clear. It doesn’t take much to sober him up.

“Let’s go,” says Gambit.

Wolverine hauls himself to his feet and follows Gambit's lead into the parking lot. Sharp spring air smacks like cold water into his face, and he feels the stupor passing off.

“No,” Wolverine says. He stops in the middle of the mud and gravel parking lot.

Gambit turns. “Now you show some backbone?”

Wolverine flinches, shocked as if by a blow. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You’re wallowing. You’ve got things you need to be doing but you let them fall on other people,” Gambit says. “I know you’re hurting. I know it’s hard. But there are people who look to you and you aren’t there. I came up to help, to take up the slack while you get it together. But you ain’t even trying.”

Fury spikes through Wolverine. He’s lost so many, over the years, and when has he had time to mourn? When has he been afforded the grace period that ordinary people get? “It’s been less than two weeks! I had to kill the woman I loved!” Wolverine’s claws shift in their sheaths.

“I know, Logan. I know. And I am so very sorry,” Gambit says. “But people are relying on you. And if you’re not going to do your duty, you got to step away.”

Wolverine wipes at the tears - of anger? Of sorrow? -- that have fallen on his cheeks. “What good am I to anyone if I couldn’t save her?”

Gambit takes out a clean handkerchief and passes it over.

“Who’s to say you didn’t save her? That wasn’t the Jean you knew, was it? Would your Jean have killed the Professor? Would she have killed her husband? Attacked you, or the kids from the school?”

Gambit is right. Gambit is right. Wolverine feels a wall inside of him crack. He takes a shaky breath. “I lost her twice. The first time, I tried to take up the slack. Scott was so screwed up after she died.”

"It you could go on just as before after Alcatraz, after Jean, you would be the animal, and not the man," Gambit says. “A man got to grieve, but you can’t let it consume you. You're needed.”

Shame spikes through Wolverine. He feels like he is seeing clearly for the first time in days. He rubs at his face again, trying to stop more damn tears. “I hear you. It’s just...so many people I’ve loved have died.”

“So many people you care about are alive,” Gambit says.

Gambit turns and waves Wolverine to follow him.

Wolverine wipes his eyes one more time and falls into step with him. He’s got Storm’s car.

“I know it ain’t the same," says Gambit, "but I love you.”

“I know. It ... helps,” Wolverine says.

“It better. I don’t say that to just anybody,” Gambit says.

They drive back to the mansion in silence, the sort of quiet that comes after serious conversation. Wolverine thinks about the path stretching ahead, and the people who will not be taking that road with him. He thinks about saying goodbye to Jean, and how to make himself remember the living. But he shies away from thinking too hard, probing at areas too tender to bring up even in the privacy of his mind. His only certainty is that duty will not save him from the pain, but nor will isolation, or drink, or flight.

In the back courtyard, Gambit parks the car. He grips Wolverine’s shoulder, says, "Can't go on propping you up, or I ain't a friend to you."

Wolverine goes to the back terrace after Gambit has gone upstairs, and looks over the pillars. If this were a battle, and he had to run into machine gun fire, he would not delay. He’d brace for the pain and keep on running.

The moon is barely more than a sliver, but Wolverine does not need much light to descend to the memorials, and crouch down before each one, and attempt to say goodbye.

 

Sometime around lunchtime, after just a few hours of sleep, Wolverine rolls out of bed. He runs Gambit down in the garage.

“Thanks,” Wolverine says.

Gambit does not ask for what, just nods. “That‘s what friends do.”

“So kicking my ass is your idea of friendship?”

“That’s how we started. Are you surprised?”

“At least you didn’t blow me through a building this time,” Wolverine says, and holds out his hand to Gambit, who takes it in a strong grip.

“I’m thinking about heading west in a few days,” Gambit says. “ 'Less I’m needed around here.”

“I think I can live without a babysitter,” Wolverine says. He’s been thinking about this, and he’s unsure of the response he’ll get. He hates that. But it has to be said. “First thing I'm going to do...I'm going to ask you to stay. Please. As part of the team. Not to keep me going. You're right. I don't need you standing behind me like that. Standing next to me, next to Storm, next to these damn kids who have no idea...that's what I'm asking. Stay."

Gambit goes blank on him.

It’s either the thoughtful face or the bluffing face. Wolverine wonders if he’s going to get more tough love here.

"I'm not promising to make sure you're an equal partner in this place. I'm saying I'll be the equal partner. Teammate," Wolverine says. "I feel like I've let you down."

“Haven’t so far,” Gambit says. “You really want me to stay? You really want me to be an X-Man?”

“Stupid leather uniform and all,” Wolverine says.

“You do know you all look like bondage clowns in those, don‘t you?”

“Do I have to say please?” Wolverine crosses his arms over his chest.

“It would be a novelty,” Gambit says. He shakes his head. “You know I’ll stay. If you want me.”

“As long as you want, when you can,” Wolverine says. “I know you’ve got other business.”

Gambit looks away. “Not much right now. Not precisely welcome at home these days.”

“Their loss,” Wolverine says, and makes a mental note to wander by New Orleans and kick some Le Beau ass.

Wolverine and Gambit spend that afternoon taking the kids through some tough scenarios in the Danger room, this time with added zombies. He feels good, focused, as he goes up to his room to shower and change.

Socks cover his bed. White socks. Gray socks. Red socks and green socks. Camouflage pattern socks and checked socks and socks with lions on them.

He shoves some socks off the bed, frowns, and fumbles through the whole pile. He puts his head in his hands and laughs.

There are 37 pairs.

Every single damn one silk.