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It didn't take a thief's skill to get them into the New York Hellfire Club the morning after a covert attack killed everyone inside. The doors weren't locked and the cops didn't know yet. 

Remy let his senses stretch out, feeling all the kinetic potentials around him, searching for even a hint of someone lying in wait, and got nothing. Nothing was moving in the entire building, from the penthouse top floor to the under-basements no one was supposed to know about. He cautiously thinned his psi shields and used the empathy he kept a tight rein on. No one. Of course, that didn't mean he let down his guard. Neither sense would warn him of a robot waiting unmoving.

He waited for his two ad hoc team mates to make their own evaluations. Cyclops had put Warpath in charge since he had some history with Hellfire Club and Domino had been around the block enough Remy trusted her instincts. Remy was just along in case they needed to break into something. Hmm. Or blow it up. He sighed quietly to himself. Bad boy.

The main public room looked like everyone had left in a hurry. Chairs and tables were tumbled, a high-heeled shoe had been lost along with detritus left behind in most nightclubs when the sun came up. A few untouched drinks still sat on the tables that hadn't been knocked over. No expense had been spared for the Hellfire Club, velvet and crystal, marble and gilt and polished teak, but abandoned as it was now, it still seemed cheap somehow. The lights were out, but Remy's eyes were adapted to the dark and made out everything perfectly, and the dimness of the interior still cushioned its desolate appearance.

"Feels empty," Domino said.

"Head upstairs and we can sweep the building moving down," Warpath said.

"Whatever you say, mon ami."

"Cyclops will want a sitrep soon."

Remy grimaced, deciding he was just as happy Warpath was in charge. Let him deal with Cyclops. Scott Summers might be the only man who could lead mutantkind out of the shadow of extinction, but Remy and he weren't friends and had never been.

It didn't take being friends for him to follow the man, though, so long as Remy thought he was right and, these days, Cyclops was the guy making the hardest choices. Remy could respect that even if he was dog-tired and feeling even more cynical than usual.

This shit just came with wearing the X.

Make it home from the far reaches of the galaxy after surviving an alien civil war on a busted space station falling into a sun, while watching the love of your life make time with the Master of Magnetism, and what do you get? Sent to Tokyo to fight a geriatric Sentinel while wondering where Godzilla was when you needed a giant fire-breathing lizard. Then take a teleport ticket to New York to check out whoever was behind the latest attack on Utopia and the smoking metal mess on their own doorstep. Someone had to do it, yeah, and the X-Men were stretched thin, with combat teams still tied up all over the world, but he had limits too. The team'd slept in shifts during the two day trip back to Earth from Shi'ar space and before that, every mutant still powered up, including himself, had been trying to find a way to stop Juggernaut's march into San Francisco and the anti-mutant riots, and before that he'd been in... hunh, New York, getting Cece to stitch up a couple of wounds he'd picked up fighting lunatics in the Paris Metro.

Mon Dieu, what a life, he smirked to himself.

He hadn't even had time to find X-23 and tell her he was taking off. He just hoped she didn't think it was because of what she'd told him on that cab ride from the airport.

His stomach rumbled, reminding him he hadn't eaten anything since... Remy counted back and figured the sandwich he'd bolted down right before he and Rockslide made the biggest boom ever (without even slowing Jugs down, he acknowledged wryly) had been his last meal. He was running on fumes, lucky he could pull kinetic energy from his surroundings and just about break even, though it did take some energy to use his power that way. But after all, it took some energy to digest food, too.

Vamping kinetic potential didn't stop hunger pangs, unfortunately, and Domino glanced at him in amusement.

"Skipped breakfast, me," he told her with a loose-limbed shrug and a grin, "and you don't even want to know about Shi'ar food."

"It's just a good thing we aren't trying for covert here."

He gestured gracefully at the shattered crystal and pieces of mirror on the floor and nodded toward a single bullet hole high up on one wall as they headed for the stairs to the second level, where the elevators were, and said, "Little late for covert, I'm thinking."

Domino raised a fine, blue-black eyebrow in silent, sardonic response.

The elevators were still working, but they took the stairs by unspoken agreement. Domino and Cable had trained the X-Force kids well. Warpath knew as well as she and Remy did that an elevator was a killing cage.

The penthouse had a conference room where the Inner Circle had met the night before.

Met and died.

Remy studied the bodies without much feeling. He'd never been fond of the old Hellfire Club's members and the new Hellfire's anti-mutant Inner Circle hadn't endeared themselves to anyone besides their stockbrokers. Some were still slumped in their seats, others fallen forward onto the central table, a few more fallen to the floor. Whoever took them out had been fast. Not particularly accurate, the walls and furniture were sprayed with bullet holes, but he doubted whoever had authorized the hit had cared about conserving ammo.

"Thorough," he remarked to Domino. She kept her gun in one hand while prying a bullet from one of the paneled walls with the tip of a combat knife. Remy absently priced the painting hanging just above, a Classical heroic battle scene that was a shade too dark. Genuine. Nothing but the real thing for the walls of the Hellfire Club, even if the moguls calling themselves kings and queens couldn't tell a forgery from a fig.

"Depleted uranium round," Domino said and tossed the slug to Warpath. "NATO issue."

"Don' mean nothin'."

She shrugged, as unbothered as he was himself. Of course, Domino had been a mercenary and an assassin since before Remy picked his first pocket. Not that she looked it, between her albino pale skin and the freakish way mutants who used their powers a lot didn't seem to age as fast as baselines. Magneto was a perfect example of that; the man should have needed dentures and a walker and instead he was still on Utopia's first team combat roster.

Warpath slipped the slug into an evidence baggie and pocketed it.

All three of them were wearing mikes and earpieces that would let them hear and respond to Utopia Ops Center. The channel was shielded and encrypted, but transmitted a clearly recognizable version of Cyclops' voice, sounding raw, exhausted and frustrated.

"Warpath, what's your status? I want answers."

Remy rolled his eyes. When didn't Cyclops' want answers? Now, it might be interesting if he commed sometime just to say, 'No, don't tell me nothing, I want to be surprised.' He sniggered to himself and decided he just might be reaching the loopy edge of real exhaustion.

"Then I've got good news and bad news," Warpath replied. He glanced around the room. "We found the Hellfire Club."

Like it was hidden, Remy gibed silently.

"But we won't be getting any answers out of them."

"'Sides what calibre bullet killed them all," Remy muttered. He let his bo staff telescope back down and tucked it away. "Gonna do a search, pull any information I can find."

"Bring it all back to Utopia,"  Cyclops ordered from the other side of the continent. "Comm for a teleporter to pick you up when you've done."

He left Warpath and Domino to do their own searches and went looking for anything that would be either useful in figuring out who had hit the Inner Circle or to the X-Men. The White Queen, at least, appreciated the value of good intelligence and as a former member of the Hellfire Club, the X-Men's current primary telepath might be able to get something out of even a small clue.

                                                                                                           ~*~

Three hours later, with a pack full of salvaged hard drives and a handy $300 million in bearer bonds Remy had lifted from a badly concealed vault, they rendezvoused with Cecelia and Laura at Four Freedoms Plaza. The bonds would go into Utopia's treasury, a needed boost, considering it was essentially a pocket country with no economy. Worthington Industries couldn't fund everything, even if Archangel did own controlling interests in the family conglomerate, and even with Frosty and Xavier throwing their fortunes in the kitty, money had to be getting tight.

Pixie ported in, wings moving at hummingbird speed to keep her in the air, and recited her regular teleportation spell without even a hello Mr. LeBeau. In the flash of light that followed, they returned to Utopia and Remy was left blinking as Pixie sped off, wondering if she'd accidentally showered them all with some of her hallucinatory dust. He'd have sworn her eyes appeared to be green on black sclera, when he'd remembered her last as having completely black eyes. He shrugged. Secondary mutation, some side effect of black magic, what did it matter? He was pretty sure he'd never knocked up any Welsh girls, so the sclera were probably just a coincidence.

Either that or the Gwynns had had a run in with a man who sometimes called himself Essex and just didn't know it.

Pixie left the five them out on one of the verandas at the base of the Ops Center, with a good view of the aircraft runways, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the wrecked super Sentinel that had tried to destroy the island. A couple of Blackbirds were out there, dull and ominous even in the morning light. Both were prepped and ready for emergency take off. Remy frowned because Blackbirds needed jet fuel and he wondered where Utopia was buying it. Every flight cost a small fortune that would eat that 300 million dollars amazingly fast.

