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Wolverine pulls his sweat soaked shirt off and drapes it over his arm. First heat wave of the summer is taking its toll. Outdoor training exercises in the full heat of the day do not help, either.

Gambit emerges from a shadowed copse of beech trees, holding the white flag that is the object of the exercise. He’s bare-chested, too, but that has nothing to do with the heat. In this weather, Gambit walks around like he has his own internal AC.

New Orleans hit the 90s in late May this year, so it isn’t really surprising that New York summers are neither humid nor hot enough to bother him.

Wolverine spends of lot of the summer hating him. Watching him walk around in jeans, tee-shirt and boots when everyone else is in a swim suit and either living in the pool or fanning themselves, well, it’s infuriating. He really wants to throw him in the lily pond and force him to cool off.

No, Gambit’s shirt is missing because it is taking the place of the ‘flag’ they are all supposed to be targeting. One of the handicaps they’d been saddled with, when they’d been randomly, or so Storm said, put on the opposition team, is white tee-shirts. The other team has nice, neutral light green shirts that blend into the woods a hell of a lot better.

Wolverine had half heartedly argued that random computer selection should not penalize them, but Storm had been firm.

That’s what you get for having a reputation, she’d said.

Wolverine has this idea that she planned the whole thing. Probably a lesson about stronger opponents, or numbers not being enough against the right skills. Or maybe she’s just sick of trying to convince Gambit to follow orders, and figures Wolverine should have to deal with him and all his flashy improvisations.

No skin off his back. He likes working with Gambit. Beating the shit out of people is more fun with Gambit in the mix. Running around in the woods is more fun, too. Wolverine has a secret method of dealing with Gambit: he never tries to control him. Mostly, he either goes along with him or he orders him to do the stuff he’d do anyway.

Keeps Gambit in a good enough mood to pay for the beer later, and gives Wolverine a nice relaxing day.

The flag is supposed to be attached to a cairn of rocks in the woods about a mile away. You can see it from several vantage points, they had discovered, and since the game is to get the flag back to base or prevent the other team from doing so, a decoy should make the other team - everybody else - chase their tails trying to get at the fake flag.

Seems too simple, but he has learned to not question Storm when she has a lesson plan in her head.

Wolverine nods at the white pennant in Gambit‘s hand, raises an eyebrow. All quiet?

Gambit raises an eyebrow in return. Doubting me?

Wolverine rolls his eyes and steps back into green shadows, taking point to pick out a path that circles around the search pattern the other team is following.

They easily make the vehicles without encountering the other team. Gambit pulls a couple of lawn chairs from the SUV and sets them in the shade. He ties the flag to a fallen branch and sticks it in the dirt next to the lawn chairs.

“That was too easy,“ Gambit says.

“Yeah, probably. But we‘re the guys sitting around with cold drinks.” Wolverine pops the lid on one cooler. Sandwiches. The next one has the beverages. Wolverine takes out two cans of cold soda, a Coke for himself, and something that is not Coke for Gambit, just for the fun of watching him make a face.

Wolverine sets the cold can against the back of Gambit’s neck.

Gambit reaches back, in a fluid, rapid move that Wolverine can’t visually track, and grabs his arm, but Wolverine has his feet set so Gambit can’t flip him.

This doesn’t stop Gambit. He twists around.

Wolverine forestalls whatever shenanigans Gambit has planned by yanking his arm back, not up or away, so they are chest to chest, with the cold can between them. Gambit is shockingly solid and hot where skin touches.

Wolverine’s never noticed that before.

Gambit breaks his hold, twisting away before Wolverine can stop him. Wolverine is slow on the uptake, slower than usual, and he shakes his head. Tries to focus.

Gambit smirks, steps back, and pops the tab on the Coke can he just commandeered from Wolverine‘s other hand - without Wolverine noticing. He tips his head back and drains the cold soda in three long swallows.

It’s only when he’s finished that Wolverine remembers the other can. He raises it in salute to Gambit, opens it, and gulps half down - only to spit it out.

Sprite. He hates Sprite.

 

Later that night, while the kids splash in and out of the lighted pool at the mansion like they're trying to empty it, Wolverine goes out to the garage and contemplates Gambit’s Harley. It’s new, replacing the bike he had left behind in New Orleans, slimmer than Wolverine‘s. More of a racing model, really.