The bright California sunshine, three hours earlier in the day than New York had been, made him squint. Warpath and Domino headed inside for debriefing.

Remy waited a moment more, while his stomach quit rolling so much from the teleport. His spacial sense had to realign his location on the planet, though at least Pixie's teleportation wasn't accompanied by the stomach-turning stench of brimstone Kurt's had been.

Remembering Nightcrawler just made him flinch; it felt disloyal to prefer Pixie's transport, when Kurt had been such a genuinely decent guy.

Laura took off too, without saying anything to him, confirming Remy's suspicion that their days of traveling together were over. She wasn't ready to deal with what she'd confided to him on the cab ride from JFK a week previously and didn't want to see him now that he knew.

"I was a prostitute," she'd said and what was he supposed to say in return? 'That's better than killing people like you did before?' X – Laura – was barely sixteen. Remy's first memories were from before he escaped the Velvet Ministry to live on the streets. He'd been the Antiquary's favorite. He couldn't make himself tell her that. Nor how he'd found out since then that Jean-Luc, his adopted father, the only person Remy had trusted loved him, had been the thief who took him from the hospital as a baby and delivered him into the Antiquary's sick hands. Or that Jean-Luc LeBeau had only adopted him later because Guild prophecies said Le Diable Blanc would unite the warring Guilds of New Orleans? Did all the ways he'd been used by his father equal what Sarah Kinney did, when she gave X-23 the name Laura but let the Facility torture her into a purebred killing machine? What the hell would she and he do if he did tell Laura any of it: compare the quality of their pain, the love and the hate?

It hurt that Laura hadn't even spoken to him. Following and helping her hadn't been the same as when he'd first met Stormy and they'd been partners, but it had been as close to happy as he'd been in years. Even with the fighting lunatics in the Paris Metro and getting cruised by Daken in Madripoor.

Happiest he'd been since he'd joined the X-Men, in fact, he realized and wasn't that a kick in the teeth? Four years. He closed his eyes against the glare off San Francisco Bay and exhaled a long breath through his nose. Happiest... until Laura told him one more way she'd been used and then he had to get away from her, though he'd only just admitted that to himself now.

"Pull a stitch?" Cecelia asked beside him.

"Non." He'd simply realized just how messed up he still was. Daken said it: Everyone knows exactly what you are. Which was funny, because he didn't know anymore. He didn't even know what side he'd come down in any fight any more. X-Men, Thieves Guild, Marauders, friend, lover, good,  bad... Remy understood that poor freak Friendless on the Shi'ar space station. Sometimes, you wanted to kill them all and make sure they knew you were the one doing it. As Daken wanted to burn the world down, just to escape Wolverine's shadow. Maybe Daken really had been trying to recruit him. Even in the pouring rain, Daken would have smelled how tempted he'd been, if only for a second, and not just by the seductive touch to his hand.

"You should have someone check those wounds I worked on – "

"Took the stitches out myself," he told her and started walking so it would be harder for her to protest. Cecelia was a doctor first and an X-Man only reluctantly and on occasion. She still had problems accepting the way they lived. Remy might not have a healing factor like Wolverine's, but he did heal faster than most baselines or mutants, especially if he was using his kinetic charge regularly. He'd been healed, without even a scar, within a day after being called back into action with the X-Men. The only wounds he still had were the ones no one could see. "Gambit's just fine, hein?"

Just like X-23, just like Wolverine, just like every mutant on Utopia. Even the new kids had to stand and fight while every combat team the X-Men had was scattered from Tokyo to Iran. They were all fine. They didn't have the choice to be anything else.

He glimpsed a large chunk of Sentinel wreckage lofting into the air down by the water and Magneto's hovering form. Rogue was down there with him, helping with the clean up.

Even at a distance, Remy knew her body language so well he could see her laugh at something Magneto said and then the tip of her head, the hand over her mouth, coy and brash all at once, as she flirted in return. He wondered if she'd bothered to find out where he'd gone after Tokyo or if she'd even known he'd gone there at all.

~Gambit, the bonds, please,~ Frost stabbed into his head telepathically.

"See you around, Cece," he added and followed after Domino and Warpath.

                                                                                                             ~*~

A lock of platinum blond hair fell over Emma's pale, bared shoulder as she paged through the folder of bearer bonds. The Cuckoos were behind her, sitting at their computer stations, telepathically linked to the teams still outside Utopia, monitoring all on-going situations in gestalt. They dressed identically and he couldn't tell Mindee from Celeste or Irma – he thought Phoebe was the one who wanted to be called Irma now. Sophie and Esme were the sisters who died, he was sure of that much. Cyclops had a clean uniform on, but  his chest was wrapped in bandages and his face was scuffed and banged up. He moved like he hurt.

It looked like the giant Sentinel smashed out there had handed Utopia's leader a beating. Then again, it looked like Utopia itself had taken one, from the holes blown in several levels of the Ops Center tower. Remy leaned against a console wearily and watched the security cam feeds. Mutants and automated systems were already swarming over the island's structures, repairing or rebuilding them. The X-Men had post-battle clean-up down to a science. Too bad they weren't better at avoiding the fighting in the first place.

Remy felt grimy and angry. What the hell had they all been doing, fighting malfunctioning Sentinels all over the world to save the baselines that had bought the mutant-hunting robots in the first place? Let them pay the price of their hate. The X-Men should have been the ones to defend Utopia, not a bunch of school kids even younger than X-23.

His gaze sharpened on one of those kids. Idie Okwonkwo. Oya. What was she? Fourteen?

Already in the line of fire. Already a killer. Sure, he'd killed before he was fourteen, so had Belladonna, but Belle had been raised in the Assassins' Guild and he'd been an amoral street rat before Jean-Luc civilized him. That little girl out there had been taught killing was wrong. She was going to need help to realize she wasn't a monster.

On the camera feed, Wolverine sat beside her down by the shore. From the state of his ripped uniform, Wolverine hadn't bothered to clean up since the knock down, drag out fight with Cyclops the night before. Remy couldn't imagine what sort of pep talk he'd give her. Probably something along the lines of 'walk it off, kid' or 'wanna beer?' Still, he gave the old man credit for doing something.

Remy switched his attention to Cyclops again and watched him dismiss Warpath, but pause to speak longer with Domino. No guessing at the subject. Domino mostly ran with X-Force, Cyclops' not-so-covert any more kill squad. The one X-23 had been part of for several months. Exactly how had Cyclops justified that to himself? 'Hey, she's a trained killer, we may as well use her skills?' And people questioned Remy's ethics? Domino's face gave nothing away and Cyke had his head turned away, so reading his lips didn't work. They could have been discussing bombing the Kremlin, the latest baseball scores, or a hit any of Utopia's many enemies.

"These will be very useful," Emma said.

On the screen, Wolverine left Idie sitting on the rocks, and headed inside.

"Northstar and Aurora are inbound," the second Cuckoo announced quietly. The screen before her showed a radar-traced flight path rather than a camera feed. The Canadians were flying too fast for visual tracking.

"Good, that just leaves Fantomex and E.V.A. en route," Emma commented. She tapped a manicured nail on the bonds. "This is a nice bonus."

"Keep the place in junk food and toilet paper for a little while, neh?"

Emma rolled her eyes, but one corner of her mouth lifted for second.

Her make-up, as always, was impeccable, but Remy noticed it concealed a pattern of reddened marks. It looked like something had been clamped to her face. He wondered what the story was on that. Well, he'd hear about it sooner or later. Nothing stayed secret long in a place as riddled with telepaths as this. He strengthened his shields out of habit.

"Gambit," Cyclops snapped. "I still need an after-action report on Tokyo."

"Veni, vidi, boom."

"Latin, Gambit?" Emma asked.

"You might be surprised what a good thief learns."

Her expression turned thoughtful. "I suspect the X-Men have been wasting resources with you, haven't they?"

Cyclops joined them on the main floor.

"Domino said you found that vault."

"Still the best, me," Remy agreed with a cocky smile and then purred to Emma, "Be happy to demonstrate for you, ma belle, any time."

"Get out of here," Emma replied. "And take a shower, you stink."

Flirting with Jean to piss of Cyke had been more fun than with Emma. Probably because he didn't feel any attraction to Emma, while he had really liked Jean. He missed her and still wondered how Cyclops could have ever replaced her with the White Queen. Still, he didn't let that stop him. Emma was beautiful, Scott was jealous, so Remy would flirt.

He bowed with a smart-ass grin, teased, "Don't spend all that money on ermine wraps, Emma," and headed out, passing Wolverine looking grim as death, and then met Aurora and Northstar on their way in.

"Take Gambit's advice, clean up before you go up there," he told them. "Wolverine just went in and he looked even more pissed than usual."

Aurora just nodded and lengthened her stride, taking a right toward the living quarters instead of continuingup to Ops, while Northstar looked annoyed, but gave him a friendly nod. "Thanks for the warning."

"C'est rein."

His stomach chose to begin grumbling again and Northstar's eyebrows rose. Gambit gave him a lopsided smile.

"Perhaps we will see you later in the mess," Northstar said.

"Oui, but this one wants a shower first."

Northstar nodded, agreeing, "I too."

Remy made a face and plucked at his uniform. He hadn't thought it was that bad. On the other hand, when was the last time he'd been out of it?

Northstar gestured as if to encompass the entire island and the west coast. One arm of his black-and-white uniform had been torn and displayed pale skin marred with a burn. "Any idea what happened here last night?"

Remy shook his head. "Non. Went straight from Tokyo to New York."

"No doubt the story will be all over by the end of the day," Northstar said.

Remy laughed in agreement and the two of them followed Aurora's path without speaking again until they parted with a nod to each other at Northstar's door. He headed for his quarters afterward, wanting that shower more than food or sleep. He contemplated heading down into the lower, unused levels of Utopia once he was clean. Using his quarters made it too easy to find him. He'd taken to crashing in an unpowered and abandoned supply storage area. The floor was cold and hard, but he only really slept when he knew he was alone anymore.

The only ones who could find him down there were the ferals and Blindfold. Wolverine was leaving, X didn't want anything to do with him now, and it would take a future vision for the blind precog to discover his latest hideout.

"You're paranoid, LeBeau," he told himself. "Use y'own bed for once."

His stomach rumbled again and he decided that food and a few stiff drinks might be enough to let him get some sleep.

                                                                                                            ~*~

Bobby felt weird and disloyal as he walked into the dim annex to Utopia's mess hall that served as a cross between a clubhouse and a bar for the older mutants. It wasn't amazing that the room looked like it had been through a war, since everywhere in Utopia had, or that the furniture looked like it had been looted from biker bar, which it might have been, while the dartboard someone put up was already singed, but the glass and liquor Avalanche had imported from his bar in the city had mostly survived. What hadn't remained intact lent the place a pungent alcoholic reek that mingled with the smell of smoke and burnt plastic. A large screen plasma TV hung on the wall opposite the dart board, the sound turned down to murmur as it showed the aftermath of a daylight armored car robbery in Los Angeles. The next story was about the 'Claw Killer' and then it cycled on to international news. Since Bobby knew all about the Sentinels the X-Men had trashed all over the world, he stopped paying any attention.

Wolverine had come to him first and asked him to sound out some people and that's what he meant to do, though he hadn't a clue how to go about convincing anyone to leave Utopia and start up a school in Westchester again.

It looked like half the students from the school would go back with them, and Idie, but not the other four mutants on Hope's team. He liked Hope, but if she was the Mutant Messiah, Bobby thought they were pretty much fucked. He'd stick to hoping the Scarlet Witch figured a way to undo whatever she'd done.

Talking to some of the X-Men who had actually taught was the best idea he'd had so far. Of course, Wolverine was going to recruit some people personally, like X-23 and Betsy, if he could, so that left Bobby with whoever was hanging around.

He glanced around the room.

Yeah, this was going to be real picnic.

So, who to start with?

Well, who was here? Not a whole lot of folks, Bobby realized. Almost everyone able to after a fight bolted for San Francisco itself as soon as they could. At least, they did if they could pass without starting a riot.

Surprisingly, everyone gathered in Utopia's ad hoc bar at the moment could pass as human if they tried. Domino could rock the tattooed Goth look, hair would cover the Beaubier twins' ears, and Gambit could hide his eyes behind sunglasses. Even Toad and Lorelei could fake normal if he kept his tongue in his mouth and she hid her knee-length, prehensile hair. While Chamber had only recently regained having a face, no one could pick out a telepath by looks, and the other three were all powerhouses with enhanced strength and speed that didn't affect their appearance.

Used to be, he'd never have considered what it was like to have to think about those things. His mutation had never been visible unless he wanted it to be. Then he lost control and spent a few months in ice form. It had been an education in exactly how privileged his life had been from childhood forward. Bobby hadn't understood the belligerent, 'yeah, I'm a mutant, wanna make something of it?' attitude before he couldn't hide it. Now he wanted to apologize to every mutant with an obvious physical mutation, especially the ones who had suffered with one from birth. Trying would earn him a punch to the face from most of them, though, so he kept his mouth shut.

Chamber was sulking at one table, Warpath was sharpening a knife and listening to Domino at another, the twins were arguing, and it looked like Lorelei and Outlaw were conducting a shot competition. Toad crouched on the table top instead of a chair in one corner and sulked, while Frenzy had scared anyone else away from the bar. Gambit played solitaire and watched everyone else. At a guess, none of them were in a mood to play well with strangers. Lorelei was the only one who had never spent time on a frontline mutant team.

Bobby tried to decide who approach. None of them looked welcoming as they looked up and spotted him, though a sly smile tipped up Gambit's mouth and he nodded to Bobby amiably.

He crossed Toad off the list first. Some people Bobby did not want to have come back to New York with them and Mortimer was at the top of that list. Well, midway down it. He wasn't going to talk to the guy, that was for sure.

With a sigh, he firmed his shoulders, and headed for Chamber first. Jono had never really gone in for the X-Men's style of super hero militia operations. Even if Betsy did join them, they could use another telepath. Every team needed one, just like they needed someone like Wolverine, who could take any punishment, a flyer, and someone with distance powers. At least they'd have their own doctor slash brainiac, since Bobby knew Hank would join them.

He had no luck with Jono, though. The telepath gave him the brush off while mocking even the idea of Logan as a head of a school. Warpath didn't even let him get out an entire sentence, just shook his head and waved him off without saying anything. Bobby couldn't even make himself approach Domino. Cable had been her partner and died to save Utopia. She wouldn't be walking out on it now. Logan could handle talking to her if he thought there was a chance otherwise.

Lorelei and Inez both laughed at the idea. "Right, I could teach the girls and boys poledancing," Lorelei said. Her cloud of rose-red hair writhed around her body in a parody fan dance. A lock of it crept around Bobby's wrist and held it down, twisting and caressing just a little too tightly for comfort. "Or maybe bondage games for mutants." Despite himself, he blushed at the thought of what she could do with hair that moved and responded to her thoughts. Probably a lot more than the stripteases she'd performed at the Wildcat Club in Mutant Town. She saw his reaction and finished, "No, I didn't think so."

Bobby resisted the urge to say that was a curriculum he'd bet the teenage boys would be fine exploring, not to mention one Wolverine might actually support. The truth was, with his penchant for bars, Wolverine had probably tucked a few fifties in Lorelei's G-string before M-Day devastated New York's mutant ghetto.

Inez shook her head too, though in a nicer way than Warpath had. "Look, if I'm not here to fight for mutantkind, I may as well go back to Texas and hunting bail jumpers," she explained. "I never went in for that whole Xavier's dream thing or Magneto's homo superior shtick. It's down to us or them, though, so I'm going to stick around and fight if I'm needed."

So, wow, that just left the Beaubiers, Frenzy, and Gambit. He was batting a big, fat zero.

So, multiple personality girl and her twin who had a gay crush on him, the mostly-ex terrorist, or an X-Man who still hadn't explained why he'd defected to the enemy or why he was back. Maybe no one had even asked. Too bad, because as feckless Gambit acted, he wasn't. Never once had he left a team mate exposed or behind in fight. What he'd done, he done for a reason, and knowing it might help somewhere down the line.