Gambit likes it almost as much as he likes the jet, in that way that makes you think it should have its own pay-website and a porn warning.

Wolverine figures the bike is off limits for just a prank, but retaliation is another matter. Not that he’d actually harm Gambit’s Harley.

Now would be the time, with Gambit out on a date with some Broadway actress who keeps a summer home up here. Luckily, he took the convertible. He doesn’t love the convertible like he loves the bike. It’s not nearly a good enough target.

Working with care for the finishes, Wolverine sets to with tools.

Sometime after midnight, Wolverine comes back through the trees toward the mansion, and takes himself off to bed.

At 2 a.m., Wolverine bolts awake from an already unsettled sleep to a sharp rap on his door.

Gambit’s on the other side, looking like he’s not sure whether to murder him or demand how he could handle an innocent machine so, followed by marching him down to the garage to fix the problem Right Now.

“This is war,” Gambit says, and turns on his heel, the front wheel of his Harley over his arm.

Wolverine chuckles to himself. Looks like Gambit found his little present on the gatepost.

 

There’s no bacon at breakfast the next morning. None cooking on the stove. None in the icebox. None even in the trash.

Kurt stands in front of the icebox, hands on hips, looking as incensed as Wolverine has ever seen him.

“Even you didn’t eat ten pounds of bacon for a midnight snack,” Kurt says, but he’s suspicious.

Wolverine holds up his hands. “Whoa, it’s not my fault. I haven’t seen the bacon since yesterday morning.”

“Then I suppose it’s someone’s idea of a joke,” Kurt says.

Wolverine takes pity on him. “There’s some boudin and andouille sausage in the back.”

“That’s Gambit’s special stash,” Kurt says. “He went to New Jersey to get it.”

“Nah, he won’t mind,” Wolverine says, unable to avoid twisting the knife, though he’s beginning to think he made a mistake last night with Gambit’s bike. Too late to take it back, though, and Wolverine has always been comfortable with charging forward.

Perhaps he should go put that wheel back on, before Gambit realizes his stash is gone, and on Wolverine’s say so. He would surely have shared the stuff if Kurt had asked, right? Well, he might have hesitated over the boudin. Can’t get that stuff much outside Louisiana.

Well, if Gambit had wanted to keep his treats to himself, he should not have left them in the communal refrigerator, Wolverine decides.

Wolverine snags a big mug of coffee and heads for the garage to engage in a little peacemaking.

The garage is quiet.

It smells like raw bacon.

Wolverine comes around the SUV and stops.

His Harley has been defiled.

Bacon is molded around every inch of Wolverine‘s bike. The handlebars, the frame, the wheels, the gas tank. Even the license plate.

Beside the Harley stands Gambit’s shining bike, front wheel back in place. Chrome and purple finish gleaming.

Gambit will answer for this.

 

The last strip of bacon peels from the handlebars, and Wolverine steps back. The Harley is still covered in bacon grease, and he growls, low, and gets to work with soap and degreasers on soft cloth.

What’s worse, everyone now knows what Gambit did, after Kitty came out to the garage looking for her cell phone before he got the bike cleaned up.

Crisp footsteps down the hall: Storm.

Wolverine doesn‘t turn but he knows she‘s behind him. He thinks he can hear the frown before she even speaks.

“Logan, this has already gone too far.”

Wolverine considers playing dumb, but discards that idea. It’s a waste of time and Storm will see right through him.

“Not my fault if Gambit’s sensitive,” he says. Deflecting the blame is an essential skill for communal living that Wolverine has spent over a century perfecting. He’s sure this isn’t going to be one of his finest efforts, though.

Storm isn’t fooled. There’s a reason she’s the boss of him when it comes to the X-Men.

“Keep it light, Logan. You know he trusts you more than most people. He cares what you think.”

“We’re just messing with each other. We do that.” Wolverine fishes out the stump of a cigar and clamps it between his teeth.

Storm looks at him for a second longer than makes sense to Wolverine. “Just show some restraint, okay? It’s not fun when people actually get upset. Then it‘s not a game anymore.”

He’s heard her say that to the students.

“I’m not going to be that much of an asshole,” Wolverine says, a little angry. “Give me some credit.”