Unless the reason was that Gambit had thought becoming a Horseman of the Apocalypse was a good life choice. That would mean he'd gone insane. Which, Bobby acknowledged to himself, had happened to more than a few X-Men over the years. Gambit had always seemed immune to the stress that cracked so many of them up. He couldn't be, though; no one was.

Bobby headed for the bar where Frenzy was playing with an empty shot glass. She'd cut her hair to reflect the look she'd had in Legion's pocket universe, hallucination, whatever the hell that had been. The memories must have stuck with her more than some of the others. What the hell, maybe the new look reflected a new attitude. She'd been wearing the X and fighting on Rogue's team, after all.

"Love the new do," he began. Shaved tight on one side and flipping over her eye on the other, it made her almost pretty, if she hadn't still radiated a certain 'I'll rip your head off your shoulders if you annoy me' vibe.

"Bite me, Ice Prick."

"Come on, Joanna, haven't you always wanted to be a teacher?"

She gave him a sidelong glare.

"No. I always wanted to smack one around."

"Uh. Yeah, okaaaay. I guess you're not interested, so I'll just... leave you alone," Bobby muttered, pushing away from the bar. Maybe he could flirt a little with Jean-Paul? Oh, yeah, that would be a great idea, since rumor said Jean-Paul's boyfriend back in Canada had dumped him over the phone. Not the Bobby listened to gossip, but there was no privacy on Utopia. They lived jammed packed so close together Bobby could tell when Piotr was constipated or Storm had PMS. Everyone knew everything, the same way the story of Scott and Logan duking it out had spread from the kids who saw them trying to kill each other to everyone else on the island.

"Drake." Frenzy snaked her hand out and grabbed his arm.

"Yeah?"

"Can't see Frost pawing Cyclops from the East Coast," she said. Her free hand curled into a fist, one capable of punching a man through a wall.

Bobby nodded. Sometimes watching Scott and Emma nauseated him too. Though the idea of Joanna Cargill having a thing for Scott Summers was even more surreal than Scott with the White Queen.

"Easier to keep food down."

He kept nodding.

"Advantage Westchester."

Bobby resisted the urge to pump his fist in the air and dance around. Instead he nodded again – his neck was going to get tired at this rate – and said, "We're taking one of the Blackbirds this afternoon. Be on it if you still feel the same way. And, err, pack your stuff."

Frenzy sneered. "What stuff?"

"Uh, yeah, well, you can go shopping in New York?"

"Get away from me before I wring your neck, Drake."

He left Frenzy and headed for the table Gambit had staked out for himself. Gambit had a bottle of bourbon and a glass on his table with the cards spread out before him. As usual, he was playing some intricate version of solitaire that took more than one deck. He said nothing as Bobby appropriated another chair and sat down opposite him. Gambit had on the fuchsia body armor and trench coat – it couldn't possibly be the same one – he'd worn the first time Bobby saw him. He hadn't bothered with the black cowl that protected the long line of his neck, though, or shaved, and his hair was loose and getting long again. Absently, he gathered up his cards and shuffled them, waiting patiently for Bobby to say something.

Bobby wished he'd talked to Rogue or knew if Wolverine had. If he knew she would be with them, there would be no question of Gambit joining them.

Or maybe there would. He couldn't quite fathom Rogue and Gambit's relationship any longer. She had control of her powers and could touch who she wanted, but it still didn't seem to be enough to give them a happy ending.

Of course, Gambit had tried to kill her when Apocalypse turned him into Death. That qualified as a big relationship no-no. Or it should, he thought, but what did he know? Bobby couldn't even keep a girlfriend; Lorna was back with Alex the douche, so he couldn't presume to guess what the hell went on between Rogue and Gambit. Maybe the Death thing was tit for tat, finally getting back at her for the Antarctica debacle? Maybe. Maybe Gambit would be a hella lot better off away from Rogue, because Bobby remembered the lanky, flirty thief Storm had picked up and brought back to the X-Men and compared to that man, the Gambit opposite him now hadn't fared well with the X-Men. All the wicked joy in life he'd once had seemed drained from him lately.

"Logan's starting a school again," Bobby blurted. "Back in Westchester."

"Heard that."

"Um, you want to come?"

Gambit chuckled huskily then sipped his bourbon. "This invitation come from Logan or you?" he asked. He shuffled the doubled deck of cards one-handed as he set the glass back on the scratched table top. Shadow and light traced the angular lines of his handsome face, oddly emphasizing how young he still was. Gambit lived hard, but he might not even be thirty yet. A pang of pity hit Bobby. He thought the guy was deeply, painfully unhappy behind his shields and walls, but what could anyone do about it? It wasn't like Gambit was the only one. Every mutant on Utopia carried the scars of surviving in a world that seemed more and more intent on destroying them every day.

"He told me to talk to anyone I thought might listen," Bobby said. He leaned forward. "Look, when I joined the X-Men, I was fourteen, just like Oya, and it was a school first. When you joined, the Professor wasn't even around, but we were all still trying to live up to his dream. You've never been a human-hater, never been in favor of isolation. Mutants may need Utopia, but mutant children still need to be kept safe, not on the front lines. We all did our best to keep Jubilee from becoming soldier in a war – "

Shit. Mentioning Jubilee was a mistake that just reminded them both that she was a vampire now, victim of one more attack on Utopia, though not one by humans.

"The thing is, being born a mutant shouldn't mean having to join Scott's army. At least, the kids should have a chance to grow up before they get drafted."

Gambit slouched back in his chair, obviously unimpressed. Bobby didn't buy it though. Besides Storm, Gambit's biggest soft spot had always been kids. Look how he'd been ping-ponging around the world to keep X-23 company.

"Come on, what have you got to lose?"

Gambit scowled at him before laughing cynically. A ripple of cards, charged with pink energy, flipped into the air over Gambit's shoulder and fizzled into dust instead of exploding. "Found all the trouble there is to find here," he declared. "May as well head east."

Bobby grinned. "Great. You can teach everyone French, in case Northstar and Aurora don't come."

Gambit shook his head. "Mais, didn't say yes, Iceman. I'll come around, see what Logan puts together. Might not be for me. Might go back down to N'Awlins. Not been there since the whole Horseman thing." One long-fingered hand gestured the whole defection to the enemy away, dismissing it as if it meant nothing. His expression gave nothing away, no regret, no shame, no anger. He could have been referring to the time he had a cold; not that Gambit ever caught colds; like most energy converters, his metabolism ran hot enough to fry the average virus.

"You talked to them yet?" Gambit asked.

"Who?"

Gambit smirked at him. "Aurora and Northstar, homme."

"Ah, not yet? I sort of went by who I'm hoping will come and who I thought might say yes," Bobby explained.

Gambit reached for his bourbon.

"Don't know if this one was just insulted or not."

"Not, not," Bobby assured him. "Really."

                                                                                                            ~*~


He watched Bobby head for the Beaubiers, looking a little like a puppy that expects to have its nose rapped, and decided that the bourbon on top of the mystery vegetable casserole that had been the only thing available in the kitchens had done the job. Even exhausted, he'd still been too wired to sleep before, but he thought he might manage it now. In his own bed even, merci bien.

The idea of somewhere to go besides Utopia helped too. The X had always been a target, but with nearly every surviving mutant on the planet living on the island, it felt like ground zero. The hits just kept coming, they were too tempting. All it would take would be for one attack to succeed and mutants, whether they were a race or a separate species, would be extinct.

They needed a back door, a back-up plan, otherwise Utopia might be a mutant Masada. It had been damn close to it only the night before. If they'd lost the kids, they would have lost whatever fragile future they were still fighting for.

Wolverine was right for the wrong reasons. Utopia was no place for children.

Utopia. Remy chuckled to himself. That was about as accurate as when Magneto called his space station Avalon.

He capped the bottle and slid it into a pocket of his trench coat, detouring to tell Bobby, "If I don't catch the Blackbird, I'll get there on my own, neh?"

"Why wouldn't you?" Bobby asked.

"Don't even remember the last time I slept. Don't intend to wake up for anything less than the end of the world and not then if I can sleep through it."

"You never struck me as the type to go out in your sleep," Northstar commented.

"Non, but a man can hope." He directed a playful leer at Aurora along with the words, just for hell of it, and enjoyed the color it brought to her face. "Thing is, what are the odds of dying right after having great sex? More likely to get interrupted and die frustrated. Sleep would be nice. 'Course I'll probably end up shot."