“Try to apologize,” Storm says. “Do that man thing where you punch him on the shoulder and nothing ever gets said, do it with a cake, buy him something expensive, do it with fireworks. Hire a skywriter. I don’t care how. But this team needs the both of you, working together.”

“It was just a prank!”

“Are you sure?” Storm says. “I don’t think Gambit feels that way.”

“Damn,” Wolverine says. She‘s, well, she could be right. “Okay. I’ll do. Something.”

“He cares a great deal what you think of him,” Storm says.

“Stop putting pressure on a guy, will you?”

“Alright,” Storm says. She drops a light touch on his shoulder, and turns back to the day’s business.

Without an input from his brain, Wolverine’s hands clean and polish, while he works on how to handle this hole he’s put himself in. Gambit doesn’t get angry at much, or not at Wolverine, and when he does, there’s usually an explosive argument or at least a sharp telling off and then they drink some alcohol or slag off on each other or spar a little too hard - and they’re fine. That’s the way Wolverine likes it.

But this, it seems different. Seems like everything’s just a few inches off, and Wolverine can’t get his head around it.

Wolverine wishes for about the hundredth time in the last few years that he were a planning man, instead of a bull in and figure it out kind of man.

The only thing left to do: set off to fix it and see what happens. Maybe he can look pitiful and Gambit will relent.

Too late to apologize? Hmm.

Wolverine is the first to admit he’s terrible at apologies. Saying sorry makes his skin creep, so he’s really bad at it. Really, he apologizes best with actions. Not sure what would work here, though, since he’s pretty sure Gambit has no interest in flowers, chocolate, expensive dinners. A blowjob.

Being sincere isn’t Wolverine’s usual way, but he might have to fall back on it. He heads back into the mansion to get to work on the day’s tasks. Maybe he should ask Rogue for advice.

 

"Enjoy your breakfast?" Gambit says, falling in next to Wolverine in the front hall.

"Listen," Wolverine says. He stops there, not sure what he he's going to use for an excuse.

"Logan, Gambit, meet me in the war room," Storm says from the stairs. "We've got a situation."

"Save it," Gambit says to Wolverine. He lengthens his stride and disappears around the corner.

Wolverine is the last into the war room. Storm has a map of Memphis up on the big screen. The kids, the ones on the team, sit around the table, Kurt perches on the window seat. Gambit is in his usual spot on the low couch in the corner, slouching but not relaxed. There’s no way Wolverine can say anything with other people there, so he stations himself against the wall by the door, his regular spot, and tries to switch his focus to the briefing.

Storm stands next to the screen, still wearing her teacher garb, blouse and skirt, and Wolverine normally would make a joke about there being a test.

"Mutants are disappearing off the streets in Memphis," Storm says. She taps a computer key and dots appear all over the map, nearly a dozen of them. “These are just the ones reported. Another 25 or so are rumored.”

More dots.

“Then there are the bodies that have been found. Six so far,” Storm says. “All missing mutants. All killed by violence, but not by the same types - burns, concussion type injuries, some blades. At least one mutant’s brain was simply liquefied in his skull.”

Gambit gets more still, if that's possible.

"It appears, thanks to a very bright high schooler concerned about a friend, that these mutants are being taken as part of some kind of mutant fighting ring. This ring appears to be run by two individuals who also appear to be mutants themselves."

Storm taps a computer key. The map shrinks to one side, and a photograph of two normal looking men takes up the other half of the screen.

"Businessmen. Implicated in shady business deals, but never charged. Nothing could be proved. Recently, each man's mutation was revealed and they have lost much of their power in the regular world. It is no longer possible for them to pass. They have both been the last person seen with a missing mutant, more than once, in the last several months."

"Memphis, it's one of those places mutants leave," Gambit says. "There's a lot of phobia up there."

Storm nods. "That's why no one else has seen a pattern. Those apparently taken are young, a lot college age. Everyone but their families, or friends, seems to want to believe that they took off for safer, more accepting places."

"We don't have a speaker there," Wolverine says, consulting a mental map of the mutant community. The Professor had made contacts with a lot of the mutant leaders around the country before he died, some overseas, and had been talking them into some kind of loose confederation. Some cities just don’t have anyone willing to step forward, though.

"One of the ways they keep the local freaks in line, keep 'em from building up a community," says Gambit. He sounds like he knows too much about it.

Storm turns to Gambit. "I hate to go in without more information. Do you have any resources in Memphis?"