He bowed mockingly as they laughed at the truth he hid in the joke.

Coat, boots, pants, undershirt and the chest piece of his body armor all came off as soon as his door closed behind him. He put them where he could find them fast even in complete darkness, made sure he had a deck of cards on the table by his bed, then double checked the Glock he kept behind the headboard was untouched. Rogue had gloried in being de-powered after Vargas skewered them both, but Remy had despised it. Rogue wouldn't have liked knowing he'd picked up the Glock, but he hadn't been comfortable without a long distance defence. He'd kept it even after they both recovered enough to return to the X-Men.

Anyone who thought he would be disarmed if they took away his powers would be in for a surprise. While he'd trained as a thief, Belladonna had trained as an assassin, and up until the day he married her and killed her brother, they'd shared eveyrthing they learned with each other. He'd learned well or Julien wouldn't have been the one who died. He might have wrecked his life that day, but he still had it.

And his mutant power came back with time.

The memory of how it had felt without his powers, though, reminded him of the mutants who lost their X-gene on M-day. Damn Wanda Maximoff anyway, with her self-pity and her 'No more mutants' declaration. Thousands of mutants all over the world had lost their lives because they lost the x-gene that compensated for their physical mutations. Others died because they were using their powers when they failed. Most of the fatalities came because they still looked like mutants, though, and all of them would still be dead even if Wanda found a way to undo what her insanity had started.

Remy shook his head at his own thoughts. He couldn't blame Wanda for the hate aimed at mutants.

He knew all about the hate. Even people who weren't prejudiced were generally freaked out by his eyes. It was simply instinct. Red and black were a warning of danger in nature. His devil's eyes had branded him as a mutant since birth and they'd remained red on black when he was depowered, as if to make sure he stayed a target of every mutant hater or religious fanatic who saw him. He dealt with it because image inducers had a nasty habit of failing at the worst possible moment and contacts that covered both iris and sclera were painful after even short periods.

Stupid thing to be thinking about now, but maybe he'd talk to Wolverine about getting some of the kids with visible mutations counselling so they didn't get the idea they should be ashamed of their differences. It made him grit his teeth now, because it had all been based on lies, but Jean-Luc LeBeau had at least taught him to be proud of being a mutant.

Pushing the sheet over him down to his waist, he flipped over onto his stomach and willed sleep to come.

The nightmare came with it, the new one that frightened him more than all his blood-soaked reruns of the Morlock massacre. Nothing happened, no one was there, he simply found himself before a door. Beyond it he could hear the whisper of a jaunty whistle, one without words. The words were in his head already, though he couldn't remember how he knew them. "Pokers and tongs say the bells of St. John's. Kettles and pans... " The whistle tuned itself to his bones, compelling him to open the door into the Nursery.

He snapped awake with a card in his hand, already charged pink-white with seething energy, and barely stilled the molecules enough to keep it from blowing a hole in floor when he had to flip it away. Lucky the walls were soundproofed or the bang would have brought half the tower to see what had happened.

"Merde."

He needed to go to the Brig.

He needed to talk to Grey Crow.

                                                                                                            ~*~

The X-Brig 2's power-suppressing cells were deep under Utopia, 500 hundred feet below sea level, sunk in the rock, and artificially lit twenty-four hours a day. Metal sheathed every wall, the electronics were hardened against interference, security cameras monitored every angle, and potentially lethal forcefields meant no one could get out. Every prisoner wore an inhibitor collar at a minimum. Escape meant drowning, if the failsafe explosives wired into the collars didn't blow off the escapee's head first. It bore a dismaying resemblance to the Vault where super-powered criminals were imprisoned under the Colorado Rockies. Only the ultra-high security on Brig 2 was higher than the Vault's.

Remy had never been in the latter and hated the former. Besides his inherent allergy to prisons and jails, the Brig reminded him of Sinister's labs.

He doubted Grey Crow enjoyed the ambiance either.

Rehabilitation Project, his ass.

Danger, the AI that developed from the Shi'ar computers Xavier had used in Westchester, acted as warden to the Brig. She fit in down there, being all chrome-blued metal, even if she had assumed a humanoid form. Why she'd picked a female form, no one could guess. Probably because Xavier was male and she hated him. She probably enjoyed seeing mutants locked down and imprisoned as she'd in essence been while serving as the X-Men's Danger Room.

She stopped Remy in the main corridor.

Habit made him try a charming smile. "Problem, chere?"

"You haven't been cleared for this level. Your presence is  unauthorized," she stated. "Exit immediately."

"Kiddin', non?"

Didn't know Danger had a sense of humor. Guess that meant she really did pass the Turing Test.

"You are not authorized to be here, Gambit."

His sense of humor was rapidly draining away.

"Just down here to chat with an old friend. Didn't realize that required authorization, considering this not officially a prison and no one down here actually had any sort of trial." She probably recorded and cataloged the unintentional emphasis he put on 'trial'. He'd forced himself to move on, because he'd survived – no thanks to the X-Men – and forgave the people involved their part in Magneto's kangaroo court in Antarctica – mostly – but he would never forget his 'trial'. The hypocrisy of so many of the X-Men, even his Stormy, all but made him snarl inside.

It really hadn't been hard to come up with reasons that convinced Apocalypse and, later, Sinister, that he would change sides.

Danger didn't move.

"You are a former associate of two of my current wards. You will not be allowed access to them. You may pose a risk to the Project's security."

"Who does have access?" Remy asked curiously. "Besides you?" It was ridiculous enough to tickle his sense of humor. A Master Thief barred from a jail cell. Wasn't the idea to put him in one? Not that the Brig could hold him, he'd already made a close study of all its mechanisms along with the rest of Utopia. Presumably someone thought he might decide to help Scalphunter or Arclight escape, but if he meant to do that, he would do it so covertly that no one would ever guess he had a part in it. Maybe he should feel insulted. As a matter of fact, he was insulted. Did anyone believe Danger telling him no would ever stop him if he was intent on something?

"Current subjects cleared to access Brig 2 Rehabilitation Project include AI: Danger, Mutant: Emma Frost, Mutant: Neena Thurman, Human: Kavita Rao, Mutant: Erik Lehnsherr, Atlantean: Namor, X-Men – "

"Of which I am one, chere," Remy pointed out reasonably.

"Utopia records do not list you as an X-Man any longer," Danger replied. "You're listed as a member of the Marauders and a potential security risk."

"Once a Marauder, always one, neh? Guess I need to get those records updated."

"I will report your attempt to breach security, Gambit."

He forced a smile, tipped Danger a mocking salute, and retraced his steps upward. Once he was beyond even her sensors, he began cursing under his breath, and didn't stop until he reached ground level and had to decide if he wanted to go up and try to finish what Wolverine had started with Cyclops by throwing an entire deck of charged cards at his head, board the Blackbird waiting on the runway, or just go back to his quarters and sulk.

He still hadn't seen Rogue and he did want to know what she planned to do.

So he wasn't an X-Man anymore? Who got to decide that? Cyclops, the White Queen, Xavier? Another jury of his peers? Fuck's sake, they'd taken on Mystique and Sabretooth and Juggernaut and Erik Magnus Lehnsherr and called them X-Men. Terrorists, killers, criminals and madmen were welcome if they just said they were going to play nice from now on, but not Gambit. Gambit was a thief, Gambit didn't come begging, Gambit couldn't be trusted. After all, Bishop had said he would be a traitor in the future and never mind that turned out to be Xavier losing his mind and Bishop ended up trying to kill their Mutant Messiah before she was out of diapers. If Gambit hadn't been with the Marauders then, Hope Summers would be dead already.

A long time had passed since he'd been this angry. What the hell was he doing running around risking his life with them, if he wasn't an X-Man?

With a snarl, he shoved his hair out of his face and started toward Ops. It went against the grain, but he'd explain why he needed to speak with Grey Crow.

Even if Sinister wasn't coming back, the plans he'd set in tow could pose a danger to everyone. If the Nursery was real, then he wanted – needed – to find out what it had been.

Or was still.