"Bit out of our territory," Gambit says, rising from the couch. "Let me see what I can stir up."

Wolverine wants to go after him, wants to understand what that note in his voice means, to know whether he should be intervening or letting it ride. These are things he would think anyway, or so he believes, but they are doubly important now that he's taken up the mantle as co-leader of the X-Men.

Triply important, maybe, if he thinks of himself as the keeper of Gambit's honor, the only person in the world who will stop him if he steps out of line, or loses his way, as a man who fears for his friend because he knows what Gambit’s boundaries are, and how easy it could be for him to cross his own limits.

Wolverine cannot follow his own whim when a briefing is still going on. Right now, maybe he can't follow at all.

 

Memphis is hot, hotter than New York. The alleyway is nearly steaming, humidity and heat gone visible in the summer night, Under the glare of a single sodium vapor light things are sickly, cast over with yellow.

Wolverine stands guard at the alley mouth while Gambit tries to fool the security system.

This is one time Gambit’s skills might not be enough. He’s been working at it for an awfully long time. Wolverine swallows the urge to ask for a progress report. If there’s any progress, Gambit will let him know.

Half a beat late, Wolverine catches Gambit‘s head shake from the corner of his eye.

“Silent alarm,” Gambit mutters. He steps back from his crouch at the door, swings his staff free. “Care to open the door?”

“My pleasure,” Wolverine says. Pain warms his knuckles as his claws shoot out, a pain made near pleasure by the adrenaline churning his system. With a great slash Wolverine tears through the metal door, another swing and he can kick half the door away.

He charges in.

Gambit is right behind him.

For a moment, Wolverine thinks that all will be made right now that they are back in action.

A thug of some kind comes around a corner and goes for Wolverine, a shock whip in hand. Wolverine squares up to him, disarms him with a rip of claws to his arm, and shoves him aside for Gambit to finish.

Only Gambit isn’t where Wolverine thought he was, and the thug staggers up, lunging for his weapon. Gambit’s staff takes him in the chin when he is inches from taking up the deadly whip again, and the thug slumps to the floor.

Wolverine and Gambit exchange a look, Wolverine is disturbed, more disturbed than he can afford to be right now, so he shakes it away and tries to convince his subconscious that things are just a little different today but really, there‘s nothing actually wrong.

They fight their way to the prisoners, abandoning any idea of just reconnoitering the place. Storm and the kids should have the main entrances covered, at least.

Wolverine and Gambit continue out of sync, catching opponents at the last second, missing their strokes entirely. Pain and momentary weakness, that’s nothing, Wolverine knows how to fight with that, but he’s gotten used to not having to so much, and he’s becoming more disoriented, not less, as the mission goes on and he collects wounds.

Gambit sports three long cuts across his cheek and temple, and he’s favoring his right leg. That’s unusual, too; Gambit never shows weakness. Like Wolverine, he’d long ago learned that he couldn’t afford to.

Around another corner and they’re in the bleachers around the darkened arena. The seats are rickety, left over from something else. Wolverine scents old, old blood, probably animal, among the fresher scents of human wounds and death.

Gambit goes still next to him, surveying the new field of combat.

Wolverine listens while Gambit looks.

A concussive blast rocks them off their feet, a second throws Gambit into the air. Wolverine barely keeps upright, and only because he’s heavier.

From the ceiling, a squad of mutants - they have to be mutants - rappels into them. Gambit lands like a cat, like always, and he puts a fist full of energy across the paths of the enemy. The solid crack of the boh staff landing on bone echoes.

Wolverine leaps for the leader. This time their combined attack is a little less like the Keystone Kops, and Wolverine blesses long practice and experience. Him and Gambit, when they’re on - and up until today they’ve always been on - they’re definitely more than the sum of their parts.

Like him and Victor.

Wolverine throws a growl at his own brain for bringing up those thoughts - any thoughts at all, really, because he’s busy - and breaks a neck. Two bodies crash down the bleachers and Gambit bounds down after them, hardly touching ground, drawing down his momentum with a neat flip onto the arena floor. He takes one opponent out of the fight with a sharp kick to the knee, shattering bone, from the scream, and pivots to take the other in the head with the staff.

“This way,” Gambit tosses over his shoulder.

Side by side they run to the big door at the end of the arena.

Gambit launches four precisely targeted cards at the iron-bound wooden door. The wood explodes, limned in red light.

“Let’s go,” Wolverine says.

They charge.

From the edge of his vision, Wolverine sees the now constant red shine on Gambit’s cheek, the twist of his mouth, signs of distress he rarely shows.

Wolverine takes in bars and double decker cages, a good half occupied, and a catwalk.

Without speech, Wolverine and Gambit leap for the catwalk. There’s no stealth here, no desire to hide. This is avenging angels. This is the fucking cavalry.

Wolverine follows Gambit’s lead. Gambit takes no notice of him, but that’s okay. Wolverine can fight in support if he has to. It‘s a lesson hard learned, and he doesn‘t really like it, but sometimes it has to be done.

And for once, Wolverine is the calmer one without even trying.

Gambit takes out three guards, puts them through stone walls with murderous, energized scintillating throwing stars, glowing as much with anger as heated mutant power.

A handful of guards and the mutants behind this abomination are trying to find cover in the wide open central aisle.

Gambit and Wolverine go over the railing at the same moment. Wolverine’s claws find the first impresario’s chest as Gambit rolls to his feet and puts a knife through the throat of the nearest guard.

With a roll of his shoulders, Wolverine frees his claws from the dying man’s ribs and goes for the nearest guard. The last guard runs, and right now they let him, because there is more important prey.

The second impresario has some kind of light distorting power. Wolverine isn’t clear on what it does, just that it‘s kind of hard to see straight.

What it doesn’t do is distract or deter a raging mutant who full well remembers what it’s like to be caged and considered an animal to be used.

Ineffective light flares, coruscates, bounces off walls as Gambit drives the impresario cowering before him with blows from his staff: solar plexus, hip, jaw. Sends him into retreat with cards arrowed at his eyes, his mouth, his cock.

Gambit gives the man that extra half second to recover after every strike instead of finishing him, waiting for him to scramble to his feet before attacking again.

This is rage. This is revenge.

The mutant tries to stagger in front of the occupied cages, tries to use mutant captives as a shield, is shouting something.

Gambit has no mercy. He strikes him with targeted, charged throwing stars, his icy control in the midst of his rage unnerving to any sane person.

Wolverine can’t take the time to stop Gambit, to interfere in the near torture, as reinforcements are coming in and they have high powered weapons

Finally, the impresario lies on the floor, bleeding, scorched, wounded.
Wolverine smarts from half a dozen bullet holes. Assault rifle fragments and parts litter the floor, and the second wave of guards groan and sob on the stained concrete.

“Gambit,” Wolverine says, voice soft in the sudden quiet. The occupants of the cages are silent, watching.

Gambit looks over his shoulder, face half curtained by sweat-soaked hair, his hand poised in the air, aces fanned out between his fingers.

“That’s enough,” Wolverine says.

Gambit looks back at his prey. Slips the knife from his sleeve, still bloody, and leans in. Neatly, with the expertise and dispatch of a hunter finishing a wounded animal, Gambit drives the blade into the mutant’s eye, deep into the brain.

He straightens, leaves the knife where it is, and turns to the cages.

Wolverine can’t think of anything to say. Maybe it’s better if he doesn’t say anything.

Together, they free the captives, 19 of them, all mutants, all but a few bearing scars. They look tough, most of them, even the young ones, even the small ones, but they all leave Gambit alone.

Wolverine finds himself in the odd position of being the comforter, the people person. The former captives huddle around him, subtly keeping distance, keeping him. Between them and Gambit. They probably don’t realize they’re doing it.

His friend says not one word between releasing the captives and handing their care over to Storm.
Wolverine offers to take over clean up on site. The unspoken assumption that Gambit will stay with him, handle people and be diplomatic, rankles Wolverine.

Gambit is not himself.

Or perhaps he’s more himself than the face he usually shows in public, the face he usually shows to Wolverine, even.

Whatever Gambit is, he is in distress, in rage, and Wolverine turns to ask Storm for help, here, but she looks relaxed, pleased with their success.

Storm doesn’t see how Gambit gone to the edge. Rogue had patched him up, at Storm’s insistence, but Gambit hadn’t said a word to her. Red crackles around his knuckles, his eyelashes. He won’t turn his back to anyone.

And his friend, those who profess to be his family, they see nothing.