His memories of the two years he'd served Sinister were full of holes, blanks he'd always assumed were periods he'd been sedated into unconsciousness. He needed to know if they were more. He needed to know if the Nursery was just a bad dream or something more, something of Sinister's that he hadn't known he remembered. Because sooner or later, Sinister would be back from the dead. The Marauders couldn't escape their servitude in death, Sinister just cloned them over and over. Sinister had to have made similar arrangements for himself if someone succeeded in killing him.

Sabretooth was the only one Sinister no longer cloned; he'd lost Creed's genetic matrix.

Remy stopped in his tracks.

Sinister had had Remy's genetic matrix since he was nineteen years old. His hand drifted to his stomach, where he'd born four slashing claw marks for years after fighting with Sabretooth. The scars were gone though, since Sinister restored his appearance and suppressed the Death persona Apocalypse had inflicted on him.

He shuddered. Maybe this wasn't even his body any more, but a clone.

Maybe he wasn't even who he thought he was. How would he know?

What he did know was he had no intention of sharing his doubts and fears with Cyclops or the White Queen. Not until he had a few more cards up his sleeve.

If Sinister was coming back, if he had some new plan for the Summers genome or mutantkind, then the X-Men could deal with it. Without Remy LeBeau. After all, he wasn't one of the X-Men any longer, so why should he warn them? Like they'd listen anyway.

He changed directions. Time to pack up what little he had here and get the hell out. Never mind going to Westchester and teaching, either. He needed to go be who and what he was, what he'd made himself: a thief. Daken Akihiro had just stolen a record amount of money in Los Angeles according to the news broadcast playing on the plasma screen in the Utopia bar. Remy could trash his feat and manage it without blowing up half the city and ending up wanted as serial killer. He'd miss X and Stormy, but other than them who could he really call his friend here?

Stealing again at least seemed like an achievable goal, unlike being accepted by the oh so righteous X-Men. Or he could hunt down Daken and find out if the bastard had really lost his mind. Doing so would be tantamount to proving Remy'd lost his mind, because becoming involved with Daken would no doubt leave him as screwed over as it had Tyger Tyger, but it would at least make him feel alive.

It was a bad idea. He wasn't going to do it. Becoming involved in Daken's shit would tick off Wolverine and X. Plus Daken wasn't the sort to be satisfied with some easy flirting. Also, there was Rogue and he didn't cheat, no matter the temptation. Plus, again, the whole thirteen inch claws issue. Remy didn't like claws. He did, despite his better instincts, like Daken, who would have made a perfect Marauder. Daken lived by the Marauder's motto: Why not?

No looking up Daken. He should stay far away from Los Angeles just to be sure. He should stop flirting with anyone with a pulse, start showing up for training on time, become a role model for kids, get mental help, and give up thieving along with cigarettes and casual sex. Right after that he could lie down in a grave, because he might as well be dead. He sure as hell wouldn't be Gambit.

Running into Rogue at that point, still pissed and disinclined to hide it for once, had to be the worst thing that could have happened next. So, of course, she ambushed him in the corridor.

                                                                                                            ~*~


Jean-Paul picked up his bag and walked out into the corridor with every intention of locking the door, knocking on Aurora's door to hurry her along and then leaving on the next boat to rejoin Alpha Flight temporarily. If Wolverine hadn't had other more pressing obligations, he would have asked the other Canadian to join them.

Instead he found himself faced with Rogue and Gambit. Rogue kept poking at Gambit's chest, but he wasn't backing up. She looked frustrated by that; she'd had a lot of time to get used to having Carol Danvers' super-strength and invulnerability and still slipped now that she didn't, expecting she could still literally push people around. She'd always said she wanted control, but Jean-Paul couldn't help wondering if she regretted what she'd given up for it. The cost of wiping her mind clear of everyone she'd ever absorbed and learning to control her touch absorption had been the powers she'd leeched before. No more invulnerability.

No more excuses.

Apparently, they'd already been talking for a little while. He wasn't curious enough to ask what about. He just wished they were doing it somewhere else. He wouldn't complain though as long as neither of them tried to drag him into their drama.

"I don't understand why you can't ever tell me anything without me draggin' it outta you," Rogue said. Almost fond, she added, "You damned snake – "

Jean-Paul hefted his bag higher on his shoulder. He wondered what Gambit had done this time. It could have been anything. The man attracted trouble the way he attracted everything. Though at least he was interesting. Jean-Paul failed to see what, besides their Southern origins, bound Gambit to Rogue. Obviously having all of Gambit's attention and affection must have been a thrill for a woman denying herself because of her mutation and he could see why she'd want Gambit: sensuality and sex just smoked off that whiplash body. None of the X-Men were hard on the eyes, even Wolverine had an animalistic charisma, so Jean-Paul tried to keep his appreciation strictly intellectual, but he saw no reason to deny it to himself either. Knowing how irritating most of them were made it relatively easy, even when Gambit's sheer beauty caught him by surprise all over again. Even the blind felt Gambit's pull, though, when the man was careless, so Jean-Paul had fallen for Bobby Drake instead. Which, it turned out, hadn't been any better choice. Bobby hadn't just been uninterested, he'd been uncomfortable.

He had Kyle now, at least. He'd had Kyle, he reminded himself. Kyle had felt unwelcome and unliked on Utopia. Uncomfortable in the neo-military atmosphere bred on the island, where you were assigned quarters, places on field teams, ate in a mess, shared rec spaces, and either went to school or trained in power usage or for combat. Kyle had gone home to his life and their long-distance relationship had floundered and failed. But maybe if Jean-Paul stayed in Canada with Alpha Flight they could try again?

Jean-Paul propped himself back against a wall. What was taking Aurora so long? If he weren't waiting for her, he'd have walked away as soon as he saw on-again-off-again lovers. If he wanted to watch a soap opera he'd have a TV.

"Just tell me. Come on. We said no more secrets, remember?"

"Rogue – Danger made a big fuss out of nothing."

Jean-Paul shot a look at Gambit, rather doubting that. Gambit was one of the most secretive of the X-Men. Gambit met his gaze and smirked. Rogue still hadn't noticed Jean-Paul standing there hoping both of them would go away. If he had to waste his time waiting for his sister, he would prefer to do it in silence and alone.

"You sure about that, Swamp Rat? 'Cause you tell me or you can talk to Cyclops and tell him why you were trying to get into the Brig."

"You don't believe me?" Gambit sounded strained, despite his light tone.

Rogue didn't notice, joking, "Or maybe he'll give you your own cell down there."

"That's one way of getting in there I hadn't considered, chere," Gambit laughed and said. "Mais, that Brig couldn't hold Gambit, hein?"

"Oh, cocky today, aren't you?"

"Is it cocky if it's true?"

Jeanne-Marie stepped out of her quarters. The scuff of her boots on the floor followed by the click of the door locking snapped Rogue's attention to both her and Jean-Paul. Gambit had been aware he was there from the first and didn't react. Jeanne-Marie had a suitcase in one hand, prompting Rogue to demand, "Aurora? JP? Where are y'all going?"

Jean-Paul rolled his eyes impatiently.

"Canada," he snapped. "Though it isn't your business."

Gambit snorted under his breath.

"Alpha Flight needs us," Jeanne-Marie said. She pushed hair away from her face. Jean-Paul eyed her with some worry. She'd been so much better since he and she were reunited after M-Day, but lately he was afraid he could see her mind splintering again between the Aurora personality and the Jeanne-Marie one. He only hoped this trip back home wouldn't unduly stress her.

Meanwhile, even if their old team mates hadn't called needing them, Jean-Paul suspected leaving Utopia for a while would be a good idea for him. He'd been spending all his nights out partying with Dazzler and any of the other mutants old enough to hit the San Francisco nightclubs and it had begun to feel pathetic. He was becoming pathetic. He knew it was all pointless and only meant to mask missing Kyle from himself. Making a decision as big as whether to go on following Cyclops – and by default the White Queen and Magneto – or throw his lot in with Wolverine and all the merde that would go along with trying to teach and defend a school required more than just a few minutes thought. Once he committed himself, he meant to stick by his choice.

Gambit gracefully evaded Rogue and declared to Jeanne-Marie, "Mais, you're leaving. I think my heart is breaking." Jeanne-Marie preened and Jean-Paul hid a smile in case she saw it. Gambit wasn't even trying and he had her in a better mood. Whether the man did it on purpose or not, Jean-Paul appreciated the effect and the effort to act like he and Rogue hadn't been trying to eviscerate each other seconds before.