A surge of protectiveness washes through Wolverine. How dare they dismiss him so easily?

He turns on his heel as Rogue ushers the last survivor into the van waiting to take them all to a clinic accustomed to dealing with mutants.

Wolverine follows the sound of breakage.

Gambit is methodically destroying most of the arena’s equipment with an excess of charged playing cards. He’s enough in command of himself to keep the explosions from bringing down the old building, but soon he’ll be too exhausted to control all that kinetic energy, and then, look out. When Gambit’s control slips, the fall out is spectacular.

“Hey,” Wolverine says.

Gambit looks over at him, red flaring over his pupils. He flicks a charged Jack at the concrete arena floor and does not even flinch when concrete shrapnel gashes the back of his hand.

Wolverine opens his mouth to suggest a break, then closes it. But he can’t ignore this.

“You going to bring the building down?” He sticks his hands in his pockets and strolls over to Gambit

“Have to,” Gambit says. Too calm by half.

“We’ll keep an eye on the place. The city. It won’t happen again,” Wolverine says. He wishes he could believe that it would never happen anywhere, but the only thing the X-Men can do is keep tabs on what they know about. Even that stretches their resources.

“You ain’t that stupid,” Gambit says. A set of bleachers crumbles apart under a card cascade.

“No,” Wolverine says.

He takes a chance, wraps his fingers around Gambit’s forearm.

Gambit throws him off, pivots and plants his staff in Wolverine’s chest. The shock of Gambit’s power stumbles Wolverine back.

“You going to promise me? You going to kill all the people I hate? How’d that work out?”
“I tried,” Wolverine manages.

“Trying don’t keep our people out of cages. Off the dissecting table,” Gambit says. Quiet. Maybe tired.

But not done yet.

He strides away from Wolverine like he’s no longer there, through the rubble and broken wood, to the room with the cages.

Cages. Not even cells.

Wolverine follows, knowing he has to make something right. It’s all been turned upside down since that day in the woods, and this mission has made it worse. He can’t do this stuff, not with words. But no one else is going to.

Gambit stands over the dead mutant, the one he’d killed with the knife.

“I’ll take care of that.” Wolverine goes to drag the body off, to be picked up later and dumped, by one of Gambit’s shady contacts, no less.

“It can stay here,“ Gambit says.

“We can’t leave bodies around,” Wolverine says.

“Putting a whole building on top of this trash will do the trick,” Gambit says.

Wolverine doesn’t think to wonder if he can actually do it. In a mood like this, Gambit isn’t above bringing in high explosives.

“I can’t let you do that.” If Gambit lets himself off the leash that far, Wolverine isn’t sure he can be brought back. Not as an X-Man, not as someone they can trust.

Wolverine puts a hand on Gambit’s chest and pushes him back. He’s bigger, he’s heavier, he’s stronger, and he’s a lot more experienced.

Gambit takes a step back, as if in obedience.

Then the whirlwind explodes. Wolverine finds himself thrown back into thick chain link, the metal wires bend back under his weight. The boh staff strikes viciously as his airway. Wolverine catches it on his wrist - and don’t believe it doesn’t hurt, adamantium or not.

Wolverine staggers forward and reaches for Gambit, knows he has to subdue him without harming him. He ducks away from scintillating cards lasering at his eyes, swearing.

His hand glances off Gambit’s arm.

Gambit loses it.

Wolverine hunkers down under the rain of missiles and blows of kinetic shockwaves. He’s got to wear himself out, Wolverine’s seen him gray with exhaustion before, but it takes a long time, and this building could come down around them.

Gambit probably wouldn’t survive that. Wolverine pushes forward against the shockwaves, trying to shout Gambit’s name, trying to disrupt him, all the while looking for a chance.

Wolverine waits, like a hunter, waits like a soldier, for a faltering, a tiny tremor in Gambit’s attacking rhythm.

There’s a hesitation in the hail of charged missiles.

Wolverine charges blindly forward, catches Gambit against a wall. Gambit grapples with him, strong, furious. Scared.

Shoves Wolverine away, somehow, and stumbles into open space.

Wolverine uses decades of hand to hand experience, gets around Gambit‘s defenses. Gambit hooks his knee and yanks him off balance, Wolverine sweeps Gambit‘s feet as he goes down and they both hit the floor. They scramble for purchase, advantage. Wolverine sees his opening and lunges forward to pin Gambit to the ground. Wraps Gambit in a bear hug from behind.

Gambit struggles, angry and strong as a trapped python, but Wolverine lets his weight and size bear him down, until Gambit subsides, breathing hard.

Wolverine gives him a minute to get centered, eases off his weight, waiting for Gambit to renew the fight.

Gambit presses his cheek into the floor and doesn’t seem to notice the change in his captor.

“You okay?”

“You’re heavy,” Gambit says.

He sounds more normal. Wolverine takes a chance and rolls off him.

Gambit stays on the floor. A fine shiver ripples through him and he closes his eyes.

Wolverine can see the pulse in his neck running fast. “Let’s get out of here,” he says.

Gambit rolls over, gets up, Limps over to retrieve his staff. He turns toward the exit, the one in the back, and heads for it.

Wolverine trails after him,

Gambit is a mess, and Wolverine isn’t much different His bruises are gone, and the scratches are healed, but the deep ache inside from the shockwaves lingers, and his jeans and tee shirt are filthy and torn.

Wolverine goes into a corner store and gets a couple big bottles of water, then leads the way to the little park he’d left his truck near. He gestures Gambit to one of the picnic tables, grabs a first aid kit from the truck, and patches Gambit up.

Gambit lets him.

They sit side by side on the table top, sweating through their now ragged clothing, drinking the water to the last swirl in the bottles.

“I ain’t going to let anyone else put you in a cage,” Wolverine says, his voice low, dangerous.

“I got to be able to rely on you,” Gambit says, He looks away, like he can’t bear to have his weakness seen.

“I’m sorry, “Wolverine says. “I let us get messed up. I won’t do that again.”

“You sure?” Gambit says.

Wolverine doesn’t’ t have an answer to that. How can he, when he doesn’t know why he screwed things up in the first place?

The tension lasts through clean up of the site - Wolverine won’t let Gambit help, sending him instead to talk to the cops, who are happy to let the X-Men deal with their own.

The tension sings between them in the truck, late the next afternoon when they finally get on the road back to New York.

Wolverine pulls into a roadside barbecue joint just outside of town. He can’t help it. The scent of the grilling meat drags him off the highway.

Besides, sharing a meal is the most civilized act Wolverine knows.

 

 

Gambit takes the extra-large slice of pecan pie from the waitress - pie he had not ordered - with that genuine, almost sweet smile he rarely brings out.

"Thank you kindly, Pauline," he says.

"Well, honey, you looked like you needed it," Pauline says.

Wolverine sets down the rib bone he's been gnawing on.

It could have happened at any time the last few months at the mansion, or the years of their friendship before. Wolverine has seen plenty of provocative behavior from Gambit.

He'd seen more provocative behavior from Gambit not five minutes ago, when Gambit had - despite the usual good manners he wears like a shield -- sucked barbecue sauce from his fingers. Hell, the man is charming, graceful, strong, has no physical modesty, and flirts with everyone. He's a walking invitation to sex. And Gambit is damned good looking, a fact that Wolverine has long noted and, if he's being truthful, enjoyed.

But it is Gambit’s genuine, tired smile directed at a middle-aged waitress he's never seen before, all for just a simple moment of kindness, that undoes Wolverine.

That small bit of unguarded humanity makes Wolverine want to touch him. Say daft things to him in the night. Shelter him with his strength and his body.

Wolverine wants to lay in the dark and go over the day's fight with Gambit 'til sleep or drowsy passion overtakes them. Wants to watch him play cards and smooth talk his way out of jams and argue with Kurt about red beans and rice. Wants to get him anything he hankers for. Wants to mock him and argue and play pranks to make him laugh.

Wolverine aches for him.

Gambit looks up from his pie and catches Wolverine's look.

Wolverine has never been able to keep his heart concealed.

“Oh,” is all Gambit says.

Wolverine hopes he hasn't lost a friend. Hopes he can keep his interest under wraps. He knows that's a false hope. He doesn't let go of these things. He's not made that way.

Gambit pushes the plate with the last few bites of pie across the table to Wolverine.

When the plate is clean, Gambit does that thing where he looks at Wolverine and there’s this little halo of impenetrable space around them.

"You want I should braid my hair, then you can pull my pigtails for real?"