"What have I told you about flirting with everyone you see?" Rogue asked. She went to mock punch Gambit and he dodged. Her fist thumped into a wall instead and she yelped immediately, cradling her knuckles a second later.

"Ouch," Gambit said. He reached for her hand, but she pulled away. Her face had gone red.

"Better get down to the infirmary, chere, and have that looked at."

"I'm fine!" Rogue snarled in response, temper lighting from embarrassment.

"You not invulnerable anymore," Jean-Paul reminded her. "You could have broken a bone."

"I said I'm fine."

"Oh, go and have a doctor look at it," Jeanne-Marie snapped at her. "Though it serves you right for being so stupid."

Still cradling her hand, Rogue glared at all three of them before stomping away. Gambit sketched a mocking salute toward her retreating form. "Sorry you saw that, shoulda kept my mouth shut," he remarked in the awkward silence that followed, then smoothly changed the subject. "Thought maybe you had both decided to go with Logan?"

"We haven't decided yet," Jean-Paul replied. Out of kindness that he'd never admit, he didn't mention that Rogue would likely find Magneto and he'd persuade her to have someone check her injury. Out of wisdom and the desire not to end up punched, he didn't add that the two of them needed to decide once and for all if they were on or off.

Gambit swiped his finger over the wall where Rogue had hit it. A smear of blood came away on his finger tip. He sighed softly and rubbed it the rest of the way off, murmuring to himself, "Si seulement tu n'étais pas aussi belle." He radiated pain so clearly Jean-Paul felt it like his own.*

"You haven't decided," Jeanne-Marie corrected Jean-Paul, still looking the way Rogue had gone, and it was most definitely Jeanne-Marie again, the dour and repressed woman the nuns had formed, not high-flying and laughing Aurora. He missed the sister he first met after years of separation, the one full of joy, the one who recruited him into Alpha Flight. He missed when she had teased him and trusted him. Once, they'd had fun despite the seriousness of their jobs.

Being a mutant hadn't been a curse and having their powers had been pure joy.

He didn't think their trip back to Alpha Flight would bring that back for either of them.

"We'll talk more later."

"Do not try to dictate my choices, Northstar."

Ah, he was in her bad graces. Jeanne-Marie used his codename whenever he displeased her. At least she was still speaking to him. He never wanted to return to when she had hated him so much just touching him had negated both their powers. She was his only family. He wanted her to be happy, as simple and as difficult as that was.

"We will miss the ferry if we do not leave now," she said.

They actually had half an hour, but his sister could be as impatient as he was.

Gambit carried Jeanne-Marie's suitcase down to the boat dock and kissed her hand flamboyantly before handing her on board the ferry that ran between the island and the mainland six times a day. He lingered beside Jean-Paul and Jean-Paul stayed on the dock, not ready to board. He would have preferred to fly himself, but Jeanne-Marie preferred not to use her powers, and civilian clothes did not hold up to the speeds they flew at with their powers. So they would fly back to Canada in an airliner, enduring the unpleasantness of airport security and the indignities of being crammed in a plane with over a hundred others.

That he disliked boats and the way they shifted under his feet had nothing to do with his current reluctance, any more than enjoying Gambit's company. There was no use boarding until the regular departure time twenty minutes away. He checked his watch to be sure.

Gulls squawked and dove above the water. He watched them suspiciously. He didn't care if the wind tangled it, but he was in no mood to clean bird shit from his hair. He would enjoy the sea air while he could, though. The Bay was always beautiful. If mutants had to establish a homeland for themselves outside any country, then certainly this was one of the loveliest places on Earth to do so.

Beside him, Gambit subtly relaxed, his breath steadying, giving away the turmoil he'd still felt even if his face had hidden it. Jean-Paul sighed, thinking if they were closer, he might say something comforting or make some gesture. He always felt awkward doing so with someone who knew he was gay, but didn't know him well. So he glanced at Gambit, but said nothing.

Gambit raised a fine auburn brow at him. "You don' seem so pleased to be goin' home."

"They only want us back because there's some trouble," Jean-Paul snapped.

"Mais sho," Gambit laughed in real amusement, "know that one myself."

"So, are you sticking with Utopia or joining Wolverine?"

An elegant shrug was Gambit's only answer. "Don' have to do either. Can always go back to freelancing or contracting through m'Guild."

Jean-Paul nodded in agreement. Those of them who had made lives for themselves before being sucked into mutant activism or working for their governments or the various organizations that wanted to use anyone with 'super' powers were lucky. He had his sports equipment business, the one Kyle still managed for him. Gambit was a Master Thief. Dazzler had her singing and acting career. They could and had lived without the teams. Sometimes the ones like Summers and even Rogue, whose entire lives revolved around being mutants, acted like they resented anyone with a life. Like some of the gay men who were angry with him after he came out, not because they hated mutants, but because they couldn't accept a gay man who identified as anything beyond being gay. Too many mutants saw themselves only as mutants.

The wind off the Pacific gusted hard and made Jean-Paul shiver since he wasn't in his uniform bodysuit. He'd need to buy himself a good winter coat once he deplaned in Toronto.

"Cold, homme?" Gambit asked.

"Spoiled."

That earned him a curious look. Then Gambit's gaze drifted, going unfocused and distracted, to where Jeanne-Marie stood at the prow of the boat, as if she could will it to cast off sooner. "You're worried about her. That she is... becoming someone else?" A flicker of discomfort accompanied the uncertain question.

That degree of observation startled Jean-Paul. Did it mean Jeanne-Marie had done something that had alerted Gambit to her instability? He hadn't thought Gambit had ever done more than say a polite hello to her when she visited Jean-Paul at Xavier's. Did he see more than Jean-Paul did?

"How do you know?" he demanded.

Gambit winced before offering up an apologetic smile and open palms. "Didn't, 'cept you just admitted it," he said.

"That's it?"

"You're a good frere, Jean-Paul. See your worry, is all." Gambit's gaze held his directly, the red glow to his irises pulsing like a heartbeat. "This one means no harm."

Jean-Paul hunched his shoulders. So that was what Gambit's 'charm' felt like. Hypnotic, but not like mind control, just a feeling of calm. Different but not unpleasant. He could shake it off if he wanted.

"Do you do that often?" he asked.

Gambit blinked and his eyes widened. "I didn't – Dieu, I didn't mean to – Haven' slipped like that in years. Merde."

"It felt – interesting," Jean-Paul said. Warm, he wanted to say. Friendly. There'd been no intent to compel him in Gambit's words, either.

Gambit still looked unsettled and worried. He checked his watch and swore. "I'd better get my stuff and take this boat if I want to leave today."

"I thought – " A glance to the west showed a fog bank forming. Jean-Paul sighed. They would likely reach the shore before the fog engulfed San Francisco, but never get through airport security and in the air before SF International was shut down by it.

"No time, mon ami. Think you better talk to Aurora or she's goin' to leave without the boat."

Jeanne-Marie was leaning forward, her hair whipping around her face, her posture showing she was one step away from taking flight.

"Can't blame her," Gambit added, a twist of bitterness in his molasses and whiskey voice. "Gambit suddenly wants nothing more than to leave this place too. Think I'll find Storm, ask her to clear the air a little." He spun on his heel and loped away, leaving Jean-Paul frowning in irritation as he realized Gambit's answer hadn't been one at all. Why would Gambit have asked in the first place if he hadn't had some suspicion?
 
                                                                                                            ~*~

Despite what many people thought, professional thieves weren't personally acquisitive. Remy's life certainly didn't run to owning much. He'd once bought a house in the Garden District, but he'd been a dreaming boy then, imagining a life with Belladonna that could never be. The house still stood empty as far as he knew. He hadn't been back there in several years. He'd traveled light since his eighteenth birthday and liked it that way. Nice things were just that: things. He didn't care about things, he could always get more.

Anything he couldn't walk away from was a shackle.

In the last year, he'd done everything but chew his own arm off to free himself, but still he was back with Rogue and the X-Men, even though he'd never meant to be.

He was, very possibly, going insane. The temptation to draw a card and stare at it until it turned black and Death spoke to him, to ask if what was happening was something Death was doing inside him, plucked at his nerves.