Trust Gambit to get it first.

Wolverine looks at the table cloth. “I was a jerk."

"Not an uncommon reaction to liking me," Gambit says, voice dry as the bottom of an empty well.

“I think I love you,” Wolverine says, less a declaration than a discovery.

“You got a good way of showing it,” Gambit says. He touches a bruise on his jaw.

Wolverine is taking breath to apologize, when Gambit interrupts him.

“Real love ain’t always pretty,” Gambit says, and he finds a smile, a smile just for Wolverine.

 

 

The motel is clean, the neon bright and steady. It smells too much like disinfectant for Wolverine, but that can be fixed. He shoves the windows open and turns up the AC. He wants Gambit to be comfortable.

Being who they are, they can’t just go chastely to bed, no matter how bothered and aching Gambit is.

Wolverine feels settled again. He and Gambit are easy together, easy in a different way. No doubt they’ll still fight, and fuck more often than they make love, but it’s something, to choose and be chosen in turn, to guard a lover’s back, to take on his worries, to ease his fears.

Gambit straddles him, naked body bruised and scratched and cut. He is a riot of marks, but his hands on Wolverine are sure, the low noise he lets out at the stretch of Wolverine’s cock as he sinks down one of pleasure rather than pain.

Wolverine finds some places on Gambit’s back he can touch, and shifts his hips, eases Gambit back to balance against his hands, and they move together, slow and deliberate.

Gambit lifts himself with strong thigh muscles, meets Wolverine’s eyes, gives him a little smile, and slides back down.

He wraps long fingers around Wolverine’s biceps, steadies himself as he moves. His cock is flushed red, his nipples peaked, his hips flex with experience and promised pleasure.
Wolverine slides a hand under his sweaty, tangled hair, presses him forward, asking for a kiss. Gambit eases forward to meet him.

Gambit sucks on his lower lip, lets Wolverine deepen the kiss in slow motion, pulls back for air, then lets himself be drawn back into another deliberate exploration of lips and tongues.

Wolverine, not thinking, skims his palms down Gambit’s bruised back. Gambit catches his breath, but when Wolverine lifts his hands away, mutters, don’t stop.

It doesn’t take long before Wolverine needs to move, get deeper, give Gambit pleasure.

“Up and over,” Wolverine mutters.

Gambit laughs, lets Wolverine tip him over. His thighs splay out, and Wolverine settles between them. He lips at Gambit’s jugular, feels Gambit’s fingers in his hair, nips at Gambit’s collar bone and mouths a nipple.

He reaches down, grasps his impatient cock, and guides himself back to Gambit’s entrance. Gambit draws him forward by the hip, wraps one long leg around his waist. Wolverine slides in smoothly, a long stretch that he is never going to get tired of. He moves faster, banking up pleasure, holding himself off Gambit with one arm, the other reaching down to tease Gambit’s cock, until Gambit reaches down a hand to help jerk himself.

Wolverine pushes harder, sweat collecting between his shoulder blades, the flex of Gambit’s leg around him and his hand working himself along with Wolverine’s heating his blood as much as the tight grip around his cock.

Careful strokes, deliberate thrusts, come quicker, each man changing pace in tune with the other. Gambit pushes his hips down to meet Wolverine’s cock, Wolverine urges Gambit to orgasm with an eager hand.

Wolverine hits the peak first, coming with a hiss. He catches himself against the spine melting release, strips Gambit’s cock in earnest, presses his mouth to Gambit’s neck to feel his groan of completion.

It’s too warm with the windows open to stay pressed together. Wolverine disentangles himself, closes the windows, and gets a wet towel from the bathroom. He runs the cool cloth over Gambit, wiping sweat from his skin, cleaning come from his belly. He throws the towel on the floor and stretches next to Gambit.

“Thank you for guarding me.”” Gambit says, drowsily.

“Always,” Wolverine says.

He watches Gambit drowse, listens to the night around them. The hum of the air conditioner, the faint traffic on the highway, even an owl.

An argument starts up in the parking lot, raised voices but no words.

Gambit’s eyes half open, tense. “Wolverine?”

Wolverine settles in next to his lover, his partner, the man to whom he has promised to stand sentry - against those who would use him. Against himself.

“Go to sleep,” Wolverine says against his temple. “I’m on duty.”