The paranoid survivor part of him, the part willing to work for Sinister, had started yelling louder and louder that he had to get away from Utopia or he was going to end up down in the Brig next to Scalphunter, Arclight and the other 'incorrigibles'.

Throwing a set of clean clothes, his working blacks, and his Guild colors into a bag took no time because he always kept a go-bag ready. It held ID, credit cards, cash, a clean cellphone, his laptop, and a shaving kit, along with a few innocuous items that could change his look if authorities were watching for him anywhere. His trench coat carried all his portable working tools. He'd paid an impossible sum to have them custom made from steel-strong nonferrous materials long before the first time he faced Magneto in action, preferring not to explain owning a set of state-of-the-art lockpicks to anyone with a metal detector. Couldn't hide the telescoping adamantium bo staff as easily but he had other ways of getting it past screeners. A little reverse pickpocketing and more than one guard had unknowingly carried it and other proscribed items through security for him.

Personal possessions? He had none left. Whatever had been at Xavier's mansion had no doubt been destroyed along with the rest of the Institute. Wolverine had a lot of rebuilding to do there.

He scooped up the communicator he usually had in a pocket and clicked it on. "Channel to Storm's quarters, please."

Someone in Ops obligingly routed him through and she answered a bare second later. "Storm."

"Fog's going to close down SF International, Stormy," he said. "Northstar and Aurora are on their way north. Think you could help them out, slow it down until later this evening?"

"I dislike interfering with natural weather patterns without good reason, Gambit."

"This one knows, but a little Delta breeze wouldn't be too unnatural, hein?" While he talked, he surveyed the room, looking for anything too damning to leave behind. Nothing. He zipped his bag closed and hefted it as he headed for the door. The bed and furniture, the music system, and the Degas on the wall would be here if he returned or they wouldn't and someone else would use and enjoy them. "Not askin' for rain in the Sahara, ma souer."

Her sigh carried through the communicator mike. "Very well."

"Merci."

He contemplated the communicator he held, no bigger than a 50 cent piece, the black X in a circle embossed on a red background. Storm had handed him his first one before he even agreed to join the X-Men. She'd wanted him to stay, so he'd stayed, even then guessing it would end badly when his former associations became known. Storm believed in the dream so fiercely, she made him want to believe it too. "You going wit' Logan, Stormy?"

"Scott has asked me to remain and I have agreed."

He could still be surprised. "Mais – "

"I hope to remind him of the X-Men's original aims and balance Magnus and Namor's influence," she explained.

What could he say to that? He wished her good luck; trying to stand against the forceful personalities of Magneto, Namor, Cyclops and even the White Queen might constitute more than even his Stormy could manage, Weather Goddess and Queen of Wakanda or not. Utopia would be the better for having her, though, so he hoped Cyclops appreciated having her there.

"I wish you luck."

"And you, my friend?"

"f you call, Gambit will always come," Remy promised. Telling Storm adieu had always been impossible, so he ended their conversation with an awkward for him, "We will see each other again." He shut the communicator down with a twist of his fingers, then contemplated leaving it behind. In the end, he chose to keep it.

He headed back to the boat slip, avoiding the attention of anyone unconsciously, his mind preoccupied with the latest horrifying development of his mutant power. There were things he'd never told anyone but Essex, just as there were things about Essex he could never tell anyone, including how easily and often he still thought of the scientist as Essex and not Sinister. Or how the potential in matter just sang to him to free it. He could feel anything moving, from the micro to the macro, and life moved constantly.

Essex had thought his inability to charge anything alive wasn't an aspect of his mutation, but psychological. An unconscious self-limitation perhaps brought on by some repressed trauma. By then he'd just wanted to free himself from Nathaniel Essex and passed on the mocking offer to relieve him of it.

"Merde."

Losing control of the charm down at the boat slip worried him. Not only did he pride himself on his fine control of his abilities, he'd paid for it with pieces of his soul. He didn't even know if he'd been talking about Aurora splitting into two personalities or his worries about his own sanity. It hadn't felt like what happened in Limbo when Death took him over again, or the other times the Horseman persona tried to free itself, but what if he was only fooling himself?

Even if it wasn't Death, Remy didn't like it.

He had been lying himself, certainly, pretending his problems would go away if he just ignored them long enough.

Because there had been other incidents. Ignoring them only worked for so long, as until Northstar called him first on the emotions he'd picked up with the passive empathy and then the charm Remy had exerted without any intention. Potentially far worse slips and changes. He swallowed hard. He'd caught Daken's claws through his palm and absorbed the kinetic energy and discharged it back through them into Daken's fist and arm so fast he hadn't even bled. He hadn't healed like that since he burned himself back to Alpha level fighting New Son.

He'd charged living matter. Putain. If Daken hadn't had a healing factor, he wouldn't have had an arm now.

There wasn't one person on Utopia he trusted enough to talk to about his problems. Not even Storm, not any longer; he couldn't bear it if she failed him one more time. As for Rogue, feh, he knew better than to turn to her. She knew he had something or someone in his mind, had since she leeched the Cuckoos' telepathy for a day. She told him to go to Xavier or Emma, as if he wanted either of them in his head. She turned the conversation around until it was about her powers again, her fragile control, how she associated him with losing it. So much for talking to the woman he loved... If he did still love her.

He barely knew Northstar, but he'd be better off talking to the Canadian speedster than Rogue.

If Northstar and Aurora hadn't been together and heading back to Toronto, Remy might have given it serious thought. Northstar knew more than most about dissociative disorders because of his sister. As it was, he knew the man was shit scared for his sister at the moment. Northstar didn't have the time or energy to help him too.

He'd have to figure everything out on his own.

Nothing new. The times he had thought he could count on anyone, he'd always been wrong.

He swung on board the ferry seconds before it started away from the slip. A wind had picked up and begun shredding the fog thanks to Storm's efforts. He noted Northstar standing at the bow with Aurora and chose not to join them this time.

The ferry had crossed the halfway mark of the four mile trip to the mainland when his communicator chirped. Remy considered flipping it into the cold Pacific waters, then turned it on.

"Gambit. Where are you?" Cyclops demanded.

"I left m'heart in San Francisco. An' my bike too."

"You're leaving Utopia."

"Told Storm I'd come if she called."

"Rogue said you wouldn't tell her why you tried to breach Brig security."

"What breach?" Remy snapped in annoyance. "I wanted to ask Crow something, Danger said no, I left."

"What?"

He turned and leaned against the railing. Storm's wind was ruffling the water, shifting the ferry boat up and down harder than usual. The feel of all the water moving, churning, and shifting tugged at his power. It felt like he could extend a tiny charge and tap the potential generated by the tides the same way he breathed. His breath caught as his mind shifted through the molecules making up the water. Strange to see water as fuel for fire, but hydrogen screamed with explosive potential and oxygen burned. It felt like he could blow the entire Pacific if he just pushed a little and started a chain reaction. His fingers itched; his power flexed. So close, so easy. The ferry's prow dipped into a trough and his stomach followed, upset by the fluctuation in his spacial sense, and the temptation dissolved into nausea.

Cyclops kept talking.

"Why did you want to question Scalphunter?"

Playing games and pretending he didn't know what Cyclops was asking didn't appeal. "I would have told you if I got an answer, but since I didn't, go to hell."

"If this involves the X-Men – "

"Something else," Remy interrupted. "You're going to pay. Those bearer bonds, that's the last freebie you get."

"I don't understand,"  Cyclops said.

"Ask Emma the going rate to hire a Master Thief. Since I'm not an X-Man, from now on, you need me for a job, you pay the same as any other client."

Remy nodded to himself, feeling better having said what he wanted. Lying with the truth always worked. Now Cyclops wouldn't wonder about if he had other reasons to leave Utopia. If he lost control of his charge, he didn't want to do it in the only home mutants had on the planet.

"And don't call me, call m' fixer," he added. He started to charge the comm, but realized it might draw too much attention. The impulse passed and he pocketed it again, knowing despite what he'd said that if the X-Men called in need, he would come. Probably. If he wasn't working for the other side by then. He watched a gull dive close to a wave and laughed to himself. If he was still alive and in his right mind... He felt that tug again, to go south, crazy or not.

Screw it, he thought, he was going to Los Angeles.

"Why not?"